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Imaging Intimacy: Challenging stereotypes of age, sex and health

According to recent Age UK surveys, around a third of people over 65 report feelings of loneliness resulting from isolation and bereavement. 

Although social participation and cross-generational contact are suggested as remedies to seclusion and depression, little is mentioned about the possibility of intra-generational contact. This stems from an assumption that older people no longer form new relationships. Research supports the opposite view: older people are entering into new, intimate relationships and sexual activity continues into later life.

This project, developed in collaboration with Age UK and the AIDS Community Research Initiative of America, aimed to create a visual communication campaign that respects an older person's right to intimacy by exploring and questioning existing stereotypes.

Though the available literature on older people's sexuality is scant, medical analysts agree that drugs such as Cialis and Viagra have led to an expected rise in sexual activity among older adults. Unfortunately, this cohort is particularly vulnerable to sexually transmitted infections (STIs) because of a lack of physician screening, stigma that silences them from talking about their sex lives and reduced immunity.

By 2015, half of the US population living with HIV or AIDS will be over the age of 50. In the UK, one in 12 people diagnosed with HIV is over the age of 50. According to the Health Protection Agency, half of these infections are thought to have been acquired when the person was older than 50.
Despite this, few age-appropriate HIV or STI prevention messages exist.

Instead of focusing narrowly on disease prevention, this project took a broader, qualitative approach to sexuality in later life, arguing that intimacy is a necessary component of healthy ageing. Ten older people participated in interviews, workshops and home visits to speak about attitudes to sexual health protection and talk about existing stigmas from a personal point of view.

They were asked to respond to a series of images, questions and design provocations using images and words to articulate their needs, fears and aspirations. People ranging in age, geographical location in the UK, sexual orientation and gender, including male, female and transgender individuals, actively participated in the research.

The output from the project is a three-part communication effort that takes an inclusive and holistic approach to older people's sexuality. Safe Sex at Every Age is a poster campaign that encourages older people to protect their sexual health. In contrast to messages of fear that typify most safe-sex ads, this campaign uses humour and honesty to dispel stigma, addressing older people's sexuality as specific to them without making youth-based comparisons.

The designs employ ample use of white space and clear, confident typography to communicate directly and unambiguously with older adults. The campaign is designed for distribution by direct mail to senior organisations, healthcare providers and retirement communities.

Love Is addresses a wider audience. This public communication campaign encourages the mainstream public to respect an older person's right to intimacy. The work is designed to combat stereotypes and stigmas by portraying older sexuality as dignified and respectful - an essential first step for including this age group in the conversation about sexual health. The campaign has been designed for display in public outlets including subway platforms, bus shelters, and on the sides of buses.

Imaging Intimacy is a 40-page book that incorporates all of the designs and documents the ethnographic research that led to their production. It has been designed as a digital document to be distributed to HIV/AIDS researchers, care providers and other stakeholders. These ideas have been displayed at the 18th International AIDS Conference in Vienna in 2010 and will be pursued in different ways by the supporting organisations.

Download Imaging Intimacy publication here 

Research Associate 2010: Andy Chen
RCA Department: Communication Art & Design
Research Partner: Fulbright Commission and Age UK