Lack of intimacy amongst the older crowd is a myth.
The openness we have when we talk about sex looks something like an arch over the course of our lives. Our first introduction to sex education in schools is often limited and relayed with a hush-hush attitude, in our 20s and 30s we hit our stride and only get better from there, but then sometime around retirement age, things start to get a little more taboo once more. As a society, we don’t tend to talk about older couples having sex—and that’s because of reasons that stem even beyond the age limits we tend to put on people’s sexual desirability.
Of course, you wouldn’t be wrong to assume that our secretive attitudes on the sex lives of older adults have at least some root in our general cultural emphasis on youth—just consider how many romcoms focus on those in their teens, 20s, and 30s, compared with the few we have about people in their 60s or older. Diane Keaton’s best efforts are far from sufficient enough to satisfy this gulflike void of representation, especially when you consider how much more sparse representation is for couples above a certain age that are nothing like the largely white, heterosexual, well-to-do pairings we do sometimes see on screen.
A big part of it also has to do with what goes on at the doctor’s office. One journal entry by a clinical researcher in 2008 explained that many doctors have a hard time talking to their patients about their sex lives, in particular, if those patients differ from them by age, gender, or sexual orientation. Since older adults already seem to lack sexual agency in the eyes of society, they are even more likely to be treated as such by their medical professionals—which leads to more problems down the line.
And here’s the thing: we know that people over the age of 60 are still having sex. One survey, published in 2008, looked at data of Swedish 70-year-olds over the course of 30 years, from 1971 to 2001. In that time period, the number of participants reporting an active sex life gradually increased.
A survey of American adults between the ages of 57 and 85, also published in 2008, confirmed that this (admittedly expansive) age group reports healthy sex lives. In particular, this one showed that older men were more likely than older women to be sexually active, and half of all participants who reported being sexually active reported having at least one kind of difficulty—largely low libido for women and erectile dysfunction of men. Only 38-percent of men and 22-percent of women reported having discussed their sex life with a physician since the age of 50—which means they’re far less likely to receive the prescriptions or support they need to pursue a healthy, active sex life. And so, they’re more likely to give up on that form of intimacy altogether.
If our cultural desexualization of anyone over the age of 60 (particularly women) makes it easier to assume that older adults just aren’t having sex, it’s the continued taboo to not bring up sex in the doctor’s office that makes that assumption more likely to be valid. If your physician’s not bringing it up, start the conversation yourself. Talking about sex is the first step.