All Shook Up: Sexuality of Mid- to Later Life Married Couples

By Lodge, Amy C.; Umberson, Debra | Journal of Marriage and Family, June 2012 | Go to article overview

All Shook Up: Sexuality of Mid- to Later Life Married Couples


Lodge, Amy C., Umberson, Debra, Journal of Marriage and Family


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. The findings indicated that couples' sexual experiences are characterized by change over time, yet that change is shaped by the intersection of gender and age. 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. Marital sex is a source of conflict for many midlife couples because of husbands' and wives' incongruent experiences, but later life husbands and wives tend to have more congruent experiences of marital sex.

Key Words: aging, families in middle and later life, gender, marital sex, sexual attitudes, sexual behavior.

Previous studies have shown that age and gender shape the experience of sexuality (Fisher, 2010; Lindau et al., 2007; Waite & Das, 2010). Age is a major predictor of diminished levels of sexual desire (DeLamater & Sill, 2005) and decreased sexual frequency, in particular after age 45 (DeLamater & Moorman, 2007), yet aging does not seem to affect the sexuality of men and women in the same ways. Among adults ages 57 through 85, women have reported lower levels of sexual frequency than men in all age groups (Lindau et al., 2007; Waite & Das, 2010). Research also suggests that the quality of sexual experiences differs by gender among aging adults. For example, Finnish women ages 65 through 74 reported significantly lower levels of sexual quality than did women ages 45 through 64, but reports of sexual quality were similar, and higher than women's, across a wide age range of Finnish men (ages 45 - 74; Kontula & HaavioMannila, 2009) Although physiological changes and imbalanced sex ratios associated with aging explain some of these differences, researchers know little about how social meanings shape the experience of marital sex in mid- to later life.

Cultural understandings of gendered heterosexuality, whereby men are framed as sexually assertive and women as sexually passive, affect the ways that men and women understand themselves sexually (Crawford & Popp, 2003). Moreover, this "sexual double standard" (Crawford & Popp) shapes how married couples experience sex and often leads to marital conflict about sex (Elliott & Umberson, 2008). 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. A life course perspective further suggests that the way changes in marital sex are experienced would vary by one's gender. Previous research, however, has not examined how age and gender - as two social structural locations and socially constructed meaning systems - intersect to shape mid- to later life couples' sexual experiences.

We therefore merged theories on the performance of gendered heterosexuality (Connell, 1987, 1995; West & Zimmerman, 1987) with theoretical work on the performance of age (Laz, 1998, 2003) to guide an analysis of mid- to later life couples' sexual experiences at the intersection of gendered heterosexuality and age. In doing so, we provide theoretical and empirical insight into the sexual experiences of midto later life couples, and we respond to calls for an intersectionality framework in research on families (Allen, Lloyd, & Few, 2009; Ferree, 2010). 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. …

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