The Taboo of Senior Sexuality

John DeLamater teaches a University of Madison (Wis.) sociology course called "Intimate Relationships," during which he shows a movie called "Tonight's the Night." The film depicts three couples, all in their 60s, having either "a very nice romantic relationship," or sex.

"Here are these six regular people hugging and kissing and crying and talking about each other, and at the end, this one couple climbs into bed, and it just blows the students away," DeLamater says.

Many have no image of their own parents as sexual, much less their grandparents.

"Ours is still a youth-oriented society, so there's a certain amount of ageism and stereotypes of older people, including the belief that older people are not sexual."

Which would be news to Ellen Barnard and Myrtle White, co-owners of Madison, Wisonsin's "sexuality resource center," A Woman's Touch, a boutique on Williamson Street that has a cache of different strengths of reading glasses at the front counter, so its older customers can browse through some of the book and movie titles the store stocks: "A Celebration of Sex After 50," "Still Doing It: Women and Men over 60 Write About Their Sexuality," "Dr. Ruth's Sex afer 70," and "Ageless Desire."

All of which reflects what DeLamater calls our culture's "schizophrenic" attitude about sex and aging."On the one hand, we're inundated by sex in the mass media, movies, television programs, newspapers," but, he says, the sex is anything but typical. "First, it was Bill Clinton's oral sex with an intern, and now it's (former U.S. Rep. Mark) Foley's messages to pages."On the other hand, "I don't think in people's private, personal lives, they're much better about talking about sex in 2006 than they were in 1976," he says. "I think probably, still, most couples don't communicate much about their sexual relationship, or if they do, they do so indirectly."Whether they communicate about their sexuality or not, there are plenty of older Americans. The number of elderly in the U.S. doubled, between 1960 and 2000, from 17 million to 35 million. By 2020, according to U.S. census estimates, the number may be more than 53 million.The Viagra GenerationThe co-author of a major study of "Sexual Desire in Later Life," published in 2005 in The Journal of Sex Research, DeLamater became interested in sexuality and aging about six years ago, as the male performance-sustaining medication Viagra was taking off.
"Viagra was obviously tremendously popular, which suggested there were a lot of men out there, presumably in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, who were interested in improving their sex lives," he says.At the same time, at conferences with other researchers and clinicians, DeLamater heard about couples who sought counseling over Viagra-related issues: "The woman essentially said, 'This guy got hold of a pill and now he thinks I should have sex with him again. We haven't had sex in 10 years. He hasn't looked at me, hasn't talked to me, this is unacceptable.' It brought home the fact that couples make some kind of arrangement, and what Viagra did for many couples was upset their existing arrangement. So it called attention to the character of that relationship.""When I asked myelf, 'What do we really know about the sexual behavior of people over mid-50s?,' I came to the conclusion, not much."The gist of his recent study's findings is that much of the existing research -- not a great amount in the first place -- tends to "medicalize" sexual issues and look at the negative impact of age, hormone levels, illness and medications.Mitigating FactorsWhat DeLamater and co-author Morgan Still of the University of Michigan discovered, in their study of 1,384 persons over age 45, was that psychological and social issues were overlooked. They found that the principal influences on strength of sexual desire, for women are age, importance of sex, and the presence of a sexual partner. For men, strength of desire depended on age, the importance of sex and education.
Within his own marriage, at age 65, DeLamater finds sexual relationship to be "part of the broader relationship. The intimacy you experience physically feeds into the intimacy of the relationship as a whole. So it's important as a kind of connecting with your partner."DeLamater said he is also convinced that "a certain amount of sexual activity is just good for your physical and mental health. Masters and Johnson said, 'Use it or lose it.' The sexual apparatus is part of the body and if you use it, it's going to keep that part of the body healthy." If sexual activity occurs "in a context in which you feel valued and you feel loved, that certainly increases your mental health."Finding a WayThat is very much the case for 50-year-old Andrea, a Madison, Wis., mother of two teenagers who know their parents have a sex life, but whose friends would tease mercilessly, and so, Andrea asked that her last name not be revealed. "My husband is very complimentary and always saying how nice it is to have a wife he's attracted to," she says. That, in turn, motivates her: "When I was younger, I might wear any old T-shirt to bed, and now, I'm more likely to put on a camisole. I'm more aware of things like that." Her own adolescence was during the era when television parents all slept in separate beds, but when one of their children, who are now teenagers, inquired, point blank, at age 7, "So, do you two still have sex?" They answered yes. When their other teenager catches them kissing and being affectionate around the house, and suggests, "You guys can neck some other time," it demonstrates awareness that there is, within the family relationship, a private relationship between their parents.
"The bottom line," Andrea said, "is that if you were comfortable with sexuality when you were younger, you're likely to be comfortable with it when you're older." Those who in the past have had an active sex life, but who are now without a partner, "may want to think about ways to continue," DeLamater noted, such as through self-stimulation. Though not everyone's solution, some older couples choose to have sex outside marriage, and DeLamater has heard of heterosexual women choosing to get together with other older women as a way of maintaining their sexuality. A 1982 study of people ages 60 to 83 found that after they attended classes that included information about physical, social and psychological aspects of sexuality and aging, sexually permissive attitudes increased significantly. Still, these are things we don't talk about very well. Health-care providers don't necessarily talk about sex with their elderly patients, and in many nursing homes and elder-care residences, there is no consideration of sexuality and no privacy. Talk of SexBefore she was married, Andrea was involved with a UW-Madison oncology research project that looked at connections between emotions, information, and the ability to cope with the effects of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. She quickly noticed no one studied or talked about sexuality with these patients.
With the help of professional actors, she was able to put together a short film showing a man and wife together on a large bed, each moving toward the edge, farther apart, as he mistakes her fatigue for lack of interest in sex, and she interprets his withdrawal as inability to cope with her disease. As communication increases, they move closer together, until at the end they are spooning in the middle of the bed. "Totally banal," Andrea said of the project, "but at least it got people talking." Attitudes might change, DeLamater suggests, "if people grew up with models of responsible communication," or if they saw, regularly, "models of good communication in the mass media. We just don't know how to do it, basically. People probably are not going to take workshops, although you could argue that some of these marital enrichment programs serve, in part, that function. Certainly they focus on better communication. I'm sure there are a lot of therapists getting these two people to talk to each other, listen to what the other is saying." Acting OutThe frank, humorously delivered, generation-spanning attitudes of Angela Richardson, a performer in Madison's "Cherry Pop Burlesque" -- a show that's currently on hiatus while planning a return to area venues -- just may embody the positive images and communication that DeLamater finds largely absent.
Says Richardson: "I don't think of myself as old or middle-aged, but I'm aging, just like everybody," watching Madison's college students "get younger every year." But Richardson, a UW-Madison women's studies graduate, also "accepts being 35, being imperfect," and not only accepts, but flaunts her stuff as a burlesque queen in Cherry Pop's racy productions. The stage presence of Richardson and her fellow performers, some women in their 50s, all unconcerned about age, size or body shape, speaks volumes to older people in their audience. Richardson's parents, for example. Her mother and father, in their 60s, came to see one of the Cherry Pop shows and were "really delighted, kind of shocked, tickled. They're proud." Because her mother seemed especially taken with her daughter's costumes, Richardson once showed up at the house with props and said, "We're going to make you a burlesque person." In an afternoon of girlish dress-up and make-believe, with just the right wig, boa and glitter makeup, she was able to bring out her highly amused mother's inner sex goddess." "This is all," Richardson said, "about giving yourself permission." Source: The Wisconsin State Journal. Powered by Yellowbrix.
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Source: Health & Wellness

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