Women from the Lutheran church group open their meeting with Grace and Frankie in prayer (Grace and Frankie)

Sex and the Senior Saint: Addressing the sexuality of older adults in faith communities

By Kentina Washington Leapheart, Director of Programs for Reproductive Justice and Sexuality Education

On March 24th, I was one of the millions of people who tuned in to Season 3 of the Netflix series, “Grace and Frankie.” I was a bit late to the party, but after binging on Seasons 1 and 2 last fall, I could hardly wait to see what the writers had in store!

Lily Tomlin and Jane Fonda are wickedly funny and have some of the best on-camera chemistry I have seen (Martin Sheen and Sam Waterston aren’t too shabby either). The four of them and their supporting cast shed much-needed light on a topic that is often overlooked: the sexuality of older adults.

Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin in a promotional image for the Netflix series Grace and Frankie (Grace and Frankie)

If you aren’t familiar with the show, Grace and Frankie become friends under a series of bittersweet circumstances. The revelation of a decades-long affair between their respective husbands ultimately leads both couples to divorce, and their husbands remarry each other. Their story is as much a commentary on betrayal, acceptance, and new life, as it is a critique of the pervasive nature of heteronormativity and the devastating impact that it can have on marriages and families. Viewers journey with Grace and Frankie as they navigate these tricky waters. At the same time, we are offered a glimpse into the sex lives of these older adults.

*SPOILER ALERT*

Grace and Frankie’s new product arrives from the manufacturer (Grace and Frankie).

In addition to being ex-wives and best friends, Grace and Frankie are also entrepreneurs and business partners. Together they run a company that manufactures and distributes vibrators, specifically marketed toward a more “seasoned” consumer. The highs and lows of getting this business off the ground provide much of the comic relief in season three.

In “Episode 3: The Focus Group,” Grace and Frankie invite an old friend to bring her women’s prayer group over to their home for lunch. Little do these women from the local Lutheran church know, lunch is not the only thing on the menu. Grace and Frankie offer the women a crash course on their product, and, as soon as the women realize what’s happening, there is much clutching of pearls. Flustered and embarrassed, the women make a dramatic run for it.

Later, Grace and Frankie realize that one of the vibrators is missing. The next day they learn that their old friend took one of the vibrators home and gave it a whirl. And, now the other ladies are interested too! Despite their initial trepidation, these older women of faith buck stereotypes about sex, desire, and pleasure, and Grace and Frankie have presumably hit the jackpot!

The women from the Lutheran prayer group have their first look at the vibrators (Grace and Frankie).

Watching this episode, I couldn’t help but view it in light of my experiences in ministry.

Currently, as a sexuality educator working with faith communities around issues of sexual health, I find conversations about the sexual health of older adults are often non-existent. As a former chaplain to older adults in a faith-based retirement community, conversations about sex and sexuality were, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. In my time in seminary, I also learned very little in the classroom about sex and sexuality and nothing about ministering to the sexual health needs of older adults. This episode of Grace & Frankie brought these intersections to the fore: the stereotypes and taboos visited on older adults about interest and desire, often by people within religious communities, and the discomfort even some older adults have about openly discussing sexuality in faith contexts.

This episode begs the question, “Why are our faith communities doing such a poor job of addressing the sexuality of older adults?”

There is no question that older adults are active and vital members of our faith communities. According to the Pew Research Center, majorities of older adults believe in God and claim religion is “very important” to their lives. Nearly half of older adults attend religious services at least once a week, and nearly a third regularly participate in a prayer, scripture study, or religious education group. In other words, faith is a central aspect of the lives of older adults both in terms of their beliefs and their actions.

We know older adults are involved in faith communities, but are they still having sex? The sexual health data says “yes.” A study at the Indiana University Center for Sexual Health Promotion found that nearly half of men and one third of women over age 70 masturbate, and 43% of men and 22% of women over 70 engage in sexual intercourse. In short, older adults are having sex.

Our congregations are full of older adults who are faithful and active members and who still enjoy sexual expression, so why aren’t we paying attention? If we believe that faith and sexuality are not mutually exclusive, why aren’t we addressing older adult’s experiences with sexuality in our preaching, liturgy, religious education, and pastoral care?

Why aren’t we providing older adults with practical and theological resources for understanding the sacredness of their sexuality?

Our assumption should not be that sexual desire and activity disappear for older adults of faith. Instead, we should create courageous faith communities able to discuss how the sexuality of older adults shifts, changes, and grows.


Besides watching Seasons 1–3 of Grace & Frankie, here are some other ways faith communities can lift up the sexual health of older adults.

Remove the taboo. Episode 3, though humorous, was painfully accurate in the many ways that it highlighted the stereotypes of older adults of faith. These “church ladies” were portrayed as embarrassed and ashamed about sex, yet, as outlined in the statistics above, many older adults of faith do have a sex life — even if they are uncomfortable discussing it in their faith communities. What might it mean for a faith community to convene a small group for older adults who want to talk about sex? Older adults are already attending prayer groups, scripture studies, and religious education classes at their congregations; what might it mean to expand the offerings to include conversations about sex? As an exciting supplement to these offerings, Unitarian Universalist Association and the United Church of Christ are currently pilot-testing a new addition to their Our Whole Lives sexuality series: curriculum for older adults.

Spend more time in the classrooms of theological institutions talking about older adults. During my second year of seminary, my field placement was as a chaplain intern at a Continuing Care Retirement Community (I later went to work for this same CCRC full-time). Some of my richest and most memorable vocational experiences have been in ministry with older adults. Everything I learned about ministry with older populations I learned “on the job,” despite my seminary education. In my time as an intern, we never talked about sexuality. I assume the desire was there but was likely stunted by my own discomfort or lack of experience. As theological institutions prepare students to do ministry in an increasingly “graying” population, our curricula must take that fact into consideration. Courses on religion and aging, including material about sex and sexuality, are invaluable as theological institution prepare students for service in faith communities and the world.

Don’t assume. If I’ve learned one thing in my work with older adults, it is that with age comes wisdom, and, for many, the loss of some of the self-conscious “filters” of their youth. Older adults are self-assured, forthcoming, and tell it like it is! Don’t be afraid to have honest conversations about sex with the older adults in your faith communities. You might just be pleasantly surprised.

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