lili@ugent.be

About the project

Later-in-life intimacy is still a taboo. It is often ignored or assumed not to exist. And if there is attention for older people’s sexuality, it is often from a medical point of view. This taboo affects all genders, but women often face more negative judgement than men and do so earlier in life. Moreover, women are presumed to lose sexual interest earlier than men, and their purported attractiveness is more negatively affected by the fading of youthful looks than men’s. Women’s sexual desires are assumed to disappear with ageing, and the idea of older women and sex is often perceived as inappropriate or subject of mockery and jokes.
More positive narratives that promote lifelong sexuality and attractiveness exist, yet are equally ageist as they are still premised on standards of youth. Successful ageing narratives stress that women can (and should) remain sexually active and attractive with ageing. However, in this narrative, sexuality is seen as both resulting from and a necessary condition for a healthy and energetic old age. While successful ageing discourses create acceptance for sexuality later in life, they hold sexuality reserved for those older people who keep themselves looking young and fit, and relegate asexuality to the realm of pathology.

Both the narratives of decline and the successful ageing narratives reproduce ageist, stereotypical and harmful views on older women’s intimacy and sexuality. We urgently need a different story.

The LiLI project aims to develop an affirmative story of intimacy and (a)sexuality that is grounded in the knowledge and lived experiences of older women themselves. We are particularly interested in the diverse experiences and ideas that have the potential to destabilise prevailing stereotypes. The ‘unruly’ experiences and insights of women who don’t fit in the mainstream – because of aspects such as their age, gender, sexuality, relationship style, ability, ethnicity, etc. – are crucial for the development of a critical and affirmative theory of older women’s sexuality.

  • When we speak of ‘women’, we mean everyone who can identify with the term, but we are equally interested in the experiences of people who do not unambiguously subscribe to the term, and who for example prefer to call themselves non-binary or do not identify as women all the time.
  • We do not see ‘older’ as an absolute concept either. We are interested in exclusion by older age, regardless of chronological age. Nevertheless, we take middle age (roughly between forty and sixty) as the lower limit for this study, because research shows that women experience this age as a turning point. The fact that we include middle-aged to very old women as a group in this study does not mean that we deny that their experiences can be very different. Furthermore, using the terms ‘old’ or ‘older’ for a broad group of women is part of a strategy to normalise these terms and to rid them of negative connotations. We want to reclaim ‘old’ as an identity equally associated with appreciation as ‘young’.
  • We also start from a very broad definition of intimacy and sexuality, and use these terms to refer to a wide range of practices, feelings and identities that are related to emotional and physical closeness with others, but also to finding pleasure and enjoyment in one’s own body.

We ground this research in several disciplines, notably anthropology, social geography, cultural and media studies and feminist philosophy:

  • The anthropological study focuses on intimate and sexual practices and collects stories from midlife and older women about the experience of their sexuality and intimate life.
  • The social geographical study investigates how intimate experience in later life is limited, enabled and/or shaped by the way in which the physical and digital space is organised. We look at different forms of housing, but also at semi-public spaces that could possibly facilitate intimacy (such as clubs, bathhouses, dating sites, etc.).
  • Finally, the culture and media study investigates representations. We analyse various media and other cultural products that represent middle-aged and older women, but also investigate how these products are created and how older women perceive them.
    In the final phase of the research, these three components will be brought together in an integrated feminist philosophical analysis.

The research is made possible thanks to funding from the European Research Council (ERC) under the European Union’s Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme (Grant Agreement 851666). The host institution is Ghent University, and all team members are affiliated with the Research Centre for Culture and Gender (CRCG), within the Department of Languages and Cultures of the Faculty of Arts and Philosophy. The project started on 1 May 2020 and runs until 31 October 2025.

Call for participation in the LiLI research

We are looking for 50+ women who are willing to participate in an interview or focus group to discuss and share their ‘unruly’ knowledge and experience of intimacy and sexuality later in life.

We look for:

  • 50+ women who are offended about prevailing inequalities; social justice activists
  • 50+ lesbian, bisexual, queer women and non-binary people
  • 50+ women who are into BDSM, or other sexual subcultures
  • 50+ women in various living arrangements, such as communes, co-housing arrangements, kangaroo housing or other ways of multi-generational living, retirement homes, self-organised communities of care, post-retirement migration, etc.
  • women who, later in life, have participated in tantra retreats, Latin-American dance vacations, romance tourism, etc.
  • media producers (e.g. directors, screenwriters, actors, models, graphic novel and comic creators, poets, writers, zine makers, performance and visual artists, craftivists, (erotic) embroiders, photographers,…) who challenge stereotypes about gender, sexuality and age

    Do you want to participate in the scientific research and thus help us change the prevalent negative imagery of ageing and sexuality? Send a message to lili@ugent.be and we will get back to you with more information about interviews or other possibilities for participating. Or do you know someone who could help us? Do not hesitate to send them our contact information.

Share your story

Are you a woman over 50 and would you like to share your experience of intimacy and (a)sexuality on this website? Send us your story! We are interested in personal testimonies of women on the experience of their ageing body, and of relationships, intimacy and sex.