6: Ageing, physical disability and desexualisation

Older people experience their sexual and intimate relations as intersectional agents. Their relationships are influenced not simply by age itself, but by gender, ethnicity, sexuality, class and other identarian differences. It is not necessary to subscribe fully to the benefits of intersectionality as a theoretical paradigm to recognise the impact of difference on how older people enjoy or endure the process of ageing (for relevant summaries of intersectionality, see Hancock, 2016; Hill Collins, 2019; May, 2015; Taylor, Hines and Casey, 2011). These differences extend to the sexual and intimate constraints and limitations that constitute desexualisation. This is particularly the case with the intersection of age and physical disability, which becomes more significant as the body ages and its functionality tends to decline. While the rate and form of that decline is differentiated dependent on variables such as robust physical health, income and resources and access to healthcare, the general proposition holds. Bérubé (cited in Gallop, 2019, p 7), commenting on this convergence, sagely observes: ‘[that] many of us will become disabled if we live long enough is perhaps the fundamental aspect of human embodiment’. These changes are exacerbated by the shared cultural prejudices and pathologies that dominate common perceptions of older people and disability. These perceptions produce material physical and regulatory constraints alongside ideological orthodoxies and internalised discursive framings by which older people’s sexual agency is diminished and subsumed beneath notions of ‘healthy’ and ‘normal’ sex and intimacy.

Both age and physical disability share common desexualising factors and impacts. Both are steeped in conventionally negative, normative characterisations of physical change across the life course, with changes measured by scientific-medical criteria with a culturally determined functional index.

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