Skip to main content Accessibility help

Young Adults’ Implicit and Explicit Attitudes towards the Sexuality of Older Adults*

  • Ashley E. Thompson (a1), Lucia F. O’Sullivan (a1), E. Sandra Byers (a1) and Krystelle Shaughnessy (a1)


Sexual interest and capacity can extend far into later life and result in many positive health outcomes. Yet there is little support for sexual expression in later life, particularly among young adults. This study assessed and compared young adults’ explicit and implicit attitudes towards older adult sexuality. A sample of 120 participants (18–24 years; 58% female) completed a self-report (explicit) measure and a series of Implicit Association Tests capturing attitudes towards sexuality among older adults. Despite reporting positive explicit attitudes, young people revealed an implicit bias against the sexual lives of older adults. In particular, young adults demonstrated implicit biases favouring general, as compared to sexual, activities and young adults as compared to older adults. Moreover, the bias favouring general activities was amplified with regard to older adults as compared to younger adults. Our findings challenge the validity of research relying on self-reports of attitudes about older adult sexuality.

L’intérêt sexuel et la capacité sexuelle peut s’étendre loin dans la vie plus tard, entraînant de nombreux effets positifs sur la santé. Cependant, il y a peu de soutien pour l’expression sexuelle dans la vie plus tard, notamment chez les jeunes adultes. Cette étude a évalué et comparé les attitudes implicites et explicites de jeunes adultes face à la sexualité des adultes âgés. Un échantillon de 120 participants (18-24 ans, dont 58 pourcent femmes) ont rempli un auto-évaluation et une série de tests d’associations implicites, capturant les attitudes envers la sexualité parmi les personnes âgées. Malgré des rapports des attitudes explicites positifs, les jeunes ont révelé un biais implicite contre la vie sexuelle des personnes âgées. En particulier, les jeunes adultes ont montré des partis pris implicites favorisant les activités générales, par rapport aux activités sexuelles, et les jeunes adultes sur les adultes plus âgés. En outre, les biais favorisant les activités générales ont été amplifiées à l'égard de personnes âgées par rapport aux jeunes adultes. Nos résultats mettent en doute la validité de la recherche en s'appuyant sur les déclarations des attitudes sur la sexualité des adultes plus âgés.


Corresponding author

La correspondance et les demandes de tirés-à-part doivent être adressées à : / Correspondence and requests for offprints should be sent to: Ashley E. Thompson Department of Psychology P.O. Box 4400 Fredericton, NB E3B 5A3 (


Hide All

We are grateful for the help of Kashka Iwanowska with data collection. This research was supported in part by a Canada Research Chair held by Lucia F. O’Sullivan.



Hide All
Aizenberg, D., Weizman, A., & Barak, Y. (2002). Attitudes toward sexuality among nursing home residents. Sexuality & Disability, 20, 185189.
Allen, K. R., & Roberto, K. A. (2009). From sexism to sexy: Challenging young adults’ ageism about older women’s sexuality. Sexuality Research & Social Policy: A Journal of the NSRC, 6, 1324.
Allen, R. S., Petro, K. N., & Phillips, L. L. (2009). Factors influencing young adults' attitudes and knowledge of late-life sexuality among older women. Aging & Mental Health, 13, 238245.
Andersen, R., & Fetner, T. (2008). Cohort differences in tolerance of homosexuality: Attitudinal change in Canada and the United States, 1981–2000. Public Opinion Quarterly, 72, 311330.
Angiullo, L., Whitbourne, S., & Powers, C. (1996). The effects of instruction and experience on college students’ attitudes toward the elderly. Educational Gerontology, 22, 483495.
Bouman, W., & Arcelus, J. (2001). Are psychiatrists guilty of ‘ageism’ when it comes to taking a sexual history? International Journal of Geriatric Psychiatry, 16, 2731.
Bouman, W., Arcelus, J., & Benbow, S. (2006). Nottingham Study of Sexuality & Ageing (NoSSA I). Attitudes regarding sexuality and older people: A review of the literature. Sexual & Relationship Therapy, 21, 149161.
Butler, R. (1969). Age-ism: Another form of bigotry. The Gerontologist, 9, 243246.
Chambliss, H. O., Finley, C. E., & Blair, S. N. (2004). Attitudes toward obese individuals among exercise science students. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 36, 468474.
Colton, D., & Covert, R. W. (2007). Designing and constructing instruments for social research and evaluation. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
de Graaf, H., & Rademakers, J. (2011). The psychological measurement of childhood sexual development in Western societies: Methodological challenges. Journal of Sex Research, 48, 118129.
De Paula Couto, M., & Wentura, D. (2012). Automatically activated facets of ageism: Masked evaluative priming allows for a differentiation of age-related prejudice. European Journal of Social Psychology, 42, 852863.
Evans, A. N., & Rodney, B. (2008). Methods in psychological research. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.
Fraboni, M., Saltstone, R., & Hughes, S. (1990). The Fraboni Scale of Ageism (FSA): An attempt at a more precise measure of ageism. Canadian Journal on Aging, 9, 5666.
Gast, A., & Rothermund, K. (2010). When old and frail is not the same. Dissociating category and stimulus effects in four implicit attitude measurement methods. Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 63, 479498.
Gawronski, B., & Bodenhausen, G. V. (2006). Associative and propositional processes in evaluation: An integrative review of implicit and explicit attitude change. Psychological Bulletin, 132, 692731.
Geer, J. H., & Robertson, G. G. (2005). Implicit attitudes in sexuality: Gender differences. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 34, 671677.
Golde, P., & Kogan, N. N. (1959). A sentence completion procedure for assessing attitudes toward old people. Journal of Gerontology, 14, 355360.
Gordon, R. S., & Avery, R. D. (2004). Age bias in laboratory and field settings: A meta-analytic investigation. Journal of Applied Social Psychology, 34, 468492.
Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (1995). Implicit social cognition: Attitudes, self-esteem, and stereotypes. Psychological Review, 102, 427.
Greenwald, A. G., McGhee, D. E., & Schwartz, J. L. K. (1998). Measuring individual differences in implicit cognition: The Implicit Association Test. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 14641480.
Greenwald, A. G., Nosek, B. A., & Banaji, M. R. (2003). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: I. An improved scoring algorithm. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 85, 197216.
Hagestad, G. O., & Uhlenberg, P. (2005). The social separation of old and young: A root of ageism. Journal of Social Issues, 61, 343360.
Hendrick, C., Hendrick, S., & Reich, D. A. (2006). The Brief Sexual Attitudes Scale. Journal of Sex Research, 43, 7686.
Hendrick, S. S., & Hendrick, D. (1987). Multidimensionality of sexual attitudes. Journal of Sex Research, 23, 502526.
Isaacs, L. W., & Bearison, D. J. (1986). The development of children’s prejudice against the aged. The International Journal of Aging & Human Development, 23, 175194.
Jelenec, P., & Steffens, M. C. (2002). Implicit attitudes toward elderly women and men. Current Research in Social Psychology, 7, 275293.
Jonathan, E. (2008). The influence of religious fundamentalism, right-wing authoritarianism, and Christian orthodoxy on explicit and implicit measures of attitudes toward homosexuals. International Journal for the Psychology of Religion, 18, 316329.
Kaestle, C. E., & Allen, K. R. (2011). The role of masturbation in healthy sexual development: Perceptions of young adults. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 11, 983994.
Kite, M. E., Stockdale, G. D., Whitley, B. R., & Johnson, B. T. (2005). Attitudes toward younger and older adults: An updated meta-analytic review. Journal of Social Issues, 61, 241266.
Kontula, O., & Haavio-Mannila, E. (2009). The impact of aging on human sexual activity and sexual desire. Journal of Sex Research, 46, 4656.
Lagacé, M., Tanguay, A., Lavallée, M., Laplante, J., & Robichaud, S. (2012). The silent impact of ageist communication in long term care facilities: Elders’ perspectives on quality of life and coping strategies. Journal of Aging Studies, 26, 335342.
Lai, Y., & Hynie, M. (2011). A tale of two standards: An examination of young adults’ endorsement of gendered and ageist sexual double standards. Sex Roles, 64, 360371.
Levy, B., & Banaji, M. R. (2002). Implicit ageism. In Nelson, T. (Ed.), Ageism: Stereotyping and prejudice against older persons (pp. 4975). Cambridge: MIT Press.
Lindau, S., Schumm, L., Laumann, E. O., Levinson, W., O’Muircheartaigh, C. A., & Waite, L. J. (2007). A study of sexuality and health among older adults in the United States. New England Journal of Medicine, 357, 762774.
Lindau, S. T., & Gavrilova, N. (2010). Sex, health, and years of sexually active life gained due to good health: Evidence from two US population-based cross sectional surveys of ageing. British Medical Journal, 340, c810.
Lookinland, S., & Anson, K. (1995). Perpetuation of ageist attitudes among present and future health care personnel: Implications for elder care. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 21, 4756.
Mahieu, L., Van Elssen, K., & Gastmans, C. (2011). Nurses’ perceptions of sexuality in institutionalized elderly: A literature review. International Journal of Nursing Studies, 48, 11401154.
Nabors, N. A. (2012). The social psychology of stigma. In Nettles, R. & Balter, R. (Eds.), Multiple minority identities: Applications for practice, research, and training (pp. 1334). New York: Springer.
Nicolosi, A., Laumann, E. O., Glasser, D. B., Edson, D., Moreira, J., Paik, A., et al. (2004). Sexual behavior and sexual dysfunctions after age 40: The global study of sexual attitudes and behaviors. Urology, 64, 991997.
Nosek, B. A., Banaji, M. R., & Greenwald, A. G. (2002). Harvesting implicit group attitudes and beliefs from a demonstration web site. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 6, 101115.
Nosek, B. A., Greenwald, A. G., & Banaji, M. R. (2005). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: II. Method variables and construct validity. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 31, 166180.
Nosek, B. A., & Hansen, J. J. (2008). The associations in our heads belong to us: Searching for attitudes and knowledge in implicit evaluation. Cognition & Emotion, 22, 553594.
O’Hanlon, A. M., & Brookover, B. (2002). Assessing changes in attitudes about aging: Personal reflections and a standardized measure. Educational Gerontology, 28, 711725.
Oliver, M. B., & Hyde, J. S. (1993). Gender differences in sexuality: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 114, 2951.
Olson, M. A., & Fazio, R. H. (2004). Reducing the influence of extrapersonal associations on the Implicit Association Test: Personalizing the IAT. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 86, 653667.
Orimo, H., Ito, H., Suzuki, T., Araki, A., Hosoi, T., & Sawabe, M. (2006). Reviewing the definition of ‘elderly.’ Geriatrics and Gerontology International, 6, 149158.
O’Sullivan, L. F. (2008). Challenging assumptions regarding the validity of self-report measures: The special case of sexual behavior. Journal of Adolescent Health, 42, 207208.
Palmore, E. (2001). The ageism survey: First findings. The Gerontologist, 41, 572575.
Petersen, J. L., & Hyde, J. S. (2010). A meta-analytic review of research on gender differences in sexuality, 1993–2007. Psychological Bulletin, 136, 2138.
Pratt, C. C., & Schmall, V. L. (1989). College students’ attitudes toward elderly sexual behavior: Implications for family life education. Family Relations, 38, 137141.
Pruett, S. R., & Chan, F. (2006). The development and psychometric validation of the Disability Attitude Implicit Association Test. Rehabilitation Psychology, 51, 202213.
Rupp, D. E., Vodanovich, S. J., & Credé, M. (2005). The multidimensional nature of ageism: Construct validity and group differences. The Journal of Social Psychology, 145, 335362.
Sakaluk, J. K., & Milhausen, R. R. (2012). Factors influencing university students’ explicit and implicit sexual double standards. Journal of Sex Research, 49, 464476.
Schnabel, K., Asendorpf, J. B., & Greenwald, A. G. (2008). Understanding and using the Implicit Association Test: V. Measuring semantic aspects of trait self-concepts. European Journal of Personality, 22, 695706.
Scotti, J. R., Slack, B. S., Bowman, R. A., & Morris, T. L. (1996). College student attitudes concerning the sexuality of persons with mental retardation: Development of the perceptions of sexuality scale. Sexuality and Disability, 14, 249264.
Sharpe, T. H. (2004). Introduction to sexuality in late life. Sex Therapy, 12, 199205.
Stuart-Hamilton, I., & Mahoney, B. (2003). The effect of aging awareness training on knowledge of, and attitudes towards, older adults. Educational Gerontology, 29, 251260.
Tebbe, E. N., & Moradi, B. (2012). Anti-transgender prejudice: A structural equation model of associated constructs. Journal of Counseling Psychology, 59, 251261.
Thompson, A., & O'Sullivan, L. (2012). Gender differences in associations of sexual and romantic stimuli: Do young men really prefer sex over romance? Archives of Sexual Behavior, 41, 949957.
Tomlinson, J. (1998). ABC of sexual health. BMJ: British Medical Journal (International Edition), 317, 15731576.
Treas, J. (2002). How cohorts, education, and ideology shaped a new sexual revolution on American attitudes toward nonmarital sex, 1972–1998. Sociological Perspectives, 45, 267283.
Turner, C. W., & Fischler, I. S. (1993). Speeded tests of implicit knowledge. Journal of Experimental Psychology: Learning, Memory, and Cognition, 19, 11651177.
Vincent, W., Parrott, D. J., & Peterson, J. L. (2011). Effects of traditional gender role norms and religious fundamentalism on self-identified heterosexual men’s attitudes, anger, and aggression toward gay men and lesbians. Psychology of Men & Masculinity, 12, 383400.
Walker, B. L., & Harrington, D. (2002). Effects of staff training on staff knowledge and attitudes about sexuality. Educational Gerontology, 28, 639654.
Walker, B. L., Osgood, N. J., Richardson, J. P., & Ephross, P. H. (1998). Staff and elderly knowledge and attitudes toward elderly sexuality. Educational Gerontology, 24, 471489.
Weeks, D. J. (2002). Sex for the mature adult: Health, self-esteem and countering ageist stereotypes. Sexual & Relationship Therapy, 17, 231240.
West, N. D. (1975). Sex in geriatrics: Myth or miracle? Journal of American Geriatric Society, 23, 551552.
White, A. M., Hingson, R. W., Pan, I.-J., & Yi, J.-Y. (2011). Hospitalizations for alcohol and drug overdoses in young adults ages 18–24 in the United States, 1999–2008: Results from the Nationwide Inpatient Sample. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 72, 774786.
Winterstein, T. (2012). Nurses’ experiences of the encounter with elder neglect. Journal of Nursing Scholarship, 44, 5562.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Canadian Journal on Aging / La Revue canadienne du vieillissement
  • ISSN: 0714-9808
  • EISSN: 1710-1107
  • URL: /core/journals/canadian-journal-on-aging-la-revue-canadienne-du-vieillissement
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Altmetric attention score

Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 0
Total number of PDF views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 0 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between <date>. This data will be updated every 24 hours.

Usage data cannot currently be displayed