Monday, August 7, 2017

The Taboo of Growing Old

Sacchi Green

Getting old is taboo in erotica. Not in the sense of being forbidden—no one will stop you from writing about characters advanced in years, and every once in a while an editor will talk a publisher into backing an anthology of stories where all the characters are over—shudder—50. Or sometimes even ust over 40. The horror! And you can occasionally place such a story in other anthologies. I’ve done it a few times myself. Yes, I admit that “taboo” is an overstatement in this context.  

Still, in erotica, as in most forms of entertainment, pretty much anything goes except being physically unattractive, in terms of what’s generally considered attractive in one’s particular time and culture. In our culture, that tends to be youth-centered. Fortunately, even within a culture tastes do vary, and a good writer can make a case for one character being attractive to another even when one or both of them fall pretty far outside the norms, but most erotica seems to toe the mark of what’s commonly considered youthful movie-star looks.  

Speaking of toeing the mark, I’m not very familiar with toe fetishism, although I know it exists. Do toes need to be “’cute” to be fetishized? I rather suspect not. There are certainly some exceptions to the necessity of exceptionally attractive characters in erotica, and we humans being as contrary as we are, there are probably some who fetishize dramatically ugly characters, or parts thereof. And there may be those who prefer to read about older people having sex, for various reasons, not necessarily kinky ones.

Aging is a complex issue in our society in ways that go beyond the matter of looks and therefore desirability, although those are the prime counts against it. Getting old is a challenge to the young’s sense of immortality.  There seems to be a feeling that those who grow old must somehow deserve their fate. They should have known better. This attitude isn’t quite as pernicious as the one that sees poverty and ill health as the fault of those who suffer them, or possibly a just punishment from God, but the two are similar.

What set me off on this tirade isn’t the fact that I’ve somehow allowed myself to get to an age that’s considered old. I am as good as anyone else of my generation in defining “old” as some years older than wherever I am now. But I’m annoyed by the click-bait headlines I see again and again online, the ones about “So-and-so was gorgeous in such-and-such TV show back in the 70s, 80s, but you won’t believe what they look like now!” You know, the ones interspersed with “Celebrities who have to work at Regular Jobs!” and “So-and-so Lost 100 pounds and Looks Like a Model!” There seems to me to be an underlying motif of, “Ha ha, they got old!” I have to admit that I don’t click on those, so for all I know they show pictures of celebrities who have managed to stay gorgeous, but I still think they’re intended to appeal to people who want to see the formerly beautiful and famous brought low by aging.

When it comes to averting the eyes (and mind) from images of old people having sex, there may be some connection to the possibly universal distaste for thinking of one’s own parents (or grandparents) in sexual situations. I suppose this is to be expected when the parents have been responsible for such oppressions as toilet training. And I suppose that thinking of grandmothers as hyper-prudish seems reasonable from the perspective of the grandchildren, who can’t imagine that anyone that old was ever young, or sexy. Every generation thinks they invented sex, or at least sex with the lights on. I guess they never heard of the 60s, and Free Love, back when I was their age. Granted, not all of us had the luxury of being hippies, but we paid attention.

But back to erotica. I have an admission to make. What really got me thinking along these lines is wondering whether I’ve included too many stories about older people in my next anthology. Wondering about that, of course, makes me guilty of seeing erotica with old people as slightly taboo, too. Will readers complain? Will it affect sales? Well, screw it all. The book is Best Lesbian Erotica of the Year Volume 2—how I miss the days when it would have been titled simply Best Lesbian Erotica 2018!—and it just happened that among the stories I considered the best, there were more than usual with older protagonists, and fewer with young ones. Maybe this is a trend. Most of them were younger than what I consider old, but there are several over 40, and one lovely piece set in a geriatric psych ward.

Hmm, as I look again at my Table of Contents, there isn’t really as big a percentage of older-folks stories as I’ve been thinking there was. More indication of my own unexamined bias. It’s like the study that shows that if twenty percent of a group is female, the males will be sure that the females constitute an overwhelming majority.  I’ll stop obsessing about it. You know, I think the reason I feel like there are too many of those stories is just that they’re so good, and stick in my mind.

So I guess I’ve been attacking a straw man. Or straw woman. Like beauty, taboo is in the eye of the beholder, and if I think growing old is taboo, that says more about me than about our youth-oriented, celebrity-obsessed, fat-phobic society.

11 comments:

  1. Last December I self-published a holiday tale called "Gray Christmas". The two main characters are both on the far side of 65. And yeah, the heroine's daughter is totally grossed out when she discovers her mother is having sex with the upstairs neighbor!

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  3. This is a great post, Sacchi. I love the balance between the general social commentary and the personal.

    I don't have anything interesting or important to add, so I'll just talk about my own work (heh). When I wrote my first novel ten years ago, I made a deliberate decision to introduce a highly sexually self-actualized character in her early fifties, whom the early-thirties protagonists are attracted to and get it on with. She's an important character all around—she really belongs in the book, as does her several-layered relationship with the protagonists—but I was also intentionally "making a statement" to push back against ageism. I was in my mid-forties at the time; and what's funny, of course, is that I'm now older than she is (because [non-series] fiction characters don't age!), and I'm like, "A hot character in her early fifties? What's so anti-ageist about that?" (;v>

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    1. I know, right? When you get to a certain age, it doesn't seem nearly as old as you used to think it was. Then there's the tendency to see some other people your age as much older than you are.

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    2. Yeah. Sometimes I'll meet a new acquaintance and instinctively think, oh, s/he is probably half a generation older than me, like around 60. Then I remember how old I actually am.

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    3. Jeremy, I don't mind a bit if you think that I'm around 60 and half a generation older than you. The half a generation part may well be true. I've never been entirely clear about how long a generation is.

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    5. (:v> Yes, it's a pretty fuzzy and inconsistent term, isn't it? In this context, I think of a "generation older" as my parents' age (and, of course, the age gap between a person and his or her parents can itself vary widely, so even this is not very objective). I'm about 25 years younger than my parents, so "half a generation" would be the people ten to fifteen years older than me, old enough that they're definitely not my chronological peers, even loosely speaking, but young enough that they're definitely not my parents' chronological peers either.

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  4. Good post, Sacchi, and good comments. I often wonder if anyone would want to read a story about a woman of about my age having sex. (I bet most of my students would say "Eww." I don't really mind because I wouldn't want students to think of me that way.) I sometimes think about the double standard of aging in Hollywood and in the culture at large, as well as the double standard of sexual experience. An older man who knows what to do in bed is a hunk, while an older woman (who can be assumed to have some experience) is used or worn out -- or that's what gets expressed in the media. It's unfair, but it also tends to protect older woman from the relentless sexual harassment I remember from my 20s. I like being able to walk down the street in peace! I just wonder if there's any sweet spot between being perceived as asking for trouble and being perceived as rotting fruit, past it's expiry date.

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  5. So we can't write about the old. And we can't write about the young. Leaves us the whole middle to play with. Until we get too old. ;>)

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  6. All of my characters are at least in their 30's. I'm not interested in the first blush of teenage love, or even of the experimentation of the 20's. I want to examine how folks deal with romance and sex when they've got some baggage in their past, and they're getting bored with the hook-up scene. In my most recent book, the heroine and the hero are both in their mid-50's. Since I'm older than that, I still think of it as young...but to readers? Who knows?

    I laugh at my husband because he has always been extremely uncomfortable even thinking of his parents having sex. Considering there were 7 kids and 1 miscarriage in his family, it's obvious it was more than a hobby to them. But he refuses to see them as adults equal to him. He was the same way about my parents when they were alive. And he tries to be like that about our kids, but I won't let him.

    I purposely raised our kids to think the way I do...that now that they're all adults, we are the oldest adults in the family, but we are still sexual beings, and we respect their rights to be also. When the sons have brought their girlfriends over to stay the night, husband and I think nothing of having breakfast with them in the morning. And if their beds squeak a little too loudly, so they can be heard all over the house, I just smile. Husband goes to sit on the porch, so he doesn't have to hear it.

    Then I remind him what our oldest son once said, when I asked him, since his room was above ours, if he'd even heard "things" he didn't want to hear. He snorted and said, "Honestly, Mom? If I didn't hear things from downstairs, I'd think you and Dad were dead." Um...yeah.

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