Jo Thorne is a 71-year-old great-grandmother from Taunton, in southwest England. She has five grandchildren, one great grandchild and sells sex toys for a living.
Ms Thorne has worked as a “party planner” – selling everything from sexy lingerie to “Rampant Rabbits” – at Ann Summers for more than 30 years. “When I started in 1981, people had never even heard of Ann Summers,” says Ms Thorne. “People had never seen a vibrator, never mind held one.”
Now Ms Thorne is part of a growing demographic: the sexually active seventysomething. In the UK, 37 per cent of male 65- to 74-year-olds have had sex in the past four weeks.
This is not far behind the 52 per cent figure in the 16- to 24-year-olds category, according to the National Surveys of Sexual Attitudes and Lifestyles survey, which looked at the sexual activities of pensioners for the first time in 2013.
As people’s lives lengthen, so too do their sex lives – and businesses are having to adapt. This has provided problems and opportunities for businesses ranging from dating websites to sex toy stores.
LoveHoney, the online adult toy shop and Ann Summers’ rival, has brought out a range of sex products aimed at older consumers called Swoon. The collection, which is stocked in Boots, includes “massage oil, lubricants – and three of the world’s least frightening vibrators”, according to Neal Slateford, co-owner of LoveHoney.
Selling to slightly older customers requires different marketing language. “We talk about ‘pleasure products’, rather than a vibrator,” says Mr Slateford, whose business now has revenues of £25m and employs 120 people. “It’s very non-threatening, like a beauty product.”
Older consumers have different needs to younger ones. They tend to get confused by the website, rather than the products on offer, for example. “They prefer to order over the phone and need a bit more hand-holding,” says Mr Slateford. “One of the big questions [the customer service people] get asked is: what is a browser?”
More senior customers make up a chunky minority of LoveHoney’s customer base. About 7 per cent of the sex shop’s customers are over 65, while 9 per cent are aged between 55 and 64, according to the company’s most recent survey. It is a similar story across the sex product industry.
“Older people have always been good consumers of our products,” says Mark Pearson, regional brand director at condom maker Durex, which is owned by Reckitt Benckiser. “It’s actually a myth that only young people have lots of sex and many partners.”
Unfortunately, not all people in the “older” category have been as keen on Durex’s main product: condoms. The number of sexually transmitted infections among the over-65s has rocketed the over the past five years.
Cases of genital herpes among men of a pensionable age has risen by 50 per cent since 2009 – a faster rate than any other age group, according to figures from Public Health England. Among women, the number doubled over the same period, although from a low base. It is a similar story with other sexually transmitted infections, ranging from gonorrhoea to chlamydia.
This rise of STIs among senior citizens suggests a naivety among older people when it comes to sex, says Mr Pearson of Durex. “People re-entering the dating game at an older age are more likely to assume that people of their age group are safe,” he says.
“The assumption is that people of this age group until very recently have only been having sex with one person for many years,” adds Mr Pearson.
The proportion of older customers on dating websites suggests that this is not correct. At dating website Match.com, one of the largest such websites in the UK, about one in 10 clients are aged over 50.
Match.com does not do anything radically different for older lovers.
“The basic premise of searching for a date, companion or soulmate is the same no matter what your age is,” says Karl Gregory, managing director of Match.com in the UK and Ireland.
But the older consumer can be more demanding. “We find that older members are more assertive as their experience means they know what they want from a relationship and don’t want to compromise,” says Mr Gregory.
One thing is clear, adds the managing director: “The stereotypical image of someone aged over 65 in their slippers on the sofa sipping a cup of hot cocoa just isn’t the case.”
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