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Grey Matters: Age as Disability through the Lens of Sexuality

sel209's picture

Grey Matters: Age as Disability through the Lens of Sexuality

            If you were asked to close your eyes and picture the quintessential senior citizen[1] ,what are some words you would use to describe the image in your mind’s eye? Would they be physical descriptors, like small or white-haired, or would they be words describing temperament, like kind or friendly? Think for a minute about the feelings this combination of image and language evokes. Now picture the same image in conjunction with the word “sexy.” Feel any different? At the very least, I’m guessing you’re unsettled. Be assured, you’re not alone: the thought of older individuals as sexual beings makes many of us squirm with unease. As a Psychology major with an interest in both physical and psychosocial development across the lifespan, I find myself drawn to the question of why the aging process seems to desexualize seniors in the eyes of society. In fact, because societal pressures dictate that attractiveness is shaped by youth and that sex appeal is inextricably intertwined with fertility, expressions of sexuality become increasingly inappropriate with age, rendering older adults disabled as a result of repressive cultural norms. As I delve into this idea of age as a sexually disabling construct, I argue two points: first, that society’s bias against expressions of sexuality in the senior community is in large part the result of younger people’s insecurities regarding the inevitability of the aging process, and second, that the manifestation of these insecurities as prejudice serves to solidify the hegemonic sexual norm, thereby comfortably distancing one generation from the next while simultaneously disabling entire populations of aging individuals.

Before presuming to make insights about the intra-action between aging, sexuality, and disability, I read several empirical studies that investigated ageist perceptions in both young and middle-aged adults. The first article, “From Sexism to Sexy: Challenging Young Adults’ Ageism About Older Women’s Sexuality” (Allen & Roberto, 2009) details a study in which 277 college undergraduates in a lecture class on human sexuality were shown a film about aging and women’s sexuality. After watching the film, students were asked to report changes in their ideas about the topic of aging and intimacy and to comment on what they had learned about their own comfort level regarding the issue. The results of a grounded theory analysis indicate that while 95% of female students and 93% of male students believe that older women still feel sexual in their later years, only a mere two of the almost 300 students acknowledged that their responses to older women’s sexual expression post-film experience still evoked negative, ageist, and sexist perspectives. Interestingly, these prejudiced perspectives are not limited to college-aged students who have perhaps had limited exposure to issues of aging and intimacy. The results of a second study, “Sexual behaviour of nursing home residents: staff perceptions and responses” (Roach, 2004), indicate that even middle-aged adults whose occupation involves long-term care giving harbor these prejudices, and worse, project their discomfort about the issues in question by limiting the sexual expression of the seniors they care for. After coding interviews on perceptions of aging and intimacy in nursing home staff members, Roach notes the emergence of a conceptual paradigm she labels “Guarding Discomfort.” An intricate four-part paradigm, Guarding Discomfort broadly refers to the idea that the less comfortable a staff member feels with issues of sexuality, the lower the level of sexual expression he or she will permit, much less encourage, amongst nursing home residents.

While each of these studies is filled with noteworthy data, a prevalent theme that emerges from both is the consistent need of younger generations to establish the separation of “us” from “them” in a variety of sub-contexts relating to sexuality: young from old, sexy from cute, able from disabled. Just like many physically impaired individuals, senior citizens are far too often treated like incapable and immature members of society by others and thereby afforded the same amount of appropriate sexual expression as young children. This perception of aging individuals as childlike and asexual seems to assuage the concerns of younger members of society about not only the adequacy of their own sexual expression but the stability of their youth as well. By making clear distinctions about “appropriate” expressions of sexuality at a given age, students in the Allen and Roberto study and staff members in the Roach study asserted their wellness and vivacity while simultaneously distancing themselves from older individuals through sexually disabling them. Logically, there is no denying the fact that the aging process is inevitable. In a way, it is the ultimate equalizer; the longer one lives, the older one gets. But with the aging process clearly apparent in the form of senior citizens, younger generations continue to cope with the unavoidable process of bodily change by dismissing the idea that anyone who defies the cultural standard of attractiveness, which equates youth with beauty, can be sexually expressive.

The notion that culture has the power to sexually disable seniors in both their own eyes and the eyes of society is grounded in the continuous reaffirmation of cultural hegemonic norms, or social beliefs and values that favor a dominant group but are nonetheless accepted as ideologically valid throughout society (Lears, 568). In their critical essay about the interplay between culture and disability, Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne write, “…the abjection with which so-called normals approach labeled/disabled people is one sided and distorting” (329). For the purposes of this discussion of disability, “normals” refer to dominant younger generations who are more visible in society and therefore have the power to construct labels about older people’s sexuality without much backlash. Statements like “…even knowing you are old and not in the ideal physicality doesn’t mean you don’t deserve love or sex” (excerpted from Allen & Roberto) solidify the hegemonic sexual norm even as they seem overtly positive; instead of enabling seniors with a broader standard of attractiveness and an understanding of the aging process, the statement serves to enforce a warped ideology by utilizing words like even and phrases like ideal physicality that inherently limit the senior population and effectively disable the people the comment was supposedly meant to empower. Roach’s Guarding Disability paradigm further demonstrates how belief in the hegemonic norm has an enormous role in sustaining prejudice. Even if a nursing home staff member claimed to believe that a healthy relationship could exist between seniors, if she was motivated to control her own feelings of sexuality discomfort, she actively separated the concepts of love and intimacy by discouraging seniors from sexual expression. This example illustrates the way in which the hegemonic sexual norm continues to be maintained by an extreme level of control over a population that is further weakened by their reliance on younger members of society for portions of their care.

Though it’s easy to blame various aspects of culture for sexually disabling senior citizens, it is far more difficult to reverse the stereotypes that inherently disable. We spoke at length in class about the idea of a utopia, a place with a perfect socio-politico-legal system where culture would not disable but rather would enable all citizens alike. The process of dreaming up a functioning utopia that would accommodate specialized groups of people is a challenging and oftentimes frustrating exercise. In this case, perhaps we could start in academia, where students in high school and college could be offered courses that explore human development and sexuality throughout the entirety of the lifespan to encourage tolerance, understanding, and most of all, visibility. The next institution on the list would be the media; more companies would associate beauty with variables besides youth and fertility, and TV and film could depict more scenes of intimacy amongst seniors, thereby redefining the standard of “appropriate” displays of sexuality at any age. Yet after all of these changes, we are left with the biological effects of the aging process and the inevitability of mortality. Can we guarantee the existence of an enabling culture when youth are still motivated to distance themselves from the idea of growing old and dying? If seniors were sexually enabled, would younger generations compensate by disabling another aspect of their humanity? Regardless of the questions that arise when conceptualizing a perfect society, it is undeniable that enabling sexual expression in adults of all ages would improve the current state of our imperfect society by encouraging meaningful, intimate relationships across the lifespan and dispelling the ignorant notion that youth defines beauty.  

From Dove's "Pro Age" Campaign for Real Beauty

An image from the Dove "Pro Age" Campaign


[1] For the purposes of this paper, I use the terms “senior citizens” and “aging adults” to refer to individuals who meet eligibility for retirement with a chronological age of 65 years or older, as defined by the US Department of Social Security ( However, I believe that age is largely a self-defined construct, and I make no assumptions about individuals’ physical, mental, or emotional states at any given point in life.



Allen, Katherine R., and Karen A. Roberto. "From Sexism to Sexy: Challenging Young Adults'

Ageism About Older Women's Sexuality." Sexuality Research & Social Policy: Journal

of NSRC 6.4 (2009): 13-24. Print.

Lears, T.J. Jackson. "The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities." The

American Historical Review 90.3 (1985): 567-93. JSTOR. Web.

McDermott, Ray, and Herve Varenne. "Culture as Disability." Anthropology and Education

Quarterly 26 (1995): 323-48. Serendip. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.

Roach, Sally M. "Sexual Behaviour of Nursing Home Residents: Staff Perceptions and

Responses." Issues and Innovations in Nursing Practice 48.4 (2004): 371-79. Print.


sel209's picture

Discomforts Exposed

Hi Anne!

Thanks so much for your comments. Here are some replies and further musings…

*I totally agree with you that an image in the beginning of the paper would have been powerful! However, I chose to do it this way so that the reader could form his/her own image (as per the suggested exercise in the introduction) and not be swayed by whatever image I presented. That way, the “ick” factor would be coming entirely from them when the image was labeled as sexy, and no one could make the claim that the feeling was evoked because of the particular image I chose to present. I felt like if it were self-conjured, my point would resonate more. 

*Oh, that darn footnote. It stems from the fact that this paper is truly an exploration in the form of an argument. I hadn’t considered the idea that age could be more than physically disabling until we started pushing the boundaries of what it means to disable and exactly who (or what) can do the disabling in class. The more I explored the interplay between aging and sexuality, both with you and on my own, the more I felt compelled to examine the disabling nature of social perceptions, and that’s the direction I decided to move forward in. However, by the time I was three-quarters finished, I read it through and realized I had yet to qualify the chronological age of the population I was discussing. Problem! As I pondered exactly whom I was referring to and decided for the purposes of this paper that it was best to use an “official” definition, I balked at the notion that a reader could interpret what I had written as condemning anyone 65+ to be “old” and therefore inherently disabled as per my argument. That was unsettling. “Older” is a comparison word that makes no assumptions, but old is filled with stigma. It’s morphed from a chronological term into a symbol of all that is worn, frail, and useless, and many of its derivatives are no better. You’ll notice I very frequently use the word “aging” in place of “growing old” in my paper. That reflects the distinction I tend to make; aging is an inevitable process, but it’s a biological one. Growing old, at least to me, has become a social process, and that’s what I address in my argument. Essentially, the footnote is a disclaimer, an after-the-fact note of reassurance that my paper makes no claims about individual perceptions of self, only societal perceptions. I felt compelled to add it in because, as you pointed out, I am one of “them,” a younger person, whether I like it or not, and there’s a certain degree of unease in analyzing a population you’re not a part of. Not to mention, of course, that my unease was tripled because I knew my work was going to be out there for the world to see! It made (and continues to make) me think about a) the influence different kinds of audiences can have on the way a paper is presented and b) the extent to which my insecurities about perceptions of myself as an author influence my work…I guess that’s a very long explanation to your very succinct observation! :)

 *What do my username and avatar tell the reader of this paper? I think my username is rather straightforward; in the interest of time (I was in a rush to make my first post), I chose to be represented by my initials and the number of our class. Boring, I know, but I’m content with it. It’s pretty much devoid of any sort of markers that could influence one’s perception of my writing other than that I’m straightforward, I guess, and that sometimes I have less-than-creative moments when I’m feeling overwhelmed by the pressures of academia. My avatar is likely more telling. For the life of me, I cannot find the name of the person who created this image, but I am totally in love with it. There’s a figure, in the spirit of Don Quixote, ready to challenge what appeared to be monsters from far away, yet up close, they’re not monsters; in fact, they’re these gorgeous butterflies, symbols of change and rebirth. The image is whimsical, but it also encapsulates the idea that even things (and people) we dislike or fear have beauty in some aspect of their being, and it’s up to us to look close enough to see it.  Having given my own interpretation of my avatar, it’s interesting to consider where it places me in the eyes of a reader, considering that it’s so small on Serendip that you can barely make out what’s in I come across as eco-friendly? Science-y? Artsy? Abstract? I wish I knew more about how it was being perceived, because I feel like I would have a better sense of where it placed me hegemonically. Perhaps I’ll get some feedback and re-evaluate next post!

Don Quixote and the Windmills

Anne Dalke's picture

Guarding Discomfort


Reading this essay is a reminder to me of why I give such open-ended assignments: what a range of possibilities they reveal! Your decision to turn our discussion of the disabling aspects of culture to the matters of ageism which dominate our understanding of sexuality is a life-opening exploration, one which gestures not only toward the oppressiveness of hegemonic norms, but also the existential dread of aging and death. A close friend of mine died this summer, and as I kept him company through that process, and spoke with other friends who were doing the same, I kept thinking how little we were all prepared for this, what you call "the ultimate equalizer." We will all age, and die, and yet so little of our life (our education, for starters!) helps us prepare for this eventuality. Thanks for looking this in the face.

That, for me, is the deepest well your paper sinks into: our human "motivation to distance ourselves from the idea of growing old and dying." That's the deep well from which our discomfort with the sexually active aging draws, that the well that "effectively disables the people [we] mean to empower."

I like your beginning this project w/ an unsettling thought experiment (you might have made it even more unsettling by beginning--rather than ending--with an image). I like your discussion of "age as a sexually disabling construct," and your acknowledgement that what is key here is the separation of “us” from “them," an assertion of "our" "wellness and vivacity while simultaneously distancing ourselves from older individuals." I found myself a little surprised by your footnote, though, which terms age "largely a self-defined construct," especially given your very detailed account of the ways in which age is socially defined, and socially limiting: the ultimate paradoxical social construction, which turns a universal experience into a (wished for) (non)hegemonic norm.

(Speaking of which: how do the cultural markers of your username and avatar function in this paper? What do they signal, about you as a writer on this topic? You identify yourself as a psych major, and the presumption that comes along w/ that identification is that you are 20-something, one of "us," not "them"…. But how do "sel209" and the image of windmills place you, hegemonically?)