The Literary Mind

Life, literature, and politics, from the inside out.

In Search of "The Dirty Old Woman."

Where are all the "dirty old women" hanging out?

When a friend referred to "dirty old men" the other day, I wondered why we don't have an archetype for the "dirty old woman." Archetypes hold some truth. So I'm wondering if the "dirty old woman" exists in any big numbers--and if not, why not?

Men do generally lead more sexually aggressive lives than women do. Men account for the vast majority of our online predators, sex addicts, rapists, sociopaths, and pedophiliacs.

In turn, if we want to know why we haven't heard much about "dirty old women," we might assume that the male's sex drive is bigger or lasts longer into old age than a woman's sex drive does. While nearly all of us get bitter as we grow older and alone, a man's frustration might be just be more sexual. We might have "dirty old men" on the one hand and "bitter old ladies" (whose frustration is less sexualized) on the other. That said, the relative strength of our sex drives has never been clearly established.

There's also the fact that sexual predators are basically aggressors--and men and women have different relationships with aggression. Men tend to direct their aggression outwards, into external conquests. Women are more likely to take their anger out on themselves. That's one reason why women suffer higher rates of depression than men do. Depression is often described as anger turned in on yourself.

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In that light, perhaps "dirty old men" are unsatisfied people who direct their frustration into the world, finding external targets for their appetite. Women, on the other hand, direct aggression inward. Here you can think of a parallel between the "dirty old man" and the "narcissistic diva." I'm thinking of the rise of divas like those on The Real Housewives of New Jersey (which I love to watch), who enter older age attacking their own bodies with manic sexual energy, in facelifts or dieting or shopping or hoarding. If some men sexually aggress through external conquests, perhaps some woman sexually aggresses through self-conquest.

That dichotomy (men entering the public realm; women keeping to the private) has been central to gender studies for ages. As early as 1869, John Stuart Mill wrote in The Subjection of Women that women have learned, through history alone, to not be the aggressor. They are taught that their realm of interest is in the home, in the body, or in appearance, rather than in political or public action. "All women are brought up," Mill wrote, "[being told] that their ideal of character is...submission. ...All the current sentimentalities [say] that it is their nature. [But] the greatest [mistake we make] is [our] unspeakable ignorance [about] the influences which form human character." He meant that women have been raised to be objects acted upon rather than aggressors. But they are not necessarily biologically more passive than men.

And one reason we might have more infamous male aggressors--more rapists, Napoleons, or Hitlers--is that women have been practically debarred from the public realm, so have either repressed their own aggressive impulses or enacted their conquests in the private realm (on their own faces, wardrobes, diets, or children).

But any search for the "dirty old woman" also needs to account for the taboo against female sexuality. Perhaps the women pedophiliacs, for instance, exist in higher numbers than we assume. But they're ashamed of telling anyone or getting caught. So we just don't hear about them. Hence: no public cliché of the "dirty old woman." And perhaps the modern rise of the "cougar" (an older woman who dates younger men) is a sign that women are feeling freer to express their sexuality and aggression in the public realm. But what's your take? Where are all the "dirty old women" hanging out?

 

Ilana Simons, Ph.D., is a literature professor at The New School as well as a practicing therapist.

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