Photo by Sher Stoneman
June La Valleur (M.D. ’87) wants you to know that there comes a time when people stop being sexual. It’s called death.
La Valleur, 75, who entered medical school at 41, is a nationally renowned expert in mature women’s health and sexuality. During her time as an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology, she recalls giving students a classroom lecture about sexuality and aging. “I told them, ‘I’m not going to ask you to think about your parents being sexual. I’m going to ask you to think about your grandparents being sexual.’ And a woman who was in the front row said, ‘I don’t want to go there!’”
In a culture that’s obsessed with youth, uncomfortable about aging, and conflicted about sexuality in general, many people don’t want to go there. La Valleur’s mission is to change that.
One way she’s working on it is by cultivating more sexual health educators. She and her husband Duane Rost, a retired professor of electrical engineering, have helped raise money for two chairs in sexual health education within the University of Minnesota’s Program in Human Sexuality. She also aims to help create a fellowship on sexuality and aging at the U and, eventually, a chair on that subject.
There’s no shortage of myths that need exploding when it comes to sexuality and aging. La Valleur shares a few:
Sex isn’t just about intercourse. “There’s so much more to sexuality than that,” La Valleur says. As one example, she points to President Bill Clinton’s firing of Surgeon General Jocelyn Elders in 1994 for saying masturbation is safe sex. Clinton, she says, should have listened to Elders.
“If someone is single, don’t assume that they’re not sexual. I don’t care how old they are! Who knows better what feels good to you than yourself?” she says.
Sexual dysfunction isn’t an automatic part of aging. While some people experience a decline in sexual activity as they age, there’s a huge range of normal, LaValleur says. And the illnesses that can accompany aging or the medications used to treat them can cause, say, low libido or erectile dysfunction. La Valleur remembers a 73-year-old man in her internal medicine rotation who’d blamed his erectile dysfunction over the past two years on the passage of time; actually, they discovered, it was the beta blockers he’d begun taking at 71. Knowing that allowed him to explore other treatments that could help him lower his blood pressure while enjoying a healthy sex life.
A healthy sex life has no expiration date. La Valleur recalls a 70-something patient who was participating in the U’s Heart and Estrogen Replacement Study (HERS). “We were finishing up her exam, and she said, ‘Uh, doctor, I have a question.’
“Well, from the way she was talking and her body language, I knew it was going to be about sex. She said, ‘I can’t talk to my young whippersnapper of a doctor about this, but I just want to know if it’s normal,’” LaValleur recalls. If what’s normal?
The patient explained that while sex with her first husband of 45 years had been rather perfunctory, she and her second husband were having more intense and frequent sex. "She was worried there was something wrong with them. While many of her friends weren’t being sexual anymore, she was worried they were oversexed!” she says.
“I wanted to hug her! I said, ‘You know, you might be having more sex than some people your age, but it sounds awfully good to me.’ People who have sexual dysfunction need to know that they’re not alone, but neither are people who are sexually gratified in their 80s.”