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Try out PMC Labs and tell us what you think. Learn More. The authors integrate theoretical work on the performance of gender with a life course perspective to frame an analysis of in-depth interviews with 17 long-term married couples. Midlife couples ages 50 — 69 were distressed by changes in their sex lives likely because they impede couples from performing gendered sexuality. The source of this distress stems from age-related physical changes; however, it manifests in different ways for husbands and wives. In contrast, later life couples ages 70 — 86 were more likely to emphasize the importance of emotional intimacy over sex as they age.

studies have shown that age and gender shape the experience of sexuality Fisher, ; Lindau et al. Among adults ages 57 through 85, women have reported lower levels of sexual frequency than men in all age groups Lindau et al. Research also suggests that the quality of sexual experiences differs by gender among aging adults. A life course perspective, however, suggests that the experience of marital sex is dynamic and likely changes as couples age.

For example, aging and lower levels of sexual desire might lead to less marital conflict around sex for mid- to later life couples. Indeed, although intersectionality has been a widely adopted framework in feminist studies in general, it is an underutilized theoretical paradigm in feminist family studies Allen et al. Finally, assessing how age affects the experience of marital sex is especially important because ideas about sex and aging have changed over time. Attending to the ways that age and gender, as social structural locations and socially constructed meaning systems, intersect to shape how mid- to later life married couples experience sex will help provide a new way of thinking about how sex is experienced in such marriages that can inform future theoretical and empirical work on this topic.

Marriage is an especially salient context for examining this question because it is a gendered institution Ferree, shaped by the cultural belief that sex is an important component of marital happiness and longevity Fisher, ; Lindau et al. West and Zimmerman first conceptualized gender as an interactional performance whereby individuals adapt their gendered presentation to social interactions as they size up the social costs of failing to normatively perform gender.

Furthermore, Western culture most highly values gendered performances that uphold hierarchical relations between men and women, what Connell termed hegemonic masculinity and emphasized femininity. Cultural ideals of masculinity vary across time and space.

In the contemporary West, however, hegemonic masculine ideals include traits such as dominance, competence, strength, virility, and lack of emotion Wood, According to Connellbecause masculinity is deemed culturally superior to femininity, there is no hegemonic femininity. There are, however, normative ideals about what women should be, which she termed emphasized femininity.

To practice femininity in a socially normative way involves compliance with subordination, through accommodation to the desires and interests of men Connell.

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In Western culture, heterosexuality is an important resource for doing manhood and womanhood Connell, Cultural ideals of gendered heterosexuality are based on a sexual double standard, yet this idea rests on the image of youthful bodies.

Images of masculine sexuality are premised on high, almost uncontrollable levels of penis-driven sexual desire Kilmartin, ; Plummer, Most men may find that their level of desire does not meet up to this image, and doing so becomes ever more difficult with age; men over the age of 50 experience a sharp decrease in sexual function, frequency of orgasms, and levels of sexual desire Bacon et al.

Slevinfor example, found that although both men and women fear getting old, women in particular feared looking old because of the belief that aging women are physically unattractive. Carpenter et al. In summary, mid- to later life couples may experience physical changes that preclude the performance of gendered heterosexuality that is in line with youthful cultural ideals.

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It is also possible, however, that mid- to later life couples draw on cultural ideas about nonyouthful sexuality. Laz argued that age, like gender, is performed in response to culturally constructed understandings about the appropriateness of particular activities for different age groups.

Cultural discourses surrounding the acceptability of different sexual practices at different ages may shape how mid- to later life couples experience sex. Ideas about age and sex may, however, be changing. Precisely because understandings of age are socially constructed, they are not static. Viagra and other prescription drugs for ED may be changing cultural understandings of the appropriateness of sex among mid- to later life adults. For example, Loe found that midlife men frequently take Viagra as a way to match their sexual experiences with cultural understandings of hegemonic masculinity that require the ability to maintain an erection long enough to have penetrative, vaginal sex.

In summary, men and women encounter intersecting cultural discourses that shape how they think about sex, aging, and their bodies as well as how they attempt to perform sexuality. The purpose of this study, then, was to examine how gender and age as cultural discourses and social structural locations intersect to shape the sexual experiences of mid- to later life married couples.

We accomplished this through an analysis of in-depth interviews with 17 married couples. The couples we discuss in this article are part of a larger sample of 30 long-term married couples that were recruited through a local newspaper article and advertisement for a project that is examining change in marital relationships over the life course. The sample was restricted to include only couples in which both spouses agreed to be interviewed. Moreover, the use of spousal s may be regarded as helping to diminish social desirability bias, or the tendency of respondents to want to say things that will reflect well on them, an issue that is especially problematic in face-to-face interviews and research on sensitive topics Babbie, In-depth interviews were conducted in in Austin, Texas, and lasted an average of 2 hr.

A life course perspective informed the development of the questionnaire; therefore, the interviews assessed a variety of topics related to long-term marriage and the ways that marriage changes over time. This article focuses primarily on the topics of intimacy and sexuality. In what ways?

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The interviews were recorded and transcribed; respondents were ased pseudonyms for confidentiality purposes. We chose this age range because most adults begin to experience physical changes associated with age that may affect sexuality by the time they are in their 50s Avis et al. Researchers typically conceptualize later life as beginning at age 65 Connidis, As the retirement age increases and life expectancies increase, however, the life course seems to have lengthened; therefore, the division between mid-and late life is to a certain extent fluid, because some couples may transition from mid- to later life somewhat earlier, or later, than age Our sample included 10 midlife couples, six later life couples, and one couple with a later life husband age 75 and a midlife wife age The mean and median ages for this subsample were both 64, and the mean marital duration was 34 years.

All but three couples in the sample had been married for more than 20 years. These three couples had been married in the 10 years preceding the interviews and had ly been divorced or widowed. Seven of the couples in this sample were retired at the time they were interviewed in two of these cases, the wives self-identified as homemakers.

Two additional couples had retired but had since returned to working part time because of financial concerns. All but one couple had children from either their current or marriage. We followed standard grounded theory methods for analyzing qualitative data in order to understand how aging and gender affect the sexual experiences of married couples.

First, we carefully read all transcripts numerous times. Because of our original interest in how marital sex changes over the life course, concerning changing sexual experiences and ways of understanding and dealing with such changes were identified and analyzed in greater detail. After we had identified key and concepts, we then engaged in a process of axial coding, whereby we identified sub of analysis that suggested to us that these changes were sometimes experienced, dealt with, and understood differently according to age and gender.

For example, we found that many couples redefined the meaning of marriage to emphasize the importance of emotional over sexual intimacy, yet through axial coding we discovered that this strategy was largely limited to later life couples. In addition, we found that midlife couples spoke of changes to their sex lives that were perceived as distressing, yet the way these changes were experienced differed by gender.

The way this change was experienced, however, varied according to gender and age. Overall, our analysis revealed that married couples performed what can be termed an aged, gendered heterosexuality. For these couples, sex meant vaginal intercourse. All couples described change in the frequency and quality of their sexual experiences, whereas only midlife couples described distress with age-related physical changes that altered how they experienced sex, in particular those that changed the gendered dynamics of their sexual experiences. Midlife husbands and wives experienced this distress for different reasons.

We then present that demonstrate how couples dealt with and made sense of the changes that were occurring in their sex lives. Whereas couples in their 50s and 60s midlife were more likely to describe distress when their sexual experiences no longer matched their earlier sexual experiences, with a few couples turning to the use of Viagra to deal with these changes, couples in their 70s and 80s later life were more likely to redefine the meaning of marriage to emphasize the importance of emotional connections over sexual connections.

All couples experienced a decline in the frequency of sex, yet many couples reported that the quality of their sexual experiences had increased. Changes in quantity and quality did not differ in any systematic way for mid- and later life couples. Although later life couples were less likely than midlife couples to be sexually active, later life couples who were still sexually active were no more or less likely than midlife couples to say that the quality of sex had increased or decreased over time. Only midlife couples, however, described feeling emotional distress when they experienced age-related physical changes that altered how they experienced marital sex.

Moreover, midlife husbands and wives experienced distress differently in relation to these changes. This decline was attributed to aging, in particular, its physical aspects, such as a decrease in the ability and desire to have vaginal intercourse.

Three later life couples and one mixed couple later life husband and midlife wife had stopped having sex altogether because of health complications. For example, Lou age 81 had prostate cancer and was required to take hormonal injections that made it impossible for him to have an erection. For other couples, declines in sexual frequency were largely attributed to factors associated with aging, such as decreased sexual desire, problems maintaining erections, or hormonal changes.

For example, Malcolm age 72said. Your metabolism or your chemistry in your body just disappears. Both mid- and later life respondents indicated that a decrease in the frequency of sex was accompanied by an increase in the quality of sex, in that sex had become more satisfying both physically and emotionally.

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Overall, the in-depth interviews belied the assumption that a decline in quantity necessitates a decline in quality. Husbands and wives within the same couple generally agreed on whether the quality of their sexual relationship had increased or decreased as they had gotten older. For the three couples with discordant opinions on this point, the husbands three out of three were more likely to say that the quality of sex had decreased, whereas the wives three out of three were more likely to say that the quality had increased.

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This was largely due to the fact that husbands were more likely to equate quality with quantity, whereas wives were more likely to emphasize the relationship between quality and emotional intimacy. It is not as intense as it was. And you kind of miss that, you know. You miss that. On the other hand, it is far more relaxed too. Respondents attributed declines in sexual quality to several factors. In addition to feeling that their sex lives were no longer as intense or exciting, some respondents noted that their sex lives had worsened as they aged because of a decline in the frequency with which they had sex.

In addition to changes in the frequency and quality of sex, some midlife couples experienced change in how they experienced sex, and respondents described these changes as distressing. These changes were often attributed to the aging of the body and were especially prominent in the interviews of midlife couples such changes were described by only one later life couple.

Men who experienced ED or could no longer have sex because of health problems often felt embarrassment and emotional distress. Many of these s came from wives, with several wives suggesting that their husband had found the situation so disquieting it could not be discussed openly. It was real hard for him. But we got through it and we love each other in other ways.

He was devastated.

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