Science, medicine and virility surveillance: ‘sexy seniors’ in the pharmaceutical imagination


Address for correspondence: Barbara L. Marshall, Department of Sociology, Trent University, 1600 West Bank Drive, Peterborough, Ontario, K9J 7B8, Canada


While historically sex has been seen primarily as the prerogative of the young, more recently, the emphasis has been on the maintenance of active sexuality as a marker of successful ageing. A new cultural consensus appears to have emerged which not only emphasises the importance of continued sexual activity across the lifespan, but links sexual function with overall health and encourages increased self-surveillance of, and medical attention to, late-life sexuality. Drawing on historical accounts, clinical research, popular science reporting and health promotion literatures, I explore several key shifts in models of sexual ageing, culminating in the contemporary model of gender, sexuality and ageing that has made ageing populations a key market for biotechnologies aimed at enhancing sexual function. Two central concepts frame my analysis: ‘virility surveillance’, where age-related changes in sexual function are taken as indicative of decline, and the ‘pharmaceutical imagination’, where sexual lifecourses are reconstructed as drug effects revise standards of sexual function. After consideration of how narratives emerging from qualitative research with older adults challenge the narrow depiction of sexual functionality promoted by pharmaculture, conclusions call for continued critical inquiry into the biomedical construction of sex and age.