Sexuality and aging in East Asia
Katrina L. Moore
In this chapter I explore the emergence of a discourse of well-being in later life centring on the embrace of senior sexuality. This discourse is being shaped by gerontologists and sexologists in East Asia who are actively defending the rights of older persons to be recognised as sexual beings. Gerontologists claim that such recognition contributes to greater well-being and will provide older persons with a better quality of life. For these experts, the healthy expression of sexuality holds the key to well-being, and greater social acceptance of senior sexuality remains a critical and urgent social issue. I will explore these researchers’ perspectives by bringing to light some of the key themes that arise in contemporary discussions of senior sexuality in the region. I examine the institutions and organisations that are involved in commenting on the performance of older persons’ sexuality, and analyse the assumptions and concepts that inform contemporary discourses on aging and sexuality. The countries I survey include Japan and South Korea, with brief mention of Hong Kong, the People’s Republic of China, and Taiwan.
Over the past two decades, researchers have become increasingly interested in analysing the sexuality of older persons and in providing advice to seniors on how to lead a sexual life (Araki et al. 2002; Katz and Marshall 2003: 3—16; Takayanagi 2004a, 2004b: 55—57, 2005; Shea 2005: 1—33, 2011: 115—47; Rim 2011). The increasing number of persons aged 65 and older around the world have precipitated an increased interest in this age group. East Asian countries have experienced rapid population aging and have some of the largest numbers of persons in this age group. Japan has been at the forefront of this trend, with 23 per cent of its population now 65 or older. Due to persistent low fertility, low migration, and mass longevity, the proportion of older persons continues to grow. In other East Asian nations the proportion of the population aged 65 and older is currently smaller but is expected to grow: in Taiwan it is 11 per cent, in South Korea 10 per cent, and in the People’s Republic of China 8 per cent (World Bank 2013).
The rise in numbers of persons over 65, along with the decline in the number of working-age adults, arising from shifts in demography, has created considerable public discussion about how best to make use of older workers. Older persons are being encouraged to work longer, extending the years that they remain in the workforce. The age of retirement is being raised in some parts of East Asia, along with the age when people can access public pensions. For example, in Japan in 2010, the pensionable age was 62 for women and 64 for men; in 2020, it is expected to be 65 for both women and men (OECD 2011: 25—26). Changes in family structure and the subsequent rise in single – and two-person households have also generated concern about the lifestyles of older persons living alone and the social isolation and loneliness that may arise in old age.
Within this context, the lifestyles of older persons have attracted a great deal of social interest. These lifestyles have become an object of social debate and social intervention. What kinds of lifestyles are optimal? How might improving the lifestyles ofolder persons in turn help these societies cope with the social challenges arising from a rapid rise in older persons? In these debates, the sexual lives of older persons have garnered attention. Claims about the importance of sexual well-being in later life have become increasingly prominent, along with the rise in the discourse about the right to enjoy the highest standards of sexual health (Rim 2011: 56; Coleman 2010: 136—40).
Authors including Takayanagi (2004a), Rim (2011), and Araki (2010) argue that as lifespans grow longer it is important to take an interest not only in the number of years people are capable of living, but in whether older persons are enjoying quality of life. These writers problematise ‘myths’ about aging, especially that it renders persons asexual. They argue that stereotypes about older persons being asexual produce shame and embarrassment among older people who rather deserve to explore what is a natural human impulse. Such myths, when internalised by older persons and their family members and caregivers, rob those older people of the chance to explore and express their sexuality. It is argued that the sexual needs, identities, and desires of older persons are an important dimension of well-being in later life.
My analysis is informed by the insights of feminist scholars and their critiques of the sexual/ scientific politics of sexology (Segal 1994: 5-8; Tiefer 2007: 239; Marshall 2002: 132; Katz and Marshall 2003: 4). These scholars have problematised the tendency of sexologists to naturalise sexual activity, that is, to construct it as a natural biological impulse. In a similar vein, I exercise caution when I encounter the naturalisation of health claims. Hence, I question the claim that sexual activity necessarily constitutes a source of physical well-being and that it deserves a privileged place relative to other forms of activity. One could ask, for example, why sexual activity? Why not walking? I assume that sources of well-being are multiple. I also treat claims about wellbeing and its sources as socially and historically constructed and contingent.
My intent is not to dismiss the efforts by gerontologists and sexologists to raise awareness about the sexuality of older persons. These efforts are highly welcome, as they challenge prejudicial assumptions about older persons being asexual. My intent is rather to sensitise us to some of the assumptions about sexuality in later life that these professionals mobilise and to reveal some of the implications of these assumptions. For example, much of this literature promotes a couple – based model of sexual activity and assumes that sexual relations occur only between women and men. This assumption is exclusionary of the multiplicities of sexual beings. So, a contradiction arises: advocates of older persons’ sexuality call for more liberated and expansive expressions of sexuality, but the advice they provide to assist elders in realising their sexual potential ends up reinforcing specific norms about sexuality and sexual relations. My method in the following will be to bring to light the norms of good and bad embedded in this advice. What kinds of actions involving sex are deemed good by these gerontologists? Is sex being valued instrumentally, and what purposes is sex put in the service of?