Heterosexual sex, love and intimacy in later life : what have older women got to say?

Hafford-Letchfield, Trish; Hafford-Letchfield, Trish and Simpson, Paul and Reynolds, Paul, eds. (2021) Heterosexual sex, love and intimacy in later life : what have older women got to say? In: Sex and Diversity in Later Life. Policy Press, Bristol, pp. 57-78. ISBN 9781447355427

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The current epistemology of heterosexuality, love and intimacy in later life has highlighted how older women’s sexual desire and sexual expression has been subject to highly gendered socio-cultural restrictions, an emphasis on relationship status and problematisation of physical health. These are associated with dissatisfaction and discomfort for older heterosexual women when talking about their own sexuality with a lack of social legitimacy for doing so. Poor engagement of care professionals with their issues and concerns makes the situation more complex (Hafford-Letchfield, 2008; Gertwitz et al, 2018) for example the unproblematic acceptance of the consequences and compromise in sexual function that may be constructed when an older woman has pelvic floor weaknesses including incontinences (Mota, 2017). This chapter reviews some themes on heterosexual desire and sexual expression in later life within the context of socio-cultural and health-related factors. I draw on several sources. First, selected theoretical concepts on heterosexuality and terms of how these speak to the sexual identities of women in later life, or indeed, throughout the life course. Second, I review further, some relevant themes from a systematic review I was involved in (Gerwitz et al, 2018) of international empirical research about sexuality and ageing. This review included subjective views of older heterosexual women on their sexuality. Third, heterosexual sex, love and intimacy in later life are illustrated through the case study of women ageing solo, where relationship status has been a key factor in mediating desire and expressions of intimacy in later life (Hafford-Letchfield et al, 2017; Lambert et al, 2018; O’Reilly et al, 2019). These sources will enable focus on factors which differentiate between expression of sexual desire and subsequent pursuance of sexual relationships in later life. I will consider how gender norms and performativity pertinent to existing heterosexual women’s sexuality are impacted by external and internalised stigma that accompanies ageing and/or are made complex in situations where health is affected. These key themes are examined from a standpoint which highlights discrimination and oppression by placing the voices of heterosexual older women at the centre of a relational analysis of sexuality. This is in opposition to those ageist social practices which pose barriers to older people, especially older women, being able to speak about and make the best decisions concerning their sexual and intimate lives and access more appropriate responses in support (Hafford-Letchfield, 2008; Lee and Tetley, 2017).


Hafford-Letchfield, Trish ORCID logoORCID: https://orcid.org/0000-0003-0105-0678; Hafford-Letchfield, Trish, Simpson, Paul and Reynolds, Paul