IN FOCUS

Let's Talk about Sex

Every month we look at an issue that is important to older people at Leeds. In this issue Ruth Steinberg talks to people about sex, intimacy and relationships in later life. From an 80-something on her third marriage, to someone who has changed their gender as an older person; all these stories are frank, honest and somewhat revealing.

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June 2021

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I was born in 1952. The 1950s were when teenagers became a ‘thing’, with Teddy Boys and Girls, and rock and roll. It was when Elvis Presley was “Shakin’ All Over”, moving his hips in a way that shocked the older generation. I became a teenager in 1960s, when the Beatles excited young girls to fever pitch. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You, Yeah Yeah Yeah”. It was a time of the sexual revolution, miniskirts, contraception. The old world, as we saw it, was prudish and backward. As with every upcoming generation, we wanted to sweep the old world away. It felt like we had invented sex.

 

The contraceptive pill made it safer to have sex and the era of “free love” had arrived. For young women, there were new possibilities as well as exploitation by young men. The world had changed. The women’s movement, gay liberation and civil rights movement were active. Homosexuality was finally decriminalised in 1967. So, there were massive changes from the world of our parents - and sex and sexuality was very much at the forefront. Now I am 68 and my husband is 84. I know that my view of sex and sexuality has changed since I was young. I’m sure for me, back then, the very idea of older people having physical intimacy and desires felt very weird. My parents’ generation found it difficult to have the conversations we can have now. So, when I was asked to write this article it allowed me to be curious and ask a number of questions about sex, intimacy and relationships in older life.

It become very clear
to me the very
human need for
connection with other
human beings

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Do our views about sex and intimacy change as we get older? What are the issues and challenges we, as older people, face? What are the messages we get about older people and sex and intimacy from the wider world? How are negative messages challenged? What is it like for women and for men? What about people in same sex relationships? What happens when a partner dies? We’ve talked to a few different people and asked them 
to share their experiences. First, a couple of regular Shine writers.
 
Mally is 73 and married; she wrote this personal take on the issues of sex and sexuality:
 
The mechanics of an intimate sexual relationship as we age are rarely spoken of or acknowledged among our peers. It’s embarrassing to some, particularly our adult children. But our intimate relationship remains satisfying and enjoyable. Our joints ache, they don’t bend and move as they used to - but we are so
confident in each other that we can accommodate and move accordingly. For women, the hormone changes
in our bodies have meant dryness requiring lubrication, care and maybe not full penetration. For men, maintaining an erection may take more time and encouragement, but if after all those gentle manipulations the act is incomplete, so what! Giving mutual pleasure through touching each other is just as rewarding. We have the shared joy of each other’s naked, maybe wrinkled and aged bodies, but bodies that are warm, comfortable and familiar. Loving and being loved by someone is not only sexual intercourse. It is being there when life gets harder, more painful, distressing through illness or loss. And sharing an intimate relationship is more important than ever.

 
Betty is 87 has recently married for the 3rd time, after being a widow for over 12 years:

I was married to Eric for 25 years. It was wrong from the beginning. When I married it was in white, I was a virgin and so was he, and our sex life was very poor. We weren’t given any information on that. All my mother said was,“You'll soon know”. I think if we had had sex before marriage, I don't think we would
have married. Then, after 25 years, I just decided to to divorce. I had three children. Then I met John. And now we were coming up to 60. Three times a night! We went at it. He hadn't had a very good relationship with his first wife. I found I liked ‘it’, you know. I mean, I know a lot of people don't like ‘it’, I liked ‘it’. I still do. So, we had a really great time for about 12 years. Unfortunately, he died. I was on my own again for 12 years. I joined Moor Allerton Elderly Care. Through them, I started having a bit of a social life. That was when I met Cy, my third husband. Sex is not on, at all. There's something wrong as he can’t. I've had to give up sex - but not bad for 87. It's just nice to have cuddles in bed and get up in the morning after a little cuddle before you get out. You know, it's never too late. I did it at 80, anybody can. It's not just the sex, it’s the loving companionship. As you get older, its more what you‘re looking for. Try it. Have a go. I was on my own 12 years and I had a full life. I had lots of friends. I was financially independent. But there's always something lacking, somebody to kiss you in the morning, somebody to hold your hand. The worst thing about being on your own, is going out, enjoying yourself and then coming back to an empty house. Now if I go out now, he's there when I come back.


I asked Betty what she thought when I asked her about sex in later life. Her answer made me smile: “Yes please!” It worked out for Betty. But how do older people meet new partners, especially if you’re not too confident? Charley Connor works with Cross Gates and District Good Neighbours Scheme, which provides support to older people experiencing loneliness and social isolation. He told us about the Shared Tables Project, which invites older people living alone to enjoy a meal together at a local restaurant. Initially, it started off as for Singles and it was very popular. All the attendees were local older people, all single, possibly recently bereaved, or maybe just hadn’t ever been out with anyone else single. There was never an intention for romantic partnerships, but further down the line that did actually happen. One couple got married. Both their partners had died recently. They just clicked. But they worried about the stigma around it as well as how other people might perceive this. It’s a touchy subject in older age. Here are Ken and Anita telling their own story. Lippy People have made a lovely film about them.

Anita: I approached the table that Ken was sitting at and there was something about him that made him stand out from everybody in the room. He was smartly dressed. He just had this persona about him. My mum said, “Why don’t you just ask him ask him for a coffee?” I remember saying, “I can't do that!” But, yeah, we did go out for a coffee and then we went for a meal.

Ken: We just talked. We talked about [Anita’s late husband] George and my wife Mary - and that was the whole evening.

Anita: We realised that perhaps we should have been going home because the staff were putting their coats on and turning the lights out. On the 20th of January this year we got married. It's a natural progression from friendship into something else. I haven’t got 52 years with Anita as I did with Mary. But, however many it is, I've got them.

Anita: But we do still have Mary and George with us. We've got photographs of them and we talk about them. I've learned that you've got to give it a chance and live life. Life is for living.

Challenges


Finding a partner later in life can be challenging. For some older gay people, there are other challenges. Keith has been with his partner for 34 years – but it’s not as simple as that.

Our story is an unusual one as we have travelled and lived in several parts of the world together, and sometimes apart, as I worked for the United Nations for much of our life. This was before we could be formally partnered and so we had some hurdles to overcome to be together. Furthermore, my partner is a Muslim (from Indonesia) and not ‘out’ to his family which has added another dimension. Keeping our relationship a secret from them and yet being able to travel the world has also been a ‘special’ part of our life together. In countries like Indonesia, having to live in secret is an issue that many Indonesians would recognise. In fact, many of our friends have asked us how we have been able to be together for so long, given the challenges we have faced. We have become a bit like ‘agony aunts’ for younger Indonesians finding themselves in similar situations. As we get older (I am 62 and he is 57) and we have to think about tackling issues relating to dying, funerals, death, inheritance etc, our relationship will bring its own challenges.

Pauline faces challenges too. She is a trans woman, which means she was assigned as a male at birth. She spent many years living as a man and has now transitioned into a woman.

I didn't transition until well into middle age. I simultaneously faced the challenges of becoming an older person and coming out as a transwoman. I think that my focus was very much on just enjoying my life as a woman. I hardly noticed at the time that I was an older woman and it's kind of crept up me without noticing. I don't feel like an elderly woman. I think I’m a much younger person than I actually am. I think that many women do that. It's tougher to grow old as a woman than as a man. We have to decide how we're going to tackle ageing. Do we simply accept ourselves completely as we are, like some women do, I think quite bravely, or seek to camouflage it away and pretend we are younger than we are?

I used to dread the idea of growing old alone. Very important to me to be with somebody, to have a soulmate. But then after you transition you have, in relationship terms, a different set of problems. In one sense you are in a better position to have a successful and happy relationship, because at least the person knows who you are. You’re not pretending anymore. But on the other hand, as an older transitioner I do feel extremely unattractive to anybody. I don’t think anybody will be interested in me. For many trans women, solving their gender identity is only onepart of the puzzle. On the whole, my attraction would be to the person rather than to the gender. I've got plenty of options, in one sense. But I've got very few - because who wants to be with a trans woman?


This article started as being about the issues around sex in older life, but one of the things that has become very clear to me over the last year of Covid is the very human need for connection with other human beings. The stories above are, at their heart, examples of this need for human connection. Sex (being physically intimate with another human being) is just one of the many ways we seek connection. This doesn’t stop just because we have lived for several decades.

Someone who has been looking into the issues around sex, sexuality and relations for many years is Dr. Sharron Hinchliff. She’s spent over two decades listening to thousands of older people, both in the UK and overseas. Sharron learned about the joys and challenges of sex and intimacy for people as they get older. She also heard about accompanying stereotypes and taboos.

Sharron is a champion to older people. She has found ways of challenging misinformation and negative attitudes about older people and sex. A very creative project she is very proud of is “The Age of Love”. She partnered with an artist, Pete McKee, famous for his mural “The Snog”, on the side of a pub in Sheffield. She says, “I saw “The Snog” and I thought that really encapsulates the work that I do. It’s this older couple and they’re caught in a clinch. I approached Pete and he was happy to be part of the project”. Together they created an exhibition called ‘The Age of Love’, which is a collection of cartoons about sex and older people. As she says, “Relationships are central to human life and one of the most important that we have is with our intimate other. We know that many older adults enjoy sex and intimacy, that they are important to quality of life, but that they experience barriers to talking about this with partners, friends, and health professionals.” The Art of Love aims to promote conversations around sex and intimacy, making the invisible visible. She wants to reach not only older people but across the board including younger people, health practitioners and general public.

Sharron also created a website called “Age, Sex & You: Promoting better sexual health in older adults.” It is somewhere older people could go to for reliable trustworthy information about the normal changes with ageing. If you want to see what is happening elsewhere around older people and sex you couldn’t do better than look at Sharron’s website.

I want to mention a nationwide campaign ‘Let's talk the joy of later life sex” that was launched in April. It is from Relate, the UK's largest provider of relationship support. 5 naked (or nearly naked) couples and a woman have been photographed by Rankin, and his images are accompanied by words that challenge stereotypes of sexual desire and activity in later years. The posters will be displayed on billboards across the country. Shooting five older couples and one woman in their most intimate settings, the team set out to show what sex and intimacy can mean in later life in a way that’s never been done before. Ammanda Major, a psychosexual therapist with Relate, said the organisation was trying to “start or widen a conversation about sex in later life – a topic people often find difficult to talk about.” She said that some chose not to have a sex life, and some, who had lost partners or whose relationships had ended, found little opportunity for sex and intimacy.

The world of sex, sexuality, intimacy and relationships in later life is definitely on the agenda now. There are conversations now that my parents never dreamed of. The idea of what is “normal” is unrecognisable now
to a few years ago. Prejudice, stereotypes, taboos and misinformation are being challenged. Although most of the stories we’ve shared are from couples and long -term relationships, you are as likely to hear about “hooking-up” (what we used to call one-night-stands), multiple partners and from people who don’t want sex and are happy on their own. The important thing is to be able to have the conversation. Sex, intimacy and sexuality doesn’t just belong to the young. As at any age, there are benefits as well as challenges. But at the end it is about being able to have closeness with other people, in the way that is good and comfortable for each person. There is a reality of our bodies changing as we get older, but the need to be close and connected to others will always be there.

Thanks to everyone who spoke to us for this article. Check out Sharron Hincliff’s website at www.agesexandyou.com

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