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  • Author or Editor: Paul Reynolds x
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Consent is generally regarded as a problem for the young and the inexperienced. The focus of academic literature, sexuality education and legal and cultural debate is upon those who are entering the sexual world, rather than those who are mature within it (selectively, Archard, 1998; Cowling and Reynolds, 2004; Moore and Reynolds, 2016; Popova, 2019; Stryker, 2017). In part, this is a product of the naturalised and normalised developmental model of sex that identifies sexual risk and danger primarily around the young (Moore and Reynolds, 2018, pp 24–26). It reflects a minimalist notion of sexual learning, regarded as a part of child social development that is adequately completed with maturity. For older people, consent is principally seen as an issue accompanying concerns about diminished capacity. This reflects the desexualisation of older people, where mainstream cultural representations and articulations of sex and sexuality involve stereotypes of youthful, ‘beautiful’, vigorous bodies and acute and rational minds. Older people do not conform to those dominant representations and its stereotypes (Moore and Reynolds, 2016; Hafford-Letchfield et al, 2020, passim; and this volume). Underlying this is a hetero- (and more recently homo-) normative sexuality that is focused on genito-centric, penetrative sexual functionality and in phallocentric vigour and fecundity (in respect of men) (selectively, Beasley, 2005; Jackson and Scott, 2011; Weeks, 2016). This normativity frames older sexual desires as risk and problem oriented, whether the focus is on desexualised older bodies or dysfunctionality, and discourages approaches to older sexual agency that emphasise sexual experimentation and creativity, which might provide different pleasures and alternative and new forms of sexual learning and knowledge.

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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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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.

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This volume was curated to launch the book series Sex and Intimacy in Later Life and aims to provide a coherent, critical overview of scholarship focused on the identitarian and intersectional experience of age, sex and sexuality. As identified in the Series Introduction, it forms part of a broader intellectual project that aims to put sex back into sexuality. With such considerations in mind, we wanted to produce a text that demonstrates that this emerging field of knowledge (covering a relatively neglected set of cross-cutting concerns) contains some vibrant scholarship and is starting to set an agenda for further and future research. Our hope is that such an agenda can be articulated into policy and practice that, in time, could help validate, support and enrich the sexual and intimate lives of older sexual agents.

In effect, this volume has showcased a variety of work by emerging and established scholars based in Europe, Australia and the US, who are interested in later life sex and intimacy in various ways. As such, it has featured a mix of theoretical and theoretically informed empirical work that has variously drawn on a wide vista of thought. This theoretical purview encompasses thinking mainly from social gerontology, structuralism, poststructuralism, anti-racism and various feminisms. For example, the chapter by Debra Harley productively draws on feminism and anti-racist theory and would add to knowledge in social gerontology, where accounts of the obstacles and opportunities for agency for older black women as quotidian sexual agents seem lacking. Generally, the chapters in this volume are very much part of an uncovering of the intersecting influences that help to make up later life sexuality as it enmeshes with other forms of difference.

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The Limits of Sex and Intimacy

Despite evidence of a more sexually active ‘third age’, ageing and later life (50+) are still commonly represented as a process of desexualisation.

Challenging this assumption and ageist stereotypes, this interdisciplinary volume investigates the experiential and theoretical landscapes of older people’s sexual intimacies, practices and pleasures. Contributors explore the impact of desexualisation in various contexts and across different identities, orientations, relationships and practices.

This enlightening text, reflecting international scholarship, considers how we can distinguish the real challenges faced by older people from the prejudices imposed on them.

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Given that the desexualisation of older people emerged as a dominant theme in the first volume (addressing diversity) in this book series, this volume was created specifically to probe this subject further and, in doing so, provide a coherent and critical overview of it as a possible basis for critique and action.

This volume has showcased a variety of work by emerging and established scholars (based in Argentina, Britain, Sweden and Spain). As such, it has featured a mix of theoretical and theoretically-informed empirical work that reflects theorising from social gerontology, social psychology, structuralism, poststructuralism and feminism and some combinations thereof. In various ways, all contributors have addressed the intersecting influences that help to make up later life sexuality. If the first volume in the book series addressed influences of age combined with gender, sexual identification, race and class, this volume has focused a bit more on age as it enmeshes with gender (see the chapter by Clare Anderson), with sexual identification (see the chapter by Jane Youell) and with disability/ableism (see the chapters by Susan Gillen and Paul Reynolds and by Linn J. Sandberg).

Moreover, the main foci of this volume have concerned the cross-cutting physical/embodied, relational, cultural, structural and policy and practice-related constraints on older people’s intimate and sexual self-expression. Although such theorising indicates a fairly wide purview, this volume has presented key examples rather than a comprehensive survey of accounts of desexualisation. Nevertheless, it does provide considerable insight and critical reviews of the state of current scholarship on the subject of desexualisation in later life and prompts ideas for further research.

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Critical Perspectives

Despite increased awareness of sexual diversity, older people's accounts of sex and intimacy remain marginalised.

This edited volume addresses diversity in sexual and intimate experience later in life (50+) and captures international research and analysis relating to intersectional identities. Contributors explore how being older intersects with differences of ethnicity, gender, sexuality and class.

Offering a critical focus and original contribution to an emerging, although still relatively neglected field, this collection extends knowledge concerning intimacies, practices and pleasures for those thought to represent normative, non-normative and 'new normative' forms of sexual identification and expression.

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Shakespeare’s Sonnet 73 suggests a recognition of finality, mortality and the changes that ageing brings, with a plea for love (and respect?) from those who are younger, through the certain knowledge that they will miss those who are ageing when they pass, and will experience ageing and its vicissitudes themselves. This is ageing as natural cycle and self-aware progression through the life course. It appeals to naturalised and normalised contours of the process of ageing, which are ‘coloured in’ by cultural representations of how we are seen to age. Older people should ‘grow old gracefully’, both experience and express that ‘slow journey into the twilight of their lives’.

While the sentiment of the sonnet might be regarded as romantic in its appeal to the recognition and acceptance of naturalism and the character of love and respect across generations, it betrays both a naivety and a danger. Its naivety lies in its ‘rose-tinted’ characterisation. Generally, in more economically developed societies, age is more a subject of pathology, prejudice and crude cultural stereotypes – the irrelevant or burdensome rather than the experienced or useful, the decaying rather than the preserved and venerable, the infirm rather than the healthy within the life course, the decrepit or absent-minded rather than the eccentric or the wise. These are real dangers to older people’s agency, dignity and (self) respect. Their roles are simultaneously and contradictorily seen as celebrated and wasted, cherished and abandoned, loved and left behind. Late modernity, with its diversification of family and community form and its focus on the twin preoccupations of work and cultural achievement often leaves older people at the margins or with a limited familial role or in the work force.

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Older people’s sexual and intimate lives represent an emerging field of study that fuels demands for change across public, private and voluntary services and holds some promise for representing age as positive change (see the volume edited by Barrett and Hinchliff, 2017). Yet, there remain significant constraints on older individuals’ sexual expression and limitations in knowledge on sexuality in later life (Reynolds et al, 2021). Constraint on sexual and intimate self-expression and practice, operating in diverse, intersectional modes, was a key motif that emerged in the first volume addressing diversity in this book series on Sex and Intimacy in Later Life. Older people (defined as aged 50 and over in the series introduction in this volume) remain the subject of stereotyping as non-sexual or ‘post-sexual’ (Simpson et al, 2018). Such a concept broadly refers to the process of desexualisation of older people that appears endemic in late modern societies and marks limits to who counts, age-wise, as a legitimate sexual being (Gatling et al, 2017).

Indeed, representations of age stress unsexy, sagging flesh, tarnished bodies, sexual dysfunction and absence of eroticism (Moore and Reynolds, 2016). More specifically, Gilleard and Higgs (2011) talk of how the leaky, less continent bodies of the oldest old are contrasted with the vital performances of younger adults, and Moore and Reynolds (2016) draw attention to a negative aesthetic that equates older people with ugliness and dearth, if not death, of desire. In light of such endemic pathologies and prejudices, it is tempting to believe that older people are generally not only thought of as no longer interested in engaging in sexual activity and pleasure but also are probably not even expected to think of it (Simpson et al, 2018; Bauer et al, 2016).

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