September 2008 - Issue #3
Age brings new romance with byte
Story by Melissa Marino
Emily* uses the internet for up to four hours every day, as she has done for the past nine years, for emailing, finding information and for visiting online dating websites.
To date she has been involved in seven online relationships. Mostly the relationships start with emailing before phone calls and meeting face to face. Usually they become sexual very quickly - typically the second time they meet.
For Emily, her new relationships are not about love. "I'm not in love with him, nor he with me, but we have pretty great sex," says the retiree.
Emily is 73 years old and if such frankness and enthusiasm comes as a surprise, it probably means you are a generation or two younger. Research shows that age can actually bring life into sharper focus, with people losing many of the inhibitions that might slow them down when younger - as many who are well beyond middle age will probably confirm.
"Older adults are neither technophobic nor asexual ... these are just societal stereotypes. We have this perceived notion that older adults are past it. That you get to 60 or 70 and that's it."
Today, using the internet as a dating tool is common. Should it therefore be a surprise that older Australians, as well as the young, are taking advantage of the technology, engaging in online dating, flirting and cybersex, which in many cases leads to the real thing?
The nature of older adults' online relationships is now being studied by Swinburne University of Technology PhD student Sue Malta. And her early findings suggest that they have a healthy appetite for both technology and sexual relations.
"Every person I interviewed had a sexual component to their relationship. I would have expected one or two to say, 'Oh no, we didn't', but that wasn't the case at all. And don't forget I'm talking about people aged 60 to 92."
Ms Malta, managing editor of Swinburne's online International Journal of Emerging Technologies and Society, was inspired to investigate the topic when an article came across her desk that indicated some older adults had found romance online.
Fascinated, Ms Malta looked for further information and came up with a blank. So as society faces an ageing population, Ms Malta thought it was time to investigate; to fill an obvious knowledge gap on the issues of older adults' sexuality and internet use. And in the process she is exposing some stereotypes as quite false. Namely that:
- older people are not technology savvy - that is, they don't 'do' computers and certainly not the internet; and
- they do not enjoy sexual relations - that is, they don't 'do' sex.
Instead, with 50 interviews completed and analysis well under way, Ms Malta has found that they do both, revealing, these notions as myths. "They are just societal stereotypes. We have this perceived notion that older adults are past it. That you get to 60 or 70 and that's it."
Ms Malta says it is about time - as baby boomers hit 60 - that as a society we begin to confront reality. "As teenagers we can't accept our parents' sexuality, so to accept our grandparents' sexuality is another step. No one wants to imagine grandma or grandad cuddling up in bed, but why? Why is it so taboo and why can't we accept that a kiss and cuddle and a romp is what everybody still wants to do? Being 80 or 90 doesn't mean the need for intimacy stops."
Part of Ms Malta's motivation for the research is to demystify the issue. Intimacy among older adults does exist, and the internet has opened up a new avenue where people can meet and express that intimacy, she says.
Ms Malta's qualitative research has involved in-depth interviews with 25 female and 20 male Australian volunteers aged 60 to 92, as well as five Americans. Two-thirds (31) of the Australian participants had met new partners online and one-third (14) in person, allowing comparisons to be made across the two groups.
Ms Malta says she wanted to see if technology made a difference to the relationship: whether they were longer-lasting or became sexual more quickly if they first met online rather than face-to-face.
Although it may have been presumed that the online group would progress to a sexual relationship more quickly - partly because their mean age was 63, compared with 71 for the face-to-face group - her research showed both groups became intimate at similar speeds. For the online romance group, 25 of 31 reported sexual relations occurred between five days and eight weeks; for the face-to-face group, nine of 14 reported sexual relations between one week and nine weeks.
"With there being almost a decade difference in their mean age, you would expect there may be less sexuality in the face-to-face group, but no," Ms Malta says.
Harry*, 71, who met his partner online, said sexual relations happened "very quickly" after meeting. "We were immediately attracted to each other," he says. Meanwhile Nelson*, 79, who was first introduced to his new partner in person, had an even faster courtship. "We went for coffee, then we went to dinner, then we went to bed," he says.
But while there was little variance between her two older groups, Ms Malta did find significant differences between her online sample and the behaviour of a younger group of internet daters - median age 30 - who took part in a University of British Columbia study in Canada.
"My older adults were more overtly sexual online," says Ms Malta, hypothesising that this is because "they could be".
"They weren't looking for life partners or someone they could have children with and be with for the rest of their lives. Those issues were not as relevant and they could just get straight to the point."
Ms Malta says that while most of the relationships in her online and face-to-face groups became sexual quickly, it appeared the face-to-face partnerships lasted longer.
But rather than being a negative, she says this could be because people did not feel they had to stay in the online-instigated relationship if it was not quite right. "If you meet someone face-to-face, the pool of people you have to pick from is not very large, but online there is an infinite number of people that you can connect with, so maybe you can afford to be a bit fussier," she says.
This also complements the attitude of many older people looking for new relationships; after often having been married young, they will not settle for just anyone. "The women in particular say, 'I'm not going to do somebody's washing and cooking any more'. So I think maybe it's a different mindset, and maybe if you do use a computer to find a partner, then perhaps you have a different mindset to start with."
One of the tools available for people using computers for dating is cybersex, and Ms Malta found that eight of her online group of 31 had engaged in it. For some it had become part of their sexual repertoire, while others had tried it once and decided it was not for them - much like the population in general, she says.
"The one that really caught my eye though was the person who said she would never go out with anybody that she had had cybersex with: cybersex was her casual sex encounter. So she would meet people online and have cybersex with them and then never meet them in person. But she would use the internet as a dating tool to meet other people."
While a planned June 2009 finish for her PhD means any firm conclusions are a fair way off, Ms Malta says she can surmise that no matter what age, love, sex and intimacy are of ongoing importance and older adults are using the internet to find new partners.
In fact, the internet could be the ideal tool for older adults. "A lot of people said they don't do the bar or club or pub scene - it's just so detrimental to their self-esteem. The internet has opened up this whole vista of availability that wasn't there before."
The information, she says, while fascinating in itself, will also be important in a broader context, perhaps helping to shape public policy in the future as the population ages. For example, it could be important for those designing housing for older people, who will have to consider that allowing for people to be sexual could aid their health and wellbeing.
"Imagine if you go to a hostel or a residency and you're told you can't have your partner come in and have conjugal visits.These things should be factored in."
Ms Malta says it is important that society realises that older adults are neither technophobic nor asexual. "The number of older adults will continue to rise in coming years, so these issues need to be looked at now because we have to change our attitudes."
* Interviewees requested the use of pseudonyms.