Written by Linda Plenert, retired SERC staff, in honour of Sexuality & Reproductive Health Awareness Week
My involvement with SERC and sexuality education goes back 30+ years. During that time I witnessed a shift in attitudes regarding sexuality and aging.
Researchers and sexual health professionals began acknowledging that seniors were not only still having sex with long term partners, many were entering into new sexual relationships. However, people had some misconceptions about using condoms and commonly thought that STIs were a concern for only young people. STI/HIV prevention education for seniors became an issue. The discovery of Viagra and other similar drugs also helped open the door to new conversations about sexuality for the 55+ age group.
Advertisers and media took advantage of what they saw as a new marketing opportunity. Suddenly there were TV ads for erectile dysfunction drugs and articles focusing on the baby boomer generation and changing sexual norms. Jokes about seniors and their sexual adventures (and misadventures) began arriving in email inboxes.
Prior to retiring, I facilitated ‘sexuality and aging’ sessions and staffed display booths at health and wellness events. What I noticed was the impact of media on people’s attitudes and expectations. Advertising and jokes often give mixed messages: accept it – you’re now asexual vs everybody’s doing it – get yourself a sex buddy. In the absence of reliable information, messages like these are confusing.
They also reinforce the idea that sex is about people’s genitals and what’s done with them i.e. sex = intercourse. It is a very limiting idea of human sexual behaviour for everyone, and discounts anyone who is older or has a disability. It also dismisses the reality of self-pleasuring – a valid option for anyone, but especially someone without a partner. Not everyone is comfortable with the idea of a sex buddy.
The normal physiological changes that affect sexuality as we get older can generally be thought of as a slowing down of sexual desire and response. (Everything else slows down, why wouldn’t our sexuality?) The illnesses and chronic conditions that may accompany aging, as well as the medications to treat them, are what can present the more frustrating difficulties.
So what’s a person to do? Challenge, communicate, and celebrate.
Challenge yourself to think outside the sex = intercourse box. Sex changes as we get older but that doesn’t mean it’s less enjoyable. The brain is an important sex organ and our skin is the largest sex organ. Put the focus on pleasure and think about how that changes your ideas about “real sex”. Challenge yourself to try different things, but stay true to what makes you feel comfortable.
Learn about sexuality and aging. Search out reliable websites or buy a book that addresses sexuality and aging in a way that fits with your values and beliefs.
Communicate. Talk about changes and how these might impact expectations within your sexual relationships. Talk about what is sexually pleasurable because this can change over time. Check in to make sure nobody is feeling pressured.
Talk to your health care provider before using any products to enhance sexual feelings or response as they can interact with other medications you are taking. Use condoms to prevent sexually transmitted infections (STIs). It’s best to talk to a new partner about this before the relationship becomes sexual.
Celebrate. One of the joys of getting older is having a better sense of who we are and what’s important to us. Create your own vision of a satisfying sexual relationship. It should be a reflection of the values, feelings, thoughts and best interests of the people involved rather than an attempt to meet a standard set by someone else or a for-profit industry.
Sexuality and aging: Expect it to be different … but expect it to be good.