Academic journal article Adultspan Journal

The Impact of Sexual Orientation on Women's Midlife Experience: A Transition Model Approach

Academic journal article Adultspan Journal

The Impact of Sexual Orientation on Women's Midlife Experience: A Transition Model Approach

Article excerpt

Sexual orientation is an integral part of identity affecting every stage of an individual's development. This literature review examines women's cultural experiences based on sexual orientation and their effect on midlife experience. A developmental model is offered that incorporates sexual orientation as a contextual factor in this developmental stage.


The 2000 census revealed that, out of a total population of more than 281.4 million people, 96 million were middle-aged adults between the ages of 35 and 60. Of this number, more than 49 million were women (U.S. Census Bureau, 2001). Adults entering their middle years experience a number of developmental transitions in common, such as retirement, children leaving home, losing a partner (through divorce or death), serious personal illness, and the possibility of caring for aging relatives (Astbury-Ward, 2003; Ballard, Kuh, & Wadsworth, 2001; Schlossberg, Waters, & Goodman, 1995).

Although both men and women face the prospect of changing roles at this developmental stage of life, middle-aged women may have more difficulty transitioning from who they have been to who they are becoming. Mothers become grandmothers, wives become widows, and, often, women who have spent the majority of their adult lives as caretakers and homemakers find themselves entering the workforce, either for the first time or after a considerable absence. Socially, they are subjected to the negative expectations, assumptions, and biases imposed upon "older women" by modern Western society (Astbury-Ward, 2003; Ballard et al., 2001; Degges-White, 2001; Shore, 1999), which may create additional social and emotional conflict for some women as they approach their middle years. Sexual orientation, too, plays a part in how a woman processes her midlife experiences, because her sexual expression and conformity or nonconformity to traditional gender roles affect how she is seen and, therefore, how she sees herself in society throughout her life (Grossman, 1997).

According to estimates by the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force Policy Institute, approximately 3% to 8% of the U.S. population identifies as lesbian or gay (Cahill, South, & Spade, 2000). Using that figure as a guideline, and based on the current population of middle-aged women cited earlier, there are between 1.47 and 3.92 million middle-aged lesbian women living in the United States today. Despite the significance of their numbers, the current literature on the midlife and aging of lesbians devotes little effort to understanding the unique needs and concerns of this population (Orel, 2004).

This article presents a literature review that explores the context in which both heterosexual and lesbian women experience some of the changes intrinsic to midlife as a developmental stage and how those changes are affected by sexual orientation. A developmental model is presented that counselors may use in conjunction with a variety of theoretical orientations to address each woman's personal experience of this developmental transition from her unique perspective, using sexual orientation as but one aspect of a multifaceted, multicultural identity. Implications for therapeutic use of the model are also discussed.


A number of researchers have posited that women's experience of menopause and midlife is culturally constructed (Astbury-Ward, 2003; Degges-White, 2001; Gabbay & Wahler, 2002; Shore, 1999; Winterich, 2003) and that whether they view midlife changes as positive, negative, or neutral may be culturally determined (Astbury-Ward, 2003). Degges-White suggested that, in fact, women in the United States often anticipate a negative experience of menopause, and of midlife in general, because they are preprogrammed by the societal stigma attached to older women. Women are under more pressure than men to maintain a youthful appearance (Astbury-Ward, 2003) and are perceived as older sooner than men (Ballard et al. …

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