Reading Lynne Segal’s recent book on growing old, Out of time: the pleasures and the perils of ageing (2013), has got me thinking about the place (or possibly absence) of old age, as an analytic category, in both my own research and the history of sexuality more generally.
For Segal, ageing is one of our final taboos, and we refuse to talk about it (seriously, at least) because of a horror that is both individual and collective; a horror, most of all, that in the old person we might really see a mirror of ourselves, whether now or in the future. If only we could let go of this anxiety, Segal suggests, we might be able to tread the “very fine line” between acknowledging the “the actual vicissitudes of old age while also affirming its dignity and, at times, grace or even joyfulness.”
Central to Segal’s idea of affirming life in old age is for us to recognise that sexual desire is, for many, lifelong. Society laughs at this idea or else shudders at the thought. As a result, old people who do still desire often feel shame, or see those desires dismissed as undignified or, paradoxically, immature (that condescension of the young that old age is a “second childhood”). Segal says we must instead embrace older people’s sexuality, and she declaims her own ongoing and powerful desires, having recently found love again after a while alone and unhappy.
What could Segal’s reflections on old age mean for work in the history of sexuality? As a field, have we suffered from the same blind spots that Segal finds in wider society? After all, we too are part of that society; do we, therefore, experience the same horror of finding in the old our present or future selves, and manifest it in some of our historiographical decisions about where to begin and end our excavations? And has this prevented us from improving our understanding of how attitudes to sex and ageing, and the experience of desire in old age, have changed (or remained the same) over time?
In her book, Segal rues Judith Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure as a missed opportunity. There, Halberstam writes of the potential disruptiveness to the sexual and political order of “bungling”, “disappointing” and “dying”. But Segal notes Halberstam’s inattention to old age, a time of life when all of these things seem to happen more often, as do lapses in memory and changes to appearance. Isn’t ageing, Segal implies, therefore one of the queerest things we can do? Bring this observation together with Laura Doan’s call for us, as historians, to use queering “as a method” – never settling on but always disturbing what we know – and new questions on the history of sex and ageing seem to emerge. Why is it that the desires of the old have been denied across time and place? What psychic or political investments have we or others had in this being the case? What are the wider economies of power or knowledge that these denials prop up, or conceal?
There are of course exceptions to this gap in our studies; to take one recent example, Matt Cook’s work on “queer domesticities” tracks some of its subjects across the life course. But there are not many. A cursory search in the Bibliography of British and Irish History for entries catalogued under both “Sexual mores” and “Old age” produces just four results. This is a crude metric. However, it is surely telling that a dual search under “Sexual mores” and “Childhood” turns up seventy-five.
Is my own work at risk of becoming part of the problem? I think so, and I will now work to address that. I’m researching the career of Alex Comfort, author of The Joy of Sex (1972), a sex manual that sold millions and became an an icon of the “sexual revolution”.
But Comfort was also a respected gerontologist – indeed, it was as Director of Gerontology at UCL that he was employed whilst writing Joy. It is unsurprising, therefore, that in some of his other works he looked to marry these interests, arguing in A Good Age (1977) that the ascription of asexuality to the old was just another way for society to “unpeople” its elders, who were expected to “drown themselves as persons when the clock points to the appropriate age.” Like Segal, he believed that desire was lifelong. Orgasms might arrive in men with less frequency, but they benefited from “more miles per gallon”; women, if they had once felt ashamed of masturbation, should now embrace it. Ultimately, both men and women should “defend” their sexuality against “disuse” and “the assaults of injudicious treatment and advice,” especially when it suggested sex was something beneath the dignity of the old.
I had not thought much about including Comfort’s gerontological writings on sex in my analysis. But on reflection, I now think I should progress by seeing them at the core of Comfort’s thought and as one of the most interesting facets of his radicalism, and interrogating the relationship between sex and ageing as a useful and necessary part of my wider efforts to understand heterosexuality in postwar Britain.
Ben Mechen is a PhD candidate at University College London. He is researching changing understandings of heterosexuality in 1970s Britain, and how “ordinary” heterosexual subjects – and “everyday” heterosexual practice – were reconstituted in the wake of the liberalisation of sexual attitudes often associated (then and now) with Sixties counterculture. Ben tweets from @benmechen
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