Are Baby Boomers Bringing the Sexual Revolution to Aging?
Are seniors today re-defining sex?
Posted October 16, 2018
Today starts a series of columns based on analyses on new research on gender published recently in the Handbook on the Sociology of Gender edited by Barbara J. Risman, Carissa Froyum, and William Scarborough.
Today's column is co-authored with Nicholas Velotta and myself, Barbara J. Risman.
Americans live longer than ever before, with life expectancy increasing from 60 to 80 years of age over the 20th Century. Baby boomers are living what sociologist Phyllis Moen calls a Third Act, discovering new ways to experience healthy active years after retirement. With a rapid increase in life expectancy and rising expectations for the quality of life, baby boomers are forging new ways of aging. So what does this mean for sexuality? Are we beginning to see gender equality between the sheets among the aging boomers?
Remember, it was only 40 years ago that women were considered sexually obsolete after menopause (and, many times, even earlier). Men defined their virility by their ability to get and sustain an erection. Today these may seem like ridiculous calculators of age and sexual fitness as both culture and technology has changed the ways we think about sex and gender.
Boomers pioneered the Sexual Revolution of the ‘60s and yet, they did so after having been raised with the sexual script that men pursue and women submit. This permitted men to interpret an awkward “no, thank you” rejection as a possible “yes” in the making. Still, it was a radical shift in our cultural norms for men to be able to take a woman to bed before promising marriage and for women to seek sexual pleasure outside of relationships. After all, the one night stand of the boomer generation precluded the “hook-up culture” of today’s Millennials.
While much misogyny remained, and gender inequality is still a futuristic goal, the boomers did liberate sex from marriage and made the right to sexual pleasure a human right. Now, it appears that boomers must—once again—break the gender rules set by generations before them when it comes to sex after 50.
For men, erectile dysfunction or ED (an inability to get or maintain an erection) can feel emasculating although such physiological changes are actually explained by the biology of aging. Even with the advent of Viagra and Cialis, which are impressively effective at treating erectile issues, research suggests that some men still feel uncomfortable bringing up sexual difficulties with their doctors. And doctors, too, are reluctant to ask patients over 50 about their sexual health due to old stigmas surrounding sex later in life. Gender stereotypes that men are powerful, and always ready for sex, still haunt the boomer men who were raised in an era when talking about sexual problems held negative stigmas. We do see boomer men working around some of these stigmas though, for instance, many men are ordering ED meds via online prescribers like the popular Roman website.
For women, menopause is often cited as the primary culprit affecting their sexual lives. However, research finds that social and psychological factors such as emotional well-being and a strong emotional connection with one’s partner as well as positive body image may be more predictive of sexual activity later in life than the hormonal changes associated with menopause. That’s not to say age has no physiological impacts on sex for women; discomfort during sex due to less blood circulation in the genital area (reducing vaginal lubrication) is a biological factor that reduces sexual comfort during sexual intercourse in later life. Of course, technology, here too, can come to the rescue with products to increase lubrication and blood flow. In fact, many women find menopause liberating sexually because they no longer have to worry about pregnancy every time they have intercourse. Even more promising, most women who desire to remain sexually active as they age will do so, albeit with a bit more prepping.
The boomers want fulfilling relationships as they age and our culture is beginning to reflect this. Women in their 60’s and 70’s are now being cast in leading roles involving romantic and sexual relationships. Both Jane Fonda’s and Lily Tomlin’s characters in Netflix’s, Grace and Frankie have love affairs, and of course, so do their ex-husbands… with one another. What’s more, people over 50 are the fastest growing demographic of online daters. Indeed, women over 50 who date report frequent and satisfying sex and boomer men can usually find an intimate partner if they are in the market for one.
Boomers are by far the most sexually liberal generation of older adults that we’ve ever seen. And by pushing against the pre-existing molds of what sex after 50 looks like, boomers are showing us that they want gender equality and sexual satisfaction between the sheets in their encore adulthood, the third act of their lives.
Risman, Barbara J, Carissa Froyum and William Scarborough (co-editors). 2018. Handbook on the Sociology of Gender. Springer Publishers.