Let’s Talk about Sex… Maybe? 

By Jocelyn Smith, Graduate Assistant, SDSU Social Policy Institute

When we think about sex education, most of us can conjure up the stereotyped, yet widely suffered (and terribly mortifying) high school encounter involving a health teacher, a banana, and a condom. 

And… that might be it.

Getting proper sexual health education and support across the lifespan can be challenging. This can be especially tough for older adults since sexuality and sexual health remain topics of focus primarily for younger people. As if human sexuality has an expiration date at the ripe age of 50! This could be due to the general taboo nature of sexuality and aging that are pervasive in Western culture, where older adults are incorrectly perceived to be asexual and undesirable.

Yet, older adults continually confirm that sex is a normal and important part of their lives. Intimacy and sex are not only a way to demonstrate physical closeness, but an expression of emotional connection, loyalty, and self-confidence. Furthermore,  the National Council on Aging reports that older adults, who regularly engage in sexual activity and intimate relationships may experience lower levels of depression, loneliness, and stress, increased levels of oxytocin (the feel good hormone!), and improved physical health outcomes like lower blood pressure and faster healing. 

The stereotypes and misconceptions about the loss of desirability, decline of sexual activity, and focus on sexual dysfunction for older adults is called sexual ageism. We can sometimes see sexual ageism in domains like popular media, where the sex lives of older adults are the punch line to a joke. Or, sometimes we fail to see the impacts of sexual ageism, such that a lack of acknowledgement of sex in later life casts invisibility on the sex lives of older adults. 

When sexual ageism infiltrates the healthcare system, it can have critical consequences for older adults. Lack of attention to the sexual health needs for older adults can lead to increases in overall healthcare expenditures and is linked to increased illness and mortality for aging populations.

Research indicates that sexual ageism and stigmatization leads to decreased screenings, education, and interventions focused on older adults. For example, when viewing health through a sexual ageism lens, older adult populations may not be considered vulnerable or “at risk” when compared to other age groups. Consequently, early signs and symptoms for STIs can be easily overlooked or mistaken for other illnesses related to aging. A healthcare provider may skip STI screenings and misdiagnose the patient. This is important because untreated STIs can lead to increased risk for cardiovascular risk, neurological dysfunction, dementia, cancer, and death. In addition, sexual ageism may hinder older adults from seeking necessary support and services due to external and internalized stigma.

To provide holistic, patient-centered care, it is critical that health and human service professionals are comfortable and confident in addressing and treating all aspects of older adult’s health needs, including traditionally taboo topics like sexual health. That means, it is important to understand the roots of sexual ageism and begin to work towards more age-inclusive healthcare.

So, where do we begin?

Let’s talk about sex! You’re invited to join the Center for Excellence in Aging and Longevity for a webinar on the complexities of sexuality and aging. I will be leading a discussion on the knowledge and attitudes of emerging professionals in the health and human services sector and offer insights into the existing perceptions and misconceptions surrounding sexuality and aging.

The webinar will be held on March 14 from 4:00-4:30 p.m.  Click here to register.