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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Saturday, January 20, 2007

Old folks' sex party - a lesson about prejudice and intolerance

Just received: a tabloid news story about a group of nine people - aged in their 70s, 80s, and 90s - who were booted out of a London nursing home for organising a wild, nude party (described by the paper as a sex party) in the home's recreation room. Apparently they were sprung by security staff at an early stage of the party, when the staff heard the sounds of rumba music. The party had only been going for about twenty minutes, but the participants were already naked and oiled.

A spokesperson for the nursing home is quoted in the story as saying that the incident might sound harmless or amusing, but that the home has strict standards and cannot tolerate such behaviour. Well, yes, it certainly does sound harmless - to me, at least - and merely amusing. And why, exactly, can such behaviour not be tolerated when it involves people in their late years?

More offensive than the spokesperson's words, though perhaps no less concerning, are the quoted remarks of an anonymous staffer who was involved in breaking up the party. This person is quoted as saying, "... they were all naked. Believe me, it was the scariest thing I've seen in my life." I doubt that this was what was meant: what, after all, is so scary about a bunch of old people with no clothes on? I doubt that they appeared especially frightening to the (presumably much younger and able-bodied) staffer. What the staffer felt was not fear, I expect, but some kind of repugnance or disgust.

Let's not mince words: what was intended was not "scary" but "ugly". Naked people of the age described are not menacing in any way, but younger people are likely to be repulsed by the sight. Or, come to think of it, maybe there is at least an itty bitty element of fear - the fear that old people are somehow not keeping in their place, but are acting just like adults in their more robust and vigorous years. How dare they? "Don't they understand", so the thought might go, "that their time has passed and that they are now merely tolerated by the rest of us?" Yes, something like that nasty thought may be involved. Uppity old people ...

The journalist's own language is packed with condescending language - "codgers", "geezers", and so on - that makes clear his scorn for these people, and that he confidently expects his readers to share it, and have a good laugh.

Before I go on, I should concede that I, too, may have found the sight ugly if I had been exposed to it. Like most men, I am "programmed" (by genes, by socialisation, whatever) to be sexually attracted to the radiance of youth, energy, and health, not to the wrinkled skin and sagging flesh that goes with old age. I'm not so hypocritical as to pretend otherwise. This blog entry is not going to be a forlorn plea that we alter our standards of sexual beauty.

No, but what about when I reach the sort of age that these nine people evidently are? Well, frankly, if I am still interested in sexual activities to the extent that they showed, and can take an interest in the bodies of other people of my own generation, I'll be very pleased. I feel happy for this gang of nine that they were still able to get a kick out of arranging some kind of naughty party among themselves. Yes, the sight might not have been aesthetically pleasing to me, but why the hell should that be the issue? What makes it okay for people, such as the anonymous staffer and the journalist writing it all up, to pour scorn on these individuals?

The fact is that the folks at the party were not hurting anybody. They weren't even inflicting the sight of their age-damaged bodies on the delicate aesthetic sensibilities of anyone younger. Instead, they were carrying on among themselves in a harmless way that was evidently giving them pleasure. Nothing bad need have come of it, but for the intolerant "standards" of the nursing home and the investigation by the security staff. If a group of young, or even middle-aged, adults had done something similar in one of their own homes, no one would have considered it worth reporting (we can be confident that it happens all the time - but so what?). Why does the fact that many of us would have found the sight unappealing suddenly open up a legitimate public space for moral outrage, or for mockery? Actually, it doesn't.

At the end of the day, I think this is just prejudice against old people, who are expected to know their (subservient) place in society, and perhaps to be thankful that we put up with them at all. When you think about it, that attitude is pretty ugly, in its own way. As far as I can see, the nine people concerned have nothing at all to be ashamed of: good for them that they were still up for some excitement. Those younger people who think it is okay to infantilise them, and jeer at them, are the ones who have plenty to be ashamed of. If many of us feel those ugly impulses to jeer and mock, I suggest we disown them; they are not worthy of us. It would be unreasonable to ask my readers to change their standards of sexual beauty - I've admitted to mine - but we don't have to let considerations of what we find sexually attractive drive us into prejudice and intolerance.


Anonymous said...

Well okay, your point is made, particularly about the comments of the nurse, but I still think it was okay to say that this behaviour is not to be tolerated. Surely the staff have a right to work in an environment that does not offend them.

Forget the fact they are old for a minute. What if a professor walked into a tutorial and found everyone naked? Most of his/her students would be young, but I am still willing to wager the professor would be shocked and offended, not out of line saying that it was a disturbing thing.

So this is my point: I am quite sure I would have been kicked out of Deakin Hall all those years ago if I had been involved in a naked, oiled sex party organised in our recreation room. And I would have deserved it. Nursing homes are not the sames as a residential home, where this sort of behaviour is acceptable (even kind of cool come to think of it, I hope I have that much fun at their age).

Yes I accept that there is a prejuduce, and yes of course I do not find 70 year old women as attractive as I find 18 year old women, and yes eldery sexuality may be an issue in need of address in our progressive society. But I still feel for the staff who had to deal with it.

Russell Blackford said...

By the way, this story came to me by an indirect route and it is actually a few years old ... not that that changes anything.

Stuart makes the totally correct point that maybe it was okay to have a rule against this - after all, student halls of residence would have similar rules. Fair enough. Yes, all sorts of places have rules like this to regulate how the common areas can be used. Perhaps it was a good idea to have a rule forbidding unsupervised parties in the common room, even if it were based purely on health and safety grounds. Besides, by having a party that was not authorised and scheduled, they were excluding other residents from use of the common room. There might also be security aspects to holding events that the management were unaware off - e.g. what if people from outside came in without being accounted for.

I didn't really want to get involved in those complications, but I do understand them. However, the way I see it, that just makes the party a breach of a - perhaps quite reasonable - rule, like any other such breach. Whether it was serious enough to justify the individuals being kicked out, or newsworthy enough to end up in the press, is another issue.

So, I kind of set all that aside in my original post.

Just to kick it around a bit, though, what if a bunch of students did something like this, and the residential college took a highly moralistic attitude and actually kicked them out? I'd say that that was an overreaction. To me, the students would, indeed, be in the wrong in holding a party at a time that was not scheduled, or whatever. Again, they might be breaching a perfectly reasonable rule about no unsupervised parties in the common room. But if there was no other background of rule-breaking by the students, I'd warn them that rules about the use of the common room have to be followed, but I wouldn't want to kick them out because of this one incident. The fact that they (consensually) got their clothes off would not really be the issue.

Would I be shocked and offended if I wandered in on a bunch of students who'd turned up naked for a tutorial? No, not in slightest. Well, I'd certainly be damned annoyed that they weren't taking the tutorial seriously. I suppose I'd even be hurt, in so far as such an action would almost certainly not be spontaneous, but would be meant as some sort of gesture of protest at my perceived teaching inadequacies. If they weren't trying to make a point to me, why would the students be picking this particular time and place to remove their clothing?

But I don't see why I would be shocked or offended, or disturbed, in the sense that I think you mean.

If I happened to come across a similar situation (in circumstances where it was not in protest at my teaching, or whatever), I'd just laugh it off - and I'd hope that they would, too.

The only thing that would really worry me would be if I were required (by my employer) to break it up, and some of them responded aggressively. But there's no suggestion that anything like that was an issue in this case with the old folks concerned.

Admittedly, not everyone is as tolerant of these things as I am, but most academics probably are. As for security staff ... well, they are supposed to be tough enough to deal with a lot worse than the sight of naked people.

So, okay, to sum up at this point, I totally concede that what these folks did was against the rules, and that the rule concerned - against unscheduled/unsupervised parties in the common room - probably had some justification. But I don't see why I should feel terribly sorry for the security staff.

But that's not really my point, either. What irritated me about the article (which, to be fair, you haven't seen) wasn't even the moralising. It was the mocking way these old people were referred to. The way the journalist wrote it seemed to assume that there is something inherently ridiculous-cum-disgusting about people in the late years of their lives retaining any sexual drive or any interest in each other. That just seems like a really nasty prejudice. Worse, it wasn't even being hidden - the mockery was completely open.

Of course, I'm wondering what things will be like when baby boomers like me reach that sort of age. I hasten to add that I'm not planning to go to any parties like the one described when I'm 80 or whatever. God knows, I've slowed down enough in the years since I hit 40.

All the same, I'm willing to bet that a lot of boomers are going to be in far better shape in their old age than was even imaginable a few decades ago - and there will be a lot of us, exerting a fair bit of economic, elctoral, and media clout. I expect that issues to do with the elderly sexuality will be getting a great deal of attention twenty or thirty years down the track. Maybe even sooner than that, as old age starts to loom close for the earlier boomers.

Anonymous said...

Am quite sure we would have been kicked out of Deakin Hall for that. Also sure it would have been worth it.

Russell Blackford said...

Wouldn't whether it was worth it depend on the other people involved? ;)

Anonymous said...

Haha, as usual you are right. Still, regardless of who was involved it would make a great story.

"Did I ever tell you Grandkids about the reason I got kicked out of Deakin Hall? Well it all started with Margaritas and a bottle of oil...:

Terry L. Hill, PhD said...

As a nudist/naturist and professor/intellectual/humanist/critic, etc., I find that the mere admission of personal prejudices against the sight of (nude) older people, then defending their right to be so, sums up the mainstream, liberal position towards body display and aging (in this case), to wit: that "I won't do it, but it's OK if others do, in certain circumstances". Contextual body morality, as opposed to complete body acceptance, while a step ahead of Victorian ethics and a gigantic step ahead of some religious ethics, still allows for ageism and discrimination to prevail - knowing the nude body is essentially amoral. Socially constructed and situational ethics are necessary regarding laws/rules governing violence, deceipt and aggression, but not for how we were born. Nude societies/resorts/clubs around the world (representing 33 million people) have MUCH LOWER incidences of behaviours that mainstream find offensive and dangerous. Why? Well, you will have to survey the 20-40,000 people who inhabit places like Cap d'Agde, or Australian nude beaches, etc., for a definitive answer; but apart from the self-regulatory effects of group situational morality anywhere, nudists admit to an overwhelming feeling of "liberation", coupled with sensual (not sexual) enjoyment. It's interesting that we tolerate occasional baby-toddler public nudity without question, but assume (wrongly) that nudity automatically leads to sex (sin) once we're into puberty and even into old age. Nudists have much to teach us about evolution. And ageism, however disguised, severely limits the 'extra' freedoms we should at least bestow on the elderly, if not ourselves.

Terry L. Hill, PhD said...

However disguised or rationalized, ageism is everywhere. Nudists (33 million around the world) have much to tell us about evolution and morality. Body acceptance is one of the next "frontiers" we have to deal with as a species, as socially constructed modesty and its negative effects continues to prevail, supported by conservative-political institutions. Nudists/naturists per se, do not pose a threat to anyone, and have a higher level of situational morality codes of ethics by far - and MANY FEWER INFRACTIONS - than mainstream society. If we were meant to be nude we would have been born that way. The rest is regressive window-dressing.

Anonymous said...

Group sex in a common area of a nursing home is a tough proverbial pill to swallow, but here in the US our nursing homes sometimes have draconian rules about sex—or anything resembling sex. I work for Gilbert Guide, a company that reviews long-term care facilities and also provides information on senior care. I was at an Alzheimer’s conference in November and a woman related that a staff member chastised her for being in bed—fully clothed—and snuggling with her husband when she was visiting him. It was this story that prompted me to post a piece on our blog about sex in nursing homes.

Secondly, you have made the point about youngster engaging in sexual activities and the difference most of society has in regards to the that particular “mental picture.” It is an interesting comparison as today’s young men and women have been raised in a safe sex era. Many sexual active seniors still view pregnancy as the primary concern of sexual intercourse rather than STDs. But the senior population could be more prone to infections since many members have a weaker immune system than the general population. And many physicians would not assume a senior was sexually active. Both ageism and age-related changes in the body result in the ability for STDs to be contracted more easily, and go undetected for longer, which could potentially cause more harm. Denying a seniors’ sexuality can actually be more than just the ageism of a condescending staff—it could potential make them very sick. The stakes might be higher than many realize.