Sexuality and Women Over 50: Women and Aging

06/22/2017 06:16 pm ET Updated Nov 12, 2017

Why do women live long past menopause (about 1/3 of their lives), when most of the animal kingdom doesn’t? We know of just three species on the planet ― humans, killer whales, and pilot whales ― where females routinely stop breeding years before the end of their lives.

This question is intrinsic to understanding a much broader set of issues and concerns related to sexuality and gender that impact women over 50 (generally post-menopausal women). For example, in a number of pre-contact/small scale societies menopause was seen as a continuation of the life cycle resulting in raising and changing women’s status, roles and expressions of sexuality. In contrast, the predominant view towards menopause and aging women in the 20th and 21st centuries US society is much more of a biomedical perspective of decline and “needing to be managed.”

Until recently, in the United States women’s sexuality was almost exclusively framed in heterosexual reproductive terms and focused on penile-vaginal penetration. Post-menopausal women’s sexuality generally was either ignored as an entity in itself, diminished, or denied in the US. While post-menopausal women are now being recognized as sexual beings, the heterosexist and penetrative biases still persist. It is important to unpack such biases because there are over 50 million women in the US who have reached menopause and who will live one third of their lives as post-menopausal women (Howden and Mayer, 2010).

In 1949, Simone de Beauvoir once proposed: “One is not born, but rather becomes, a woman.” This statement references the importance of how our culture influences our desires and expression of sexuality through beliefs, norms, values, expectations, and biases. In our BLOGS, we will focus on issues of interest to post-menopausal women. We will use cross-cultural, comparative, and evolutionary data to show how many societies, in contrast to ours, embrace sexuality in women over 50. We will apply this perspective to specific topics concerning women over 50 in the US, including, but not limited to, issues relating to menopause, sexual arousal, diet and fitness, gender and identity issues, non-penetrative orgasm and pleasure, vaginal changes affecting sexuality, partner relationships, and solo sexuality among others.

As anthropologists, we believe we bring a unique lens to this topic not shared by other disciplines and one not known more widely outside of academia. We are both “Boomer” women, retired university professors of anthropology who devoted our careers to sexuality issues in a variety of areas. These include education, workshops, conferences, sex therapy, HIV test counseling, research and authoring three editions of human sexuality textbooks and editing a three-volume encyclopedia of human sexuality. We have also published books spanning topics of HIV/ AIDS, transgender issues, sex workers and women’s bodies.

While future entries will address the topics mentioned above, today we will focus on aging and the meaning of middle age and beyond for women. As Yoko Ono said: “Some people are old when they’re 18 and some people are young when they’re 90. You can’t define people by whatever society determines as their age. Time is a concept that human beings created” (The Guardian February 10, 2012 as cited by Julie May NYMagCut, 2017)

Our anthropological lens incorporates knowledge from our evolutionary past, archaeological remains, language studies and culture, including not only our own society but societies around the world past and present. Humans are unique in that our biological evolution is closely tied to interaction with culture, ie., it is bio-cultural, and thus has huge implications for understanding why women live past 50.

The Grandmother Hypothesis:

Human females and some of our closest relatives both past and present are unique among mammals for living beyond our age of reproduction. This is supported by both fossil and archaeological evidence. That women live well past menopause is a bio-cultural process, also referred to as epigenetics, where we see how our biology has been affected by socio-cultural and environmental factors. Exploring aging anthropologically means that we examine this process in the context of a society’s norms, categories, values and beliefs about aging, gender, and sexuality. We must also think about how these dimensions vary across time and space as well as the impact of interaction with other societies such as the effects of colonization, industrialization and globalization (Blaffer-Hrdy 1999). Aging, therefore, can be understood using two very important anthropological concepts: cultural relativism and ethnocentrism. From a culturally relativistic perspective how one perceives and experiences aging is a function of the culture they were raised in and therefore should be understood within that cultural context. Conversely, one should strive to avoid an ethnocentric perspective on aging, that is one should avoid overgeneralizing or evaluating aging from an Euro-US perspective.

As stated earlier, scholars have documented that human females as well as some mammals and higher primates, both past and present, are fairly unique for living past their reproductive age (Blaffer-Hrdy (1999; Bolin and Whelehan 2009; Fedigan and Pavilla 2015). While there have been a number of theories proposed to explain why human females live well beyond menopause, anthropologists believe one of these to be the most compelling: it is known as the “Grandmother Hypothesis,” and offers an explanation from the perspective of an evolutionary advantage.

Briefly, the grandmother hypothesis posits that since human females in all societies live beyond reproductive age (Note we are not saying that all women live beyond reproductive age!), there is an evolutionary benefit to having post-menopausal women survive due to the important socio-cultural roles that they fill in their societies. As Fedigan and Pavilla (2015) discuss, older females provide extremely important additional roles to that of mothers, including childrearing and caring duties as well as fill other roles previously often denied to younger women

In many societies, post-menopausal women who were freed from the duties of childcaring provided social support for each other and their family and wider kin groups; they nurtured and socialized the young, took on leadership roles politically and religiously, and often became healers and the “wise” members of the group, i.e., the elders (Brown and Kerns 1985). As elders, they passed on essential knowledge of group to the younger members of society. Margaret Mead (1970) pointed out decades ago that it is only within the past 1-2 generations that that this trend is reversing. With the advent of increasingly sophisticated technology and global communication, economic, and political systems, it is now common for the younger generation to not only to enculturate the older generation (think grandkids teaching their grandparents about computers), but for the knowledge of the elder generations to be denigrated or dismissed.

Women who lived well passed reproductive age provided essential roles in helping the group to survive, thereby providing an evolutionary advantage to these small-scale societies in which our ancestors evolved. Most of human history was spent in these non-industrialized, simpler societies. In contrast to our current youth orientated society that values the future and not the past, post-menopausal women were often recognized for their valuable contributions and gained more influential roles and enhanced authority, as well as increased freedom to express their sexuality.

Future entries will explore the evolution and the history of women in other societies, specifically in regards to the circumstances that recognized, rewarded, and promoted their status, as well as the expressions of their sexuality as they aged. We will show how these culturally-embedded attitudes towards older women’s sexuality impact behavior and norms, and offer suggestions regarding how North American-US perspectives on women’s sexuality post-menopause affect women and what we can learn from them to enhance our lives today..

Citations for Aging Entry:

Blaffer-Hrdy, Sarah. Mother Nature. Maternal Instincts and How They Shape The Human Species. Ballantine Books, New York.

Bolin, Anne, and Patricia Whelehan. 2009. Human Sexuality. Biological, Psychological, and Cultural Perspectives. Routledge, New York.

Brown, Judith and Virginia Kerns. 1985. In Her Prime. A New View of Middle-aged Women. Bergen and Garvey, Publishers. South Hadley, MA.

deBeauvoir, Simone. 1949. The Second Sex. Editions Gallimard, Paris.

Fedigan, Linda Marie, and Mary S.M. Pavelka. 2015. Menopause (primates) in The International Encyclopedia of Human Sexuality. Anne Bolin and Patricia Whelehan (eds.), Wiley, London, pp 781-783.

Howden, Lindsay and Mayer, Julie, A. 2010. Census Briefs. Age and Sex Composition 2010. https://www.census.gov/prod/cen2010/briefs/c2010br-03.pdf accessed May 12, 2017.

Mead, Margaret. 1970. Culture and Commitment: A Study of the Generation Gap. The Bodley Head, London.

Ono, Yoko. February 10, 2012. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/ 2012/feb/10/yoko-ono-leonardo-cohen-artists, accessed May 18, 2017. (Cited Julie May, NYMag, The Cut, January 30, 2017, http://nymag.com/thecut/2014/09/25-famous-women-onaging.htmlnymag.com/thecut/2014/09/25-famous-women-on-aging.html, accessed May 18, 2017.

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