Sexuality and self in old age: exploring the intersection of gender and age through the framework of older women's sexuality


A growing body of literature is challenging understanding of sexuality in later life. The dominance of a biomedical perspective on sexual (dys)functioning has led to significant knowledge gaps and contributed to the construction of the oppressive binary of ‘asexuality’ versus ‘the sexy oldie’. This has silenced the voice of older people, particularly older women, and in turn limited development of learning on sexualities in later life. Using a feminist gerontological perspective, this thesis aimed to explore older women’s experiences of sexuality within the context of ageing, focusing on changes in relation to sexuality, and their impact on sense of self. Subsequently,participants’ accounts of sexuality were used as a lens through which the age/gender intersection was examined. The two-phase research design was qualitative, inductive and participative. In Phase 1, 6 older women and 8 researchers were interviewed about methodological issues in researching ageing and sexuality, which informed the focus and methods of the second phase. In Phase 2, 16 older women discussed their experiences of sexuality in in-depth interviews, which were thematically analysed. The resulting over-arching themes, ‘expressing’ and ‘revisiting’ sexuality, encompassed changes relating to practices, relationships, societal attitudes and sense of self. Older women’s narrations challenged the notion of a fixed sexual identity and the asexual/’sexy oldie’ discourse. Their experiences were far-ranging and nuanced, while shared characteristics of fluidity, heterogeneity and diversity were prevalent. These characteristics played an important role in countering the structural invisibility and regulation of older women’s sexuality, by enabling participants to ‘do gender’ differently and to assert a sense of continuity regarding their sexuality. Consequently this thesis contributes to knowledge development in three areas: (1) understanding of sexuality in later life; (2) feminist perspectives on women’s sexuality in later life, with emphasis on an intersectional approach; and (3) methodology around researching ageing and sexuality

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