Module 1 - Sexuality and the third age

Tony Ryan, Sharron Hinchliff


There is growing acknowledgement within health and social care practice that many older people are sexually active and consider sex to be an important part of their quality of life.

Indeed, many local, national and international bodies are beginning to promote sexual health and well-being in later life in their reports and guidelines. In 2010, the World Health Organisation (WHO) asserted that sexual health was applicable throughout an individual’s lifespan “not only to those in the reproductive years, but also to both the young and the elderly” (2010: page 3).

The WHO stress that sexual health can only be achieved and maintained in the context of a human rights framework. They provide the following rights as related to sexual health; most of which are applicable to older people:

The right to:

  1. equality and non-discrimination
  2. be free from torture or to cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment or punishment
  3. privacy
  4. the highest attainable standard of health (including sexual health) and soci
Module code: EN103
Module Category: Modules in English
CC - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives
CC - Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives

Module Units

We know that many older people are sexually active, although reports highlight that the frequency is often reduced in comparison to younger cohorts. We also know that the meaning of sexual activity can become broader with age; that older adults do not straightforwardly equate sex with penis-vagina intercourse, and thus sex encompasses activities that younger people may not view as sexual.

Ageing is not simply a set of physical changes which occur at the level of the body. Ageing should also be understood at the level of the social and psychological. As we age the role we play in families, the economy and within social networks changes. The way society views us also changes. This unit will consider the social construction of the ageing process and raise questions for the impact this may have on the sexuality of older people.

Active ageing has become a central feature of social and health policy across Europe in recent years. Building on earlier ideas which sought to promote successful ageing, active ageing is defined by WHO as:

 ‘the process of optimizing opportunities for health, participation and security in order to enhance quality of life as people age. It applies to both individuals and population groups.’

As people get older, they may experience changes in their sex lives. These include having less sex, having more sex, having sex in a different way than before, or with a different partner. Those in long-term relationships tend to report a reduction in sexual activities as they get older. Those in new relationships tend to report an increase.

Sexually transmitted infections (STIs) or diseases (STDs) are passed from person to person usually through sexual contact (some can be passed on in other ways too, such as by sharing intravenous injecting needles). STIs can be passed on through many types of sexual activity (oral, vaginal, anal) although some (e.g. thrush) can occur in the absence of sex.



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This project has been funded with support from the European Commission. This publication reflects the views only of the author, and the Commission cannot be held responsible for any use which may be made of the information contained therein