Old People Sex: A Cultural Blindspot

One writer would like to see more public displays of elderly affection, preferably of the normalising and hot-blooded kind

Feature by Rebecca Chan | 25 Jun 2013

If there's anything that makes me rage and cringe at the same time, it's hearing older people being described as 'cute'. I first became aware of the habit when it circulated in my adolescent friendship group circa 2004, and it has been making my skin crawl ever since. It's so deeply offensive, yet so well meant, that you have to wonder how such an attitude could come to be so pervasive.

Perhaps there are fewer roles for older people in the community than there should be, or perhaps there is a lack of communication between the generations that needs to be remedied. However, as this is Deviance, I want to focus on the significance of the fact that there is a void in the public imagination in the place that older sexuality should occupy. It's as if you hit 60 and your genitals fall off and smooth over.

A friend of mine made the interesting point that the sexual encounters of old people receive the same kind of treatment as gay relationships in mainstream culture. They are hammed-up and hinted at, often providing light comic relief, but never taken as seriously as young, heterosexual relationships. While a trawl through the specialist stockist's shelves might get you the elderly erotica you are so deprived of, you can absorb 'mainstream' youth sex culture just by going to see the occasional new cinema release, or having the TV on in the background while you're cooking. Admittedly, it's a distorted, Hollywood kind of culture in which women are bikini waxed to within an inch of their lives and the word 'anal' causes people to choke on their drinks, but regardless, some kind of sexuality is acknowledged, which is more than can be said for the cultural blindspot that is elderly sexuality.

I can't remember the last time a director showed an older man undressing an older woman, or filmed a wrinkly hand caressing a wrinkly back. As a side note, if this idea makes you cringe – why? It can't be the whole icky grandparents connotation, that's ridiculous; an older person shouldn't remind you of your grandparent any more than Mila Kunis should remind you of your sister. Perhaps this is indicative of the broader concern here – that older people are no longer being dealt with as individuals; rather, they are being reduced to a homogenous social category. This all takes place within the context of a media industry in which depictions of beauty are horrendously limited. In such a world, crow's feet, cellulite and spider veins are death. They are, problematically, also facts of life.

Opposing age with sexiness, and reinforcing this with a total lack of sexual representation in cinema, only serves to make the ageing process more devastating than it need be. Seeing the depiction of your generation's sexuality go from hot-blooded affairs to bashful, awkward encounters (perhaps a kiss on the cheek here and there) is likely to make anyone feel a little disenfranchised. Sex is an adult activity, and giving elderly romance the same kind of cinematic treatment as puppy love helps to inform a cultural norm that infantilises older generations.

Of course, this is just one component of a larger social problem that Hollywood alone cannot fix, but surely some representation from someone who isn't Meryl Streep would help? In any case, we can't keep portraying 'old people sex', for lack of a better term, as all blushing and no banging. It contributes to a culture that turns women into 'little old ladies' and which aligns sex, and sexiness, singularly with youth. Worst of all, it promotes and perpetuates the kind of culture in which a 14-year-old can off-handedly refer to an old person as 'cute'.