Thursday, July 28, 2011

talkin bout the old folks too

69-year-old DJ Ruth Flowers starts her set with O FORTUNA. How sick is that??? Someone please invite this fierce beast to Transformus to camp with us at IHOP.

When the phrase "the last taboo" caught my eye in an internet article recently, my interest was piqued. In this ever-changing world in which we live in*, what could possibly qualify as the last taboo? Incest? Torture? Stirrup pants?

No. It's sex among the elderly. This according to Dr. Virginia Sadock, professor of psychiatry and director of the Program of Human Sexuality at New York University.

Pfft. "That," I thought, "is the least scandalous scandal ever." Shouldn't we all be so lucky to remain sexually active into our twilight years? How could something like geriatric sexology take the crown for a dubious distinction like "the last taboo?"

So I decided to engage in some hard-hitting journalism and go straight to a reliable first-hand account. It seems that a dear friend of mine, who is octogenarian and FABULOUS, has had the very same subject on her mind recently. She gave me the following account of living the last taboo:

Ten years ago I found my last sweetheart in the old folks exercise class at the "Y." I was 69 and he was 71, and we started a hot sex life that has endured for 10 years. The only problem is we aged as we reached 80 and 82, which has put a crimp in our hot sex. We figured it was all over at first. However, we still have desire and keep our once-a-week date which we both look forward to. We cuddle and kiss a lot until we head for the bed and continue kissing and caressing and manually pleasing each other. There's no penetration but we both feel satisfaction and lots of affection. And we've discovered "back scratching" is sort of an aphrodisiac and a wonderful aperitif after making love. (The gorillas obviously were onto the "back scratching" too.) Then we have coffee and watch "Family Guy." And laugh a lot....[Her boyfriend] and I still can't keep our hands off each other after 10 years! The taboo is all in our heads.

Admit it. You're clutching your pearls.

But why?? Why are we so squicky about the idea of older people remaining sexually active? Is it a vestige of our Judeo-Christian notion that non-procreative sex is verboten? Or is it just a symptom of the rampant ageism in our culture?

When I have big squishy questions like this about sex and religion and the Western tradition, I turn to my dear friend and fellow Nashvillian Julia, who is working on a PhD in theology and women, gender and sexuality (aka Sex and God) at Harvard. And we gchat about it have a Platonic dialogue.

Julia: i think generally speaking sex is structurally normative, as in: there are powerful political, cultural, social, etc. forces that structure the sexual and sexualized body as heteronormative, meaning: YOUNG, straight, able-bodied, etc. many of our prejudices about what an able body is, in fact, have to do with its sexual capabilities.
me: WHOA so true
Julia: what is an "impotent" body?
me: if someone is disabled, one of the first questions that arises in the brain: can they still have sex?
we have very similar prejudices about the aged body

So it seems that it's both--that our ageism is wrapped up in our idea of the heteronormative sexualized body. WHOA. Leave it to a Harvardian to blow your mind.

So what does this all mean? Sure, geriatric sex is a taboo. What does it matter?

Here's how it matters. 26% of the American population belongs to the aging Baby Boomers generation. Among them, 87% of married men and 89% of married women in the 60-64 age range are sexually active. Among Americans over 80, 29% of men and 25% of women still engage in sexual activity. That means we're looking at millions and millions of sexually active elderly folks in the coming years.

That part isn't the problem. The problem is that our cultural taboo related to geriatric sex creates an inability to acknowledge the phenomenon in any meaningful way. Sexual support and sexual health care for the elderly is severely lacking. STD rates among the elderly are out of control. Just like abstinence-only education for teens leads to skyrocketing teen pregnancy rates, lack of sexual support among the elderly can lead to the spread of STDs and other public health issues. And, according to another of my many Nashvillian friends pursuing higher education with an emphasis in sexuality:

"When you combine lack of knowledge with lack of resources, you get gonorhyphallis."
--Lanier B., sex educator extraordinaire

And nobody wants that.

So what can we do to avoid this public health crisis? Start here: don't be afraid to talk to the elderly folks in your life about sexual health. You're bound to learn something interesting from them, and maybe they'll learn something important from you. I mean, Grandma Moses didn't start painting until she was in her 70s. It's never too late to learn new tricks.

*apologies to Sir Paul McCartney

Discussion Question:
Talk about how awesome you will be when you hit your golden years. Will you rock DJ sets with Ruth Flowers in Paris, or simply enjoy postcoital viewings of Family Guy with your hot boyfriend/girlfriend?


  1. Well, I know my answer. I'm going to be one of those Gran Torino movie making, smug, old, 1 armed push-up doing Charlton Heston m'fer's. Get off my lawn, you'll get it from my cold, dead hands!

    Wait, the question was about sex? Yeah, I do that real good too.

    In all seriousness, this topic is about overcoming masculine hegemony that manages to lump patriarchal perspectives of gender and age together. I've been telling women to overcome that for years and they just don't listen. You can haz, ladies!

    Now, go tell one of the Golden Girls to get a facial and call me.

  2. Interesting read. I don't put much thought into anybodies idea of taboo. It's good that people have sex. It's good that people watch family guy and get back scratchins. I think everybody is right on - julia and lanier. Only thing I worry about at that age is not hurting myself. I'm already breakin' my neck jumping into pools.

  3. Anon, you're dada and delightful as always.

    Nick, here's to many many many many many happy years of marital nookie.

  4. I LOVE YOUR BLOG. It always makes me laugh... but I'm going to be honest here... not only does it bother me to think that old ppl do it, but it bothers me to think that anyone does it.. "do it /does it" = "get it on like donkey kong" or just you know, "sex"

    Anyway, I agree though. Old ppl need to know that just b/c they went through menopause doesn't mean that they can't get stds. Sure they can't get knocked up, but hello STDS know no again --herpes isn't attractive at any point in your life.

    And my friend christina always says, "suncity (old peopleville) has the highest rate of STDS" and then she follows it up by saying "b/c they don't use condoms b/c they can't get knocked up" So, just so you know, other people are speading the word!

  5. Thanks for reading, Tori!! Glad to know y'all are out there spreading the good word. :)

    I've never understood why people find it gross to imagine other people having sex. But, then again, some people are eyeball surgeons, and I would find that gross. Different strokes for different folks, I guess!

  6. I'm not surprised by active sex lives of elderly at all. People are taking much better care of themselves and living longer lives , how often to you see older people at the gym exercising or doing yoga ? The answer is alot . The men are trying to recapture youth and the women if single are just trying to capture a man ! I don't think desire fades as we age , at least I hope not , I actually think as we get older were much more comfortable and we know what pleases us , and certainly are not afraid to say it . I certainly hope that i'm enjoying my sex life well into my 90's .....

  7. What also is at issue here is beauty. In our ageist society, "old" is ugly. People don't want to think about ugly people having sex. They don't want to think about fat people having sex, or people with bad teeth having sex, or people with stretch marks or saggy boobs having sex. They also don't want to think about wrinkled people having sex. But, in the words of Ani Difranco, "You don't have to be a supermodel, to do the animal thing."

  8. James, where did your comment go???

    Kelly, thanks for reading! Can't wait to dish more tomorrow with you and Carol.

    Mimsy Jane, that Ani quote says so succinctly what I've been wanting to say for so long!! Thank you so much. I miss you, casalinga dottoranda!

  9. Anthropologists talk a lot about the role of "the gaze" in our constructions of reality. Humans enjoy objectification of others, and we enjoy it most when that objectification allows us to experience beauty. We are biologically programmed to find healthy-looking, symmetrical, and young bodies most attractive, because back when we were less cognitive, that's how we found the best mates (some would argue that programming is still pretty influential). And just like our tendency toward xenophobia, we shun visually displeasing "objects" - I think there's a lot of taboo around sexual relationships between all kinds of people whose physical appearances fall far outside the commonly accepted range of "young and attractive," like Julia said. Interesting topic! :)

  10. Come on, now. It's traumatic that our brains and minds are part of our bodies, given. Their separation is (okay, 'arguably') illusory. Either way, it's an amalgamation of qualities parsed with the superficial and the deep. And who's to say which is more or less superficial? It's a 24-7 objectification fest either way you look at it. The second it's not, we'll have become a race of robots. Hopefully, hot bots, but bots nonetheless. Our process of mate selection is always going to be a political sausage factory--not to be 'overcome,' but conscientiously embraced and ideally improved upon. If not, burn the museums, throw out the paintings, books, sculptures, etc. because it's all knowledge that came from this place--and is still coming from it--to shun it is to lop of the nose to spite the face.

  11. Hmm, I think my comment disappeared when I tried to edit the typo I saw in "preview" mode. Doh! What I said was something along the lines of:

    1. Nice post!
    2. I've heard from some Florida friends who work in nursing homes that old folks' sex is way more commonplace than you'd think. That's cool, except for the STDs and the lack of public acceptance and support.
    3. I reckon the genetic lottery of looks and the inevitability of aging are cruel enough in themselves. We certainly don't need to exacerbate the unfairness with dumb attitudes like "sex should only be enjoyed by young hot people".
    4. Hopefully we can change to a "sex is legit for all types and ages" attitude by 2060 when I'm teaching water aerobics classes at the Sunset Hills Retirement Village.

  12. Anonymous, I've got to say, for all of your clever sounding academic speech, your supporting evidence is very poor. Although I don't know precisely how it's supposed to support your argument. Anyway, so 47% of the men polled on said they'd dump their partner if she got fat. Probably the other 53% actually have fat partners, or would actually prefer that their partners gain weight! Even the description "fat" is subjective.

    The only place on this page where the word "superficial" appears is in your comment. It seems to me that this discussion is not at all about superficiality; rather, we are unpacking the source of this "taboo".

  13. James and Erika, thanks as always for your astute observations :)

    Mims, you're absolutely right. Anon, I don't take issue with the concept that people are programmed to find older bodies less attractive (which makes biological sense, at least)--I'm more interested in the effect that taboo has on society. I'm not trying to argue that this instinct is not beneficial overall for reproduction, but rather that we have to move past our instinctive distaste so that we can provide the kind of sexual health support elderly folks need.

  14. I meant for anyone to judge what superficial is because I don't think the term has as concrete a place as would appear--comments on the blog already imply a hierarchy of more acceptable value judgements versus less acceptable ones--that's all.

    I didn't mean to cite (god when I'm offering serious citations when I'm not being graded on them someone take me away) any serious evidence. By the time we've put it in writing or words, we're going to look like fickle beings--hence the silly "If he\she became fat" article.

    It's a tossed salad of grammatology that can't be separated for the sake of a classroom, or maybe even a moment of clear judgement--clearer judgement towards what--is what I want to know?!

    I think it's more a Kierkegaardian exercise in "bad faith" to parse these human qualities--it's an existential dilemma--not a moral one. I don't like to consider whatever "should" be attractive and would rather glimpse "is" from as much a distance as possible.

    Besides, to quote Caddyshack, "I've often thought of becoming a golf club."
    -That is to say an object within itself and not for itself. If I could do that and think simultaneously, I'd really know something.
    -Har har har.

    In terms of taboo and society, longevity and drugs will play an unprecedented roll in old people doin' it. A lot of boomers and olders won't have enough money to take care of themselves through retirement, and that will be a major issue as well (consider STD's and low income statistics). Then, with those populations being isolated because of their infirmity--could open them up to major health issues and abuse, as seen in old homes and wards documented years past.

    The real whose going to be their Dorothea Dix (or in this case, Dorothea Dicks, amirite)? Which of you shall step forward, and hold up some Dix philosophy for the sake of these decent, sexually unappreciated elderly folks?

  15. Anon, I think you're missing my point a little. I'm not condemning our reproductive instincts or making a moral judgement that people *should* find the elderly sexually attractive. That would be a strange thing to argue. I'm observing our instincts and then exploring the resulting effects in our society.

  16. it used to really frustrate me that sir paul mccartney would write the phrase 'in this ever-changing world in which we live in'. then one day i learned that that's not actually how the song goes. and i smiled.

  17. Sir Kate DePalma will say it, though.

  18. One of my favorite movies, "Something's Gotta Give," written by Nancy Meyers and staring Diane Keaton, Jack Nicholson and Keanu Reeves is amazingly contemporary, with one glaring oversight: When Jack and Diane are about to get frisky, he asks about birth control. Her answer is "menopause." His response? "Who's the lucky boy?" No discussion of STD prevention! Makes me crazy! What a teachable moment for the viewer! Physicians and therapists of folks "of a certain age" must address these health issues, just in case the patient has not caught on to the current reality of sexually transmitted diseases - way beyond their old-school consciousness of pregnancy prevention. Get with the program, boomers!

  19. Right on, Aunt Judy! I've seen that movie but hadn't noticed that oversight. Thanks for reading :)

  20. Just read this NYT article, which mentions the increasing desire (or at least increasingly PUBLIC desire) of older people to look sexually attractive. You're so on-topic.