Men make love more intensely at 20, but make love better, however, at 30.

What could be more encouraging than a professional opinion agreeing with Catherine — unless, of course, it’s confirmation that you can expect the same into your 40s, and 50s, and perhaps, into your 60s?

“Passion knows no age,” says psychologist Bernard Apfelbaum, Ph.D. ”People are amazed that when they’re in their 60s, they can get a crush on someone — be in their 60s and feel like they did in high school.”

But does aging affect a man’s sexual performance? We asked Apfelbaum, who’s director of the Berkeley Sex Therapy Clinic in Berkeley, Calif.

“If a man is healthy and doesn’t have any relationship problems, his sexual functioning shouldn’t be affected. This usually doesn’t come into play until a man reaches his 60s. Actually, the differences between men themselves are greater than what happens with age,” he stressed.

“You can look at it as sexuality vs. sensuality,” he added, confirming that men peak sexually in their late teens and early 20s. ”Earlier on, men are more hormonally driven. As they age, what arouses them is more psychological. They’re looking at being in the moment, in touching and connection in a relationship, and for lack of a better term, less interested in getting off.”

Then what makes so many men turn to younger women? we asked. Apfelbaum’s answer:

“The problems come up when men try and recapture the sex of their youth. Many men get anxious if they can’t perform in exactly the same way they used to. They look for younger women, fantasies, and even pornography as a way of going back.”

Finally, we asked Dr. Apfelbaum whether he would agree with the following statement:

“There will be sex after death, we just won’t be able to feel it.”

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Midlife Myth: Your sex life has seen better days, and decline is all you have to look forward to.

If sex is just about raging hormones and feats of stamina, youth takes the prize.

But there is so much more to the complete picture of sex and intimacy, says Dr. Bernie Zilbergeld, author of The New Male Sexuality.

Zilbergeld believes the following are more important than age:

  • The quality of openness, sensitivity and communication in your relationship.
  • The ability to focus on both giving and receiving.
  • The level of comfort and trust shared by you and your partner.
  • Your ability to be “present in the moment” without letting expectations or goals rule you.

With experience can come ever-increasing pleasure. “The lucky ones who have had the benefit of a sensitive, longtime partner — or a number of such partners — know they can keep growing sexually,” says Zilbergeld.

From a “performance” standpoint, there is a difference between young, old and those in between, says Zilbergeld, an Oakland-based sex therapist who currently is working on a myth-busting book about sex in later life.

“What is important is to be a great lover, not a great performer,” he says. “That takes years or decades to get really good at it.”

People in their early adult years tend to leave a lot to be desired in the “great lover” department, he adds.

Zilbergeld alludes to a study of middle-aged people in which nearly four out of 10 rated their sex not as equal or inferior to when they were young adults, but as “better than ever.”

Naturally, there are important health considerations that may be thrown into the mix. But healthy adults of all ages have the ability to grow sexually.

Bottom line: Sex is more about relating and mutual pleasure-giving than about objective standards of performance.

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Reader Question:

I used to have an active sex life, but lately I have no interest in sex with my girlfriend. Part of it may be because I feel criticized and unappreciated by her. She often compares me to ex-lovers. I’ve turned to magazines and fantasies to fulfill my needs. Is something wrong with me or what?

My Answer: Your question seems to be, “Since I’ve been feeling sexually pressured I’ve lost my desire for my partner. What should I do?”

This is a common experience. Of course it’s alarming. But it’s only confusing because, like many people, you assume that your sexual desire for someone should remain constant in the face of strong, repetitive, unpleasant emotions. This is simply unrealistic.

You mention many reasons to be turned off to your girlfriend: feeling criticized, unappreciated and compared to ex-lovers. I’m sure you feel angry, hurt, powerless and defensive.

Notice, however, that your sexuality has not turned off altogether: You still masturbate and fantasize about other women. It sounds as if you are functioning quite reasonably under the circumstances. You feel sexual, but you hesitate to connect sexually with a girlfriend with whom you don’t feel safe.

There is important information in this experience. When you stop desiring someone — or your body stops cooperating — there’s a reason. It’s a good sign that you’re sensitive enough to be so bothered by the hostility and lack of intimacy in this relationship. What should you do? First you need to decide if you want to try to repair the relationship. If you do, ask your girlfriend if she will do it with you. If she insists that the problem is all you, or demands that you fix it yourself, ask her again — urgently and without criticism. If she still won’t agree to work with you, the relationship is shot and it’s time to move on.

If she is interested in working on things with you, a couples counselor may be able to help. Go see one right away. Fortunately, there’s plenty two people can do without a counselor. Talk honestly about the kind of relationship you each want. Talk about what you need from each other. Talk about what gets in the way of giving that to each other.

For example, you can tell her that you love sex with her, and imagine having it, say, once a week or so. If this contrasts too drastically with what she wants, it’s time to separate. But if she’s interested in great sex about once a week, or you can imagine wanting sex more often when you’re feeling close, then you two can talk about how to create that. In your case, feeling accepted for exactly who you are and establishing friendly ways of talking to each other are important aspects of feeling sexually alive and available.

This kind of conversation is often difficult, time-consuming and frustrating. But grown-up relationships cannot thrive without such conversations. The only alternatives are an angry, drama-filled relationship, or a very quiet, lonely house.

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