The Later-in-Life Intimacy project focuses on older women’s later in life experiences with regard to sexuality and intimacy.
After (roughly) the age of 50, women are desexualized and seen as less sexually desirable than their younger counterparts. In media, older women are either absent or their sexuality is depicted as inappropriate. In academic research, we often see a focus on medical aspects of older women’s sexuality.
The Later-in-Life Intimacy project aims to find alternatives to these negative ideas around sexuality in later life. In a team of six researchers, we depart from older women’s and non-binary people’s lived experiences. Our goal is to find affirmative accounts of later in life sexuality, including not only the challenges, but also the joys of having an ageing body in our understanding of sexuality and intimacy later in life.
Nika Looman is a PhD researcher in the ERC funded project “Later-in-Life Intimacy” (LiLI) at Ghent University. Their current research focus is on queer ageing, sexuality, and intimacy. They reside in Ghent and in Amsterdam.
Lesbian, bisexual, trans, and queer women and non-binary people over the age of 50 that are interested in participating in an interview about their later-in-life experiences with sexuality and intimacy are invited to contact Nika at Nika.Looman@UGent.be
Older LBTQ+ women and non-binary individuals
My research focus is on the experiences with sexuality and intimacy of those over 50 that identify or see themselves as lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, and/or non-binary, or not cis- and heteronormative in another way. As previous research on ageing mostly focused on heterosexual and cisgender experiences and previous research on the experiences of queer people have often been focused on younger people, focusing specifically on the stories and lives of older LBTQ+ women and non-binary people allows me to include experiences that have so far been largely left out of academic research.
In other words, ageist prejudices lie at the heart of older LBTQ+ women’s and non-binary people’s invisibility, as they make it seem like older people cannot be queer, while queer people cannot be old.
One of my favorite queer feminist researchers that has looked into queer ageing is Linn Sandberg. Sandberg points out that both old(er) age and queer sexualities are in society at large often regarded with feelings of disgust and shame (Sandberg 2008). Ageism desexualizes older women, while simultaneously shaming older women for being interested in sex.
Subjects that are out of place, whether it is because of their age or because of their sexuality, are marginalized in a way that makes them constitute an “outside” to what is considered normal, respectable, or appropriate. In queer theory (see for example Butler’s 1990 Gender Trouble) the notion of the abject as an “outside” has been very important in explaining the instability of hegemonic structures such as heterosexuality. For example, heterosexuality requires homosexuality to signify what it is not, while homosexuality will at the same time always be threatening heterosexuality’s stability, precisely because the former is the latter’s constitutive outside.
For heteronormative ageing and life courses to remain hegemonic, queer ageing is also needed. It does, however, mean that certain intimacies later in life are considered more normative than others. These intimacies promise happiness later in life. In looking at queer ageing, Sandberg points out that:
Central to how positive ageing becomes positive is “its” affective alignment with heteronormative intimacies. In other words, what makes positive ageing positive is not only activity, health, and independence in later life but also happy relationships. Such relationships, […] largely seem to translate into heteronormative forms, such as romantic coupledom and family.Sandberg 2016, 31
Then, in the same paper, Sandberg rightly asks the question, “if positive ageing intermingles with happy heteronormative intimacies, we should also ask where happiness does not reach: what becomes the object of unhappy intimacies in later life?”
In my research, I engage with this question in the sense that I foreground older people’s experiences with regard to sexuality and intimacy that do not fit into these heteronormative intimacies. In interviews that cover topics from sex, to (online) dating, to ageing, to intimate friendships, it becomes clear that my participants’ experiences challenge dominant narratives and show how these narratives are not sufficient in understanding ageing and sexuality and intimacy.
Queer ageing in elderly care sectors
A group of LGBTQ+ seniors that also challenges these dominant narratives is The RainbowAmbassadors. They are based in Belgium and aim to bring attention to challenges and difficulties experienced by LGBTQ+ seniors.
I collaborated with the volunteers of the RainbowAmbassadors to write a Manifesto on LGBTQ+ issues in elderly care sectors in Belgium.
One of the stereotypes that not just LGBTQ+ seniors have to deal with, but cis- and heteronormative people as well, is the idea that older people are no longer interested in sex. In research on sexuality later in life, terms like compulsory non-sexuality (in response to Gayle Rubin’s compulsory heterosexuality in 1984) and ageist erotophobia are used to describe the pervasive desexualization of older people (see Simpson et al. 2017; Simpson 2021). The normalization of such sexageist notions make older people’s needs invisible, but this is especially the case for women (Bouson 2016). In elderly care, attention for sexual needs is often lacking, as well as the privacy that people might need.
LGBTQ+ seniors’ life courses often differ from those of their cis- and heteronormative peers. This shows up both in my interviews and in existing literature of LGBTQ+ seniors’ life courses. In the 20th century, when contemporary LGBTQ+ seniors were growing up, homosexual, lesbian, and bisexual sexual orientations were regarded as illnesses, which is often emphasized during interviews. Transgender themes were not talked about, and information and stories about trans people were scarce, inaccessible, or framed very negatively. For many of the older LBTQ+ women and non-binary people in my research, it felt safer to remain discreet about their sexual orientation or gender identity at the time.
However, a large part of them also “came out” earlier in their lives. This often resulted in less secure relations with family members and support systems. They are among the LGBTQ+ seniors that are lesser able to rely on normative support systems, and risk becoming invisible in contemporary elderly care sectors. One of the problems in elderly care is that these seniors would be confronted with many different caretakers in a cis- and heteronormative context, which would require them to be open about their gender identity over and over again.
LGBTQ+ seniors cannot be dependent on care that claims to treat everyone in the same way, as it risks creating inequality and sustaining exclusion.
This is an ongoing research. Older people and the topic of ageing are often ignored in academic research. This is also the case for research on queer topics, which focuses predominantly on younger queer people.
Fully grasping what it means to age in a cis- and heteronormative society requires further exploration of the experiences of those women and non-binary people that are often left out. The Later-in-Life Intimacy project aims to create a platform for those voices.
Bouson, J. Brooks. 2016. “Aging Women and the Age Mystique: Age Anxiety and Body Shame in the Contemporary Culture of Appearances.” In Shame and the Aging Woman, by J. Brooks Bouson, 1–38. Cham: Springer International Publishing.
Butler, Judith. 2006. Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity. Routledge Classics. New York: Routledge.
Rubin, G. S. 1984. “Thinking Sex: Notes for a Radical Theory of the Politics of Sexuality.” In Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality, by C. S. Vance, 267–319. Boston: Routledge.
Sandberg, Linn. 2008. “The Old, the Ugly and the Queer: Thinking Old Age in Relation to Queer Theory.” Graduate Journal of Social Science 5 (2): 117–39.
Sandberg, Linn. 2016. “Towards a Happy Ending? Positive Ageing, Heteronormativity and Un/Happy Intimacies.” Lambda Nordica 20 (4): 19–44.
Simpson, Paul. 2021. “‘At YOUR Age???!!!’: The Constraints of Ageist Erotophobia on Older People’s Sexual and Intimate Relationships.” In Desexualisation in Later Life: The Limits of Sex and Intimacy, 35–51. Bristol: Bristol University Press.
Simpson, Paul, Maria Horne, Laura J. E. Brown, Christine Brown Wilson, Tommy Dickinson, and Kate Torkington. 2017. “Old(Er) Care Home Residents and Sexual/Intimate Citizenship.” Ageing and Society 37 (2): 243–65.