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‘Sex in later life is the last relationship taboo – and it’s time we talked about it ‘

Cast your mind back to the last time you watched – with whatever level of arousal or discomfort – a sex scene that depicted individuals anything other than young, firm and athletic.

You’re likely to be pondering for quite some time. The truth is that there are few representations of this kind.

Yet, as sex therapist Gail Thorne from relationship charity Relate says, “We’re getting better at inclusivity; at showing all kinds of different people and situations – but there are still many older people who really want to feel represented as having, and being accepted as having, intimate and loving relationships.” They want, she says, to see themselves as the poster kids for more than just life insurance and funeral homes.

“You look at advertising for clothes, for example,” says Thorne, “and you now see plus-size models and older models – but if you were to look for representations of intimacy in older people, you’d be hard-pressed to find it. And that’s part of why this campaign is so amazing.”

One of the Rankin images featured in the new Relate later life sex campaign - Rankin / Relate

The campaign to which she is referring was shot by British photographer Rankin, who has collaborated with Relate to shoot a series of black and white photos, depicting a range of couples and a single woman, all engaged in various moments of sexuality, vulnerability and intimacy.

The images in the campaign, titled ‘Let’s Talk the Joy of Later Life Sex,’ were created with input from the couples to ensure that nothing was too staged or unnatural. The impetus, says advertising and marketing agency Ogilvy, was a recognition of the fact that advertising most often fails to represent older generational intimacy, and to allow every photoshoot participant to feel “sincerely empowered.”

“We all need intimacy now more than ever,” says Rankin, who took the assignment on pro-bono. “Age… is just a number. The greatness of love and affection doesn’t need to change as we find our later years.”

According to research undertaken by 3Gem market research, there is a huge gap between how older people say they are represented in the media and how younger people perceive themselves to be: an astounding 67 per cent of over 65s say that sex and intimacy for their age group is rarely or never represented in media, compared with 20 per cent of 18-24 year olds.

Why is this the case, though? If we are to look at Maslow’s oft-touted Hierarchy of Needs, sex is a physiological need; up there with food and water – something that we cannot live without, even if we can muddle along without things further up the pyramid, such as achievement and creativity.

If we’re not uncomfortable with the idea of older people eating and drinking, then why should we feel awkward about the idea of them having sex? Equally, why should the individuals in that age group feel uncomfortable about the realities of their own sexuality? The study showed that most of the 60 per cent of over-65s who admitted to feeling uncomfortable about speaking with others about sex and intimacy cited ‘embarrassment’ as the primary reason.

Rankin Relate later life sex campaign - Rankin / Relate

Honesty and communication are, according to Thorne, key in any relationship. “Sex therapy is about encouraging people to feel confident and secure in saying what they want – what works for them; what doesn’t work for them; what feels good and what doesn’t,” she says.

By extension, it makes sense that talking about sex and intimacy – outside of the act itself – will further bolster confidence and trust: not only where people in that older age group are concerned, but also those for whom the prospect of getting older might be plagued with premature inklings of loss – loss of attractiveness, of desire and additionally, she says, of ability.

“Things change,” she says. “Women have babies, men become fathers, there are illnesses, there are bad backs … so many things happen to our bodies. Over our lifetimes, things change all of the time – and it’s important to be able to give voice to these changes and what they mean in terms of our sexual intimacy as time goes on.”

a close up of a man lying on a bed: Ranking sex later life Relate campaign - Rankin / Relate

She is at pains, too, to point out that this intimacy – at any age – is what works for you: it’s not, and does not need to be, the sweaty rampancy depicted in literature and films.

“In reality, ‘sex and intimacy in later life’ means different things to different people,” she says. ”For some, it’s about exploring new and different sexual experiences, and for others, it’s simply about feeling able to express emotion through a gentle touch or kiss on the cheek.”

“I’m excited to see what kind of society-wide conversation this opens up,” she adds. “It’s  our hope that it will raise awareness of the fact that intimacy is something that can be accessed by everyone, regardless of age, and that, if you’re struggling, then Relate’s sex therapy service is there to help.”