Maybe I’m just friends with people who share the right stuff on social media, but it seems to me that people are talking more and more about sex and aging.
And if they aren’t, they should be.
According to a comprehensive National Survey of Sexual Health and Behavior by Indiana University’s Center for Sexual Health Promotion, “Many older adults continue to have active pleasurable sex lives, reporting a range of different behaviors and partner types.” We know that people continue being sexual and having sex throughout later life, but plenty of folks don’t want to acknowledge or talk about it because… well, I’m honestly not sure why.
So who’s actually talking about sex and aging? There are a few important ways this conversation is taking place:
Every time an older person’s sexuality is acknowledged on screen in a real, human, non-punchline way, I do a little cheer and feel a smidgen better about the world than I did a moment before. Television and movies often stereotype and dehumanize elders in many ways, including treating their sexuality as nonexistent, disgusting, or humorous; but it is getting better! The great trailblazer in challenging this trope has to be The Golden Girls, which appreciates the sexual lives not only of older people, but specifically of older women. More recently, Netflix’s Grace and Frankie does similar good work: I could watch Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin talk dating, lube selections, and vibrators all day long, in character or not. And although Grace and Frankie has been rightfully criticized for continuing a damaging TV trend of bi-erasure, it does powerful work in representing the relationship of an older gay couple as well as the complexities of singledom and dating for older women. And of course, Transparent does a beautiful and caring job of depicting not only the sexual lives of Pfefferman matriarchs Maura and Shelly, but also their processes of understanding and living their sexual and gender identities. These shows stand out as a few major examples of an important trend, and though representation can’t solve everything, it can go a long way toward counteracting the dangers of cultural taboos and identity erasure.
Community-based organizations and resources
A great deal of education, community development, research, and advocacy work happens through non-profit organizations and academic institutions within the field of sex and sexuality. My go-to resources are Services and Advocacy for GLBT Elders (SAGE), a national organization that provides (you guessed it) services and advocacy related to LGBT aging and coordinates a National Resource Center on LGBT Aging, as well as the FORGE Transgender Aging Network. To learn more, definitely also check out SIECUS’s bibliography for sex in middle and later life as well as the Widener University Center for Human Sexuality Studies’ Sexuality and Aging Consortium, which hosts a yearly conference.
Organizations and people who work in sexuality education and advocacy do an amazing job of starting and amplifying conversations about older adults’ sexuality – through service provision, advocacy, information sharing, and more. This includes successful public health campaigns, such as ACRIA’s still-running “Age is Not a Condom 2015” ad campaign. Remember when I said I cheer when I see older people with sexual storylines on TV? Well, whenever I spot one of these ads on a bus shelter I literally do a jig. And then I send a Snapchat. Every time. “Age is Not a Condom” acknowledges that older adults have sex and need to know about safer sex methods, and it includes resources not only for them but for their healthcare providers as well. Safer sex education is an issue currently; when older generations learned about sex, many of them also missed out on information about STIs and protection. The Indiana University Survey mentioned above reports that “adults over the age of 40 have the lowest rates of condom use. Although these individuals may not be as concerned about pregnancy, this suggests the need to enhance education efforts for older individuals regarding STI risks and prevention.” Everyone deserves the dignity of having their sexuality acknowledged and having full information about how to have the sex they want as safely as possible.
When younger people ignore and erase the existence of sexuality in later life, and sometimes also when we try as allies to advocate for older adults, we silence the voices of the affected people themselves. Elders are perfectly capable of talking about their own needs and desires when it comes to sex and sexuality, and they’re already talking about it. Fortunately, they are being heard more and more. Last month, a New York Times article entitled “Too Old for Sex? Not at This Nursing Home” got a lot of attention as it covered the Hebrew Home at Riverdale’s well-thought-out and important “sexual expression policy.” The policy, along with the staff’s acceptance and sometimes facilitation of relationships within the nursing home, were crafted and implemented in response to a clear need. Residents are having sex; a formal policy guides staff members in how to deal with it, and makes the environment safer for anyone who does or doesn’t want to have sexual or dating relationships.
In the public sphere, our elders in the world of sex education and activism are certainly using their existing podium to talk about sex and aging. Many badass aging celebrities have spoken up about their sex lives. Writer and educator Joan Price – one of my favorite people in the field of sex and sexuality – has written several books, most famously Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex, and runs a blog which “offers senior sex news, views, and reviews of sex toys, books, and films that interest sex-positive Boomers and elders.”
We already have the resources we need to stand in solidarity with our elders, and to break down the stigma and taboos that we have placed on sex in later life. Listen, learn, read, ask, talk, and grant people the dignity and humanity they deserve. And in the hopefully immortal words of legendary sex writer and educator Dr. Ruth, “You have to know that an older man cannot hang from a chandelier.”