Press release: The push and pull of sex, gender, and aging

This is a briefing paper originally prepared for and published on the Council on Contemporary Families’ website on August 7, 2018. 

Not too long ago, women were considered “over the hill” once they reached middle age. Women in the 1960s recalled being told that their fate was to be “fat at 40, finished at 50.” But over the last two decades the U.S. has seen a massive shift in older adults’ attitudes towards sex, romance, and intimacy, with women in particular feeling emboldened to remain sexually and romantically satisfied throughout their entire life cycle, not just when they are young. Heterosexual partners tend to become more egalitarian as they age, and the majority of divorces that do occur after age 50 are initiated by women. Matchmaking sites have given older women far more chances to find partners than in the past, while men can now take Viagra or Cialis in order to keep their sex lives vibrant and healthy.

Desexualized? Who is on the hook for cosmetic surgery?

There are challenges of course, and many of those challenges are starkly gendered. After menopause, women are frequently seen as non-sexual beings, something we call the desexualization of older women. Men on the other hand have been given lifelong statuses as sexual beings and seldom face societal obstacles to romantic contact later in life. To compensate for this gender double standard, many women have resorted to surgical interventions to reduce the signs of age on their body—in fact, they make up the largest growing market for cosmetic surgery. Other women have decided to forgo relationships and sex entirely, relying on social networks of friends to support them emotionally instead of intimate partners. Fortunately for the many women who continue to date later in life, the research concludes that their sexual satisfaction and frequencies are fairly high.

Resexualized. Stars might suggest older faces that are sexy.

What our review, “Gender and Sexuality in Aging,” in The Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, best illustrates is that Baby Boomers have become far more liberal in regard to sex, and when older men and women prioritize lifelong sexual satisfaction they have a better shot at achieving it today than ever before. Gender, sexual orientation, race, and other demographic factors affect Boomers’ success at this, and U.S. culture as a whole is just beginning to value intimacy as a lifelong goal. But with older faces becoming “sexy” (think Alfre Woodard at 65, Meryl Streep at 69. Or  Denzel Washington at 63, Tom Selleck at 73) and more attention being given to the study of sex and aging (see the endowed professorship in sexuality and aging at the University of Minnesota), we are seeing progressive shifts in our mainstream culture towards making older bodies less stigmatized and more romanticized.

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The Changing Nature of Intimacy

Although we know that intimacy changes with age, researchers are still struggling to understand why these changes occur and what they mean to the older adults in relationships experiencing them. That means men and women are often left in the dark when it comes to their sexual and emotional health later in life.

Perhaps even more troubling, our culture still has deep-seeded stigmas regarding older people having and (dare I say) enjoying sex. These stigmas deteriorate the quality of treatment that older men and women receive from their family, friends, and even the medical professionals who are charged with overseeing them.

In this chapter for the Journal of Aging Life Care, Dr. Pepper Schwartz and I explore the barriers to fulfilling intimacy that older men and women experience, including various medical conditions that inhibit sexual activity as well as the social prejudices found within the healthcare industry.

To go to our chapter, click here.

Gender And Sexuality In Aging

Humans are living to unprecedented ages and soon Baby Boomers will be the largest demographic in the USA. Not only will they be the biggest aging generation in American history, but they will also be the most liberalespecially when it comes to sex.

Consider this: a mere sixty years ago women were considered matronly and societally spent after turning 40, yet now it’s common to hear phrases like “50 is the new 30” and stars like Jane Fonda (80) and Cher (72) continue to have thriving careers in an industry obsessed with youth.

And it’s not just attitudes that have changed, men and women over-50 are behaving very differently in the bedroom than the generations before them. Many Boomers maintain high sexual satisfaction and high sexual frequencies well into the later portions of their lives.

In this chapter for the Handbook of the Sociology of Gender, sociologist Pepper Schwartz and I review the redefinition of lifelong sexuality among older (and soon-to-be older) adults. We give readers a deeper understanding of what is behind these cultural changes, how society is (and isn’t) adapting to them, and what it means for the future of sex as we know it.

To go to our chapter, click here.