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Middle-aged gay men in Manchester differentiate themselves through accounts of ‘friendship family’ from relating/kinship associated with heterosexuals and younger gay men. In this article, based on interviews with 27 men aged 39–61, I explore narratives of friendship family. This critical space enables development/mobilisation of the resources of ageing – ‘ageing capital’ – needed to reclaim self-worth in the face of homophobia and gay ageism. It helped men to develop the emotional and political resources to question heteronormative family and practice non-monogamy. However, in the struggle for dominance over meaning/representation, generational claims to differentiation could reinforce reverse ageism. Young gay men were constructed as threat, insubstantial or vulnerable, obliging a duty of care to avoid exploiting them. The discursive strategies men deployed could limit/thwart the use of ageing capital and undermine men’s claims that ageing involves a linear path towards enhanced awareness of self, other and authoritative knowledge of the relations of gay culture.

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It is impossible to talk about sex without talking about relationships or modes of relating, yet sexual relations are assumed to be the preserve of the young. So it seems when older people’s attempts to express sexuality or intimacy are commonly met with ridicule, condescension and infantilisation (Simpson et al, 2017). The quote in the chapter title, though fictional, is no less believable, but might seem incredible if not offensive to quite a few older people. Indeed, we can see the mockery of ageing and later life, and particularly of a presumed cognitive, aesthetic, physical and sexual decline, writ large in birthday cards for those aged 40 plus (Bytheway, 1995; Simpson et al, 2018b). This mockery reveals the casual, normalised nature of ageism in consumerist societies, where ageing can be seen as an individual pathology to be avoided (Biggs and Daatland, 2006). The anxieties occasioned by consumerist-driven ageism could well be responsible for the proliferation of sales of age-defying (denying?) cosmetics, as well as the increase in ‘rejuvenating’ cosmetic surgery, which Eagleton (2003) has theorised as an attempt to deny or stave off mortality.

Unlike many other forms of prejudice, ageism directed towards older people seems to be fair game. It also operates more under the radar of consciousness. It is worth noting that ageism can affect the young, who can be defined as insubstantial, inexperienced and the like, though, unlike later life, youth can be regarded as a transitory, experimental stage en route to maturity and usually experiences ageism less intensely (Bytheway, 1995; Simpson, 2015). In terms of ageism as applied to sex and intimacy, older people are stereotypically cast as prudish and beyond interest in such matters (Mahieu et al, 2014).

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If youth is associated with sexual vitality, older people are thought to represent the death of sexuality (Mahieu et al, 2014). There are few media images that validate older people as sexual beings, and the physical, aesthetic and status-related losses associated with age contribute to thinking of them as unattractive and thus uninterested in sex (Garrett, 2014). It is unsurprising then that older people come to internalise beliefs concerning their non-sexual or post-sexual status (Garret, 2014; Simpson et al, 2018).

The ageism just described appears thoroughly normalised. Indeed, what I term ‘ageist erotophobia’ (Simpson et al, 2018) that is disgust at, refusal or more often failure to imagine or acknowledge older people as sexual beings, finds resonance in the observation that sex and intimacy have largely been ‘designed out’ of social policy, care practice and academic research concerning later life (Hafford-Letchfield, 2008). See also Bauer et al (2012) in Australia, Doll (2012) in the US and Villar et al (2014) in Catalonia/Spain). Despite an emerging international scholarship on ageing sexuality, on rare occasions when the subject has been acknowledged in the professional practice literature, it has largely been framed as counterintuitive, inappropriate, or a threat or problem to be managed (Doll, 2012). This applies especially to individuals affected by a dementia/loss of cognition (Drakeford, 2006). Recognition as an older sexual being seems rare. At best, there appears grudging respect for if not pathologisation of the predatory, middle-aged, middle-class ‘cougar’ (Kaklamanidou, 2012) and the ‘randy old goat’ still interested in sex despite advancing years (Simpson et al, 2017).

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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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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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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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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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This chapter focuses on issues surrounding the relationship of the assessment and attainment of children and young people with special educational needs and/or disabilities that arise from visual, hearing, or multi-sensory impairments. It examines some of the implications of an assessment system in England that pulls in two opposing directions. This system can be found in the framework of government policy that was put in place by the Labour Administration, through the Every Child Matters Agenda (ECM).

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