Ageism: what is it and how can you spot it?

Leeftijdsdiscriminatie wat is het en waar merk je het aan

Be honest: when you think of sex between older people, do you find it a sexy thing? Or does the idea of grandparents having sex give you the creeps? And something completely different: when an older newsreader presents the news, how does that make you feel? Age discrimination and stereotypes: they come in all shapes and forms, and we can hardly avoid them. And that has a bad influence on our (sexual) health.

What’s ageism?

Ageism is discrimination against people purely on the basis of their age. It’s commonly experienced by job applicants (too young, too old), but it’s also in the media. In recent years, at least 6 older women have had to leave various news programmes in the Netherlands because of their age, while older male presenters remain an integral part of Dutch national television.

Besides ageism in the media, we also see it in the area of sexuality. Older people are often seen as non-sexual creatures who do not (and should not) have sex. Yet, 40% of people between the ages of 65 and 80 are sexually active according to research by the University of Michigan. However, there’s a big difference between married and unmarried people: for example, 68% of married men over 70 say they still have sex while only 12% of unmarried women of the same age say they do.

Sexy silver fox and the cougar

If an article about sexuality is accompanied by a photo, it’s rarely of an older couple. And if it does feature an older person, it’s often in the form of a relatively new stereotype. Since the new millennium, the sexy silver fox (the sexy, older man), MILF (mom I’d like to fuck), or cougar (an older woman with a young man) are everywhere in the media landscape. Silver foxes include George Clooney, Patrick Dempsey, Pierce Brosnan, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, just to name a few. Cougars include Heidi Klum and her much younger husband Tom Kaulitz or Demi Moore and Ashton Kutcher, who were 16 years apart when they dated back in the day.

Stereotypes in the media

In Sex and the City, both stereotypes came into play: Samantha gets it on with young and sexy Smith Jerrod while Mr Big married the much younger and beautiful Natasha. In Home Again, Alice (Reese Witherspoon) had sex with the much younger Harry (Pico Alexander), and in The Bold Type, Richard (check him out, the irresistible Sam Page) fells for Sutton (Meghann Fahy), 15 years younger. And perhaps the most famous example of the MILF is Stifler’s mom (Jennifer Coolidge) in American Pie.

Ageism in the media: older, but youthful

One thing is always the same: both men and women of a certain age in films and series still look youthful and sexy. We don’t see droopy asses or other loose skin. And while we find George’s wrinkles sexy, we’d rather not see them on Jennifer Aniston. Speaking of which, did you notice that at the Friends reunion, the men were all clearly 20 years older, but the women were not? Women are still told to stay young, wrinkle-free and fit, while men seem to embrace the ageing process.

Seniors are also underrepresented in advertisements. And when they are included, it’s almost always in connection with specific products, such as hearing aids, insurance, and pensions. However, a shift is taking place: various sports brands are opting for seniors in their advertisements and even the very Dutch HEMA is now showing older people in their underwear in their brochures.

Ageism causes problems

Less sexual activity

There’s a danger in constantly portraying stereotypes. It actually makes older people less interested in sex and less sexually active. And yet, sex is something natural and healthy for adults of all ages. In short, sexual behaviour is accepted differently in different age groups. Portraying older people as non-sexual beings also makes it more difficult for them to express themselves sexually. It can be seen as immoral or dirty, leaving sex as something only younger people do.

Health concerns

Even when promoting safe sex, older people are almost never targeted. As a result, the number of HIV infections among the elderly is growing. Because of their age, many symptoms are attributed to old age, which means that the diagnosis comes later and the disease is already more advanced. In 2017, 18% of all people with HIV were older than 50.

Reading tip: No one minds testing for the coronavirus, but testing for STDs? That’s a different thing.

Problems in care homes

In care homes, the need for sex can be seen as something inconvenient. Rules on sexuality and intimacy are often lacking in the regulations of such care homes.

In addition, many people from the LGBTIQ+ community feel forced to conceal their identity when they need something from the care system. For example, rights within a family context (such as inheriting a house, insurance, and child custody); social protection, where they can claim the survivor’s pension; or social exclusion by staff and co-residents in care institutions.

Sex as you get older: how can you keep it fun?

Old age has its drawbacks, but is that also true for sexual matters? Perhaps, but oftentimes, something can be done about it. Physical problems can occur for both men and women. These are the most common.

  • Vaginal dryness: The older a woman gets, the less oestrogen her body produces. This causes the mucous membranes in the vagina to become drier, resulting in vaginal dryness. This often occurs during or after menopause. You can solve this by using lubricant. Don’t underestimate the power of good foreplay either. Women have more time to get aroused, and at a later age, it often takes even longer.
  • Impotence: Men often suffer from this in later life. It can make it more difficult to get or keep an erection. If it happens regularly, it’s wise to discuss it with your GP. They may prescribe ED pills such as Viagra. You can also try out natural ED remedies.
  • Greater or lesser desire for sex: it can be difficult to accommodate each other if one person has much greater desire for sex than the other. Some women want to have sex much more often when they’re receiving hormone therapy during menopause, for example. By communicating well with each other, these problems can be tackled. Communication is important for every couple, as it ensures that you can better understand each other’s desires and concerns.

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