What Hollywood Gets Wrong About Senior Sex

"Harold and Maude". Image from The Atlantic.

“Harold and Maude”. Image from The Atlantic.

Our cultural values and notions around sex and sexual health are partially framed and reinforced by media representations that connote ageist and ableist messages. As stated by Melanie Davis, co-president of the Sexuality and Aging Consortium at Widener University, it is extremely rare to come across a narrative in which senior sex is portrayed as dignified and pleasurable. Instead, it is the norm for elderly bodies to be depicted with disgust, devoid of any legitimate sex drive. Such sexual activity is often the brunt of jokes.

Despite media representations, the truth is sex and sexuality do continue into older age and elders can have fulfilling sex lives.

In this excerpt from Davis’s commentary with The Atlantic, she offer practical narrative strategies that would better represent senior sex in a more realistic and positive fashion.

BY MELANIE DAVIS, PhD | MelanieDavisPhD.com

The re-release of cult-classic film Harold and Maude, 30 years after it was first seen by audiences, had reporter Maura Kelly wondering whether Hollywood has changed in its depiction of older adults and sex. The resultant story can be read here. I was quoted in the article about what movies give us and what I wish we’d see more of. For example:

“Enough with the constant references to Viagra!” says Davis, who’s also sick of all the jokes about adult diapers. She wishes filmmakers would show an older character massaging his partner’s arthritic hands, or a senior couple making love gingerly so as not to aggravate a sore knee or hip. “I would like to see more longing—more interest and desire, even if it goes unfulfilled,” she says. “I’d like to see grieving over loss of a partner—not only for the companionship, but for the sex. I’d like to see conversations about how sex isn’t the only thing that changes, but that intimacy does, and that how we feel about our bodies and what we expect them to do change. Performance may be less important for some people. Closeness may be more important.”

Our expectations of sexuality in our later years is framed not only by the people in our families and communities but also by what we see in the media. Perhaps if we were given more realistic portrayals of senior sex, people wouldn’t assume that good sex is only for younger people.

melanie_davisMELANIE DAVIS, PHD, consults with individuals and couples to help them build sexual knowledge, comfort, and pleasure through the New Jersey Center for Sexual Wellness. Through her firm Honest Exchange LLC, she provides professional development in sexuality. She’s a popular speaker on self-esteem and body image, and the sexual impact of cancer, menopause and aging. She’s an AASECT-Certified Sexuality Educator. On Twitter @DrMelanieDavis