What’s So Funny/Gross About Elder Sexuality?

Do you ever feel not just like bad things come in threes, but that references come in clumps? For the last few weeks, I feel like I’ve been inundated in references to older adults having sex, usually in the framework of a conversation suggesting that it’s gross or funny that old people have sex. As always, it’s hard to tell if I have my ears perked to listen for people talking about elder sexuality, or if there’s a genuine uptick, but it’s popped up in pop culture, casual conversations, advice columns, and more. Younger and middle aged adults seem genuinely uncomfortable and nervous with the idea that our elders are sexually active and autonomous beings.

Bluntly, what is so gross about older adults being sexually active? And what’s so funny about it? Because I don’t see anything particularly remarkable in it, and thus I’m either missing something — or my cohort is. The frankly juvenile attitude towards older adult sexuality doesn’t do us any credit, and if anything is gross in this conversation, it’s the disdain for sexually active elders. As long as everyone is consenting and enjoying themselves, who cares? Why are we so fixated on this?

In a television episode I was watching recently, the other characters on a medical drama punked an intern by sticking him with a series of older patients with STIs, all of whom live at the same nursing home. They describe themselves as swingers, and the other doctors tell the intern that they’re in and out of the hospital constantly for treatment. The idea of older adults as sexual beings is played as funny, and in his examinations, the intern makes a big production of how gross it is to look at older, sexually active bodies.

Instead of discussing safer sex measures with his patients and talking about how to reduce the risk of contracting STIs, he’s stigmatising and dismissing. His focus is on getting them out of the exam room as quickly as possible, not caring for them as whole patients who are deserving of his respect. His patients are fully aware of the fact that he thinks they’re disgusting, and you can tell it sits uneasy with them. But they’re still defiant, taking the stance that they deserve treatment and they’re not leaving until they get it.

People always make uneasy jokes about the thought of their parents having sex, and this episode really highlighted the attitude underlying those jokes for me. Many people seem resistant to the idea that some elders like to have sex — some of them even like to have a lot of it. The body changes over time and the experience of sexuality can shift with it, but older adults don’t fall into some vast nonsexual hole, suddenly losing all libido and interest in sexuality. Stigmatising older adult sexuality has serious social consequences, as well as consequences for older adults themselves.

Nursing homes routinely separate couples, assuming that the bonds between them aren’t important, and sex in nursing homes is frowned upon instead of treated as a natural fact of life. Consequently, because older adults are treated like children who have to be monitored and carefully watched, they’re force to adopt stealth tactics, which don’t lend themselves to open dialogues about sexuality and safer sex. Where are elders supposed to get condoms if the official rule in their nursing home is that sex doesn’t happen? Who do they talk to when they experience symptoms of an STI? Who does someone in an abusive relationship approach for help when she’s not supposed to be in a relationship at all?

Medical professionals often assume that older adults aren’t sexually active, and skip over important questions that pertain to their health and welfare. Treating older adults as though they’re nonsexual has real consequences in medical treatment, and can result in delayed treatment for STIs and other conditions. In a patient who’s getting repeated bladder infections, for example, the root cause might be sexual activity — and if a doctor doesn’t ask her about sex, she might feel too awkward or shy to bring it up. Consequently, a chance for diagnosis and intervention is missed, and the patient suffers as a result.

When we make fun of older adults in our lives or in pop culture for being sexual, it sends yet another message to them that we think of them as lesser, for sexuality is regarded by many to be a key component of adulthood. The awareness that they may be mocked or mistreated for being open about their sexuality can force many older adults into silence, and silence can breed dangerous things. If people are silent about their sexuality, the whole diverse spectrum of human sexuality isn’t being acknowledged, or accounted for.

Old people have sex, and everyone else is just going to have to deal with it. More than that, they’re going to have to stop treating it as a giant joke that makes everyone very nervous, because it’s a simple reality. The sooner we acknowledge that older adults are sexual beings, the sooner we can move on to providing them with appropriate sexual health services, and the respect they and their partners deserve. And those who seem to almost pride themselves upon talking about how ‘disgusting’ older bodies are might want to consider that they, too, stand a good chance of becoming old, of growing into bodies that wrinkle and sag and spot and change, and they may feel very differently about older bodies when they inhabit one.

Image credit: Old Woman, OlsenWeb, Flickr.