Sex and aging: if we’re lucky we’ll all grow old

Image by the brilliant Stuart F Taylor

There are few things that all humans have in common, but one of them is this: if we’re lucky, we’ll all grow older. And while everyone changes as they get older – physically and emotionally – the things we enjoy hopefully never lose their shine. You’ll still be just as overjoyed at winning a pub quiz in your seventies. Or going on holiday to somewhere beautiful and drinking sangria on the beach. And – because this is a post about sex and aging – I’d hope you’d still enjoy an excellent fuck.

Reddit’s swinging seventies couple

A friend of mine sent me a link to this excellent Reddit story yesterday: a trainee doctor was speaking to a woman in her 70s and as part of the consultation they asked some detailed questions on her sexual history. The attending doctor took exception to that:

“After my attending stopped mocking me for, “asking about all that new crazy stuff, I’ve known Mr. and Mrs. X for years!” the patient proceeded to tell me that she and her husband were swingers and she had multiple male and female partners into her 70s.”

I’m guessing this is by far from the only time something like this has happened. As a general rule, society assumes that sex – and especially kinky sex – stops at a certain age. As with any assumption, though, as soon as you start examining it, it shatters into a million pieces.

At what age do people stop having sex? Sixty-five? Seventy? Eighty-seven? Ninety-six? In reality – barring those who are asexual and/or celibate because of specific choices – sex will be part of your life for all the time you are alive. You might not do it in the same way – as I don’t fuck the same way I used to when I was eighteen – but you’ll probably still fantasise, and love, and masturbate, and fuck if there’s someone willing to join you.

Sex and aging in care

On my first day at the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit in August, I listened to activists talk about sexuality and aging. The obvious stuff still needs to be heard by more people: that sex doesn’t stop when you’re sixty, and that you can have an active sex life no matter how old you are. This is a broad issue of education, and one of the most useful things we can do is shout it from the rooftops, and support those who are spreading the word such as Joan Price, who does a lot of public education around sex and aging, and writes beautifully on her blog – Naked At Our Age.

But there were problems on another level too – one I hadn’t considered, or heard much discussion about. Sex and aging during care. While the assumption that older people don’t have sex might be simply frustrating for those who are trying to change the dialogue, for those who may not have the power to assert those needs, it’s devastating.

Take, for instance, care homes. One of the workshops I went to at Woodhull was run by Tom Callahan – a lawyer who works with care homes (or senior care facilities as they’re called in the US). He told us some really shocking stories: married couples who had been asked to keep their bedroom doors open at all times so that staff could keep an eye on them. Gay residents who were refused visitations from their partners. Trans women who are being housed in all-male dorms or buildings, with no regard to their safety or rights as women. And here the problems spread out more broadly, from simply ‘older people having sex’ to gender and sexuality too – because as soon as someone is seen as ‘sexless’ their gender and sexuality is also seen as less important. Those initial assumptions – knee-jerk ‘eww’ reactions to the very idea of older people having sex – grow and fester into bigger assumptions, until people’s rights are seriously eroded.

Assumptions about sex and aging

Tom pointed out too that often it’s the children of the residents who have input into these situations, and so their shock to discover that their parents are having sex often means that they try to intervene and stop it happening. If, for instance, a married couple are admitted together, and one of them dies, it’s not uncommon for the living spouse to find a new partner – of course! And yet their children are often uncomfortable with this.

It’s understandable to be uncomfortable, of course, because they’ve been loaded down with these assumptions. They’ve been told older people don’t have sex. So much of our discourse around sex and aging stems from a certain discomfort about seeing our parents and grandparents as sexual beings. It’s tied in to the invisibility of older women, and the fact that certain people are seen as less valuable as they age – less sexual. Less.

And it might seem harmless when someone’s making a joke about their grandparents going at it. But – like all of these assumptions – it causes far more damage than we see immediately. There are people having to deal with the care system now who are discriminated against and treated appallingly because staff cannot break out of their assumptions to see that older people can be sexual too. These people are struggling right now because of assumptions that have been around for centuries.

Sometimes smashing assumptions requires you to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Tackling racism and homophobia requires getting racists and homophobes to understand how it feels to be someone different from themselves. But tackling ageism, and particularly where it comes to sex and aging, should be an easy win here, because it should affect all of us.

If we’re lucky we will all grow old.


Useful links:

Sage (Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders) – US organisation

Lambda Legal – US legal org offering support to LGBT people

Opening Doors London – UK organisation for older LGBT people

Huge thanks to Tom Callaghan for his amazing talk, and to Woodhull for being awesome, and to Doxy for sponsoring me to go. You can see other posts from me about the Woodhull Sexual Freedom Summit here. 


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