Saints and Scoundrels

A moral romp through the triumphs and travails of prominent Westerners.

Sex and the "Yuck" Factor

Sex is too powerful to limit to the young.

Why do we wince at the idea of people over the age of, say, seventy having sex? Heavy people? Unattractive people?

In an early episode of Sex and the City, Carrie despairs after accidentally passing gas while in bed with Mr. Big. Humiliated, she scurries out of his apartment before he can dress to stop her. In a subsequent episode, the fabulous four friends discuss the significance of doing "number two" in a boyfriend's apartment: One had to feel quite confident about the relationship before doing this (alone) in the bathroom.

The body of course emits unpleasant smells on occasion. Add to this the relevant viscous fluids and it is not hard to understand why children, upon learning about sexual intercourse, often scrunch up their faces in disgust. Sex can revolt us. As good as it can be, it's still somewhat yucky. That's in part the reason that at the age of forty, Freud stopped having sex with the wife who had borne him six children.  It was a little gross.

And that's just sex between a man and a woman. What about two women in bed together? or two men? The first scenario has recently become a popular frat boy fantasy. Whether that fantasy bears much resemblance to what lesbians in a committed relationship do together in bed is a question for which I do not have adequate space here. The action that two men can get up to, on the other hand, disgusts legions. Yale Law School professor William Eskridge concludes an exhaustive scholarly analysis of American opposition to gay marriage ("For Better or for Worse" is the name of the excellent book) with the insight that, at least until a year or so ago, vast numbers of Americans considered gay sex really yucky. And so disgusted Americans voted against gay marriage.

Find a Therapist

Search for a mental health professional near you.

But what about older people having sex, older straight people? Why do we find that idea so yucky?

In an iconic scene from the film Harold and Maude, a Roman Catholic priest summons all his energy and contorts his face appropriate to convey the full blast of his disgust at the idea of a seventeen-year-old's tight, muscular body intertwining with the "saggy breasts and wilting flesh" of an eighty-year-old woman (Harold's girlfriend, to whom he had just lost his virginity).

Like the fart in Sex and the City, an old person's body displeases us. An old person's sexual needs as well ("that dirty old man!" or "she's a cougar!"). We'd prefer not to think of such things. We can excuse young, beautiful people just about anything (with the obvious exception of a fart). When Princes Diana dallied with James Hewitt, we overlooked the adultery. When a harridan from the wrong part of town conducts an affair, on the other hand, we lash out at her for her self-indulgence and untrustworthiness.

Similarly, we often discount the sexual neediness of college students. "It's the raging hormones," we may say defensively (or enviously). When we think of people in nursing homes, on the other hand, we often recoil at the thought of sexual neediness. "It just doesn't belong there," we may think, much as Carrie does of the fart she leaves in Mr. Big's bed.

As yucky as the physical act of sex may be, advanced age should not enter our moral evaluation of erotic activity. In this, the age of Viagra, older people in bed together should arouse our admiration.

 

John Portmann is an Associate Professor of Religious Studies at the University of Virginia.

more...

Subscribe to Saints and Scoundrels

Current Issue

Love & Lust

Who says marriage is where desire goes to die?