- In this dissertation, I explore how women and men in later life experience the world of dating and the pursuit of new intimate relationships. Although the mortality gap between women and men at older ages is narrowing, as they enter their 70s, 80s, and 90s, there are still at least two unmarried women for every unmarried man. This gender imbalance is due to women's greater longevity and cultural norms based in gender relations that underlie men's preference for younger partners at all ages--and, throughout most of their lives, women's preference for older partners.
Viewing the pursuit of new intimate relationships as embedded within intersecting systems of age and gender inequality, my goal was to explore how unmarried heterosexual women and men negotiate the world of dating in late life and how they view themselves and each other as aging men and women. This research focuses on White heterosexual women and men 70 years of age and older who were actively pursuing new dating relationships through personal newspaper ads and Internet dating and matching
sites. Positioning the search for new intimate partners within the intersection of age relations and gender relations, I addressed two research questions. First, I sought to understand how unmarried—widowed, divorced, or always single—heterosexual women and men age 70 and older who are actively pursuing new intimate relationships view and describe their experience of the world of late-life dating, their place in it as aging men and women, and the dating partners they encounter. Second, I examined how, as men and women in aging bodies in a culture that devalues both old age and old people, they maintain, negotiate, or construct their sense of manhood and masculinity or womanhood and femininity in the context of dating, romance, and sexual intimacy.
This dissertation consists of two studies, both grounded in a constructivist/interpretive paradigm and the thematic analysis of in-depth, semistructured interviews with 24 informants (11 women and 13 men) between the ages of 70 and 92. In the first study, using an intersectional framework of age relations and gender relations, I examined how internalized negative stereotypes of aging in general and one's own aging, in particular, shape the ways in which old men and women position themselves for finding romantic partners and how they manage identity to make themselves attractive romantic partners in an ageist society. Through their personal ads, Internet profiles, posted pictures, and within the interviews themselves, I found that informants both maintained and subverted age and gender expectations. They consistently resisted a self-identity as old by invoking claims and affirmations of neither looking nor acting their chronological age. Simultaneously, they communicated admonitions to potential dating partners that they should not look or act old. Both the men and the women were seeking
new romantic partners younger than themselves, with the men's mean lower age 21 years younger and the women's, 10 years younger.
In the second study, also grounded in considerations of age relations and gender relations, I examined informants' orientations to sexual activity and the importance of sex in their dating lives. Findings showed that, contrary to ageist stereotypes depicting old people as asexual and earlier research findings that older adults might settle for alternate intimate activities, the majority of the women and men in this study expressed interest in an intimate relationship that includes sex, and most interpreted this to mean penetrative intercourse. Nearly all of the men were sexually active with younger partners, with over half either using or holding samples of drugs for the treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED). A far smaller percentage of the women were currently dating or sexually active, and none had experience with partners who required the functional assistance of ED drugs.
In conclusion, the informants present a picture of late-life dating in which individuals both consciously and unconsciously submit to, resist, and sometimes defy the structural constraints presented by societal ageism, age relations, and gender relations. The intersecting systems of inequality and oppression that impact these women and men as they pursue new love may seem only to privilege old men, offering them, for instance, advantage in terms of more lenience in showing their age and a broader age range in which to pursue dating partners. As a group, however, the women expressed more satisfaction with their lives and were less driven by the desire for an intimate partner, relishing the independence and autonomy their unattached status allowed them.