7 Minute read

The Psychology of Sexuality and Ageing: Time to get Mature About it

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7 Minute Read

Alan Gray is a social psychologist and researcher of both romantic and platonic relationships.

In contrast to popular opinion, most people never expect their sexual appetite to lessen as
they age.

Studies show that those who expect sex in later life, have sex in later in life, and visa versa. In fact, the amount of sex you belive older people are having now is likely to predict how much sex you yourself will be having when you reach that age. In other words, our beliefs here can become a self-fulfilling prophecy, influencing our own sex lives decades later. More reason than ever before to bring senior sex onto the popular agenda – and to start paying serious attention to the sexual needs of older generations.

It’s pretty well understood by now that relationships are crucial to our mental and physical health – feeling lonely is a physiological risk factor akin to smoking, and is associated with disease, even early death. Researchers have identified romantic relationships as particularly important, and it’s no surprise that sex – and the bond brought about by sexual activities – plays a big part.

Strange then, that in our rapidly ageing and health-focused population, researchers (as a rule) have avoided asking the question: are older generations doing it?

Take our largest national sex survey, for instance. Natsal-4 (led by researchers at UCL) restricts itself to only including participants aged under 59. A surprising cut-off that eliminates an increasingly large proportion of the population – and one of particular concern when you consider ​the rising rates in the over sixties of sexually transmitted infections (STIs).

It doesn’t help, too, that many of these surveys use intercourse as the sexual ‘gold standard’ – ignoring the full scope of sexual activity to focus on the penis, and what it’s getting up to. All in spite of the fact that many – young and old – find pleasure in a much broader definition of sexual experience. From the affection expressed in intimacy to mutual masturbation, oral sex; hugging, cuddling, and kissing.

Still, those who have addressed the subject have done a great deal to debunk the ageist myth of asexuality. For a start, there’s substantial diversity in the response to ageing. Not everybody ages in the same way, and it’s certainly not the case that most older adults lose sexual interest or capacity. For many women, in fact, the end of menopause coincides with an ​increase​ in libido. And while some older people welcome a dip in sexual appetite, others see it surge.

So what accounts for this difference?

Well, it’s complicated. On the one hand, it’s a personal preference (and it’s important not to dismiss those that feel this way, or assume that all older people are unhappy with their sex life – as that’s simply not true). On the other, though, it’s often down to the lack of a partner – and while sexual interest may still be present, the opportunities for expression may not. Indeed, the strongest predictor of sexual activity in later life is whether you’re in a romantic relationship – with most partnered older adults experiencing physical tenderness far more frequently than their unpartnered counterparts. A trend especially noticeable in older women.

As the data here is almost exclusively concerned with heterosexual pairings, it’s likely that this result owes much to women romantically favouring older men. Men who at the end of course, don’t live as long as they do. Yet the disparity in sexual activity between widow and widower is surely telling in other ways. Notably, the sexual ‘double standard’ that continues well into later life.

Both genders are subjected to ageism – there’s no doubt there. But women must also contend with a sexist society that often exacerbates these prejudices – imposing more restrictive sexual norms, and creating expectations otherwise absent in the opposite sex. Take the recent release in the UK of over-the-counter Viagra. Another advance in the treatment of sexual dysfunction that largely ignores women (and does so despite claims the disorder is less common in men!).

Popular culture traditionally does little to help: ​a UK Film Council survey of 2011 revealed that 60% of older female film-goers were fed-up of seeing themselves portrayed on screen as ​“sexless grandmothers”​. While it may be the norm for older men to be depicted pursuing relationships with younger women, when the genders are flipped these pairings are often seen as taboo, or fantasy (see ​The Graduate​) – further cementing the thought that an older woman’s sex drive is something to be considered unusual and in some instances, comical.

This discrimination has deep consequences that are only now coming to light. Not only do older women feel less comfortable discussing their sexuality and seeking out sexual partners, but they often find trouble convincing health-care professionals to see them as sexual beings. In a GP surgery, for instance, both parties can be reluctant to broach the topic, and guidance or sexual health advice is often passed over. A damning result in a time of rising STIs among older people – and a disturbing finding considering what we now know about sexual assault: (1) that it occurs at all ages, and (2) that older women are far more
likely to be sexually abused than previously acknowledged.

Tough stuff all this, I admit. And maybe not what you’d expect on a website called ‘The Advantages of Age’. But raising awareness of these societal challenges is what’s needed right now, and open discussions of sexuality – as you’ll find in many pieces on this site – can only help shift the culture of silence or awkwardness. As I said at the outset, we all have much to gain from shedding ageist sexual stereotypes. And by acknowledging older adults as sexual beings, we don’t just open up a conversation but create an atmosphere that helps older people challenge unwanted advances. (A lesson echoed in the success of the ‘Me Too’ movement, which highlighted the difficulties women often face in reporting sexual assault).

Gerontological research on sex, no doubt, still has far to go – and health-care services can do more for older adults in their policies and procedures. (Those in retirement homes, for example, might want the option of sharing a bed with a significant other, rather than being separated by default; and selling lube on-site would benefit residents who struggle to obtain it otherwise). But change is happening, perceptions are shifting, and the literature is beginning to recognise a fundamental fact: that it is not age ​per se​ that influences our sex life but the circumstances surrounding it. Our norms and stereotypes are perhaps the
biggest barriers of all in this respect, and it’s up to us, young and old, to challenge them. Even if that’s just not being afraid to talk more openly, free of the nonsense.

Further Reading

Bows H. The other side of late-life intimacy? Sexual violence in later life. Australas J Ageing. 2020;39(Suppl. 1):65–70.

Dillaway, H. E. (2005). Menopause is the “good old”: Women’s thoughts about reproductive aging. Gender & Society, 19, 398–417.

Freak-Poli R, Malta S. An overview of sexual behaviour research in later life—Quantitative and qualitative findings. Australas J Ageing. 2020;39(Suppl. 1):16–21.

Freak-Poli R, ​Malta, S. Sex and intimacy in later life: From understanding and acceptance to policy. Australas J Ageing. 2020; 39 (Suppl S1); 3-5.

Slatcher RB, Selcuk E. A social psychological perspective on the links between close relationships and health. Curr Dir Psychol Sci. 2017;26:16–21.

Lai Y, Hynie M. A tale of two standards: an examination of young adults’ endorsement of gendered and ageist sexual double standards. Sex Roles. 2011;64(5):360-371.

About Alan Gray

Alan Gray is a social psychologist and behavioural change analyst. His research tries
to understand the mechanisms that underpin relationship development, with
particular interest to attraction, laughter, and self-disclosure.

He holds degrees in psychology from the universities of Durham and Oxford, and
lives in London.

Find out more about Alan Gray’s research at​ ​grayarea.co.uk

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