Closeness, intimacy and touch are lifelong needs that do not get old, even when we do. We may be graying but our rainbows are still flickering, as our sexuality evolves and changes over our lifecycle. It is simply not true that when we are lighting dozens of candles on our birthday cake that we lose interest in sex or that our lives as sexual beings are over. Let me share with you some of the ways sexuality evolves and changes as we age, but is still very much a part of who we are until the day we die.
Consider the following question asked by a member during a recent workshop on “SEXcessful aging” that I conducted at a local senior center. “Will I have a chance to talk about Eddy today?” My response: “sure, tell me more about Eddy.” Older adult: “Eddy is my vibrator.”
A man in his 80s talked about how making love to his wife (now deceased) was “the best sex he ever had, and I still think about those years.” Another person asked whether or not oral sex was still “sex” and if it was “safe”. A woman shared, “It’s been so good to talk about sex and relationships. I haven’t talked about it to anyone in years, these conversations bring back such pleasant memories.”
So many folks, and even those who work in the field of aging, rarely think of seniors experiencing intimacy and sexuality concerns. The above anecdotes reflect some of the needs seniors have in relation to their sexuality and sexual activities; concerns about relationships, feelings, memories, morality, and the lack of knowledge.
There are many facets of senior sex and sexuality, but too often the words sex and sexuality are used interchangeably, and that may lead to diminishing the value of sexuality as we age. So what is the distinction between sex and sexuality?
One can think of sex as what happens below the waist, and in between the legs (behaviors) vs. sexuality. Sexuality is the total expression of who we are as human beings. It is the most complex human attribute and encompasses our whole psychosocial development—our values, attitudes, physical appearance, beliefs, emotions, attractions, our likes/dislikes, our spiritual selves. This is all influenced by our values, culture, socialization, politics, and laws. One conceptual model of sexuality as developed by Dennis Daily is the “Circles of Sexuality” model.
Often represented as the “top circle” is sensuality, which covers the ways our bodies feel pleasure through all of our senses. Sensuality also includes the need we humans have for touch, otherwise referred to as skin hunger. As we age, our desire for sex may diminish, but our need for caring, comforting and intimate touch is as strong as ever. There are incredible emotional and physical health benefits that come from touch, suggesting that touch is truly fundamental to human communication, bonding, and health. Even if you (or your partner) are ill or have physical disabilities, you can engage in touch and/or intimate acts and thereby benefit from closeness with another person. The sensuality circle tends to represent closeness in physiological terms.
Next to sensuality, is the circle of intimacy, which encompasses our emotional behaviors and needs, such as trust, respect, and loving or liking someone. The need for intimacy is ageless. We never outgrow our need for affection, emotional closeness and intimacy though aging does change our perspectives on sex and sexuality. Often we can take the pressure off by putting aside our old ideas of what sex “should be.” Instead, we focus on the importance of tenderness and contact. When we do have sex, those encounters can be less “performance oriented.” LGBT older adults may enjoy intimacy through coupled relationships as well as friendships. Some LGBT couples/singles may have a high degree of compatibility and mutual understanding. Other factors that may contribute to intimacy include emotional fidelity and sexual flexibility. That flexibility extends to sex roles, sexual role-play and roles within our relationships. Intimacy tends to represent closeness in emotional and affectional terms and for seniors can mean companionship, affection and enduring tenderness and concern.
A third circle is titled sexual identity, which contains gender identity, gender roles and sexual orientation. At the very heart of the search for sexual identity is the more general but profound question of, “Who Am I?” As we begin to develop our sexual identity, we think of ourselves in relation to our biological sex. Gender roles refer to an individual’s learning and acting upon socially accepted and constructed characteristics and behaviors that are strongly associated with a person’s biological sex and gender identity. Also included in this circle is sexual orientation—who we are attracted to…physically, emotionally, sexually, spiritually. For some LGBT people, romance and intimacy may begin at 50 or 60 (or later). Many of us were closeted or married for much of our lives. Some waited until their family was grown, after divorce or the death of their spouse before coming out. For them, expressing intimacy in a long-awaited relationship is alive and well.
Then is the sexual health and reproduction circle, which many people think of as “sex”. Indeed it is important to address our sex behaviors and to talk about risk reduction messages such as using condoms, not forgetting the lube, body positioning, playing with sex toys, etc., which are important to STI/HIV prevention (age is not a protective factor). Not to be overlooked in any discussion of senior sex is how our aging bodies physically change: weaker and/or shorter erections, decreased muscle tone and strength, weaker bladders, drying vaginas, lower libidos and sagging boobs and bellies. Reap the benefits of experience. The independence and self-confidence that come with age can be very attractive to your partner or potential partners. No matter your gender, you may feel better about your body at 72 than you did at 22. And, it is likely that you now know more about yourself and what makes you excited and happy. If you can accept aging as natural, you’ll not only feel better, you’ll also be more attractive to others. Confidence and honesty can be sexy and appealing.
Finally, there is the circle of sexualization. Sexualization includes things like harassment, rape, misuse of power, and withholding sex. It can include unrealistic portrayals of sexuality in order to sell products, including movies and TV shows. In a ASA blog from 2013, entitled, “The Sexual Revolution’s Last Frontier: How Silence About Sex Undermines Health, Well-Being, and Safety in Old Age”, the circle of sexualization is addressed head on. The blog examined “how are ageism-fueled reluctance to talk about—or even acknowledge—sex, the desire for physical intimacy, sexual identity, and sexual assault in aging can undermine the health, safety, and well being of older adults”.
In summary, the ability to express and enjoy one’s sexuality leads to feelings of pleasure and well being, feelings that are essential at any age if our human needs for intimacy and belonging are to be satisfied, and we are to age successfully (think Maslow and his hierarchy of human needs). Sexuality begins in utero as we are developing as human beings and ends with our death. Some quip, “sexuality is from the womb to the tomb”. We have made some progress over recent years in confronting ageism that is alive and well in both our LGBT and ally communities. However, prejudice and shortsightedness still exist. There is still much work to do to educate society about our seniors and the fact that sexuality lasts throughout our lives.
Terri Clark, MPH, is an accomplished program planner, trainer and facilitator who has been providing education and training for nearly 25 years. She is currently Prevention Coordinator at ActionAIDS in Philadelphia. Terri is a certified trainer with the National Resource Center on LGBT Aging. She is a member of Widener University’s Sexuality and Aging Consortium and an adjunct faculty at Arcadia University. Terri serves on ASA’s LAIN Constituent Group Council. Throughout her career in public health, she has been an advocate for gender equality and sexual health across the lifecycle. Her expertise is LGBT issues, HIV prevention, and sexuality.