The belief that older adults do not participate in sexual activities nor do they desire it, is founded on ageist misconceptions. This inaccurate stereotype has largely resulted from the traditional social perception that older age is a period of life that is ridden with impotency and decline. The idea that older adults are nonsexual or post sexual has until recently been reinforced by the lack of research studies focused on understanding advancing older age and sex. Further compounding the misconception that older aging people do not have sex has been the long standing absence and misrepresentation of the aging population in intimate sexual relationships in media portrayals. As current research expands on the subject, it can now be known that the sexual experience of older people may be different than it was in their younger years. Yet, it is an important aspect of the biological, psychological, and social healthy aging process. In this essay I will evaluate four research articles that demonstrate that older adults remain sexual with age and they do engage in sexual activities.
Socio-Cultural Values Inhibit Research on Sex and Aging
One aspect that can make research on sex in the older aging population challenging, is the varying socio-cultural values that may inhibit discussions that can demonstrate the prevalence of sex among the aging population. The taboo of sexual activity outside of marriage often limits research to married couples as they are most likely to discuss their sexual activities. Researchers Maryam Ravanipour, Tayebeh Gharibi, and Tahereh Gharibi (2013) performed one such qualitative research study in Iran with a sample of 15 married women over the age of 60 and with a mean age of 67 years. The researchers defined the need for sexual relations as directly related to a person’s natural need for biological health through sexual satisfaction. They also reported that psychological needs are fulfilled through receiving and expressing love and intimacy, feelings of sexual acceptance, and the experience of physical touch. The findings of the study demonstrated that the wives addressed sexual desires differently than their husbands did as the wives’ sexual behaviors were heavily impacted by their religious matters and roles. The women reported that they believed that by sexually pleasing their husbands that they were also pleasing God. The women also stated that although their participation in sexual acts with their husbands was a dutiful expression, the data concluded that the sexual act was a needed expression for both parties (Ravanipour, Gharibi, & Gharibi, 2013).
Supporting Sex as an Aspect of Healthy Aging
Many societies make assumptions that members of the older aging population are past the life stages where sexual acts will either be desired or acted on. Researchers Paul Simpson, Christine Brown Wilson, Laura J.E. Brown, Tommy Dickinson, and Maria Horne (2014) performed a qualitative analytical study in England where residents and staff of two care facilities were interviewed. Through the interviews it was determined that the residents still had a desire to have sex. It was also determined that the staff questioned whether or not it would be feasible for the residents to have sex and/or if sex amongst the residents would be moral even if they were married. The study highlighted the staff’s judgement and fears that they had regarding the possibilities of the residents having sex. As a result, the residents of the care facilities are subjected to and the policies and regulations that prevent them from exercising their own choice for self-care and sexual fulfillment. The study, the researchers stated, could serve as an effective tool to heighten awareness of the marginalization of the aging population and the infringement on their rights to an act that is part of a healthy lifestyle (Simpson et al., 2014). For the biological, psychological, and social health, and the rights of aging people, the researchers urge that this ageist stance be examined. Sexual intimacy is often still an important aspect of life in older age and facilities will need to support their residents in this need (Simpson et al., 2014).
Challenges with Sex and Aging Results in Changing Intimacy
Sexual dysfunction is common for individuals over 60 years of age prompting them to either avoid sex or to develop new standards of what sex can offer. Barry McCarthy and Christina Pierpaoli (2015) performed a case study that took place over 5 months in which the researchers evaluated an older aged married couple. The wife, age 69, and the husband, age 72, had experienced a decline in the frequency and intensity of their sexual activities due to erectile dysfunction. The issue began for the couple when they were in their 30’s and had resulted in progressively lowered self-images for both of them. After the current status of their relationship was evaluated, the researchers encouraged the couple to express themselves sexually and intimately without having intercourse. The couple found many new ways that were satisfying to them both and increased each of their self-confidences (McCarthy & Pierpaoli, 2015).
Approximately 30% of couples cease sexual activity in their 60’s and the percentage increases among couples in their 70’s (McCarthy & Pierpaoli, 2015). This is largely due to the unpredictability of sexual functionality and the psychological ramifications that can result from dysfunction. To continue to have sex and maintain the rewards and enjoyment, McCarthy and Pierpaoli (2015) suggest adapting the Good Enough Sex (GES) standard. By accepting that sex may not meet the same standards as it once did, but that it can rejuvenate the individuals and enhance intimacy and the strength of relationships, expectations can be released and sexual activities more fully experienced (McCarthy & Pierpaoli, 2015).
Feeling Desirable While Physically Aging
Societal emphasis on the ideals of youth and beauty have detracted from potentially positive perspectives on sexuality in the aging process. To better understand perceptions that older women might hold of their own bodies as well as their partners, researchers conducted a qualitative study with 20 Australian women who were in long term relationships and who were between the ages of 55 and 72 years (Thorpe, Fileborn, Hawkes, Pitts, & Minichiello, 2014). The data analysis from the study revealed that women who were in the longest term relationships held the most confidence and admired their partners the most. In addition, the women in both the long and short term relationships demonstrated very little concern over their physical appearance. Any dissatisfaction the women expressed regarding their bodies they stated was of their own perceptions and not due expressions of dissatisfaction of their partners. The data also showed that sexual encounters occurred more frequently for women who received the most validation of their physical appearance and sexuality from their partners. These women stated that they felt desired and desirable (Thorpe et al., 2014). The results of this study demonstrate that a sexual self-image and feelings of desirability can be experienced deeply and richly well into the older years.
The idea that older adults are postsexual is an inaccurate ageist fallacy. Sexual activity and expression in the older age is an important part of biological, psychological and social health and wellbeing. Sexual relations and performance may change drastically for people in advanced age. Yet, the data analysis from these four qualitative research studies illustrate that although sex may be different in older age, older people do in fact desire sex, each other, and they engage in sexual activities. These activities may include intercourse but also give rise to a further exploration of sexual activities other than intercourse, feelings of desirability that go beyond societal ideations of sexuality and attractiveness, and deeper levels of sexual intimacy.
McCarthy, B., & Pierpaoli, C. (2015). Sexual Challenges With Aging: Integrating the GES Approach in an Elderly Couple. Journal Of Sex & Marital Therapy, 41(1), 72-82
Ravanipour, M., Gharibi, T., & Gharibi, T. (2013). Elderly Women’s Views About Sexual Desire During Old Age: A Qualitative Study. Sexuality & Disability, 31(2), 179-188.
Simpson, P., Brown Wilson, C., Brown, L. J., Dickinson, T., & Horne, M. (2017). The challenges and opportunities in researching intimacy and sexuality in care homes accommodating older people: a feasibility study. Journal Of Advanced Nursing, 73(1), 127-137. doi:10.1111/jan.13080
Thorpe, R., Fileborn, B., Pitts, M., Minichiello, V., & Hawkes, G. (2015). Old and desirable: older women’s accounts of ageing bodies in intimate relationships. Sexual & Relationship Therapy, 30(1), 156-166. doi:10.1080/14681994.2014.959307