*Editor’s Note: This post is the kick-off of SBF’s first weekly series, “MILFs, Perimenopause, and Silence,” about how media do–and don’t–talk about people, specifically female-identified folks, in our 40s and 50s in terms of sexual and reproductive health. The post below is the series’ introduction. –Andrea
By Andrea Plaid; originally published at RH Reality Check
Working with reproductive-health and reproductive-justice organizations and advocates, I’ve noticed that people like me aren’t included in the discussions.
Not so much women of color like me; by the definition of reproductive justice, women of color are centered in those conversations.
Not so much cisgender people like myself. To quite a few organizations and individuals, being cisgender is the default gender of what it means to be a “woman,” and the ability to conceive and give birth happens to the exclusion of transgender people and gender non-conforming people who are seen as suspect as Black cisgender women in terms of sexual behavior and motherhood.
No, it seems that people like me aren’t included too often because we’re of “a certain age”–40 years old and older, to be more precise.
I see it in the panicked tweets and Facebook updates of people as they reach their late thirties, that fear of not being seen as “young” anymore, that fear of being aged out of relevance, of having people care about their every utterance and activity. Like, at the stroke of midnight on one’s 40th birthday, everything that comes out of one’s mouth sounds like the Peanuts teacher.
What also laces those tweets and updates is the dread of being seen as irrelevant as a sexual being, let alone a reproductive being. The age of forty is, according to the fears, when the sexualized body parts–face and eyes (“the windows of the soul”), chest, hair, butt, and legs–instantly bag, sag, and fall out and/or become dryed out (menopause) and/or dysfunctional (erectile and cancer). Because of these conditions, people aren’t considered viable partners for conceiving children unless the partner is of childbearing age, preferably in their twenties (the “May/December romance” of younger cisgender women and older cisgender men) or other reproductive technologies and/or services are used (e.g. Viagra, in-vitro fertilization, surrogate mothers). Even at that, these technologies and the people using them may be viewed with suspicion because they’re seen as desperate attempts to seem “reproductively viable,” which connotes “sexually relevant” and “youthful.”
Cisgender men fare better in this purview–men aren’t quite as severely criticized for getting older–but there are those community and pop-cultural admonitions of not being “the old man at the club” or the direct side-eye given to men like Hugh Hefner dating women “old enough to be their daughter(s)” or Donald Trump and his comb-over. Samantha from Sex and the City–the oldest woman in the quartet of pals–balks at having sex with an older man when she sees his wrinkling, sagging backside.
Cisgender women fare far worse in these conversations around sexuality and reproduction. If we’re not invisibilized because we’re seen as asexual crones–we’ve allegedly “had our babies” and, ergo, all the sex we’re going to have–our sexual peak is seen as predatory (the term “cougar”), a subcategory of porn (Moms I Like To Fuck, or MILFs), or as grotesque (the aforementioned Samantha, whose sexual appetite played as a mixed pro-sex blessing because she has sex “like a man” on the series and ended up the butt of jokes in the movies, especially when she starts going through menopause).
Statistics don’t help with this. As I mentioned in an earlier post, the statistics about cis women and abortion–which, can be seen as an assumed marker of reproductive viability for cis women–rarely talk about cis women over the age of 40 and completely erase trans people and gender non-conforming folks, regardless of age.
When I researched statistics on abortion and 40-something Black cis (non trans) women at reputable sites like Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the most apparent fact is that the highest age accounted for is the late thirties. I saw very little mention of the abortion needs and reasons for women over 40 beyond this: “Women over age 35 had lower abortion rates (7.7 abortions per 1000 women aged 35-39; 2.6 per 1000 women over 40).”
The Guttmacher Institute studies–another good source about abortion–rarely mention any numbers about women my age, except for this: “At least half of American women will experience an unintended pregnancy by age 45, and, at current rates, one in 10 women will have an abortion by age 20, one in four by age 30 and three in 10 by age 45.” A more accurate–and interesting–reflection would be stats on the numbers of abortions broken down by age group, like “women from 40-50 have x number of abortions.”
As I also explained in the same post, reproductive opportunity may be a reason behind this under-reporting. A post on Babble.ca explains this through numbers: biologically speaking, my opportunities to get pregnant each month lessen as I age. My chance goes from 20 percent in my 30s to five percent in my 40s. But that doesn’t equate, therefore, to not being able to get pregnant at all.
Our Bodies, Ourselves For a New Century, the venerable feminist-based health book, says this about middle-aged women and abortion:
If you are sexually involved with men, remember you can still get pregnant; keep using some form of birth control until you haven’t had a period for one year. Some midlife women consider the chances of pregnancy to be so low that they rely on abortion as a backup. But if you are certain you do not want a child and would not consider abortion, continue to use birth control for two years after your last period.
With rare exceptions, we position the sexual and reproductive realities of cis people aged 40 and older as something at the edge of–if not beyond–the discussions of reproductive justice and reproductive rights and render invisible the sexual and reproductive realities of trans and gender non-conforming people of that age, too. We may discuss and advocate for access to screenings breast cancer and genital cancers, but they are framed as issues that affect one’s sexual self at “any age,” which usually connotes affecting those in their childbearing years of teens through thirties…and the popularly desired youthful sexuality associated with those years. When there is a discussion about middle-aged people and sexuality, they tend to be–again, with some exceptions like the classic Our Bodies, Ourselves and The Good Vibrations Guide to Sex–relegated to publications for and about people in that age group, like AARP, More, Our Bodies, Ourselves: Menopause, Naked At Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex, or Dr. Ruth’s Sex After 50: Revving up the Romance, Passion & Excitement! (The Best Half of Life). Or there’s a shock-and-squick element to stories about elderly people having sex because some folks can’t imagine parents and grandparents “doing it.” (Though the reality is older people are doing exactly that and with, unfortunately, rising STI and HIV rates.)
As people of many gender identities and expressions aged 40 and older don’t sexually fade, the conversations around our “doing it”–if that’s what we’re into–doesn’t need to fade. If nothing else, our sexual practices and behaviors at this point in life, in their various permutations, need to be normalized in both reproductive justice and reproductive rights conversations so our sexual selves–whether we can or will reproduce or not–won’t seem so shocking or, worse, gross. Because the reality is, unless circumstances turn out otherwise, quite a few of us will reach the age of 40 and even older than that.
That’s nothing to be silent–or scared–about.