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Sexuality in Adulthood


A prevalent stereotype suggests that individuals lose interest in and ability to engage in sexual intimacy once they reach later adulthood (Aiken 1998; Brecher 1984; Higgins and Tuttle 1984; Levy 1994). This stereotype is particularly reinforced in Western popular culture. Television shows and movies ridicule older adults that engage or try to engage in sexual activity. Men have heart attacks because they are too excited and women are grateful that anyone shows an interest in them. Even language connotes this behavior as aberrant. If an older man is sexually interested or active he is called a dirty old man. This is considered so abnormal for women that there is not an equivalent term for older women. Rather the language for older women is sexless. Crone, hag, biddy, and spinster conjure up a picture of one who is sexually unattractive and undesirable.

Sexuality and aging is similar to most aspects of aging (Aiken 1998; Utley 1984). Age does not necessarily change our need or desire to be sexually expressive (Higgins and Tuttle 1984; Kaye 1993; Levy 1994; Willert and Semans 2000). If a couple is in a long-term relationship their frequency may decrease but not necessarily their satisfaction. Many couples find that the mode of expression may change and that with age and length of relationship there is increased intimacy. If sex and sexual intimacy are important aspects in one's life during young and middle adulthood they will continue to be factors in older adulthood (Aiken 1998; Kaye 1993; Levy 1994; Utley 1984).

One aspect of aging that is particular to a woman's experience is menopause. This process, which occurs with age, has also been imbued with myth. Many women are made to feel that because they are no longer able to reproduce they are no longer able to be sexual (Doress-Worters and Siegal 1994). Some women may experience a decline in sexual desire, whereas many others report an increase in desire and activity. There is no longer a concern about pregnancy, children are generally self-sufficient and the postmenopausal woman may even be more assertive in expressing her needs. Changes that women need to pay attention to are a decrease in vaginal lubrication as well as a thinning of the vaginal walls (Doress-Worters and Siegal 1994). These changes can be accommodated through the use of lubricating gels and sexual positioning.

Although men do not experience the same physical changes that women do with menopause they do experience physical changes with age that can affect their sexuality. Erections may not be as firm or last as long, and there may be a longer waiting period between erections (Aiken 1998). Once again these changes can be accommodated by increased manual stimulation and other modes of expression in addition to intercourse.

What can impact sexuality in old age is partner availability and health (two factors that have an impact throughout the lifespan). For older heterosexual women partner availability is a crucial issue (Brecher 1984). Women outnumber men by increasingly larger proportions as they age. The available pool of heterosexual males decreases with age. Many divorced, widowed, and never-married older heterosexual women may find themselves alone and looking increasingly more towards masturbation for sexual gratification (Brecher 1984).

There are certain diseases, health situations, and medications that can have an impact on sex and sexual expression. There are ways to accommodate these changes. Medications can be altered and the way we express ourselves sexually can be changed to accommodate physical limitations. The need for intimacy continues throughout the lifespan. This need does not necessarily change with age. The myths, mentioned above, not only permeate the popular culture but have also seeped into the medical and mental health arena. Children and young adults have venues for getting information about sex but there are few avenues for the older adult. This is not just a matter of life satisfaction but as older adults are one of the faster growing populations being infected by HIV/AIDS it can be a matter of life and death (Lauer and Lauer 1997).

Additional topics

Marriage and Family EncyclopediaFamily Health IssuesSexuality in Adulthood - Sexual Revolution, Women's Movement, Contraception, Same-sex Relationships, Children, Length Of A Relationship