Submission note: A thesis submitted in total fulfilment of the degree of Doctor of Philosophy [to the] Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society, School of Psychology and Public Health, La Trobe University, Bundoora.
Cultural associations of ageing with decline have historically limited the social scripts available for embodied and sexual old age, particularly for women. However, scholars believe that the ageing of the post-sexual liberation generations brings the potential for the experience, meanings and appearance of old age to be radically transformed. The potential for change is also linked to postmodern theories which position ageing bodies as able to be shaped through individual choice. However, these theories overlook the potential impacts of structural constraints on choice, operating in old age and throughout the life-course. In this thesis I apply an analytic approach drawn from the frameworks of social constructionism, structure and agency and Foucault’s conceptualisation of knowledge and power, to examine how the subjective experience of older bodies is shaped. The thesis draws upon in-depth interview and journal data from 28 women aged 55-81. The research found that bodily and sexual meanings were shaped in relation to social norms and embodied experiences, as well as individual and shared histories. When reflecting upon appearance, older bodies were usually interpreted as loss, while during intimate moments, the sensual capacities were prioritised. The participants’ responses to the appearance of age in self and others was commonly shaped by the notion that individuals are responsible for responding to and disguising the signs of old age. The meanings and potential for being old and sexual reflected relationship histories, as well as contemporary discourses of ageing and sexuality. The influence of sexism was evident in the participants’ narratives of the past and present, and reflected their negotiations of ageism. This biographical continuity shaped and limited their desires in older age, even as they negotiated around and resisted these norms. These data therefore reflect a time in which shifting sexual norms coexist alongside the continuing influences of traditional values. In this thesis I argue that although the possibilities for, and meanings of, embodied old age are shifting, this is a complex and subtle process, one that is not interpreted as liberating.
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