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.
Much of the conceptual architecture of the chapter on physical disability (Chapter 6) is relevant to this chapter on intellectual disabilities: intersectional subjectivities; the impairment/disability dichotomy; the social construction of disability; the heteronormative and genito-centric conception of sexual intimacy; the radicalism of crip/queer theorising; and the necessity of critical deconstructions of normative and normalising discourses that produce desexualising impacts upon disabled people. Similarly, there are important issues to explore at policy and interpersonal levels. The intersection of age and intellectual disability is composed by both the impact of ageing on forms of intellectual capacity – typically conditions such as Alzheimer’s and other types of dementia – and people who have intellectual disabilities, for whom ageing might exacerbate or provide added complications – such as people with Trisomy 21 (colloquially Down’s syndrome). Or put simply, intellectually disabled people growing old and older people growing into intellectual disability. Yet it would be a mistake to simply extend or map the conceptual framings and analysis of physical disabilities onto intellectual disabilities. There are important differences as well as similarities at the intersections of intellectual disabilities with sex and intimacy in later life.
Intellectual (as physical) disability and ageing both bring into question how human difference is categorised and understood according to conceptions of what is bodily or customarily normal. The notion of ‘normal’ dominates conventional understandings of ageing, disability and sex and intimacy, and is the discursive basis for the desexualisation of those people bearing these features. It is precisely the development of crip/queer critiques (and in this chapter, a neurodiverse equivalent), that has problematised and deconstructed these qualities and characteristics: dissembling reproduction; genito-centric and penetrative heteronormativities from sex and intimacy; dissembling ableism and the constitution of hierarchies of ability from disability; and dissembling life course developmental staging from age.