Tackling the problem
Although Rim points a finger at the young for delegitimising senior sexuality, he places the greatest responsibility for change on the shoulders of elders themselves. He laments that, overall, older persons in South Korea are not proactive in having an optimistic attitude about, and interest in, sexual matters. In fact, they may take the view that old age is a time of sexual quiescence and hence be attracted to the idea of renouncing sexuality. Many older persons have internalised the ageist notion that old age is a time for sexual abstinence. Some have turned sexual abstinence into a virtue. He seeks to shake the foundations of this kind of thinking. In response, he encourages elders to express their desires for love and sex, especially so they can stave off solitude and loneliness, the two problems that he claims manifest in old age for all people (Rim 2011: 42).
Love and sex have been granted to people by God, he argues, and they are also a precious source of enjoyment (Rim 2011:103). He states that the prerogative to enjoy sexual activity belongs to each individual and should not be relinquished easily in later life. It is urgent for seniors who have stopped having sex to ‘bring back those nights long forgotten’ and bring sexual intimacy back into their relationships (Rim 2011:103). Those who have not been having sex for a long time may experience difficulties at first as they rebuild their sexual activities, but they can talk about these difficulties and address them using changed sexual techniques, or consulting medical specialists if necessary. People should not, however, use these difficulties as an excuse to not have sex, for sex is an important ingredient in a relationship for confirming love between two people.
Rim seeks to map an ideal type of marital relationship in later life, claiming that it is essential for the future of Korean society, which he sees as being in transition, seeking to throw off various feudalistic and conservative ideas about sexuality. It is also a society that is confronting the prospects of mass longevity, where many women and men will live into their eighties. They have a long period of coupled life ahead of them after their children leave home. By taking initiative for enhancing their sexual well-being, he claims that older couples provide a service to themselves, their families, and other members of society (Rim 2011: 26—28).
Rim provides a series of ‘guiding principles’ for sex in later life (2011: 104), and identifies what is ‘good’ for the couple and what is ‘bad’. It is best to engage in sexual play early in the morning rather than at night. Couples should not have sex for thirty minutes after having eaten or bathed because that can place a strain on the body. Women may wish to be on top of their male partners while having sex to enable men to conserve energy and reduce physical exertion during sex.
A bad thing that threatens the sexual well-being of older persons is the idea that sexual play needs to involve sexual intercourse and/or lead to ejaculation. Another is the urge for couples to compare themselves to other couples by checking how long they engage in episodes of sexual play; that should not be a measure of sexual success. He cautions that extended sexual intercourse leads to physical strain for older persons. Instead they should enjoy cuddling in bed, by engaging in what he calls ‘skinship touching’ (2011: 106).
His advice here is about how older people can avoid straining the body. The idea is to maintain the body’s functioning processes through a schedule of moderate sexual activity, at the same time recognising the changes that occur in the older body. Working with the changing body and supporting the body in being sexual are important. Hence it is important to not apply undue force to the sexual body, for example by relying on habits of sexual activity that worked in the past.
Rim offers a series of practical suggestions on increasing sexual potency (2011: 216), combining dietary advice with suggestions about physical activity. For example, he encourages seniors to undertake physical activities that strengthen the lower half of the body, and says that for men potency resides in the lower limbs. He encourages a balanced and nutritious diet, in particular proteins that have a high content of amino acids or legumes with high-quality protein. He advises moderate alcohol and tobacco consumption. He discourages relying on sexual potency drugs to enhance sexual function. Stating that going without sex for over sixty days leads to deterioration of sexual function, he encourages seniors to engage in regular sexual activity.
Rim advises seniors to work assiduously on any job they take, stating that those who are involved in work they find fulfilling will not age as rapidly as those who gain more of their fulfilment from playing with their grandchildren. Of interest is Rim’s view that continuing to be sexually active will be important for maintaining productivity in the workplace. He states that seniors who are sexually active have an edge in the workforce.
Jeanne Shea (2005: 3—4) has shown that the People’s Republic of China has seen the rise of a similar discourse on the social benefits of senior sexuality. The promotion of romance, sex, and marriage in later life has developed into a modest-sized national media campaign. This campaign seeks to ‘liberate’ older persons from traditional proscriptions against romance, sexual activity, and marriage in later life. This media campaign encourages older couples in China to cultivate conjugal sexual relations. They are told that ‘harmonious, moderate romantic interaction and sexual intercourse between husband and wife in middle and old age, as well as the remarriage of widowed men and women, benefit individual health, well-being, and longevity and the marital relationship’ (2005: 4). Those who are sexually active are told that they will be healthier and will be less likely to become ill and dependent.
Shea observes that broader social issues underlie the campaign to promote conjugal sexual relations, and that it is not simply for personal health and fulfilment that senior citizens are being encouraged to pursue sexual relations. These broader social issues are the swelling of the aging population and growing concerns about the burden that older persons pose. The expectation is that senior citizens should take care of each other rather than demand care from their children or from the state. It is believed that ‘remarriage of old people can allow them to mutually take care of each other’s needs of daily living… With men and women both employed nowadays, very few children have the energy to pay much mind to or take very good care of their elderly parents’ (Shea 2005: 7). The thinking is that sexually active couples will be less of a burden on their children, compared to those who are not nurturing couple relations.
As I see it, Rim assumes that old age is uniformly experienced by relatively healthy couples. He also assumes that every married elder has a willing and able sexual partner. But might not his advice place a burden on older couples? I also see an implication arising from Rim’s advice and the Chinese campaign: that well-being in later life is largely a matter of personal initiative. Those who have the initiative and are willing to act on it will fare better than those who do not. These texts portray older persons as social agents who are capable of realising their potential as sexual beings, as people who have the potential to change themselves through a series of actions and techniques (Mol 2012: 11). By adopting these techniques and improving their sexual lives, the thinking goes, seniors will not only experience greater sexual fulfillment but contribute to an aging society. The social problem of aging is transferred to the shoulders of individuals. Well-being hence becomes reconfigured as a question of whether and how individual older persons take the initiative to optimise their lives, and to do so in a very specific way: by activating their sexual potential.