“Elderly people’s sexuality is a taboo subject. Many films depict romantic relationships between older people, but they don’t explore sexual relations,” says Linn Sandberg.
She has studied elderly men’s masculinity and sexuality and how these issues challenge our view of masculinity.
“Older men are seen either as asexual or as the stereotypical ‘dirty old man',” says Sandberg, who recently spoke on a conference on masculinity in Bergen.
Sandberg interviewed men born between 1922 and 1944, about how they view their own sexuality. All the informants were heterosexuals involved in intimate relationships.
The men told that intimacy and touching are important, and that they do not not stop being sexual beings even though their bodies has grown old, although they had found new ways of making love. They felt that they had become more thoughtful, less egotistical and more sensitive.
“My informants said that they had explored different sides of themselves and that old age had opened up new avenues of masculinity and potential for them as lovers," explains Sandberg.
When a man’s health declined in some areas, touching and intimacy in particular served as the glue in the relationship with his partner and became more important in their sexual relations.
“One of my informants explained that he couldn’t put pressure on his knees anymore, so he and his wife had to find new ways of being intimate,” says the researcher.
Sandberg draws parallels between how elderly men change towards the end of their lives and stereotypical notions about femininity. Quite simply, older men become more sensitive psychologically and softer physically.
“I found some interesting parallels. The body becomes more passive and dependent on others. This also has an impact on intimate relationships. The male body also becomes softer and rounder. The hard ‘phallus-centred’ body disappears," explains Sandberg.
How do elderly men feel about the effects of age on their bodies? Do the men have a problem with the changes that come with old age or do they see new possibilites?
Linn Sandberg was one of the lecturers at the seminar “Threatening Masculinities, Threatening Men” which was organized by the Centre for Women’s and Gender Research at the University of Bergen recently.
"I’m trying to shed light on how aging challenges our view of masculinity, but I haven’t found any definitive answers yet,” explains Sandberg.
"Old age can be a threat to masculinity and how can this be challenged?” she asks.
Many of Sandberg’s informants had a positive view of old age. In addition to being interviewed, they also kept “body diaries” which the researcher read.
She found that physical changes affect intimacy and change the way men make love to women. The desire is still there, but warmth and intimacy become more important than being hard.
"Intercourse is not the only thing that counts, and so the men prioritize differently. As a result, they become more thoughtful, and the men say that the women appreciate this,” she says.
Several of the informants felt that old age allows some men to get in touch with their more sensitive side. As their bodies grow softer and they become more dependent on others, men have new opportunities to experience their own bodies in positive ways.
One of the informants told Sandberg what happened when he was treated for cancer. He began to develop breasts. He thought it felt like he had lost his masculinity.
"But his wife said that if it hadn’t been for his breasts, his stomach would have looked so much bigger. So she liked it, and thought it was sexy, soft and nice. When she saw his soft body and liked it, he also liked it better himself,” Sandberg says.
Sandberg thinks masculinity is changeable and complex, but that the parameters for old age may have become too narrow.
Much of the literature on aging contends that seniors should be active, carry on as usual and be productive.
“I’m critical towards the image of the elderly as being extremely active and where nobody notices that they are getting older," the researcher says. "This ‘ideal image’ fits only very few older people."
"We also see this especially in how Viagra and other pharmaceuticals are supposed to keep elderly men youthful and hard. It used to be more normal for older men to lose the ability to have an erection. Now the elderly are supposed to be ‘sexy seniors’ who are active, travel, take part in organizations and have a lot of sex. But there is a fine line between being a ‘sexy senior’ and a ‘dirty old man’,” concludes Sandberg.