Tami: So, Miley Cyrus thinks people over 40 don’t have sex…from the video, I suspect Miley may simply be taking the piss out of the olds–the ones she imagines have been clutching their pearls over her twerking skillz. I’m not sure she really believes what she’s saying. Whatever Miss Miley believes, the notion that sexuality ends at 40 is prevalent in our society and I knew we had to tackle it.
And before we get started, we should acknowledge that we are approaching this issue from the perspective of cisgender, straight women. I would like to hear more views in the comments and on Facebook.
Andrea: ::files nails:: I think because I’ve had a variation of such ageist dismissiveness directed at me from someone about her age–a young gay Black man–I wouldn’t be surprised if she meant every word of it, as pissy as it is. My point is that this kind of thinking isn’t confined to 20-something white women who are former Disney stars.
Hey, Deanna Zandt! Welcome to our freewheeling SBF chat! You know the topic. Go for it.
Deanna: Whee! Thanks for having me.
Tami: Andrea, when we spoke on Facebook, you mentioned the idea of “parent revulsion”–that’s it’s hard for young people to think of people their parents’ age as being sexual. I agree. Miley Cyrus is 20 years old. Often, at that age, quite a few people still haven’t begun seeing their parents, or people like them, as fully actualized human beings. Part of that evolution comes with getting into the workplace and spending days alongside people of various ages. But Cyrus’ “workplace” is awfully youth-oriented.
Andrea: But I think that her workplace is a distillation of this society’s fantasies and sometimes attendant morality plays.
But I suspect the “parent revulsion” goes beyond just folks fucking: it goes to the perceived diminishing social relevance that some 20-somethings (and less so with some 30-somethings because they’re inching toward the “fine 40s” themselves and are trying to reconcile that, though they may be young, they’re certainly *not* in their 20s anymore) give to people our age, which society encourages.
Deanna: I find this whole thing really bizarre, because I get the whole “ew, my parents and sex, ew,” but I never personally projected that wider to all “grown-ups.” But true, women over 40 are immediately rendered invisible sexually by the culture.
Tami: Me either, Deanna. I took a wonderful human sexuality class my senior year in college. It was taught by a pair of professors who I believe were in their 50s or 60s. They taught extensively about senior sexuality and other topics that poked holes in the idea that love is only for young people with perfect and able bodies.
Andrea: Personally, I loved hanging with older people in my 20s because I never considered being 20-something an inherently interesting age anyway–or being in my 30s, for that matter. Honestly, I couldn’t wait to be in my 40s because, as modeled by these people, it meant worldliness and “cultured-ness” and that you can *finally* live on your own terms. So I looked to those people, mostly women, whom I hung out with as the “cool” version of my mom, like your cool-ass aunts. And I did that precisely because I still wasn’t ready at 20-something to hear what my mom had to say–though she and these “aunts” would say the same thing–and my mom didn’t want to grasp that I was forming my own adulthood outside of her household. As I’ve told Deanna, both parents and children need to mature.
And, though I’ve met some brilliant folks in their 20s and 30s while being in my 40s, thanks to online feminism, I still don’t envy them for being that age or think they’re wildly brilliant vis a vis that age–and that’s the Kool-aid Miley Cyrus’ industry and the larger society gets quite a few of them to drink. And when I don’t drink it with them, when I don’t think they’re particularly genius precisely because they’re younger than I am, when I don’t think their every sentence is gilded and is accompanied with angels blaring their trumpets–that’s when the “parent revulsion” comes out.
Deanna: #noenvy #none #kthxbai
Tami: Our culture is so focused on youth these days that we forget that wisdom and experience necessarily come with getting older. It just does. That’s something younger people can benefit from. It’s something I can benefit from as I interact with people older than me. People used to be amused at the idea of Dr. Ruth Westheimer (left) as a sex therapist. But, she’s a little old lady! But, really, who knows more about sex–a person who’s been having it for four years or a person who’s been having it for 44 years?
Deanna: I looooooved Dr Ruth. Still do. I think part of her success was being able to come in that surprise back door (no sexual pun intended, hee) of being the little old lady who said “penis” and “breast.” It flipped the script because “little old ladies” weren’t/aren’t supposed to be sexual.
Tami: Some of this is undoubtedly about appearance and a porn culture that says everything should be smooth and shining. And boobs and booties should be riding high. Sexuality in porn and in media is definitely tied to youth. Not only is the idea of a woman with a full bush anathema in terms of modern sexuality, but so is the idea of tits that droop a little (or a lot) and soft mid-sections and bodies that look “real” or “real” for someone in their mid-40s or later.
Deanna: Are you all familiar with Cindy Gallop’s “Make Love Not Porn” project/startup?
Andrea: No. What’s that about?
Deanna: Cindy basically had the experience that whenever she had sex with younger men, they didn’t know what to do because they’d learned everything from bad porn. So, she’s helping to foster this whole #realworldsex movement. Disclaimer, it’s VERY white, and fairly straight, at least right now, so that’s a huge drag.
Andrea: Being sexually into older people is read as a “specialty,” a–wait for it–“fetish.” But it’s fascinating how the pornographic category of sexually digging older cis women (a.k.a. MILF) is now slang, even an honorific, at least moreso than the more predatory-sounding “cougar.”
Dare I say that the huge cultural event called Sex and the City buttressed that idea of what a 40-something body should look like with Samantha Jones, whose idea(l)s about sex, aging, and body image still move through the pop-cultural landscape?
Deanna: Samantha, whose body doesn’t look like many women’s at her age, and whose sexuality doesn’t match a lot of women’s experiences… that spectrum isn’t well represented. And it’s funny, sidebar– many of my friends who are partnered are sort of nudging me to be their “Samantha-friend” because I’m not partnered. And I’m all, hoooolllld up..
Tami: I also think a lot of the criticism of the characters in Sex and the City, and Sarah Jessica Parker specifically, was tied to the fact that the women were–in the show’s last years–in their 40s and older. That is why so many critics accused them of being shallow and desperate–because most of them were women who had not settled down in the way women are “supposed” to settle down. And they were pursuing sex in a way that women of their age aren’t “supposed” to pursue sex. And I think the particular ire that some men have reserved for Sarah Jessica Parker is connected to the idea that Carrie was positioned as an attractive woman with an active love life, meanwhile Parker has the nerve to not to possess cookie-cutter acceptable looks and also to be playing a sexy, single woman at 40+. The message is: How dare you present yourself as worthy when you are old and not attractive to me?
Andrea: Yes, because the other actors played their characters as 30-somethings for most of the show’s run except for Kim Cattrall’s Samantha, who really didn’t cop her age until she got involved with a younger man. And then she had breast cancer, which became a chance to giggle about chemo-induced perimenopausal symptoms like more sweating even as the creators presented a rather sympathetic storyline of Samantha coping with the condition, especially concerning her younger boyfriend and their sex lives.
Deanna: Well, yeah, that was the thing– the cancer “robbed” Samantha of her sexuality, and without that, she was powerless. And thus a more empathetic character.
Andrea: What Miley Cyrus did do, however, is speak a very fear that some older hetero men have about younger women: that these presumably straight women really aren’t checking for them. That busts the whole May/December Romance Myth that undergirds the statutory rape that is Lolita, the relationships of George Clooney, Donald Trump, and Hugh Hefner, and the plotline of the Police’s “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” (which is based on the aforementioned Lolita) and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button.
Tami: Here is the thing, though. And I think this needs to be acknowledged: I don’t think the average straight middle-aged man is trolling for young girls. The idea that heterosexual men are solely attracted to women in their 20s is a lie that keeps women forever worrying about aging. Yes, there are certain men who exclusively pursue younger women, usually to maintain a power balance where they are the unchallenged alpha. But most men I know–whether they are 25 or 45 or 55–are with women within a decade of their own age.
And, like many things, this ties into consumerism. Because, as long as women believe that signs of aging mark them as irrelevant and asexual, then we can be coerced into spending money on products and procedures that can hold back the aging process.
Andrea: I agree to a point: as much as the myth keep straight women worried about our youth, it also says something to straight men, namely that they can “trade in”–which goes back to your idea of consumerism, more specifically, planned obsolescence when a straight women reaches a “certain age”–for a younger woman to take care of them for exchange of being thought of sexually viable enough for said woman and, therefore, sexually viable to the rest of society. In other words, women are replaceable as mates. Straight women, on the other hand, are taught to “hold on” to the man they got because we’re “not going to find anyone” as we get older because we won’t be considered “attractive” = “sexually desirable” because of our age. Which goes back to your point regarding spending money on anti-aging products and procedures.
Tami: Miley didn’t specifically call out middle-aged women, but we need to go there, since this is Squeezed Between Feminism.
We are really not supposed to be sexual in society’s eyes. Women over 40 are relentlessly positioned as “unfuckable” or, on the flip, hypersexual cougars. Either way, by being aged, we defy the natural order of things. This is not the way men are viewed
Deanna: “Defy the natural order of things.” Exactly. See, this is where the whole nature/nurture stuff really falls apart, and we see the cultural prescriptions that are placed on women.
Tami: What doesn’t often get said is that sex gets better as you age (can I get a what-what!?), largely because you begin to feel better in your skin and you have learned (through practice) what your body likes and you’ve learned how to please another person. And you’re less concerned with appearing sexy than you are with enjoying the moment.
Deanna: *slow clap* I’m also wondering how much of this cultural phenomenon related to age and women’s sexuality has to do with the associations of child-bearing, which, of course, completely erases multitudes of experiences–women who choose or can’t have kids, women who don’t have the parts, etc. It sort of reinforces the role of women’s sexuality to be only about reproduction, and not about pleasure. It’s like the pleasure is this huge secret, as Tami is describing… Shhh, guess what: it gets even better.
I’m reminded–a little bit off the topic of age specifically–of Sophia Wallace’s Cliteracy project. And how her aim is to help women who have clitorises understand that they aren’t these little buttons, they’re the whole shebang, inside and out. We don’t know this right now because, culturally, sex shouldn’t be about pleasure for women.
Tami: Yaaasssss, Deanna! I wrote a couple days ago about how, especially in the current pop-culture landscape, fertility is tied to youth is tied to sexuality. I talked about how telling it is that gossip press speculate on Jennifer Aniston’s womb in much the same way that they speculate about the bodies of much younger women. The trade-off for maintaining the idea that “40 is the new 20” is pretending that women in their 40s are as fertile as their much younger counterparts. Because the idea of perimenopause isn’t sexy.
Andrea: From an orgasmic side of it–for those who are sexual, because we can’t assume everyone is–la petit mort get deeeeeeeeeper, especially if you do Kegels. And then you realize that, heck, even if you don’t orgasm, you may really enjoyed that, too, because you get that having an orgasm isn’t the point of sex all the time–again, you feel comfortable with the many nuances of sexual satisfaction, whether you’re with someone(s) or not.
Deanna: We should start a “40s are the New 40s” movement. It’s so interesting because I remember, about 10 years ago or so, my mom and I were talking about aging. And she told me then that the ages of 40-45 were her most enjoyable years so far. I thought that was wildly interesting, and asked her why. She said, “I had a ton of energy, and I worried less about what people thought.” Done and done.
Which, bringing it back to sexuality, I also remember going shopping with her when I was a teenager, and looking at bathing suits with her. I could not, for the life of me, picture what my mom would want, other that to probably cover up. I held up one of those awful one-pieces with the little skirt thing attached, and she turned around and said, “God, Deanna, I’m 40, I’m not dead!” Lesson. Learned.
Could it be that there is something about the invisibility that comes with female aging that is also freeing?
Deanna: I was just thinking the same thing. We’re liberated from the binds and expectations of youth.
Tami: To wit…at 20-something I really would have cared whether or not someone thought I was having sex. At 43, the idea that Miley Cyrus thinks my sex life is done is merely amusing. I have zero fucks to give about what Miley Cyrus thinks. (But she does make good blog fodder!)
Well, good blog fodder, and little doorways that we can use to talk about the weird cultural BS that’s prescribed for us. 🙂