It’s hard enough to find sexy representations of older people on your average stock photo site, let alone your average porn site. The media we consume asks us to believe that “sexy” equals “young.” But that’s not only untrue, it’s harmful. And we in the pleasure industry must be at the forefront of tackling this myth.
One of the things that caught my eye in the news this month was the story about Erika Lust’s new project, “Soulsex,” in which sex educators Annie and John discuss their sex life in an in-depth interview before having sex together on camera. Annie and John teach courses on the Art and Science of Loving Relationships. What’s more, they are both in their early 70s.
With luck we will all grow old, and as we get older we should be able to continue enjoying sex and masturbation without shame or societal stigma.
When I saw this news, I was elated! It’s rare to see older people featured in adult films in a way that isn’t overtly fetishized — where their passion can be the star of the show. It’s important to me on a personal level, as it should be to everyone: with luck we will all grow old, and as we get older we should be able to continue enjoying sex and masturbation without shame or societal stigma. As Erika Lust puts it when describing “Soulsex”:
“I want to make seniors visible again in the public discussions about sex and pleasure and I want them to be represented in porn. People think that older bodies can't possibly be sexy or desirable because we have been fed the message through advertising, television and films that only young bodies are attractive. It's time we start shifting how we view senior sex.”
But where does this stigma come from? Why does society spread the false message that sex has a “best before” date? Perhaps it’s partly down to an inherent discomfort with the idea of parents or grandparents having sex. As Robert Heinlein once said: “each generation thinks it invented sex. Each generation is wrong.” Younger people often dislike thinking about older people having sex, because it reminds them of their parents or grandparents. Well I’m sorry to have to break it to you but parents can — and do — continue to have sex long after our children are grown up.
Maybe it’s a lack of understanding about the ways people’s bodies and desires change as they grow older. I use the world “change” cautiously, because we have plenty of assumptions about bodily changes that simply aren’t true: the idea that menopause shuts down sexual desire, for instance, or that age causes erectile dysfunction which means “sex” is completely off the table.
In fact, while age can have an impact on the ways your body responds to sexual stimulation (check out Joan Price’s excellent blog for more detail on this!), the idea that age erodes desire — or the ability to have sex — is simply not true. While everyone’s experience will be different, and there’s huge variation, many people report that their sex life continues to improve as they get older, as they become more comfortable in their skin and better able to articulate their desires. And where the body might be unable to do some of the things it did before — get rock-hard erections or produce vaginal lubrication, for instance, there are plenty of products to help with that! Pills like Viagra get most of the attention but there is way more on the market to explore: sex toys which can be used flaccid as well as erect, lubricants that make a good substitute for natural lubrication, vibrators that can be used to stimulate even if your hands have limited dexterity — and much more besides.
The barriers to older sexuality are far less about sex itself than they are about the attitude society has towards it. And that attitude is programmed into us from a very young age, so it will take a lot of work to undo the myths. One of my pet peeves is the fact that on almost every popular TV show, any romantic or sexual storylines tend to be given to young actors — Gillian Anderson’s passionate character in “Sex Education” was a breath of fresh air, because you so rarely see women over 50 being sexual. When you do, it’s often at the more “vanilla” end of the spectrum, as if anything more adventurous is simply impossible. I’d like to see more older people being sexual on TV — not just in programs specifically targeted to an older demographic, either. Younger people will benefit from seeing older people in more complex sexual relationships too — isn’t it good for everyone to see that sex doesn’t have to stop when you start collecting your pension?
The fact that this myth endures is partly down to a lack of education, of course. I was lucky to get a great sex education when I was young — my mom is a sex therapist, and we had an extensive library of books in the house, as well as an open environment that meant I could ask any questions I might have had. But not everyone has this. Many people will have to make do with a patchy sex ed at school, combined with media messages that erase older people and try to sell the lie that sex is just for the young.
The good news for the industry is that we can lead the charge on this! We’re used to shattering stigma: it’s what we do. Tackling myths like the idea that dildos will “replace” your partner or porn will destroy your relationship. In the last 20 years we’ve taken sex toys out of dark shops where they’d be bought with a nudge and a whisper and into the bright lights of the mainstream, where they’re being discussed on daytime TV. We can tackle the stigma surrounding sex and aging too: by including older models in our advertisements, by writing blog posts aimed at an older demographic, and by championing the work of older people who are writing about sex — and making films like “Soulsex.” I hope this message comes as good news for everyone reading: not only do we have a huge market of older people who will want to buy our products and explore our work, on a personal level we can all rest easy knowing that sex doesn’t have an expiration date.
Julia Margo is the co-founder and COO of Hot Octopuss. Also a published author on social change, wellbeing and consumer issues, Margo brings invaluable insight to Hot Octopuss.