Helen Rippier Wheeler,
Friday July 17, 2015 - 06:01:00 PM

Ninety-one year old Ruth Karola Westheimer is an American sex therapist, media personality, and author best known as Dr. Ruth. The New York Times describes her as a psychologist who became a kind of cultural icon in the 1980s.… She ushered in the new age of freer, franker talk about sex on radio and television—and was endlessly parodied for her enthusiasm and for her accent. Dr. Ruth’s latest book is The Doctor Is In: Dr. Ruth on Love, Life, and Joie de Vivre.  

People who are middle-aged or older may have grown up in an environment where attitudes toward sexuality were more rigid than they are today. They may have learned that sex should not be talked about. A double standard of sexual behavior still exists, although it turns out that people who do not talk about sex are less likely to practice safer sex.  

Beware the ageist-sexist attitude too often imposed by housing and nursing home managements that assumes old people are non-readers who should be advocates and do-gooders knitting and volunteering.  

In 1972, the late Susan Sontag (then 39 years old) suggested that ageing is largely a trial of the imagination. She believed that the anxiety and depression many women experienced about ageing was caused by ‘the way this society limits how women feel free to imagine themselves.’ That same year, 64-year old Simone de Beauvoir described ageing as ‘a class struggle, which, like race and gender, becomes a filter through which to see and understand differential life changes.’ Both wrote of the ‘double-standard of ageing’ – the poisonous nexus of sexism and ageism that disempowers women as they age. ‘For most women,’ Sontag wrote, ‘ageing means a gradual process of sexual disqualification.’ Her “The Double Standard of Aging” is a classic. (The Saturday Review, September 23, 1972, pp. 29-38)  

Two of the several ageist stereotypes are: senior citizens have little interest in sex, and they are confused by technology. But a new study (a netnography-- "Let's talk about sex" American Association for the Advancement of Science, June 29, 2015) declares many older adults are going online to dish about the joys of sex and swap advice about keeping their mojos working well. Translation: to dish is to gossip; mojo refers to sex appeal or talent.  

Liza Berdychevsky, a University of Illinois professor of recreation, sport and tourism, researches sexual behavior and well-being (think about it…). The new netnography suggests that "Many older people preserve both high interest in sex and involvement in sexual activities…The popularity of sex-related discussions in seniors' online communities suggests that, in a reality of limited alternatives for open and direct sex-related communication, seniors are finding channels to satisfy their needs for information and support." Discussions of sexual topics in 14 online communities geared toward adults age 50+ were examined. Seven were U.S.-based, 4 in the U.K., 2 in Canada, one in Australia. 

Netnography is the branch of ethnography that analyzes the free behavior of individuals on the Internet. It uses marketing research techniques to provide information on the symbolism, meaning, and consumption patterns of online consumer groups. An online community is a virtual community whose members interact with each other primarily via the Internet. An online community may feel like a “family of invisible friends." A person wanting to be part of an online community usually becomes a member of a specific site and therefore needs a pc and internet connection. Members can post, comment on discussions, give advice or collaborate. 

The most common social media forms are chat rooms, forums, e-mail lists and discussion boards. Google leads to numerous advertisements for senior online communities. See, for example, Jennifer Chait’s Senior citizen online community

Berdychevsky concluded that online communities offer notable potential for helping people with 3 primary sexual vulnerabilities occurring in later life: 

  • health issues and life circumstances that affect sexuality,
  • difficulties communicating with health care providers about sex-related problems, and
  • limited access to sexual health information.
Seniors' discussions of sexual subjects were found to be lively and wide-ranging, with participants swapping opinions and information about such topics as sexual partners’ age differences, taboos, same-sex marriage, pornography, prostitution, and the use of sexual aids, toys and sex-enhancing drugs.  

For some users, online discussions provided a form of leisure entertainment, with discussion characterized by open, lighthearted atmospheres and posts rife with sexual jokes, anecdotes and innuendos. But some wrote about how much they relished opportunities to engage in intellectual discussions about sex.  

An especially popular topic was societal stereotypes about older adults' sexuality. Problems were noted with clinicians who ignored or dismissed their concerns, and other seniors disclosed they were too embarrassed to even initiate such conversations. "Of particular interest was society's lack of acceptance of sexuality in older adulthood, the reasons for this ageist view and the importance of changing it…” 

According to their posts, the anonymity of cyberspace enabled seniors to overcome shyness or embarrassment and share their uncensored thoughts about sex for the first time. For seniors struggling with the loss of intimacy due to their partner's death or declining health, the online forums provided emotional support and a place to vent their frustrations. The paper will be published in the Journal of Leisure Research, and is available online. "Many older adults going online to discuss, learn about sex" (American Association for the Advancement of Science, June 10, 2015).  

Another study suggests that, among older couples, physical illness can strain a marriage, but maintaining a healthy sex life could make a difference in how happily both partners cope. Researchers have long known that illnesses that come with age may be linked to poorer marriage quality, but exactly why has not been clear. According to the new analysis, sexual intimacy is the link that keeps partners positive about their marriage in difficult times, and a lack of sex makes matters worse. 

Other studies find that sex in old age may boost brain power. (Shelley Emling. Huffington Post, blog, March 4, 2015); “Marital 'long-timers' have a 'modest rebound' in sexual frequency after 50 years," (American Association for the Advancement of Science, February 16, 2015); and "Married Sex Gets Better in the Golden Years," by Jan Hoffman (New York Times, Feb. 24, 2015). 

Men as well as women undergo changes in their sexuality as they age. Lower testosterone levels are sometimes a factor in loss of sexual interest for some men. "More Sex, Better Testosterone Levels?" (HealthDay, March 13, 2015). 

There’s news for women. "A 'Female Viagra' and Female Sexuality," by Tom Ashbrook (U.S. National Public Radio On Point, June 8, 2015) is a pro-con discussion-update.