Monday, September 15, 2008

Sex and the Over-50 Male

Alternet has a well-meant but frustratingly stereotypical article on why sex is better with men over age 50. Written by a sex educator who works with older people, Katherine Anne Forsythe, the piece suggests that a 25-year-old may have six-pack abs and stamina, but he's also apt to be a wham-bam-thank-you-ma'am kind of guy. Older men, she says, take time to smell the roses.

Well, it's laudable that Forsythe acknowledges that people's sex life doesn't and shouldn't end when they turn 30 and cease to be hawt. It's also great that she argues there's more to sex than just bonking.

But it's annoying that this piece still traffics in so many stereotypes. First, there's the hunky but insensitive young man:
The whole scene, start to finish, took twenty minutes, max. Fortunately, he is resilient. He has a brief recovery time-out, and you start all over again. This time, if you are lucky, he thinks about you and your orgasm. If you are in a typical situation, you may reach orgasm or you might feel pressure to fake it. Of course, he thinks you are loving it. And, why wouldn't he? You are telling him so, over and over, as we are taught to do as women.
Hmm ... how can the poor guy know he's doing it wrong if no woman is willing to diplomatically guide him? Sure, women are socialized to please men, but that doesn't let us off the hook. Even when I was in my early twenties, half a lifetime ago, I knew enough not to fake it unless I wanted to write off the real thing.

Also, twenty years ago, very few men had six-pack abs. We young women agreed that Schwarzeneggar and his ilk were ridiculous. Back then, young men were under less pressure to conform to a rigid ideal. I don't know that sex was better or worse for that, but I for one have never seen the appeal of absurdly hard bellies. Rigidity and hardness are better placed elsewhere.

Most of all, it's a gross distortion to say that for a young man, sex is all about him. For some guys, sure. Others care very much about pleasing their partners. I'm not at all convinced that this basic attitude shifts dramatically over time.

Forsythe seems to think that men almost automatically become selfless lovers, just due to time and experience:
Older men have a quiet confidence and patience that allows enjoyment of the entire sexual experience, yours and his. The mellowness of having been "around the block" with age -- and, most likely, a high number of partners -- permits him to let go of having to rush, and prove, and perform.
Yeah, experience counts. Confidence is good.

I'm waiting for an article explaining why age and experience make women irresistible.

But if a guy was self-centered in his twenties, that basic personality trait probably won't reverse itself. While a man may indeed feel he has less to prove, he may also have a thicker sense of entitlement. There are plenty of middle-aged men who still think it's all about them. We've no shortage of male politicians illustrating this point. I don't know whether Elliot Spitzer or John Edwards are selfish in the sack, but their public sense of entitlement - as reflected in their assumption that they could get away with extramarital dalliances - isn't exactly a turn-on.

Or take Philip Weiss. (If you can stand to - I sure won't fight you for him.) He's over 50. His douchebaggery is not improving with age. Again, I would never get as far as sexual intercourse with him because the social intercourse would be so painful. (Forsythe is definitely right when she says sex also includes the teasing and mutual seduction. This does not include admitting that you'd be "as lost as plankton" without your wife organizing your life for you. Nor does is it very seductive to insist that men have needs - women, not so much.)

Look. Men over 50 are great. I don't much notice men younger than myself, and if you round people's ages up to the nearest decade, that puts me very much in Forsythe's demographic.

Experience is a wonderful thing - but only if the guy is wonderful to start with.

Aging does bring real challenges for most people. It's frustrating that Forsythe plays them down to the extent of disregarding real pain and losses. She acknowledges that ED becomes increasingly common. At the same time, she blames ED drugs for making men dependent on them and thus robbing them of confidence. This is way too simple. Most guys are so reluctant to ask a doctor for help that they won't do it unless they've got a serious, ongoing problem with ED - and even then they may balk at it. In fact, doctors sometimes use ED drugs to help rebuild confidence when they believe ED has psychosomatic causes.

This brings up (if you'll pardon the awful pun) a final set of stereotypes that permeate Forsythe's article: that women really don't get much out of intercourse. This assumption is tangled up with a set of questions that are basically really good ones:
What if we took the emphasis off erections, and off intercourse, and off orgasm? What a concept! What if we decided that having sex was about pleasuring each other, taking time to explore bodies, building up passion intentionally, gradually, bit by bit, savoring each move? What if intercourse became just one option on a menu of lots of options?
Yes, by all means, let's expand our definition of sex. Let's not be performance driven. Let's enjoy the ride and not just the destination. If you want to carry on Forsythe's food metaphor, let's nibble from a smorgasbord of delicacies.

But when aging, illness, relationship problems, or other issues take some of the options off the menu altogether, that's a real loss. This loss goes beyond "male ego" or the social construction of masculinity. I know from my involvement in the prostate cancer community that - while it's true that ED causes a real blow to men's self-image - men are at least as concerned that their partners are suffering. Their female partners - while grateful for the efforts their mates make to become more creative lovers - often mourn the loss of plain old vanilla intercourse. If they don't, they probably didn't much enjoy intercourse in the first place, but that's a separate issue.

Forsythe seems to assume that women just don't care much about sex, only about intimacy. It's possible to find new paths to intimacy, and I appreciate Forsythe's effort to provide a map. But darn it, sometimes girls just want to fuck. Even when those "girls" are themselves over 50.

Behind the intimacy assumption is the idea that all women are shortchanged in intercourse. This is an incredibly reductive view of the variety of women's experiences. It also suggests that men are "always and only interested in erections for own pleasure," as figleaf puts it. This insults men, denies the pleasure that women may find in their partners' reponses, and overlooks the link that many people - men and women - feel between intercourse and intimacy. (Clearly, they're both "innies.")

The forms taken by sexuality and intimacy have to change, by necessity, when our bodies change. Creativity is essential if you want to keep sexual pleasure in your life and not just give up, as I think too many people do, when aging slows our responses. (Okay, creativity is great at any age!) But doesn't creativity have to start with us giving up stale gender stereotypes about selfish men and sexless women?

Oh, and that article about women growing sexier with experience? Do let me know when that one comes out.

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