Feminism, older women and sexuality

To mark International Women’s Day 2013, March 8th saw the launch of a compendium of essays which highlighted the challenges and opportunities of ageing for women. The 38 essays, wrote by a variety of authors (politicians, policy-makers, academics and campaigners) discussed and debated topics as varied as health and well-being, work and finances, care and caring, loneliness, and intimate relationships. An aim of the compendium was to acknowledge the significant contributions – which tend to be overlooked – that older women make to their families and wider society. The title Has the Sisterhood Forgotten Older Women? reflects recently raised concerns that feminism has neglected older women as a result of focusing on the rights of younger women. While the consensus from the authors was that the sisterhood had definitely not forgotten older women, the recognition that it had been caught unaware by increased longevity was clearly agreed.
I contributed to the compendium, and my essay is below. You can find out more information and download the full compendium for free here.

Sexuality and intimacy in middle and late adulthood

“The midlife woman is rendered invisible by the media and the elderly woman is stripped of her sexuality both by her children and by societal agents, though passion and sexual interest may continue to percolate internally.”(1)

It is widely accepted in the field of human sexuality that sexuality should be approached from a life-course perspective, that it is part of us through childhood to old age. However, public discourses demonstrate that it is not always looked at in this way. Indeed, it is common in western societies for later life sexuality to not get acknowledged and for expressions of sexuality to be stigmatised or infantilised. For example, residential homes tend not to cater for couples, doctors may not provide information on how the older patient’s health condition can affect sexual ‘function'(2) and observers may react to an older couple holding hands in the same way they would to a pair of toddlers doing the same. Indeed, media portrayals of sexuality focus almost exclusively on young adults while medical and social discourses frequently portray ageing in terms of decline and decay. It is no surprise then, that sexuality in middle and late adulthood doesn’t receive much attention in society and when it is acknowledged it is often with disdain.
Women are disproportionally disadvantaged as they get older as ageism and sexism collide. Feminism has recognised this concern for many years but since Susan Sontag’s seminal piece The Double Standard of Aging (3) little research has been conducted. Sontag identified the challenges that women faced as they aged, and drew specific attention to the way that the physical characteristics of older men were looked upon more favourably than those of older women. Almost forty years on, the social construction of female beauty is still fixated on a young appearance. Thus, visible signs of ageing can be seen as a weakness, and we often hear women talk about becoming invisible to society (an issue not helped by the lack of older female presenters on UK prime time television, for example).
Without a doubt, the discourses of ageing can present a challenge to women and this is clear to see in the subject of menopause. Menopause has been flagged as a time when women are very likely to stop feeling sexual desire and to cease viewing sexual activity as important. This notion has its origins in medicine (4). But evidence for the roots of sexual desire difficulties at menopause point to a number of factors. It has been found that when women lose interest in sexual activity around this time the reasons are complex and attributable to factors such as the quality of their intimate relationships (5, exhaustion as a result of caring for elderly relatives, or fatigue from broken sleep caused by recurrent night sweats (6).Many women experience vaginal dryness too which can have a negative impact on sexual desire. But sexual activity is important to many women in middle and late adulthood who value the pleasure it brings and the closeness it grants with their partners. Indeed, Hite (7) has argued ‘What happens at menopause is something that happens only to our reproductive organs: sexuality and the capacity to experience sexual pleasure are lifetime attributes’. Masters and Johnson (8), in their pioneering research, pointed out that women can experience an ‘unleashing’ of sexual drive after menopause as they’re no longer at risk of becoming pregnant. Subsequent research has supported this finding (9).However, sexual activity tends to be more broadly defined than when younger, and intimacy often takes precedence over sexual actions such as intercourse (10).
In spite of some wonderful women-centred research that has sought to understand sexuality from the perspectives of older women, the predominant focus has been on young women. Consequently, the body of knowledge regarding female sexuality in middle and late adulthood remains underdeveloped. If we are to confront negative constructions and discourses of older sexuality, my recommendations are to make it visible, to bring it into the public arena. This can be achieved in a number of ways, by embedding female sexuality and ageing into the courses that we teach, and by carrying out research and presenting the findings to a wide audience (e.g. practitioners, policy makers, relevant groups such as Age UK). Indeed, studies that have given women a voice and explored their own accounts provide positive discourses of ageing, and thus help counter the confusion women can feel about their bodies that results from the dissonance between their own experiences and social stereotypes (1). It is time for feminism to pay more attention to female sexuality in middle and later adulthood as an important quality of life issue.
(1) S. Leiblum, ‘Foreword’, in Women’s Sexuality Across the Lifespan, J.C. Daniluk, Guilford Press, New York, 1998, pp. vi-viii.
(2) A. Sarkadi & U. Rosenqvist, ‘Contradictions in the Medical Encounter: Female Sexual Dysfunction in Primary Care Contacts’. Family Practice, vol. 18, 2001, pp. 161–166.
(3) S. Sontag, ‘The double standard of aging’, in An Ageing Population, V. Carver & P. Liddiard (eds),  Open University Press, Milton Keynes, 1978, pp. 72-80.
(4) D.R. Reuben, Everything you Ever Wanted to Know about Sex, W.H. Allen, London, 1970.
(5) K. Hawton, D.  Gath, & A. Day, ‘Sexual Function in a Community Sample of Middle-aged Women with Partners’.  Archives of Sexual Behavior, vol. 23, 1994, pp. 375–395.
(6) S. Hinchliff, M. Gott & C. Ingleton, ‘Sex, Menopause and Social Context: A Qualitative Study with Heterosexual Women’. Journal of Health Psychology, vol. 15, 2010, pp. 724-733.
(7) S. Hite, The new Hite Report: The Revolutionary Report on Female Sexuality Updated. Hamlyn, London, 2000 p. 481.
(8) W.H. Masters & V.E. Johnson, Human Sexual Response, Little Brown, Boston, 1966.
(9) E.M. Banister, ‘Women’s Midlife Confusion: Why am I Feeling This Way?’ Issues in Mental Health Nursing, vol. 21, 2000, pp. 745-764.
(10) S. Hinchliff, & M. Gott, ‘Intimacy, Commitment and Adaptation: Sexual Relationships within Long-term Marriages’. Journal of Social & Personal Relationships, vol. 21, 2004, pp. 595-609.

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  1. Well said. Especially disturbing is the double standard of the “distinguished older gentleman” versus the older woman whose attempts to look attractive are viewed with pity and disdain. In some ways, it’s a lack of respect for elders but also points to the need for a new consciousness raising about the value of women beyond beauty, childbearing and service to others.

  2. Thanks Amy. I completely agree. There’s so much more to say on the issue of gender inequalities and ageism, and about challenging dominant conceptions of beauty and sexiness.

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