In this month’s column, we apply our thought experiment to the aspect of aging and consider how a world free of the complications of human sex might change the way society approaches it.
Several months ago, I came across a hot-take in my Twitter timeline that has been bothering me like a tiny scab of little consequence that just won’t heal:
At the time, I didn’t investigate the account, so I don’t know if it was an observation to which the tweeter disagrees, if they subscribe to this point-of-view, or if they were merely a troll looking to poke a sleeping bear. The account is now protected, so I imagine if either of the latter two options are the case, it’s been locked against throngs of angry women, who—by the way—did not disappoint in their replies to this.
The problem isn’t so much the tweet itself, however, but the fact that it can’t be dismissed out of hand as rubbish. Despite what we think the truth ought to be, observation tells us that reality is closer to the claim made in this tweet than we would like. Women depreciate in “value” as they age, because value is often measured in terms of sexuality and sexual desirability, and our societies continue to prioritize the male perspective when it comes to sex.
Consider this tweet from Huffington Post:
The article is filled with problematic concepts based on attractiveness and desirability—traits that are ostensibly subjective—but HuffPost selected a provocative little sucker of a takeaway point from the article for their tweet. It’s clearly click-bait, but the study referred to in the article does include this point in its findings.
Of course, one study does not a truth make, but we don’t have to read through tons of them to see the truth. We only have to look at our screens, our magazines, and our popular media to see that—when it comes to the desirability of women—youth is prized above all other attributes.
Indulge me one more Twitter screenshot:
Actor Jameela Jamil is right on the money when she points out that male actors who are fifty are allowed to look fifty, with wrinkles, gray hair, and all-around wizened ruggedness. Female actors are expected not only to fight every visible sign of aging with material means, but when those means fail, they are then photoshopped to smooth and polished perfection. The penalty for daring to age, at least in Hollywood, is clear, as lampooned in this (NSFW) Inside Amy Schumer clip:
The perception of how age relates to sex isn’t just limited to desirability but also desire. Society is obsessed with the idea of a sexual prime or sexual peak, which implies that a person’s level of sexual gratification is age-dependent. A quick internet search on “female sexual peak” produces a bevy of articles claiming the peak hits at different ages, from eighteen to fifty, depending on the quoted source.
It would then seem that age is just a number, but it’s one that sells magazines and brings in site traffic, either through the potential for titillating controversy (i.e., those click-bait titles) or by playing on aging women’s fears for validation and relevancy (i.e., “Here is how you can still enjoy sex, even though you aren’t supposed to love it anymore!”).
Ageism is inherently sexist, because as noted above, sexual attraction and desire and exactly who that matters to has historically only been considered from the male perspective. For this reason, our thought experiment is highly applicable to the human experience of aging.
If we scrub sex, sexual attraction, and desire from our reality, we are then free to appreciate all the aspects that remain: wisdom, intuition, shrewdness, experience, longevity, skill, keepers of tradition, and holders of legacy. These aspects are an inherent part of the crone persona and should be leveraged for characters and their communities in any fictional worlds we build that are free of patriarchal influences.
Without sexuality as a limiting measure of worth, older women would have more mileage as main characters. They would not be limited to supporting roles as witches, brothel madams, or kind grandmothers, and they are not confined to stories that involve or focus solely on their age (i.e., stories of age-related illnesses or retirement community struggles, etc.). Women of the 50+ set can be competent protagonists and valiant heroes.
Also, without the trappings of sex, dewy young women would not appeal to the vanity of older men who seek to retain a self-perception of worth and vitality through the eyes of those adoring maidens. Absent other motivations, May-December relationships in our fictional worlds would be rare. Or at least, young male/older female relationships would be just as common as the tired patriarchal trope of older men with younger women.
But then, youth might still be prized in the fictional worlds you create, such as it is—to a deadly degree—in the sci-fi cult favorite Logan’s Run. Gender matters not in Logan’s world. Male and female alike are euthanized when they reach thirty years of age. In a society in which age matters but sexuality and sexual attraction does not, the same level of deference, or indifference in this case, would be paid to aging men as women. Most men past about 35 would also become invisible (in your face, Mr. Sexual Market Value!).
Removing the sexual aspect from society doesn’t automatically equate to respect for aging populations, but it does mean older women should enjoy equal social relevance—whatever that might look like—to men of the same age. Crones wouldn’t disappear or turn invisible while aging men remain relevant and powerful into their fifties, sixties, and beyond. Ageism wouldn’t entail an inherent sexism.
In gratitude for sticking with me through this difficult topic, I leave you with this (also NSFW) hilarious take on sex and aging from Saturday Night Live’s wonderful Leslie Jones: