Academic journal article Rural Society

Midlife Relationship Diversity, Sexual Fluidity, Wellbeing and Sexual Health from a Rural Perspective

Academic journal article Rural Society

Midlife Relationship Diversity, Sexual Fluidity, Wellbeing and Sexual Health from a Rural Perspective

Article excerpt


People in midlife are having sexual relationships outside hetero-monogamy and marriage which contribute positively to their wellbeing, yet take risks with sexual health in a policy environment where they are neglected. The baby boomer cohort, defined as those born in the years 1946-1965 (Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2003), is reputed to have pushed the boundaries of sexual expression and relationships in the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 1970s (Dabhoiwala, 2012). Some baby boomers are continuing sexually adventurous behaviours in midlife. Others who followed the conventional expectation of heterosexual monogamy and marriage and did not take part in the sexual revolution (Bongiorno, 2012) are making up for lost time, as are later life adults (Malta & Farquharson, 2012).

Intimate, dating relationships contribute to physical and psychological wellbeing for people of all ages (Dickson, Hughes, & Walker, 2005; Galinsky & Waite, 2014), which is justification for including all sexually active cohorts in sexual health promotion. Sexual health still matters for people of post-reproductive age and relates to sexual wellbeing, not just the absence of disease or dysfunction (World Health Organization, 2006). Through positive acknowledgement of midlife relationships and how they contribute to wellbeing, stigma and "sexual ageism" (Minichiello, Hawkes, & Pitts, 2011, p. 182) will be reduced. People who live in rural areas face a number of disadvantages in relationships compared with those in major cities. The disadvantages of living in a rural area include social restrictions in how relationships are conducted (Warr & Hillier, 1997), reduced access to specialist sexual health services (Bourne et al., 2013) and concerns about confidentiality (Kong, Hocking, Kyle-Link, Chen, & Hellard, 2010).

The relationship health of older people in rural areas matters as there is a greater, and growing, proportion of older people in rural areas than in metropolitan settings (Davis & Bartlett, 2008). In this present article, the Australian Bureau of Statistics' (2011) definition of rural was adopted, refering to all those not living in a capital city. Individual cases discussed are drawn from inner-regional and outer-regional areas (AIHW, 2011) to explore rural baby boomers in friends-with-benefits relationships (FWBR). FWBR is where people have a friendship which includes a sexual relationship that is repeated or ongoing, yet do not live together or call themselves a couple. Such relationship diversity persists despite "coupledom" being perceived as a desirable relationship expectation (Jones, 2011).

Four individual cases drawn from 22 research participants are the focus of this article. All live in rural Victoria, Australia. Their stories illustrate relationship diversity, sexual risk-taking and the experience of using health services for sexual health. They convey an implicit assumption that sexual behaviour, which deviates from conventional coupledom, is a potential target for stigma that has to be hidden from society and familiar health services. Using a rural lens, the experiences highlighted in the cases provide a basis for exploring social change in relationships, sexuality, sexual health, rural sexual health, stigma and medical education in sexual health. An overall research aim is that our findings will lead to recommendations supporting good sexual health and relationship wellbeing for people in midlife, especially those living in a rural area.

Literature review and theory

Sexual desire and sexual expression continue in post-reproductive years, from midlife to old age, in long-term and new relationships. While it is known that sexual interest declines with ageing, satisfaction with sex lives improves (Relationships Australia, 2011) and sex is still an important part of life and a contributor to wellbeing. Quality of life is related to sexual satisfaction (Thomas, 2014) and physical pleasure continues into mid- and later life (Thorpe, Fileborn, Hawkes, Pitts, & Minichiello, 2015). …

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