Older People’s Understandings of Sexuality (OPUS) Research Initiative

The Older People’s Understandings of Sexuality research initiative was established to investigate older people – generally those over 60 - and sexuality and intimacy – a much neglected topic.

Its broader aims are to challenge stereotypes of older people as asexual or beyond or unworthy of being involved in sexual/intimate relations and to contribute to understandings of older people as sexual and intimate citizens. This will involve clarifying the realities of older people's personal lives and challenging stereotypes of them.  

Ageing, sexuality as ridiculed or erased 

There are various reasons why OPUS is needed. Older people are often excluded from sexuality and intimacy in popular culture or they find their sexuality routinely ridiculed in so-called gifts or birthday cards. Golden Girls and Last Tango in Halifax (BBC series) are exceptions to the rule when there are few (positive) media images of older people’s sexuality. Despite the extension of choices over care, the subject is erased from or else marginal to government's, practitioners’ and academics' concerns.

Sexuality/intimacy are often eclipsed by (and not included in) considerations of maintaining physical and emotional independence. We recognise that this state of affairs may be more acute and possibly more urgent for the oldest old or most physically and cognitively reliant on others who need to live in care homes.       

By 2030, two-thirds of the world’s population will be over 65. Our concerns then need to be placed in the context of national (British) demographic considerations. Given trends towards longevity among all social classes (and especially the more affluent and educated), Britain (like many other economically developed societies) is an ageing population. Census data show that there are 10.3 million people aged 65 or over in the UK and whilst only 4.5% of these are living in care homes, this still amounts to half a million individuals.

If longevity continues to improve, demands to address sexuality and intimacy in care or service provision and more widely in society and its institutions will grow, especially given that the baby-boomers who are now in midlife or reaching old age - brought up on the Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin - will have experienced more tolerant attitudes and freedoms concerning sexual expression. This also concerns lesbian, gay, bisexual, trans and self-consciously ‘queer’ individuals who are now experiencing greater recognition and respect given moves towards equality.