Features | Seniors: Does sexuality age well?

Denial of sex among senior citizens increases the risks of isolation and STIs

With the release of the 2007 Canadian film Young People Fucking, the explicit presence of youth’s active sexuality was once again recast in the spotlight.

Overwhelmingly successful in causing a stir, this otherwise insignificant film once again stimulated discussion of one of our society’s favourite topics.

Finding its way into newspaper headlines, across dinner tables, and even in the halls of Parliament – the case in point of C-10 censorship bill debate about banning content against the public interest – this film discussed the controversial, omnipresent topic that has become inseparable from our media: young people fucking.

But what about old people? Are old people fucking?

“Of course they are!” was the exacerbated response of Michele Cauch, Executive Director of Sage Health Network and Sexual Health Promoter for Senior Citizens, to this question. “They always have; they always will.”

Cauch emphasized the need to dismantle the de-humanizing and problematic myth that old people “can’t” and “don’t” have sex.

“We need to recognize seniors’ sexuality, and stop refusing to acknowledge seniors as sentient beings, with feelings, emotions, and desires,” she said.

It appears that Cauch is correct. A 2007 study, published by the New England Journal of Medicine, confirms that not only are many senior citizens engaged in sex, but also that this is a steadily increasing trend since the study was first conducted in the 1970s.

The survey found that nearly three-quarters of citizens aged 57 to 64 years of age, more than half aged 65 to 74 years, and one-quarter aged 75 to 85 years were consummating at least once per year. Not surprisingly, these seniors are also feeling more positive and open about it.

The study did not investigate what is causing these rising numbers, but some have suggested that healthier senior citizen populations and longer life-spans, an increasing liberalization of the mentality surrounding sex, access to Viagra, and increasing rates of divorced, widowed, and other “single seniors” who have taken up dating once again, are potential factors. In fact, according to a report in the Wall Street Journal, they are entering the online dating world faster than any other demographic.

However, these seemingly-positive statistics have very serious implications: the rate of incidence of Sexually Transmitted Infections (STIs) in seniors has increased dramatically over the past ten years.

The numbers are alarming, with a 2002 study finding that 11.6 per cent of all reported HIV cases have been among persons age 50 years or older, and that new AIDS cases rose significantly faster in the over-50 population than in people under 40.

Furthermore, the typical problems surrounding STIs are compounded in seniors, whose sexuality is widely misunderstood and denied, whose understanding of the new complexities of sexual health is minimal, and whose immune systems are less able to deal with the effects of these infections.

This is why Jane P. Fowler, a senior citizen, HIV/AIDS prevention educator, and founder of “HIV Wisdom in Older Women,” implored that we acknowledge sex as a reality within the senior citizen population and face these issues head on.

Fowler is 73-years-old and lives with HIV. She contracted the disease after a divorce with her husband and a return to the dating scene in her senior years. She reflected on how she made the same mistake that she now works tirelessly to prevent other senior citizens from making.

“You never know about anybody’s sexual history but yours,” emphasized Fowler, who has freely given the past 14 years to educating seniors about the joys of a healthy sex life and dangers of unsafe sex.

A self-pronounced “typical 1950s good girl” who remained abstinent until marriage, Fowler described how the fifties mindset pervades in the sexual behaviours of single senior citizens, where concepts like “virgin” was a given, “sex” was forbidden, sexual education programs were a synonym for “abstinence,” and STIs were less than a myth.

“We could only whisper the word ‘rubber.’ ‘Condoms’ were not accepted; we wouldn’t talk about them, and used them exclusively for birth control,” said Fowler, adding that many senior women who have experienced menopause – and thus can no longer get pregnant – see the use of a condom as irrelevant.

Fowler insisted that recognition, acceptance, and education are the answers to this increasingly prevalence of STIs among the senior population, which must be recognized by their children, care-takers, and even the doctors.

Both Cauch and Fowler asserted that without recognizing our senior citizens’ sex lives, or rather their unsafe sex lives, the STI endemic will continue to get worse, especially as the baby boomer population enters this contingency.

Our grandmothers and grandfathers engaging in sex is an image that is so far from our understanding of sexuality that we refuse to acknowledge its existence. However, until we overcome our stigmas, quash our denial, and quell our gag reflex when we imagine wrinkled, gray-haired, denture-laden grandparent sex, we will be ignoring the dangers that threaten the most vulnerable segment of our society.