Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)



First Advisor

Elisabeth O. Burgess

Second Advisor

Jennifer Craft Morgan

Third Advisor

Ben Lennox Kail


As gerontology has shifted from emphasizing the problems of aging to exploring how older adults can thrive, researchers have increased their attention on new issues including sexuality and aging. A sometimes explicit, but often implicit assumption in this research, is that sex is good for you—that it is an integral part of a full and healthy life or successful aging. Although successful aging is one of the most commonly cited theories in social gerontology (Alley et al. 2010), it has not gone without criticism (Martinson and Berridge 2014). Using an unrefined successful aging framework for sex research has the potential to promote aging and sexuality in narrow ways and privilege certain groups over others. This research examines the relationship between sexual activity and health from a feminist gerontological perspective. In particular, I explore differences in what counts as sex and how gender and social location influence the relationship between health and sexual activity. Using a nationally representative sample of community dwelling older adults (3005) from the first wave of the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project, I find that older adults engage in a wide variety of sexual activity which differs by social location (e.g. gender, race, and class). Furthermore, gender differences in sexual behavior are not merely due to a lack of access to healthy partners for women. Much of the gender gap in sexual behavior can be explained by disparities in sexual interest and desire. In addition, using more inclusive definitions of sex, partnered sexual behavior is associated with health even after accounting for demographics and relationship factors. In conclusion, existing models of aging and sexuality, relying on successful aging or a correlation between continued sexual activity and health, may limit our understanding of the experiences of women and sexual minorities. A feminist gerontological approach provides a more nuanced understanding of the relationship between health and continued sexual activity.