When Patty Brisben got into sex toy sales in 1983, she promised herself that she'd learn as much as she could about human sexuality. It's a promise that has come in handy over the years, especially since she's launched her own in-home sex toy party company, Pure Romance — and as CEO, has found herself running a fleet of employees who are half-salespeople, half-sex educators.
"I have grown women, they could be 40 and 50 years old, that will come [to parties] and say they don't even know and understand their body parts," Brisben told LiveScience. "That's not good."
Discussions regarding sex education usually revolve around educating teenagers. But increasingly, sexual health researchers say, adults are in need of sex education, too. When Bill Taverner, director of The Center for Family Life Education at Planned Parenthood of Greater Northern New Jersey, spoke at his parents' retirement community about sexuality and aging recently, the crowd — all older adults — was bigger than the turnout of any other session ever scheduled by organizers.
"They let me keep talking for three hours," Taverner, the co-author of the Planned Parenthood-published book "Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter" (2009), told LiveScience.
There are a few reasons why adults have burning questions about an act most have been practicing for years, researchers say. For one, formal sexual education is uneven. According to the Kaiser Family Foundation, in 2002, only 22 states and the District of Columbia mandate sex education in their public schools (35 states mandate lessons on HIV and sexually transmitted diseases). Many of those states require an abstinence focus; others leave the nuts and bolts of lesson planning to local districts, where quality varies, according to the Kaiser report.
The result is a "sexually illiterate" population of American adults, said Michael Reece, a professor of health at Indiana University.
"Most adults just don't have the basic education about their bodies , the bodies of their sexual partners, relationships, sexual behaviors," Reece said. "We really have this deficit, I would say, across the country."
Even if every teenager got the best sex education available, Taverner said, it wouldn't be enough. Advice given to teens won't be as useful at age 60 when you're dealing with the physical changes of aging.
That's where people like Brisben come in. Sex toy parties, it turns out, are what public health educators call "teachable moments." Much like the Tupperware parties of the 1950s, sex toy parties involve inviting a group of women (parties are almost always female-only affairs) into a hostess's home for a combination soiree and sales pitch — but instead of soup mugs and sandwich keepers, the products in question include lubricants and vibrators.
It could be just another example of sexual consumerism, but Brisben doesn't see it that way. She's partnered with Reece and his colleagues at Indiana University to provide online training for all Pure Romance salespeople. The training module, which includes text, video and quizzes, covers the gamut from relationships and communication to STDs and sexual arousal. The idea, Brisben said, is to create a comfortable environment where women can ask questions and get good answers. The most common questions, she said, tend to be about lack of libido and pain during sex.
"Anyone can sell a product," Brisben said. "I wanted to turn it into more than just about the sale of a product."
Sex Ed in the golden years
Other educators are seeking out adults in venues that are rarely associated with sexual education: churches, retirement centers, volunteer organizations such as Kiwanis clubs — even nursing homes. Here, the seminars revolve around later-life dating, physical changes, and the need for intimacy and touch.
"The major sex education for older people is being done by the pharmaceutical community, and we're concerned that that focuses on some pill you take and doesn't get at the major issues, which have to do with relationships and communication," said Peggy Brick, a sex educator who co-authored "Older, Wiser, Sexually Smarter" with Taverner. Brick also founded the Widener University Consortium on Sexuality and Aging, a group dedicated to sex education for older adults.
"My main theme is that people need new expectations," Brick told LiveScience. "If they expect sex to be like it was when they were a teenager, they're going to be disappointed. It's different, and in fact it can be considerably better, but people have to understand the changes."
One example of such a change is what's known as the refractory period for men, Taverner said. The refractory period refers to the time men need after an orgasm before they're physically capable of orgasming again. For male teens, the refractory period could last just minutes, while it could take days for older men.
"If no one has ever sat down with a man to talk about this important change, he would very understandably think that something is wrong with him," Taverner said.
Besides running sex-ed courses for older adults, Brick runs trainings for caregivers in nursing homes and long-term care facilities. Staff may not understand that elderly people are sexual beings who need space to build intimate relationships, she said.
Ageism is a big problem when dealing with sexual education for older adults, Taverner said. Sex is portrayed on television and in movies as the domain of the young and pretty, he said, which can trigger body image issues in older people. And young people underestimate how sexual older generations are, Taverner said. When teaching college students, he often asks them to think about how sexual they'll be in 50 years.
"Most of them give themselves high marks," he said.
But when he asks them to think about how sexual their grandparents or older acquaintances are, the numbers drop precipitously.
"People have an internal sense that we all want to be sexual beings throughout our lives, but we don't like to think of older adults as sexual beings," Taverner said. "We often think of the sexuality of older adults as something to joke about."
To Pure Romance's Brisben, any opportunity to educate is a good one. She's seen more discussion of sexual problems on television, she said, which she sees as a good sign that people are "opening up those doors."
"Everybody has sex, everybody does!" Brisben said. "It's part of what happens in life, and so if you don't take responsibility and you don't ask these questions, it's going to continue to be the ugly elephant in the room."
You can follow LiveScience Senior Writer Stephanie Pappas on Twitter @sipappas.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Stephanie Pappas is a contributing writer for Live Science, covering topics ranging from geoscience to archaeology to the human brain and behavior. She was previously a senior writer for Live Science but is now a freelancer based in Denver, Colorado, and regularly contributes to Scientific American and The Monitor, the monthly magazine of the American Psychological Association. Stephanie received a bachelor's degree in psychology from the University of South Carolina and a graduate certificate in science communication from the University of California, Santa Cruz.