Can We Talk about Sex and Aging? (Part One)
“I don’t care what society says about women our age. Sex must not be taken off the table!”
This double-entendre line from the recent film, Book Club, reflects a shift in public discourse about sex and aging. The film is a jovial portrayal of four older women’s discovery of the book, Fifty Shades of Grey. One could debate whether this film actually advances a healthier view of sexuality for older adults. While it does bring the issue to the forefront in a humorous way, the underlying messages could also advance an unrealistic and inherently ageist view of sexuality and aging.
When this film came out (in 2018), I enlisted the opinions of another film reviewer (Rose Capp, College of Nursing and Health Sciences, Flinders University, Adelaide, South Australia, Australia) to help me critique the film’s message and how it was delivered. The result was an intriguing film review dialogue that explored whether the humor in the film enhanced or diminished a healthy perspective on sexuality and aging. Here are snippets of our sometimes pointed dialogue.
Jim Vanden Bosch: The film fosters the assumption that to be successfully old one must maintain as many attributes of youth as possible, including the proclivity for frequent and rambunctious sex. The more youthful one can act, the more successful one is at “aging”; this is equivalent to age-denial, an under-recognized expression of ageism.
Rose Capp: I think this does underpin some of the less credible aspects of the storylines and dialogue, but the flipside of this is that you also see maturity in action. Diane takes her relationship with her daughters seriously and is making a life for herself without her husband (including her acknowledgement that the relationship had failed some years before he died). We see Sharon operating in her professional capacity as a judge and Vivian running her hotel empire.
JVB: Along with my discomfort with the ageism, my main critique of this film is that the dialogue is often so juvenile that it diminishes the characters.
RC: I take a more pragmatic view on this than you do. I agree that some of the dialogue and humor around the discussion of sex is puerile, but I also would argue that sexual relationships in older age are for the most part ignored on the mainstream screen, so any film or TV series that tackles these issues is potentially progress of sorts. Older women in particular are not represented or valued on screen as sexual beings. Vivian’s insistence that “sex should not be taken off the table” (for women of their age) is therefore an important statement.
You can read more of our vigorous dialogue on this film here.
Sex is a sensitive and personal topic, and the boundaries containing the discussion of sexual expression in older adulthood are changing. Book Club actually follows in the footsteps of an increasing number of recent films that explore sex and intimacy in the lives of older adults—films like Cloud 9, Hope Springs, Cloudburst, and 45 Years. As little as 15 years ago, the few films that portrayed romance among older adults did not openly broach the sexual component of those relationships. One of the earlier exceptions to this was the Australian film, Innocence, produced in 2000. It pioneered the visual presentation of the sexual attraction between two older individuals. A discussion and review of these films can be found on this website under the topic, Intimacy in Later Life.
Most recently, a new film, Good Luck to You Leo Grande, features Emma Thompson as a widow wanting to explore a deeper sexuality she never experienced in her marriage. The film has been noted by many film reviewers as a groundbreaking reveal of an older woman’s body. (This notational focus also reveals, I think, how far we still have to go in accepting the natural process of bodily aging.) Good Luck to You Leo Grande explores with great sensitivity one older woman’s willingness to challenge her personal boundaries around sexual expression and fulfillment. I highly recommend this film and will say more about it in a future blog.
– Jim Vanden Bosch