Do you talk to your doctor about sex? 143



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Let’s say right off the bat that sex is different when you’re in your 60s compared to… well, sex in your 20s. But different doesn’t necessarily mean better or worse – just different. For instance, physiological changes and health problems can affect the sexual health of men and women over 60.

Also, sex becomes more than just intercourse: it provides intimacy, companionship and affection.

This brings us to an important question: are you comfortable talking to your doctor about these changes, or any other sexual health concern?

For the over 60s who are single, there’s also the issue of safe sex. Where to buy condoms? How to use them? How to negotiate safe sex with a new partner? These are just some questions that many readers may want answers to.

Yet, apparently, when it comes to talking to the doctor about matters relating to sexual health, it seems that the topic is brushed over, or avoided completely. Research carried out in the USA, UK and locally all point to the same causes: patients often feel embarrassed to ask questions and initiate conversations about their sexual health.

But the squirming doesn’t stop there: doctors, too, often feel embarrassed, awkward or even ambivalent when discussing sexual health matters with older patients. Research says that your local doctor – either knowingly or unknowingly – may harbour potentially ageist beliefs and assumptions. Doctors also have a tendency to attribute sexual problems to the normal ageing process, and can even perceive sexual problems as not serious.

Unsurprisingly, this situation is not good for health. On the one hand, good knowledge about sexual health contributes to healthy relationships and improved emotional and physical well-being. On the flip-side, sweeping sexual problems under the carpet could affect overall health and relationship quality, and in a worst-case scenario, lead to a misdiagnosis.

So why does the topic of sexual health arouse such fear, avoidance and silence? Societal assumptions, stereotypes and ageist beliefs are often to blame. That is, sexual health usually conjures images of the healthy and sexually active young person, whilst the over 60s are often thought to be physically incapable and/or uninterested in sex, or even asexual. In other words, sex is regarded as less important in later life – but is this really the case?

Needless to say, then, that sexual health is an area of health and well-being that is most influenced by social, cultural and religious factors, and moral norms and beliefs. Women over 60, for instance, are generally not encouraged to express their sexuality. You just have to look in the magazines to see that women over 60 are not adequately represented. And as far as celebrating their sexuality goes…well, let’s just say that things could be a lot better. Take recent calls for Madonna to put away her ‘geriatric bits’ as evidence. Such restrictive and rigid expectations also apply to men, where fears of being labelled as the ‘dirty old man’ are common.

Given that the discomfort between doctor and patient can sway between embarrassment, shame, ambivalence and humiliation, it’s no wonder that the topic of sexual health is one of the most commonly explored on the internet for the over 60s. To the relief of many, home computers and smartphones do not go red-faced or raise their eyebrows at the mere mention of sex. Rather, the internet is anonymous, non-discriminate, convenient, private and confidential, and solves any mobility issues.

Yet despite the large numbers of over 60s accessing the internet for information, most sites cater to a younger audience. In this sense, relying solely on the internet can be problematic for the over 60 population due to lack of availability of relevant sites. Plus there is no guarantee that the information is accurate and reliable.

Whilst there is a great deal of work that can be done in this area, fortunately sites such as Starts at Sixty provide online information on sex-related topics. Also, organisations such as Women’s Health in the South East and Jean Hailes are attempting to normalise sexuality for the over 60s by challenging outdated social norms through awareness raising, community education and information sharing. These organisations are also working hard to educate doctors and health professionals on the importance of good sexual health for the over sixties.

And this brings us back to the importance of speaking up, which could improve your health. At the same time, in a small but nonetheless important way, your voice will help to break down the cultural silence that lingers unnecessarily over the sexual health of the over 60s.


Have you talked to your doctor about your sex-life or any sexual health related concern(s)? Why or why not? For those who have broached the topic, did it feel natural… or awkward? And what is your preferred source of information on sexual health? If you feel comfortable, please share your stories with us in the comments below…

Sandi Scaunich

Sandi Scaunich is a Health Promotion Officer specialising in sexual and reproductive health. Sandi works at Women’s Health in the South East which is the regional women’s health service for the Southern Metropolitan Region of Melbourne. She has three tertiary qualifications, including a Master of Social Health (Medical Anthropology) from the University of Melbourne. Sandi formally worked in the community, local and state government health sectors, and has also taught health and sociology subjects at Melbourne, Swinburne and Deakin Universities. Sandi has three young children – two boys and a girl – who keep her very busy outside of work! And she admits to being addicted to scrabble...

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