While often inaccurate or unrealistic, popular images of later life tell an important story about how we view aging in the United States. And when such images depict sexuality they further clarify the story we, as a culture, tell ourselves about aging. It is important to look at how aging and sex are portrayed on television and in movies because to resonate those stories must pull from familiar narratives. It is in these narratives that ageism, sexism, homophobia and ableism thrive—even in seemingly positive images of aging.
In the 2003 movie Something's Gotta Give, sex between Harry (Jack Nicholson) and Erica (Diane Keaton) is comically rendered when, after checking Harry’s blood pressure and determining it is safe to proceed, Erica throws the blood pressure cuff and it’s shown, in slow motion, flying through the air. The scene then cuts to Erica and Harry in bed after sex. Not depicting intercourse preserves the movie’s PG13 rating, but it has the added effect of erasing the sexuality of older adults. The dearth of images of elders engaging in sexual activity implies that they are not sexually desirable, and should not be capable of sex. As Thomas Walz writes in “Crones, Dirty Old Men, Sexy Seniors: Representation of the Sexuality of Older Persons” (Journal of Aging and Identity, 2002):
The sexual representations of older persons in American society are neither flattering nor accurate. Often what is presented is filled with confusion, uncertainty, and contradictions. It is as if we suspect old people are sexual, but have a hard time imagining it, and, if it turns out they are sexual, we would prefer they were not. The thought of their being sexual is disconcerting.
Similar observations about the absence of images of disabled individuals in a sexual context have led to the disability movement’s relatively recent focus on sex and sexuality. Santiago Solis argues (Bent Voices, 2006) that images in gay male culture that only portray young, able-bodied men, “suggests that sexual ability … is always about physical health and strong bodies.” The exclusion of old and/or disabled men (and women), from sexualized images contributes to and perpetuates the perspective that sexuality is something only experienced by younger, able-bodied adults, while marginalizing the sex of older adults and people with disabilities.
The stories we tell ourselves about sex and old age draw upon narratives that are deeply embedded in our culture. They tell us that old people are not, and should not be, sexually active. But as professionals in the field of aging it is imperative that we resist such ageist narratives and question the popular images of aging and sex that perpetuate them.
We can do this by acknowledging that older adults are having sex and by having conversations about sex with our older clients, patients and family members. By ignoring the sexuality of the older adults in our lives we miss the chance to get to know them better, to learn about important relationships in their lives and vital information about their biographies (as in the case of older LGBTQ individuals). And we squander an opportunity to discuss ways to reduce their risk for STDs, which are on the rise among aging populations.
On a big-picture level, when we refuse to acknowledge the sexuality of older adults we are perpetuating the hidden aspect of sex and aging reflected in popular images that allow ageism, sexism, homophobia and ableism to flourish.
Betsy Dorsett has an MA in Sexuality Studies from San Francisco State University. She is Senior Coordinator, Web & Social Media, at the American Society on Aging in San Francisco, and a staff liaison to the LGBT Aging Issues Network (LAIN).
This article was brought to you by the editorial committee of ASA’s LGBTQ Aging Issues Network (LAIN).
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