European courts are sparring over the importance of sex for older women

Image: AP Photo/Francisco Seco
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What price do you place on an active sex life?

A judgement from the European Court of Human Rights (ECHR) this week indicated that the value of sex doesn’t deteriorate with age, or gender. The ruling overturned a decision by a Portuguese court to reduce compensation to a woman who claimed her sex life was ruined by botched gynecological surgery. The Lisbon judges had decided that because the woman was age 50 and had two children at the time of the operation, an active sex life was less important to her.

Maria Morais underwent surgery at a Portuguese hospital in 1995 which resulted in damage to the pudendal nerve which carries sensation to the genitals. The mistake left her with intense pain, incontinence, difficulty walking and sitting, and loss of vaginal sensation, all of which made sex difficult (link in Portuguese).

Portugal’s Supreme Administrative Court awarded damages in her favor, but in 2013 the court reduced the amount of damages payable to her from 96,000 euros to 56,000. Part of the sum was for damages, and part was to pay for home help. The Portuguese court reduced the allocation for sexual damages because it judged that sex was less important for a woman of Morais’s age than for a younger person. It also reduced the allocation for a maid because, it said, her children were grown up so she only needed to take care of her husband.

This week the ECHR, based in France, said the reduction was based on the “general assumption” that sexuality was not as important for a 50-year-old mother as for someone younger.  ”It thus ignored the physical and psychological importance of sexuality for women’s self-fulfillment,” the Court said in a statement, adding that “in the Court’s view, those considerations showed the prejudices prevailing in the judiciary in Portugal.”

Two previous Portuguese cases in 2008 and 2014, both involving men, found that loss of sexual function resulted in “tremendous/strong mental shock,” the French court noted. Neither took into account the men’s ages, nor whether they had children.

At a time when people are living longer and pursuing romantic relationships later in life, there is rising awareness of the health benefits of an active sex life. Drug advertising has emphasized the sex-related conditions that crop up in later life, but less attention is paid to the greater satisfaction older adults tend to report with their sex lives than younger people. Having a healthy sex life can even boost cognitive function, according to one recent Oxford University study. More than half of men and women in a Harvard Medical School study of sex beyond middle age said a satisfying sex life was important to their overall wellbeing. Less than 40% of both genders believed sex became less important with age.