Challenging social myths and stereotypes of women and aging: Heterosexual women talk about sex

There seems to be a great deal of interest in the sex lives of ‘older’ (interpret as aged 40 years and above) women in the press at the moment. So, I thought it was an apt time to introduce some of the findings from a study that I published with a colleague in 2008.
We interviewed 19 women aged 50 and older from Yorkshire, England. We were interested in the importance they did (or did not) place on sexual activity. We were also keen to find out whether or not the negative cultural representations of aging and sexuality (e.g. menopause as a time when women lose interest in sex; later life a time when sexual activity no longer assumes importance) influenced their views and sexual behaviours.
We found that the women rejected the stereotype of an asexual older age but accepted it for women older than themselves. They constructed women as sexually complex, in comparison to men, because intimacy was seen to be more important to women and the risks of intercourse (e.g. unplanned pregnancy) much higher. Sexual desire was also viewed as being, occasionally, triggered by hormones.
There was great diversity regarding the women’s sexuality; each woman brought with her a unique background that influenced her sexual feelings and behaviours. Religious beliefs, parental attitudes towards sex, their own sexual and relationship history, and the availability of a sexual partner meant that the importance of sex had been changeable throughout their lives. At the time of interview, all the women believed that sexual activity had psychological benefits for couples within committed relationships.
Exploring women’s own perspectives is important as it can help to challenge the negative associations of aging, femininity and sexuality.

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  1. The stereotype seems timeless, actually. The paradox is that the group of “older” women, 40 years and beyond, fall into that boomer generation (in the States), who grew up with sex, drugs, and rock & roll of the 60’s and 70’s. The suggestion there is that one might think that this generation would pass as the most sexually liberated and thusly unaffected in their desire to express themselves sexually well into the nether years. It just confirms my theory that as we age we also evolve to meet our own changing lifestyles… and personal priorities.
    On the other hand… a woman of that age desiring sex and actually getting any are two different things given that men are by nature given to a physical attraction to younger women.

    • Thanks for your comments. I agree with your first point: we’ve certainly found in our research that people adapt their sexual lifestyles to meet changing needs as they get older. We (and other researchers) have also found that ‘older’ heterosexual women who desire sexual activity but are not sexually active tend to be in relationships with a partner/husband who no longer desires sex. There are of course some women who do not have a partner at all and there are a number of reasons for this. That older men ‘naturally’ find younger women attractive is only one school of thought, with little evidence to support it. Many say that this is most likely explained by the tendency in western societies to value and assign attractiveness to younger women rather than any natural tendencies inthe male.
      Best wishes, Sharron

  2. Interesting to find someone within your specialty that doesn’t subscribe to the idea that men have a natural propensity toward younger women (in general, of course.. as there are exceptions to every rule, us humans being infinate in variety). But I submit that the evidence is around us each and every day… Western societies, Eastern, remote tribal societies, etc. True, one might be able to conjure up some nomadic tribe in the Gobi Desert or a long-lost tribe in the wilds of New Guniea that worship older women… but if that were the case universally we’d likely not be a species anymore. We exist simply to procreate and our human qualities and traits, by random selection, are there for us to survive to do just that. You suggest that many say the reason that men, and older men, might value younger women is due to the Western tendency of assigning attractiveness to younger females. I guess that in inself begs the question as to why, if not for the idea that males generally prefer younger women.
    On the other hand… our current society does allow for older men to have female partners of the same age in order to estblaish some level of common companionship of and above the need for simple survival (although one could debate there are certain financial survival advantages for two older people to build a relationship). Sex and reproduction is not a high priority at that age anymore, but rather quality of life.

    • Hi Doug,
      There are many branches of psychology, of which evolutionary psychology is one. The evolutionary angle may be appropriate regarding fertility and reproduction, but it doesn’t explain why older women are attracted to younger men. Indeed, there are growing numbers of older women-younger men relationships which, I would argue, are visible because of societal shifts and more acceptance of these relationships. I think that in today’s society we should be looking at all the influences upon human behaviour. We are social beings after all!

      • Oh yes.. I would agree! No question that there are social shifts that seem to deviate from evolutionary psychology. The question might be rather why does society shift at all. I tend to be a follower of Maslow to some measure. Once certain needs are met we move to the next level. Sex and intimacy becomes less about procreation and more about self-actualization. As the world’s population grows so does the infinate variety of human nature.

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