Stereotypes about Sexuality in Later Adulthood
Most people tend to associate later adulthood with the decline of sexual desire, ability, and occurrence. While much of research supports the fact that as humans age, our bodies become weaker and (by society’s standards) less attractive, these are not the main reasons we see a decline in sexual function and activity later in life. First of all, there is a highly stereotyped view of older adults having sex, typically associated with humor as if this is not something that actually happens later in life. While this stereotype does have some truth behind it, it is narrow-minded and ignorant to assume that all of older adults do not enjoy sex or become more sexually open and explorative as life goes on. First, one must take into account the biopsychosocial perspective when thinking about this topic. Additionally, it is important to switch one’s perspective to understand that as one ages, wisdom is gained and experimentation can occur in ways that it could/would not have in earlier years. Lastly, many people tend to forget the perspective through which sexuality later in life is often viewed, and tend to cloud judgment with stereotypes and inaccurate knowledge. Based upon extensive research, it is known that older adults can (and do) enjoy sex and often take the opportunity to explore their own sexuality later on in life, and stereotypes about elder sexuality are far from accurate.
With the population ageing happening around the world at an alarming and rapidly increasing rate, and the birthrate dropping in most developed nations, the last phase of development has become a time like never before in terms of self-discovery. Because of “empty-nests” and the retirement phase along with the fact that many elderly adults find themselves in the house with a partner for many years without the responsibility of a job or children living directly in the home, these years are slowly becoming a time for sexual exploration with one’s partner, as well as a time for one to explore the potential for an open relationship. The older population is growing, and the diversity and variation of sexuality is becoming a topic of interest in order to remover harmful stereotypes. In the study conducted by LaMater and Koepsel, participants were to self report the frequency/type of sexual activity they engaged in. The main results one can understand from this study is that sexuality in older adults increases psychological and physical well-being, and tends to lower rates of depression (LaMater & Keopsel 2012). The study cites one of the main reasons that the general population tends to hold such narrow views about sexuality later in life because of the “Medicalization of Sexual Function.” This medicalization perspective has permeated mainstream thought on this topic because of the focus on the biological components of sex, including dysfunctions. The common perspective is based on normative age-graded influence, and fails to take into account the psychological and social aspects that contribute to adult sexual functioning. One social value that leads people to think older adults never want to have sex is the common association of sexual intercourse for the purpose of childbearing, and this perspective would not apply to postmenopausal women. Moving into a more open-minded view of sexuality, it is known that postmenopausal women can and still do enjoy sex, however this stereotype is based on the fact that 60% of postmenopausal women feel less attractive and less interested in sex.
With the growth of acceptance and research about sex later in life, it has been discovered that the later years are a time when some older adults want to explore the possibility of participating in an open relationship. Although many older people in the US tend to be monogamous, semi-religious people and would object to this idea on religious grounds, around 5% stated that they were in/had been in an open relationship. In a study by Fleckenstein and Cox (2015), 502 online responses were gathered to determine perspectives on the positive benefits experienced by older adults in open relationships. It was found that this time in life leads one to disregard some of the societal constructs held tightly earlier in life, such as materialism and caring about what others may think of one’s actions. This phenomenon is called gerotranscendence, and it is deemed the last stage of human psychological development. This is the reason why older adults who do have access to a consensual partner and an open mind tend to reap such positive benefits from engaging in a sexually polyamorous relationship. It also can be likened to Maslow’s peak experience. It was found by this study that those reporting the highest rates of personal well-being were unmarried members of non-exclusive relationships.
One condition that affects younger people’s views of sexuality later in life is degree of religiosity. In a study conducted by Jennifer Bonds-Raacke and John Raacke, 81 students were given questions associated with how religious they felt on a daily basis and hoe important religion was to them as a person. It was found that those who had religion as a higher priority in life tended to have less knowledge about sex later in life, and a more “negative and restrictive attitude” towards elderly people enjoying and exploring their own sexuality. Those undergraduates who were less religious, however, had a more open minded view of it and often embraced it more-so than some elderly adults. It was cited that if a young person was religious but had a meaningful relationship with at least one grandparent, they still tended to be more open-minded because they had a more human understanding of the wants and needs of elderly adults. Those who stated they had “deep feelings of peace and harmony” and a feeling of “deep responsibility of the pain and suffering in the world”, and often had religious radio or television playing in the home were the ones with the less positive or accepting view of sexuality later in life (Bonds-Raacke & Raacke 2011).
Lastly, it is well-known that men tend to have the brunt of the humor when it comes to these stereotype based jokes about sex later in life. These are often associated with the inability to get an erection. However, in a longitudinal study by Doskoch, 12,203 men 65 and older from a community in Australia were surveyed in 3 Waves of follow-up questionnaires after the initial research. It was concluded that 50% of men still see sex as highly important and desirable, and that 1/3 of these men claimed to have had a sexual encounter in the past year. It was cited that men still do have common sexual desires/fantasies well into late adulthood, and that many men who have not reported having sex feel that their sexual desires are not being met due to being widowed, or having a partner who is uninterested in sex (Doskoch 2011). This leads the study to conclude that older men do have the desire and the ability to maintain sexuality well into their 90’s.
Although today’s society tends to place heavy amounts of stigma and stereotypes on sexuality in late adulthood, much of the research today shows that while there is an obvious decline in functioning in some, there are ways for older adults to still connect intimately through sexuality and have pleasurable, frequent sexual encounters. Gerotranscendence is also a little known phase in psychological development that allows older adults to disregard embarrassment, societal norms, or past boundaries in order to further explore and enjoy sex. In conclusion, it in important to have a continually open-minded view of sexuality in late adulthood because stereotypes are harmful and untrue.
Bonds-Raacke, Jennifer M. Raacke, John. “Examining the Relationship Between the Degree of Religiousness and Attitudes Toward Elderly Sexual Activity in Undergraduate College Students.” College Student Journal. Volume 45, pages 134-142, 2011. PsychInfo.
DeLamater, John. Koepsel, Erica. “Relationships and Sexual Expression Later in Life: A Biopsychosocial Perspective.” Sexual and Relationship Therapy. Volume 30, pages 37-59, 2012. PsychInfo.
Doskoch, P. “Many Men 75 and older Consider Sex Important and Remain Sexually Active.” Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health. Volume 43, pages 67-68, 2011. PsychInfo.
Fleckenstein, James R. Cox, Darrel W. II. “The Association of an Open Relationship Orientation with Health and Happiness in a Sampler of Older US Adults. Sexual and Relationship Therapy. Volume 30, pages 94-116, 2015. PsychInfo.