The New York Times Magazine recently published a long and wonderful article about sex and aging. It’s so good, and it features some of my favorite experts including Peggy Kleinplatz (whom I interviewed on a podcast episode a while ago and whose book I blurbed) and Jane Fleishman (whom I interviewed for this newsletter!) There’s a paywall, but if you have access to it, I highly recommend taking the time to read it.
And while you read it, take note of your emotional reaction to the idea of eroticism among older folks.
In general, I strictly follow the wisdom, “Don’t Read the Comments,” but I fell down a rabbit hole of the comments on the @nytimes Instagram post about this article.
Before I talk about them, let me talk about the “disgust” response. As anyone who has seen Inside Out knows, disgust is both a physiological reaction to potentially harmful contagions and a social emotional reaction to potentially harmful social contagions. We have a “yuck” response to the smell of rotting vegetables, and we have a “yuck” response to things that are morally repugnant to us. For details, see chapter 5 of Come As You Are, where I talk about the science of the “yuck” response and sex. (NOTE! Sexual disgust is correlated with sexual pain! Unlearn sexual disgust and reduce pain!)
If the comments at the @nytimes IG account are anything to go by, a LOT of people find erotic touch between people over 70 morally repugnant.
Not everyone, not by a long shot! People were…. divided in their appreciation of the article and the artwork that accompanied it. I’d say it was roughly a 50/50 split.
There was a lot of reflexive “yuck” response, like:
Traumatizing? Let’s pause and think about this. Trauma happens when we are trapped in a high intensity stress state, often life-threatening and/or sustained over a long period of time. Is this person saying that seeing images of older people kissing activates a high-intensity, life-threat level stress response that their body can’t process?
Some people said it’s not the article but the images they found difficult:
And there were people who apparently did not believe that seniors enjoy erotic connection. Instead of just declaring their disgust reaction, they engaged in moral confabulation, telling a story that explained their withdrawal response:
For the record, the article is literally about research on sexuality among people over 70. We know for sure that intimacy is NOT over for many folks lucky enough to live so long. Notably, both these comments had a lot of replies, which overwhelmingly disagreed with them.
On the bright side, there were a number of 69 jokes and all of this:
I want to say, too, that people aren’t dumb when they have a disgust response to images of older people connecting erotically; they’ve learned what they were taught, that sex belongs only among a certain subset of people and no one else, and if those outside the “appropriate” group have sex it’s A HORRORSHOW. People wouldn’t respond with reflexive “yucks” and then feel comfortable publicly posting their comment to an Instagram account with 14 million followers if they were utterly convinced of the moral infallibility of their emotional response.
I don’t think the people who felt “yuck” are dumb at all. I think they haven’t yet been exposed to a wider range of ideas about how human sexuality works. And maybe having it pointed out to them – as many commenters did – that they too will age, if they’re lucky enough, and they, too, could continue to have gorgeous, delicious, delightful sex long past the time when their bodies conform to some culturally constructed “ideal” that has nothing to do with a person’s individual, lived experience.
And the comments that, perhaps, best summarizes the whole messy ball of conflicted feelings:
Too true, my friends. Too true.
As I said in my post with Jane Fleishman, the erotic is respectable. There's nothing gross about consenting erotic connection. If you feel a “yuck” response, it’s a powerful opportunity to dig deeper and expand your imagination, to see a world where everyone has access to all the pleasure they choose for themselves.
And the people who read my newsletters tend to self-identify as “sex positive,” which, by my definition, simply means that everyone has fully bodily autonomy; everybody gets to choose how and when they are touched, and they get to choose how they feel about their own body. As Bianco Laureano wrote, “Sex positivity is not elitist, heterosexist, racist, ableist, or ageist.”
Whenever you notice a “yuck” withdrawal response to the idea or image of someone else, anyone else, having pleasurable, fully consenting sex, that’s an opportunity for you to dig deeper and, by improving your own sex positivity, make the world a better and safer place for all of us to access the joys of eroticism.
Stay safe and see you next time.