Better Than A Gold Watch

In his new novel, "Wages of Sin," priest-author Andrew Greeley suggests a new interpretation for the old Roman Catholic idea of baptism of desire. At one point in the plot, his heroine slips off her robe, dives naked into a pool and pulls off her startled lover's swimming trunks. "You set me on fire," she breathes between passionate kisses, and sure enough, they make love right there in the water.

What makes this novel different from other Greeley best sellers is the lovers' ages: she is 51 and he is 56. After one reviewer dismissed his characters as "randy middle-aged Chicagoans," Greeley jumped to their defense. As it happens, Greeley is also a sociologist at the University of Chicago, and last week he offered scientific data to prove that sex is good and plentiful, even after 60. Analyzing national-poll data involving nearly 6,000 respondents, Greeley finds that 37 percent of married people over 60 have sex at least once a week-and one in six more often than that. What's more, Greeley says that sexually active married men are happier with their spouses at 60 than 20-year-old single males who are sleeping around.

The frequency of sex declines with age--61 percent of married people in their early 50s have sex at least once a week. But in some ways it may also get better. According to Greeley's data, the people who say they are happiest are married couples 60 and over who have sex at least weekly. Ninety percent of these people find their mates "very attractive physically." Nearly two thirds report that they engage in frequent sexual experimentation-including coupling out of doors and, yes, in swimming pools. All this activity leads the priest-novelist-sociologist to conclude that "sexual passion, pleasure and playfulness are not just for the young and the beautiful. The empty nest may actually be a love nest."

For most researchers, Greeley's good news is really old news, but welcome nonetheless. "As we grow older, we develop more skills, more understanding of our partner, more sensitivity-the second language of sex," says Robert N. Butler, chairman of the department of geriatrics at New York's Mount Sinai School of Medicine and coauthor, with his wife, of "Sex After Sixty." Sex in later life, says Butler, includes less of "the narcissism and self-centeredness [that is] part of the early instinctual drive."

It helps to stay healthy. Various studies show that elders who control their weight are more likely to remain sexually active. So are those who exercise regularly. From a study of swimmers in their 40s, 60s and older, anthropologist Phillip Whitten of Harvard found that 80 percent rated themselves more physically attractive than other people their age, and-what is perhaps more important--their partners rated the swimmers more attractive than they rated themselves. Clearly, there is more to Greeley's water duet than even he imagined.

Although intercourse can be painful for postmenopausal women, Greeley reports that older wives are no less satisfied with their sex lives than are their husbands. This is the result partly of widespread use of over-the-counter vaginal lubricants and estrogen replacement, which decreases thinning of the vaginal walls. It may also reflect the fact that when it comes to sex, aging giveth as well as taketh way. Although older men take longer to achieve an erection, "the man as he ages is able to last longer in intercourse," says sex therapist William Young, director of the Masters & Johnson Institute in St. Louis. "That's a good thing, because it takes the female a little longer to respond."

Greeley's conclusions drew criticism from two fronts. Psychologist Gary Schoener of the Walk-In Counseling Center, in Minneapolis, argued that Greeley's analysis was excessively pro-marriage and moralistic. "It's the old line: do everything by the Ten Commandments and live happily ever after." In response, Greeley says that his numbers are sociological, not priestly. "Married people say they're happier than unmarried," he says, "and single women are only happier than single men." Another researcher suggests that Greeley may be inadvertently inviting older Americans to worry that they are not keeping up with their age mates. "I wonder why we have to apply numbers to sex," says Jennifer Knopf, director of the sex- and marital-therapy program at Northwestern University. "It's kind of an Olympics mentality."

Greeley admits that there's one question his material cannot answer: whether older couples are happy because they have frequent sex, or whether they have sex often because they are happy. "It's a matter of correlation, not causality," he says. "My open suggestion is that if you want to be an intense lover at age 65, then be that at 35." Or try the swimming pool.

Alfresco? Underwater? You bet. These are the good old days.

MARRIED MEN AND WOMEN In their 20s In their 60s Who have sex outdoors 55% ------- 20% Have sex once a week 80% 37% Who undress each other 70% 27% Swim together in the nude 46% 17%