Study of ‘swinging ’60s’ women turning 60

Published 12 November 2012

Gail Hawkes, a sociologist at the University of New England, was a young woman in the sexually liberated “swinging ’60s” of the twentieth century. Now she’s talking to women of her generation about their experiences of sexuality as they journey into their own 60s and beyond.

Realising that she was participating in what she calls “a unique historical moment”, Dr Hawkes (pictured here) initiated a collaborative research project aimed at elucidating the significance of that “moment”.

Working with Professor Victor Minichiello and other colleagues at UNE, and the Australian Research Centre in Sex, Health and Society at La Trobe University, she is talking to women and asking them: “How does it feel to turn 60 when you’re the product of the “swinging ‘60s”? The Australian Research Council is funding the project.

“It was my pet idea,” she said, “but I didn’t know whether we were on the right track or not. I think now that we are – there’s been such huge enthusiasm from women. The picture that’s emerging is that women of the ‘post pill’ generation, because their experience of sexuality was so different from their mothers’ experience, don’t fit into any pre-established model. They’ve had to be very creative in their personal lives – and they’re surprisingly willing to talk about this.”

The project, titled “Sexual well-being and ageing: a study of older Australian women”, is the first study of the sexuality of older women to focus on this significant group. “The aim is to use women’s own experiences and feelings to build our understanding of the complex relationships between ageism, sexism and sexual subjectivity, and develop a conceptual framework that advances our understanding of sex and sexuality in older women,” Dr Hawkes said.  “We’re inviting women aged between 55 and 86 to get in touch and share their experiences with us.”

After talking on the ABC Radio National program Life Matters early last week, Dr Hawkes received more than 60 e-mail responses from women wanting to be involved. The segment, titled “Swinging 60s turn 60: Are they still feeling sexy?”, was so popular that she was invited back to the program for a one-hour talkback segment last Friday.

Participation in the project involves a one-off interview, which will take between one and one-and-a-half hours.  “We will be talking to participants using a relaxed approach,” Dr Hawkes said. “There will be a series of open-ended questions that will allow women to explore their experiences and feelings about ageing and sexual well-being. We will also ask them to keep a personal journal for two weeks, starting after the interview. The findings from this project will allow for the integration of sexual well-being into the broader health and well-being agenda for the fast-expanding ageing population in Australia. The research findings will create an important public debate, changing and promoting attitudes that validate the sexual lives of women in general and older women in particular.”

The project has established a blog at http://blog.une.edu.au/sexualityandageing/. Dr Hawkes can be contacted on 02 6773 2277 or on ghawkes@une.edu.au and all interested women are invited to contact her.