Few “isms” are good “isms.” Racism, sexism, elitism, classism—we’d all be better off without them. But at least they’re relatively easy to spot. There’s one “ism” that tends to go over most people’s heads, and that’s ageism. I’ve always found this surprising, since everyone, if they’re lucky, gets old. We are all eventual targets.
It struck me again as I read Karen Springen’s Aug. 10 Daily Beast story “Why Seniors Are Getting It On.” Springen announces we are “in the middle of a senior (sex) moment,” citing everything from the new Meryl Streep movie, Hope Springs, to the Real Housewives of New York. She writes:
“And there’s the viewed-by-1.2 million-YouTube watchers safersex4seniors.org video, showing granny and grandpa types in Kama Sutra positions. (They’re fully clothed, thankfully.)”
Scroll down to the comments, and you’ll find this response, from one reverettex:
“I agree, who the hell wants to see some old guy naked? I wouldn’t I mean really, or for that matter an older woman naked. The thought of seeing an old man trying to get the poor thing up would not be a good thing."
I don’t know anything about reverettex, but I know this about Springen: she writes for the Beast and probably does not wish to be racist, sexist, homophobic, or any kind of bigot. And she got some very good interviews with some very important experts who say some very intelligent things about the normal course of adult sexuality. And most of her readers (those under 50) probably didn’t wince at all when she was thankful not to see “granny” in a Kama Sutra position—because what she said was so obviously true to her readers as well. But why is that OK?
What’s odd about this is that Springen and reverettex will get old and then get naked. They will become the butt of their own disgust. Ageism is the only “ism” that everyone (who lives) will live to suffer from. And when people talk about sex they just can’t hide it.
I have taught lifespan developmental psychology for more than 20 years to college students. I show a film of a live birth. A few students find it somewhat gross. But what really grosses all my students out is when I tell them later in the semester that I am sure that their grandparents have sex (if they have an available partner).
I disagree with Springen’s conclusion that there is a new generation of older people having sex. I think there is a new generation of older people having sex after their first marriage. Older married people always had plenty of sex. Then when they were widowed, divorced, or moved to a nursing home, there was no available partner. What’s new is that this is no longer totally true. Older people can meet online and they can go out dancing after they are widowed. Or they can divorce after 30 years if they feel like it. Then they can date or co-habit or marry and have sex. And in some forward-thinking nursing homes, older people are given privacy for sex with other residents.
So, Beast editors, let’s not have granny or geezer used disparagingly in the legitimate press. Let’s not think that older people are cute when they are affectionate and think it is revolting when that affection gets sexy. Four-year-olds are cute when they are affectionate. Pedophiles are revolting. Your grandmother and grandfather are neither.
I hope that when Springen and reverettex get there, there will be a private space for them in the nursing home. And that their grandchildren will treat their sexuality with respect.