Why Would You Even Ask?

“How Old is Too Old To Have Sex?” was the title of a HuffPost Live panel discussion that I took part in last year. As I pointed out during the exchange, the question itself is profoundly ageist. We don’t ask whether people age out of singing or eating ice cream, so why even pose the question when it comes to making love?

I found moderator Abby Huntsman irritatingly perky and couldn’t shake a slight sense of condescension. But my prickliness could probably be blamed on having just come across a quote from pioneering feminist Cynthia Rich, the first writer to connect sexism and ageism: “As younger women we learned early on to pride ourselves on our distance from, and our superiority to, old women.”

Huntsman did give boomer dating-maven Ken Solin a harder time than any of the women on the panel, and he was admirably forthcoming. I liked the other panelists too: sex educator Joan Price (who recommended me for the panel), sexuality expert Walker Thornton and physician Sidney Schwab.

Soon after, I got a tweet, suggesting that our panel had busted the “eew factor,” and it got me thinking in a new way. The thought of Mom and Dad going at it definitely summons an “eew,” and I bet that’s based in biology. But I think the shared aversion to the very concept of the naked older body is culturally constructed.

In an essay called “Ageism and the Politics of Beauty,” Rich holds that physical revulsion (aka the eew factor) is a tool for oppression. Countless messages reinforce the idea that older bodies, women’s in particular, are ugly. (Check out birthday cards intended for anyone over 40.) These reinforce a hierarchy: a young woman may not be pretty but, hey, at least she’s not old. (This dynamic operates across many spheres. “My kid may be on the autism spectrum but at least he’s not stupid,” for example, or “My dad may need a scooter to get around, but at least he’s not senile.”)

Old women are at the bottom of the heap, and dismissing their physical and sexual presences makes it all the easier to ignore their minds and ideas. This hierarchy maintains the status quo—a capitalist patriarchy that profits hugely from the sale of antiaging products and regimens. Mainly to women.
Here’s how Cynthia Rich puts it:

The principal source of the distaste for old women’s bodies should be perfectly familiar. It is very similar to the distaste anti-Semites feel toward Jews, homophobes feel towards lesbian and gays, racists towards Blacks—the drawing back of the oppressor from the physical being of the oppressed. This physical revulsion travels deep; it is like fear. It feels entirely ‘natural’ to the oppressor; he/she believes that everybody who claims to feel differently is simply hiding it out of politeness or cowardice…. Physical revulsion is an ideal tool for maintaining oppressive systems, an instant check whenever reason or simple fairness starts to lead us into more liberal paths.

“Marxist quackery,” snorts my houseguest, Patrick. “It’s about beauty. There’s nothing more sensuously beautiful than an 18-year-old girl.” This, after flaunting his cred by describing a long and passionate affair with a woman decades older than he, and how lovely parts of her body were. Which wouldn’t have been a story worth telling, I pointed out, if it didn’t counter the Playboy-pinup ideal.

As Cynthia Rich points out, all marginalized people have heard that it’s “natural” for others to be physically repelled by them. Not that long ago it was considered unnatural for white people to befriend people of color, let alone marry them. This repulsion connects all the “isms.” Ageism just has a cutesy name for it: the eew factor.

Conventional thinking says that sex is the domain of the firm of flesh, and performance is measured in erections and orgasms. Writing about people with disabilities, activist Simi Linton says:

Over time, I came to understand that linking disability to a robust sexual life is among the more radical ideas that one can put forth. It is radical because it debunks the myth of the long-suffering disabled person, but is even more disruptive because it challenges accepted ideals of sexual prowess. [My colleague and I] were saying that pleasure isn’t dependent on certain standards of performance, and on intact bodies. If disabled people can invent new definitions of sexual ability, the cultural norm is called into question. 

I’ll concede that the eew factor in ageism might be more a symptom of oppression than a tool for oppressors, as Rich put it, but I find her thinking very congenial. It supports the idea that sexuality—specifically, invoking the image of a naked old woman—is the most radical aspect of my message. I like it because, like Linton’s work, it questions the cultural norm, and because it provokes discomfort, which always accompanies social change.