Grey Matters: Age as Disability through the Lens of Sexuality
Grey Matters: Age as Disability through the Lens of Sexuality
If you were asked to close your eyes and picture the quintessential senior citizen ,what are some words you would use to describe the image in your mind’s eye? Would they be physical descriptors, like small or white-haired, or would they be words describing temperament, like kind or friendly? Think for a minute about the feelings this combination of image and language evokes. Now picture the same image in conjunction with the word “sexy.” Feel any different? At the very least, I’m guessing you’re unsettled. Be assured, you’re not alone: the thought of older individuals as sexual beings makes many of us squirm with unease. As a Psychology major with an interest in both physical and psychosocial development across the lifespan, I find myself drawn to the question of why the aging process seems to desexualize seniors in the eyes of society. In fact, because societal pressures dictate that attractiveness is shaped by youth and that sex appeal is inextricably intertwined with fertility, expressions of sexuality become increasingly inappropriate with age, rendering older adults disabled as a result of repressive cultural norms. As I delve into this idea of age as a sexually disabling construct, I argue two points: first, that society’s bias against expressions of sexuality in the senior community is in large part the result of younger people’s insecurities regarding the inevitability of the aging process, and second, that the manifestation of these insecurities as prejudice serves to solidify the hegemonic sexual norm, thereby comfortably distancing one generation from the next while simultaneously disabling entire populations of aging individuals.
Before presuming to make insights about the intra-action between aging, sexuality, and disability, I read several empirical studies that investigated ageist perceptions in both young and middle-aged adults. The first article, “From Sexism to Sexy: Challenging Young Adults’ Ageism About Older Women’s Sexuality” (Allen & Roberto, 2009) details a study in which 277 college undergraduates in a lecture class on human sexuality were shown a film about aging and women’s sexuality. After watching the film, students were asked to report changes in their ideas about the topic of aging and intimacy and to comment on what they had learned about their own comfort level regarding the issue. The results of a grounded theory analysis indicate that while 95% of female students and 93% of male students believe that older women still feel sexual in their later years, only a mere two of the almost 300 students acknowledged that their responses toolder women’s sexual expression post-film experience still evoked negative, ageist, and sexist perspectives. Interestingly, these prejudiced perspectives are not limited to college-aged students who have perhaps had limited exposure to issues of aging and intimacy. The results of a second study, “Sexual behaviour of nursing home residents: staff perceptions and responses” (Roach, 2004), indicate that even middle-aged adults whose occupation involves long-term care giving harbor these prejudices, and worse, project their discomfort about the issues in question by limiting the sexual expression of the seniors they care for. After coding interviews on perceptions of aging and intimacy in nursing home staff members, Roach notes the emergence of a conceptual paradigm she labels “Guarding Discomfort.” An intricate four-part paradigm, Guarding Discomfort broadly refers to the idea that the less comfortable a staff member feels with issues of sexuality, the lower the level of sexual expression he or she will permit, much less encourage, amongst nursing home residents.
While each of these studies is filled with noteworthy data, a prevalent theme that emerges from both is the consistent need of younger generations to establish the separation of “us” from “them” in a variety of sub-contexts relating to sexuality: young from old, sexy from cute, able from disabled. Just like many physically impaired individuals, senior citizens are far too often treated like incapable and immature members of society by others and thereby afforded the same amount of appropriate sexual expression as young children. This perception of aging individuals as childlike and asexual seems to assuage the concerns of younger members of society about not only the adequacy of their own sexual expression but the stability of their youth as well. By making clear distinctions about “appropriate” expressions of sexuality at a given age, students in the Allen and Roberto study and staff members in the Roach study asserted their wellness and vivacity while simultaneously distancing themselves from older individuals through sexually disabling them. Logically, there is no denying the fact that the aging process is inevitable. In a way, it is the ultimate equalizer; the longer one lives, the older one gets. But with the aging process clearly apparent in the form of senior citizens, younger generations continue to cope with the unavoidable process of bodily change by dismissing the idea that anyone who defies the cultural standard of attractiveness, which equates youth with beauty, can be sexually expressive.
The notion that culture has the power to sexually disable seniors in both their own eyes and the eyes of society is grounded in the continuous reaffirmation of cultural hegemonic norms, or social beliefs and values that favor a dominant group but are nonetheless accepted as ideologically valid throughout society (Lears, 568). In their critical essay about the interplay between culture and disability, Ray McDermott and Hervé Varenne write, “…the abjection with which so-called normals approach labeled/disabled people is one sided and distorting” (329). For the purposes of this discussion of disability, “normals” refer to dominant younger generations who are more visible in society and therefore have the power to construct labels about older people’s sexuality without much backlash. Statements like “…even knowing you are old and not in the ideal physicality doesn’t mean you don’t deserve love or sex” (excerpted from Allen & Roberto) solidify the hegemonic sexual norm even as they seem overtly positive; instead of enabling seniors with a broader standard of attractiveness and an understanding of the aging process, the statement serves to enforce a warped ideology by utilizing words like even and phrases like ideal physicality that inherently limit the senior population and effectively disable the people the comment was supposedly meant to empower. Roach’s Guarding Disability paradigm further demonstrates how belief in the hegemonic norm has an enormous role in sustaining prejudice. Even if a nursing home staff member claimed to believe that a healthy relationship could exist between seniors, if she was motivated to control her own feelings of sexuality discomfort, she actively separated the concepts of love and intimacy by discouraging seniors from sexual expression. This example illustrates the way in which the hegemonic sexual norm continues to be maintained by an extreme level of control over a population that is further weakened by their reliance on younger members of society for portions of their care.
Though it’s easy to blame various aspects of culture for sexually disabling senior citizens, it is far more difficult to reverse the stereotypes that inherently disable. We spoke at length in class about the idea of a utopia, a place with a perfect socio-politico-legal system where culture would not disable but rather would enable all citizens alike. The process of dreaming up a functioning utopia that would accommodate specialized groups of people is a challenging and oftentimes frustrating exercise. In this case, perhaps we could start in academia, where students in high school and college could be offered courses that explore human development and sexuality throughout the entirety of the lifespan to encourage tolerance, understanding, and most of all, visibility. The next institution on the list would be the media; more companies would associate beauty with variables besides youth and fertility, and TV and film could depict more scenes of intimacy amongst seniors, thereby redefining the standard of “appropriate” displays of sexuality at any age. Yet after all of these changes, we are left with the biological effects of the aging process and the inevitability of mortality. Can we guarantee the existence of an enabling culture when youth are still motivated to distance themselves from the idea of growing old and dying? If seniors were sexually enabled, would younger generations compensate by disabling another aspect of their humanity? Regardless of the questions that arise when conceptualizing a perfect society, it is undeniable that enabling sexual expression in adults of all ages would improve the current state of our imperfect society by encouraging meaningful, intimate relationships across the lifespan and dispelling the ignorant notion that youth defines beauty.
An image from the Dove "Pro Age" Campaign
 For the purposes of this paper, I use the terms “senior citizens” and “aging adults” to refer to individuals who meet eligibility for retirement with a chronological age of 65 years or older, as defined by the US Department of Social Security (www.socialsecurity.gov). However, I believe that age is largely a self-defined construct, and I make no assumptions about individuals’ physical, mental, or emotional states at any given point in life.
Allen, Katherine R., and Karen A. Roberto. "From Sexism to Sexy: Challenging Young Adults'
Ageism About Older Women's Sexuality." Sexuality Research & Social Policy: Journal
of NSRC 6.4 (2009): 13-24. Print.
Lears, T.J. Jackson. "The Concept of Cultural Hegemony: Problems and Possibilities." The
American Historical Review 90.3 (1985): 567-93. JSTOR. Web.
McDermott, Ray, and Herve Varenne. "Culture as Disability." Anthropology and Education
Quarterly 26 (1995): 323-48. Serendip. Web. 18 Sept. 2011.
Roach, Sally M. "Sexual Behaviour of Nursing Home Residents: Staff Perceptions and
Responses." Issues and Innovations in Nursing Practice 48.4 (2004): 371-79. Print.