Sexual and Intimacy Issues for Aging Gay Men

By Pope, Mark; Wierzalis, Edward A. et al. | Adultspan Journal, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Sexual and Intimacy Issues for Aging Gay Men


Pope, Mark, Wierzalis, Edward A., Barret, Bob, Rankins, Michael, Adultspan Journal


The authors focus on the special issues involved in providing counseling to aging gay men regarding sex and intimacy. Although the stresses of aging experienced by gay men are similar to those of heterosexual men, older gay men face issues of a stigmatized sexual orientation, invisibility, negative stereotypes, and discrimination regarding aging.

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The stereotype of the aging gay man is changing with increased research on this numerically larger and increasingly more important group (Berger, 1982; Kelly, 1977; Kimmel, 1977; Pope & Schulz, 1990). Prior to the mid-1970s, the social stereotype was that he no longer goes to bars, because he has lost his physical attractiveness and his sexual appeal to the young men he craves. He is oversexed, but his sex life is very unsatisfactory. He has been unable to form a lasting relationship with a sexual partner, and he is seldom sexually active anymore. When he does have sex, it is usually in a "tearoom" (public toilet). He has disengaged from the gay world and his acquaintances in it. In short, his life is composed of little intimacy and little sex.

Researchers, however, have given us a totally different picture. Kelly (1977), Kimmel (1977), Berger (1982), and later Pope and Schulz (1990) reported starkly different data from these stereotypes in their pioneering studies on this population. The sex life of the older gay man was, characteristically, quite satisfactory, and he desired sexual contact and intimacy with adult men, especially those near his own age. He continued to both desire sex and to have sexual contact, to have long-term relationships, and to be involved in the gay community.

Kimmel (2000) found that what constitutes the beginning of old age in U.S. society is now rather ambiguous and that many chronologically "old" people are active sexually, physically, emotionally, and intellectually. Therefore, how does aging affect the context of people's lives and their self-esteem, intimacy, and relationships? What types of relationships will play a part in maintaining a satisfying life as people age? These universal questions present a specific set of challenges and rewards for gay men as they age.

Sexual behavior, as a basic need, is an important issue for all males in U.S. society and is subject to a host of societal messages (Pope & Barret, 2002). One does not have to look far to see the overt sexual messages that infuse every aspect of U.S. culture.

   Male sexuality in our cultural view is shaped by the scripts boys
   are offered almost from birth, by the cultural lessons they learn
   throughout the life course, among them the belief in a sometimes
   overpowering male sex drive and the belief that men have immutable
   sexual needs that are manifested over and above individual attempts
   at repression. (Blumstein & Schwartz, 1990, p. 310)

The desirable male images that appear in the media are strong, aggressive, sexually skillful, athletic, confident, and above all, young. Men, regardless of sexual orientation, see the images daily and undoubtedly struggle with their inability to embody all of those idealized masculine traits (Pollack, 1998). Depictions of hypermasculinity are particularly visible within the gay male culture and include such images as buff bodybuilders, men dressed in uniforms or leather, and men who have frequent casual sex. Men who do not personify machismo, in an attempt to refute the negative stereotype about gay men, risk appearing to be effeminate and not "real" men. These social images may not serve aging gay men well.

GAY MEN AND AGING: AN OVERVIEW

Over the last 3 decades, several researchers (e.g., Adelman, 1990; Berger, 1996; Friend, 1980; Isay, 1996; Kelly, 1977; Kimmel, 1978; Pope, 1997; Quam, 1993) have begun to address aging within the gay male community. Gay men face aging issues similar to those of their heterosexual counterparts, but there are enough differences to warrant discussion of this population's challenges and issues (Wierzalis, Barret, Pope, & Rankins, 2006). …

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