On Impotence

If I gave up, if only I could give up, before beginning, before beginning again, what breathlessness, that’s right, ejaculations, that helps you on, that puts off the fatal hour, no, the reverse, I don’t know, start again, in this immensity, this obscurity, go through the motions of starting again, you who can’t stir, you who never started . . .

Samuel Beckett, The Unnameable

Impotence could be your badge of honor. You could wear it with pride. Use it as a guiding light in dark times, a treasure map, the royal road to truth, the golden compass to your existence. Why not? We say this not because we are married; nor because we are in the middle of a recession which everyone has decided to liken to a good dose of medicine – maybe it is; but because it has become clear to us that there was never anything else but impotence.

Want a real metric. We offer it to you. Impotence is, according to Sigmund Freud, the universal affliction of man under civilization. A certain amount of it characterizes the love of all civilized men. The more you ignore it – care to show your animal unhinged self, unruliness, rebellion, unending adultescence, amortality, nothing stops you now – the more you show the hold it has on you. You betray your fundamental impotence. Counter to the hedonistic, utilitarian calculus that governs our sick society, we want to argue that we are the way in which we don’t enjoy. Impotence is our all-too-human version of the truth.

If you haven’t already let out a gasp – with a ‘certainly not me’ attached, or to take it one step further, ‘well, maybe him’ – then perhaps you might admit that there seem to be rather too many Erectile Dysfunction ads these days with their concomitant pharmacological therapies to disqualify such a remark. Just watch baseball on TV – the luminous ads for Cialis and Viagra flicker obscenely behind the erect and phallic stance of the hitter.

Should we talk about your sex life? To be honest, we don’t really want to; and, contrary to common opinion, neither did Freud. He probably couldn’t have cared less. Let’s face it, nobody’s sex life is really working. We are poor temperamental fragile creatures, the weakest reed in nature, as Pascal reminds us. A mere vapor or virus can wipe us away.

Might we take this one step further? Listen to Freud,

“I shall put forward the view that psychical impotence is much more widespread than is supposed. If the concept is broadened and is not restricted to failure to perform the act of coitus in circumstances where a desire to obtain pleasure is present and the genital apparatus is intact, we may in the first place add all those men who are described as psych-anaesthetic: men who never fail in the act but who carry it out without getting any particular pleasure from it – a state of affairs that is more common than one would think
( . . . )
If we turn our attention not to an extension of the concept of psychical impotence, but to the gradation of the symptomatology, we cannot escape the conclusion that the behavior in love of men in the civilized world bears the stamp altogether of psychic impotence”

So the failure of the genital apparatus (what a turn of phrase! It sounds like some small contraption in a swish Manhattan gymnasium) extends to the entirety of our mental and emotional life precisely as a failure to enjoy. Since we all seem to be having such a good time perhaps we can breathe a sigh of relief. But are we? Are we really?

The psychical impotence of which Freud speaks is our failure to unify desire with love, “Where they love they do not desire and where they desire they do not love.” The more respect we feel for our beloved, from admiration to acquiescence, to fear of judgment and the need to please and feel pleased, the less we can act. Pleasure is thereby sapped from our lives except in those realms that mean the least to us. It is only in relation to what we know matters least – a casual handjob in Koreatown, a racy Eliot Spitzeresque evening with a hooker in midtown – that we seem to be able to experience vibrant desire. It seems as if the planets of desire and love move in separate orbits, rarely intersecting, and where they do coincide it does not last long. A brief meteor shower.

And the consequence: “A man who doubts his own love may, or rather must, doubt every lesser thing.” These are the words of Freud in 1909 summing up his famous case study, the “Rat Man,” using the love-verses from Hamlet to Ophelia. The Rat Man could feel very little aside from anxiety, could not make a decision to marry, and spent a great deal of time screwing servant girls and seamstresses between compulsive rituals. Oddly enough, he betrayed an expression of sheer bliss during his psychoanalysis only when describing an eastern method of torture whereby a pot full of rats was placed on a man’s buttocks forcing them to try and bore their way out via his anus. Pleasure, even 100 years ago, is often where we least expect it. Why the rats? Only a man who cannot love would identify in a heartbeat with the image of an animal who, panic-stricken, mistakes the way out for the way in, as if to dig his own grave. The fact of death and the life of desire are utterly confused and conflated.

There is perhaps a more familiar twist to this tale. Psychic impotence is manifest as the “universal tendency towards debasement in the sphere of love.” We might get off, but we don’t really enjoy, and we should begin to see how impossible it has become to love. Do not the models in sundry fashion magazines betray such a lack? Why do we insist on looking again and again at such bodies and visages that look back at us with empty, cold, simulated, drug-induced pleasure? The model’s face is an impenetrable surface, a kind of map to the kingdom of our unpleasure. We flick through the magazine obsessively. We are looking at a map and beginning to read something there, a kind of riddle: If she doesn’t have it, do I have to worry that I don’t have it either? To this extent, the glossy pictures are terrifically reassuring.

As debased objects, models are negative representations of the obstacle to love: in other words, respect. Desire, whatever virility you might muster, is directed towards the one who is the bearer of debasement – a prostitute, a woman of lower social standing, someone damaged or discarded. She is a woman who doesn’t judge and admonish you, unless of course that is what you have paid her to do, and, to be sure, you can easily escape after the deed is done without a pang of conscience. But ask yourself: Does she feel? Is she moved? Could you stand it if she were? Perhaps many men can only feel intense desire with a prostitute because they are utterly unconcerned with her pleasure.

Our cultural landscape is composed of women who cannot be moved by men. Sex and the City is replete with them: one fucks an endless anonymous series and her orgasmic displays are always chilling; another is a careerist dominatrix who cultivates broken men; the show is focused around a chronically alone histrionic columnist who writes, of all things, relationship advice; back-grounded by the prudish gallerist who desperately wants a baby. We have a lame little joke with a punchline that goes something like: ‘there is no sex in the city.’ The degradation of life turned out as a glorified fashion soap opera of supposed urban liberation is even more vulgar than a woman who can hold outright her true failure to enjoy which might then give the scent of its possibility.

Putting such niceties aside for the moment let’s try and really ask what it is that is sexy. We think it is what fails, what returns from the repressed and piques our interest as a slight contortion in what we believe we are looking at. In fact it’s not so much the blank, Kate Moss-like stare of the supermodel but what in that stare betrays the necessity for debasement. Our suggestion is that if you start with failure you might find the trace of enjoyment that you were looking for. Freud contended that in every choice of woman there was some organizing force – she had to have an X factor that you didn’t know was required. A certain frame, a slight slope in her shoulders, a way of laughing, a smell, a limp in her step, a gesture in her face when speaking that stands out like something utterly out of joint. The question is can you stand to know it?

This singularity of desire undercuts the universal factor of impotence. In a letter to Wilhelm Fliess, Freud’s quasi-analyst, he wrote with amazement about a woman who took up an affair with an older man and was reported to have seven orgasms in a row. He went on to say that when she was forced to marry a nice gentleman her age chosen by her family for his pedigree she would no doubt find herself instantly frigid. Here we have a factor that absolutely supercedes biology; that mysterious thing, the obscurity in desire that brings it into play. It is a testament against Viagra and far surpasses its effects. It could no doubt mobilize the aged body like a flash of lightning from the Gods.

A nameless psychoanalyst or other said that the man is determined by the degree of weakness he can bear, to which we would add that he would have to bear it in the face of the obstacle which actually serves as the cause of his desire. From weakness might come some access to vigor in the experience of desire. Normally it comes with a wave of disgust, shame, or horror, with which we take flight. Hamlet’s impotence, his failure to act and take revenge on his mother’s husband/father’s murderer is a paragon of modern man. He finds the act entirely repulsive and takes every opportunity to back away from it, mirroring a sudden unqualified horror of Ophelia: “I say, we will have no more marriages.” Hamlet combines a terror of femininity, a failure of masculinity and an impossibility to commit to any path. What a thing of beauty Ophelia is drowning in the river! A dead woman, a woman gone mad, is a thing we can approach. This same analyst called Hamlet’s mother a “gaping cunt . . . when one goes, another arrives.” Mourning meant nothing to her, like a woman who refuses to age, in which case nothing means anything to her.

Women, said Freud, have the same after-effect of their upbringing as men but have to add to this their reaction to men’s behavior towards them. “It is naturally just as unfavorable for a woman if a man approaches her without his full potency as it is if his initial overvaluation of her when he is in love gives place to undervaluation after he has possessed her.” Modern man prefers to devote himself “unreservedly” and exclusively to his own self-satisfaction, meaning, in short, that masturbation and stagnation, not man and wife, form the current libidinal couple. ‘What did I do wrong?’ says the woman, ‘Don’t you find me attractive?’ ‘It’s never enough for her,’ he says rather sharply. He’s right. But so is she. We carry on this way. We could call it scenes from a marriage.

How is it with you, Lady? In the name of this truth, we cite a woman who told us that her ideal man was some sort of cross between Edward Cullen, the vampire in the Twilight book series by Stephanie Meyer, and Wall-E. It isn’t sheer happenstance that Meyer is a Mormon because as the HBO series Big Love attests, nowhere is the idea of Man alive except in Mormonism where the proof of male godliness only finds justification in polygamy and endless children. Bill from Big Lovekeeps all the women happy (disappointing that he was caught with Viagra last season).

Wall-E on the other hand is the fragile, isolated, earnest, loving, dependant, and quasi-helpless child, who will, as a robot, nevertheless find no obstacle big enough to belabor his desire. From a mere waste disposal system he manages to displace this drive-like apparatus onto a love for EVE with a palpable and charming innocence. Edward Cullen is the darker version of this picture. He is pure desire: he doesn’t sleep, he doesn’t eat food, he most likely doesn’t shit. He just wants Bella, and sexuality at such a velocity is writ through with death, as it should be. The oddly similar HBO series True Blood makes the joke with the new drug ‘V’ derived from vampire blood whose erectile powers should be handled with the utmost care. So we cover the spectrum: boy versus man, robot versus vampire, limp dick versus total erection. All are impossible.

Feeling depressed? Why not pop a pill? You might find solace in the uncanny fact that all anti-depressants come at a cost to our capacity for sexual pleasure. Nothing is free. A psychiatrist who was willing to admit that he had no idea how any of these drugs worked – such was the blanket nature of their effect – said ethically he did what he could by laying out the costs and letting people chose for themselves. To say the least he promised very little. “You’d be surprised nevertheless,” he added. His patients usually chose the minimum degree of happiness granted over the possible heights of ecstasy they might achieve. What a strange barter with your being!

Contra Wall-E, childhood desire is subject to failure, grief, the faithlessness of the parents with siblings and spouse, disappointment, trauma, inhibition, shame, and biologically determined immaturity. Don’t you remember what fun it was? Being unable to act on or consummate what one feverishly wants doesn’t mean the child hasn’t made a choice. He has in an almost absolute sense, as Freud tells us, and it is our tragic fate that this choice will come to naught. It may in fact be the only choice men make in their lives – that for their mother. This isn’t just some old psychoanalytic banality. What we are pointing out is that it oppresses you, it lives in you as the never realized possibility of sheer arousal and action, qualities we no doubt see waning in the world of adolescent ennui and paralysis. Seth Rogen is the new boyhood idol. Against him, against the vindication of masturbation, can a commitment to desire be revived precisely in the place it makes its appearance, in the place of impotence?

Maybe. Let’s end with our beginning and go back to Beckett, the great poet of impotence and its dark comedy. The Trilogy begins, ‘I am in my mother’s room.’ She is presumed dead, although the male protagonist is not absolutely sure. If she was – having spent a lifetime bent on settling matters with her, whatever that might mean – now all that’s left is to confront dying himself.

‘Yes, the confusion of my ideas on the subject of death was such that I sometimes wondered, believe me or not, if it wasn’t a state of being worse than life. So I found it natural not to rush into it, when I forgot myself to the point of trying, to stop in time. It’s my only excuse. So I crawled into some hole somewhere I suppose and waited, half sleeping, half sighing, groaning and laughing, or feeling my body, to see if anything had changed, for the morning frenzy to abate.’

Molloy comes out of his hole only to return to his mother’s room. Beckett after two years of psychoanalysis wrote about his mother in a letter, ‘I am what her savage loving has made me, and it is good that one of us should accept that finally.’

There is an epilogue to this fable: in the story of Macmann in the asylum from Malone Dies. He develops a carnal intimacy with his keeper, Sucky Moll. The two of them, Hairy Mac and Sucky Moll, aged and impotent, somehow try to fuck:

‘The spectacle was then offered of Macmann trying to bundle his sex into his partner’s like a pillow into a pillow slip, folding it in two and stuffing it in with his fingers. But far from losing heart they warmed to their work. And though they were both completely impotent they finally succeeded, summoning to their aid all the resources of the skin, mucous and the imagination, in striking from their dry and feeble clips a kind of somber gratification. So that Moll exclaimed, being (at that stage) the more expansive of the two, Oh would we had but met sixty years ago! But on the long road to this what flutterings, alarms and bashful fumblings, of which only this, that they gave Macmann some insight into the meaning of the expression, Two is company.’

Admittedly, this might not be terribly appealing to you, but we insist that it is a whole lot better than Hugh Hefner using Viagra to fake intimacy with a pair of blonde adolescent twins, or some such. Useful as it might be in sustaining love in some cases, Viagra and its equivalents are never going to fill the gap between desire and love, they leave us incapable of the latter and faking the former. The wonderful tumescent organ whose eye meets mine seems as if it belongs to someone else, someone in those drearily similar desire-deadening porn movies that swarm over the internet like maggots on a cadaver.

The child who cannot and old person who likewise may not any longer be able to, speaks to us as the real image of potency. It is the image of sheer will in the face of inescapable impossibility and death. Like the last words of Beckett’s Imagination Dead Imagine, “Now I’ll wipe out everything but the flowers. No more rain. No more mounds. Nothing but the two of us dragging through the flowers. Enough. My old breasts feel his old hand.” It is perhaps finally enough.

We live in a cultural cave whose denial of weakness and terror of annihilation finds its idols in what Catherine Mayer has rightly called ‘amortals,’ those ageless, deathless beings, like Madonna and Simon Cowell, who live in a perpetual tennagerdom and whose corpses will be cryogenically frozen until they can be technologically resurrected in some imagined future. Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey has said that ‘We are in serious striking distance of stopping ageing.’ We are not. Death is the future. Get used to it. We age as swiftly as a day-fly. Perhaps it is only with the old – those increasingly rare mortals who accept that they are old and affirm it – that we can learn something about the relation between love and desire. The point is learning to accept our weakness. Desire is not articulated in the overcoming of weakness, but in relation to its acceptance. If we begin to do this then, like Macmann, we might gain some insight into the meaning of the expression, ‘Two is company.’

~

Fucking Old

On April 2nd 1513, Juan Ponce de Leon sighted the land that he would name La Florida in recognition of the verdant landscape and the fact that it was the Easter season of death and resurrection, which the Spanish call pascua florida or the festival of flowers. According to legend, what Leon sought in Florida was the Fountain of Youth – the myth of vitality-restoring waters hidden deep inland. The promise of immortality has always been a promise of boundless adolescent potency and endless sexual delights conferred like 70 virgins for conquering the spectre of death that haunts mortal man.

Nearly 500 years later, hundreds upon hundreds of thousands of aging Americans scamper like lemmings to seek eternal youth in Florida. Nowhere expresses this quest better than The Villages retirement community in Lady Lake. We went there by chance recently on the way back from a disastrous canoeing trip with family. Perhaps that trip was the first sign of things to come – what you haven’t mastered should be left alone, particularly with respect to nature.

The Villages was designed by the same people who themed Universal Studios, in nearby Orlando. One can only marvel at the artifice: a virtual geriatric theme park. Ironically, invoking the de Leon heritage, you enter through Spanish colonial fake stucco gates with painted-on signs of aging – cracks, cement weathering, evidence of brick beneath the plaster, and spray-on rust for the replica cannons and cannon balls. It is a strange, childless world of vibrant seniors where visitors younger than 19 can only stay for a maximum of 30 days a year. The Fountain of Youth, it seems, can only be quaffed by eliminating all traces of the young. Walking around The Villages one realizes that the price of paradise is a perverse withdrawal from the world.

Now, rural Central Florida is a rather inhospitable, unforgiving environment, something we encountered on our little excursion – a swamp of slow-moving rivers banked by seemingly ancient Cyprus trees and an alligator every cubic meter of water. After miles and miles of country road, The Villages arises out of this backwater like a beacon of strip-mall light, replete with every modern convenience. With 40,000 homes, 70,000 residents – expected to pass 100,000 before long, 34 golf courses, 9 country clubs, 2 Disneyesque downtown squares replete with bars, restaurants, shopping, movie theaters, and, of course, many, many real estate offices, The Villages appears to be the epicenter of a new way for old living.

Our family had visited an old friend there recently, a woman in her 60s who had moved to The Villages from south Miami and couldn’t be happier. Why? After a lifetime of failing at the singles scene, winding up alone in her 50s with three cats and an administrative job at a university, she retired to The Villages and found herself with a date almost every other night. At one point she had three boyfriends at once and eventually became the esteemed captain of the volleyball team (one of hundreds of clubs). Such is la dolce vita in the delicately cultivated environs of The Villages.

When we drove through, it was time for the evening concert on the main square, a Billy Joel cover band, and the streets were flanked by decked-out golf-carts, grey haired men and women in small gang-like packs, prowling the sidewalks or standing around arm in arm. What were they up to? We would later find out that The Villages has been the focus of a great deal of media attention, from Andre Blechman’s highly critical book Leisureville: Adventures in America’s Retirement Utopias, to the New York Post’s article in January of 2009, Retire to the Bedroom: Sex-Fest at Old-Timers’ Hottest Spot. It is a mythical world of cougars, aging condo-romeos, wrinkled blow jobs in golf carts, and an extensive Viagra underground. Made famous by its college-age-comparable STD stats, with rocketing rates of gonorrhea, herpes, syphilis, HPV and chlamydia, The Villages invites a question about whether we have entered a new era in geriatric sexuality.

Whatever might be the answer, our visit to The Villages left us slightly skeptical as to whether some sexual revolution is underway. Compared to the wild landscape of central Florida where the presence of death felt imminent and exciting, there is something rather common and banal, if not utterly nihilistic, about The Villages adultescent happy returns. Grandmas getting in bitch fights over the ex-investor stud from New Jersey – shirtless with a gold chain and ruddy tan – in the Ruby Tuesdays’ bar-lounge, we agree, is amusing, but not quite the image we’d like to have of our final days. Is this what our life’s work has delivered us to?

If people can get it up when their legs can no longer hold them up, what does that say about our core understanding of sexuality and desire? Have Viagra and Cialis pioneered a new landscape of sexual desire, one with a far more wrinkled topography? Have the aesthetics of the aging body changed?

 

BEING WRINKLY

The way the spectacle of The Villages has been depicted by the media seems to endorse the perspective that there shouldn’t be any sexual efflorescence in the aged. We are to be astonished and comically entertained by the singular absurdity of it all. But why does anyone believe that the life of the elderly requires the negation of sexuality? Most aspects of the life of human desire take place in spite of biology, not as a result of it. Given the internal nature of arousal, there is literally no reason to think that we couldn’t screw till we’re six feet under. The only thing that gets in the way is serious physical disability, but even then, we can be creative. Most paralyzed men can still get erections – even if they can’t feel them – and can internally mobilize an orgasm without actual hands-on manipulation. It’s the purest orgasm imaginable.

The idea of the end of desire is what makes us hold onto it with a death-grip; any sign of its diminishment is met with frantic efforts, making the mid-life crisis an almost constant state of affairs. Still more insidious is what a culture obsessed with youth and beauty does to us, then, in terms of deadening our relation to arousal and enjoyment, much as any compulsion. And funnily enough, the drugs we use to combat death and the culture we have that keeps us from acknowledging it – from diabetes and heart disease medications to anti-depressants and a plethora of porn and fashion magazines – are at bottom the cause of, not the solution to, impotence and ageism.

In the quest to prolong life we engineer a world that diminishes our capacity to feel alive. Anti-depressants always come at a cost to libido, most medications are at the root of impotence in older men, the drug of the past three decades is cocaine, and the cult of the young androgynous body has made real men and women a visual anathema. This is to be followed by a smattering of humiliating sentimental websites devoted to the ‘mature woman-man-couple-widow-widower,’ aging gracefully, rekindling fires after they seem to have gone out for good, most of which advocate pharmacological and surgical options that can change the vision of retirement from knitting and tour buses to swinging and sex-tourism. One is really only the flipside of the other, take your pick.

As solutions to artificial and manufactured problems it seems as if the model to follow is Viagra, whose ‘self-evident’ rescue value was made-up by its manufacturer from what has always been a confused biological and psychological soup. Sex therapists were replaced with urologists who began dispensing the drug in the late ‘80s, downgrading psychogenic factors and the possibility of real cultural critique with the claim that impotence was all a matter of hydraulics. The arrival of Viagra 20 years ago (the patent runs out in 2011; Wrigley’s has bought a patent for the development of Viagra chewing gum) practically invents the idea of ‘erectile dysfunction’ and it is, for the most part, a medically limited product that many doctors agree may be more like a placebo than a biological override. You believe it will be good, so it is. As Meika Loe states in The Rise of Viagra:

‘it is not clear if Viagra, or just the idea of Viagra, is the most effective quick fix for impotence . . . One savvy journalist from Time magazine, writing in 1996, interpreted the sildenafil clinical trial statistics differently, and picked up on the potential placebo effects of the drug . . . In a related note, a Boston psychiatrist writing in JAMA has introduced the ‘nocebo’ effect, citing studies that have shown adverse health effects among those with higher dread ratings. Thus, the more anxiety a corporation can produce, the larger its market. In other words, worrying about ED may in fact cause ED.’

It might be of interest to know that if it is a case of actual biological impotence, the solution is usually surgical. Penile implants consist of a pouch placed deep in the abdomen filled with saline liquid which is squeezed into implanted tubes in the penis using a pump in the scrotum likened to a third testicle that takes two hands to operate. The relationship of this device to ejaculation is not ensured and there is literally no going back once the process is undergone. Here, as with Viagra, it’s really just about the belief that the act can be accomplished and the woman can be pleased by the man. A strange simulacrum around the question of virility. Why not use a dildo?

The fantasy of doing it forever or having the potency or tight body of a 20-year-old isn’t so far from what drove de Leon 500 years ago to the Fountain of Youth. Rather than witnessing the emergence of a new cultural landscape, we seem to be endlessly seduced by the age-old desire for nubile Arcadia. Nothing is more ancient than the wish to re-enter Paradise. Recall that the Fall from Paradise in the Bible follows hard on the heels of the first act of lustful sex. Adam and Eve and all their progeny (i.e. us) were punished by God with the unasked-for gifts of Sin and Death. Death and desire have always held hands in some danse macabre and the attempt to deny the former always leads to the extinction of the latter.

As for the wrinkled body – the crime scene of aging – it is interesting to imagine what it might signify other than a series of horrors. Can we find wrinkly, sagging flesh suddenly sexy? Try this on for size: the aging vagina shortens and narrows, the walls become thinner and stiffer, lubrication is less fulsome and whatever fluid is produced is watery and thin. We might accompany this with phrases like, ‘labial atrophy’ and ‘vaginal prolapse.’ As for the latter, the vagina actually falls out, making the elder female genitals bear resemblance to the male organ – some kind of involuntary sex change.

By contrast, little seems to happen to the aging male genitals. Of course, gravity does its ineluctable work on the testicles, combined with swelling, sometimes painful and elephantine, but the erect penis of an old man looks much like that of a young man. An erect penis is just that, an erect penis. It’s the body that surrounds it that is so transformed. On the website ‘Jurassic Cock,’ the surprisingly youthful penis almost seems to mock its surrounding liver-spotted, flabby male body. And yet, this slight appearance of youth can do the trick. There is a kind of natural cruelty exerted more on the aging woman than the aging man, not least of which is the fact that if she makes it through childbirth her life expectancy is so much longer than his.

Recently in London we came across a stark photo of a 62-year-old Iggy Pop – naked torso, looking like some aged version of how he looked on the cover of Raw Power back in 1973, but still decidedly attractive despite the wrinkles which flanked his moderately impressive musculature. It was used to advertise car insurance on subway platforms (ironically, the insurance company, Swiftcover.com, had to withdraw the ad after it was revealed that they didn’t offer insurance to musicians). We were impressed by Iggy’s audacity. But could we imagine a naked 62-year-old woman in the same role? Even the 63-year old sex symbol Charlotte Rampling was elegantly clothed or covered by sheets and a young Jurgen Teller in her recent Marc Jacobs ads.

Shigeo Tokuda is a 75-year-old Japanese porn star, featured in over 200 movies. Recent titles include Tit-Lover Old Man Kameichi and His Horny Pranks (the title probably loses something in translation). Tokuda is an interesting fellow who clearly enjoys his work. You can’t blame him; before he started in the porn industry at the age of 60, he used to be a ‘salaryman’ 9-to-5 travel agent. Tokuda sees himself as empowering seniors, and it is indeed true that his movies are very popular in Japanese retirement homes. Interestingly, he said he used Viagra on one occasion and talks about completely losing interest mentally despite maintaining an impressive erection.

Most of Tokuda’s movies feature him together with younger women, sometimes very much younger women. If one scans the Internet for ‘elderporn,’ the first thing you notice is that ‘elder’ is a relative term. Many of the female models seem little older than 30, with very few wrinkles and scant signs of grey hair. Much of the action is accurately portrayed by the title of one website –Old Farts with Young Tarts— where the bigger the age difference between the man and woman, the better. The largest age-gap was an 83-year-old man with a 19-year-old girl, and even then, it was only slightly disturbing. It seems as if we have become indoctrinated to a framework that favors the older man.

There are some sites that give face-time to sexed up old women – Extreme Big Granny andBanged Matures are two of the more popular ones, with some women in their 60s and 70s – but they are decidedly in the minority. And we have to confess we often felt disgusted by them –particularly if the women were extremely old. Given that the female role in pornography tends towards debasement, to see this happening to granny felt a bit odd. The sites seemed to poke fun at the geriatric woman, making evident the fact that over time the formula wears a bit thin. One photoshoot showed a woman, most likely in her 90s, holding her dentures up to her vaginal opening, giving us a surprising new image for the old phrase vagina dentata.

Why this imbalance? The conclusion would seem to be that geriatric male virility is far more acceptable, particularly when combined with adolescent women, than the geriatric female as a sex object. In a culture like ours, addicted to youth and beauty, to youth as beauty, the naked bodies of older women still seem to invite repulsion. If they are dressed, looking vaguely aristocratic and wrapped in furs, as were most on the blog Advanced Style (whose subtitle is “proof from the wizened and silver-haired set that personal style advances with age”), then perhaps we find them cute, curious, and ‘still fashionable.’ What could be more derogatory? So we ask, is it possible for these elegant elderly women to be seen as sexually desirable? Could anyone imagine them naked or is that still somehow taboo?

If men are defined more by what they do (whose downside is performance anxiety of all sorts) and women by how they look, then we are in a bit of a quandary. Even with the allotment of Viagra for men and Botox for women, women have the short end of the stick, symbolically speaking. An elderly woman’s cache is difficult to make manifest, even if we can fill in a few lines for the purpose of a bit more illusion – ‘she was young once, you can still see it in the sparkle in her eyes.’ If we find women like Helen Mirren hot in a red bikini it rides more on her previous image as a sexual icon and is perhaps ultimately based on a twinge of relief that all is not entirely lost, rather than any actual attraction. With this in mind, we’ll reproduce a blog conversation we found:

* Helen Mirren is a MILF. I’d hit that shit, even though it’d probably feel like nailing a waterbed she’s so squishy.

* GMILF she’s been rockin those tatas for 40 years. Strap it, slap it, flip it round, I’d been down to that royal crown.

* GILF has more manageable pronunciation

* She’s never had children that’s why she looks so good. Dame Barren more like it. Trust me I had 4 and there’s nothing I can do.

* It’s a well documented case of face lift and lipo.

* Does that make you feel better about yourself?

* Whatever, my friend is 63 and she looks better than Helen. She’s black though.

* Well you know what they say, black don’t crack.

* I’d tell her that her yams are quite salubrious but her saggage is ubiquitous.

To return to The Villages, being surrounded solely by women of a certain age might be the only thing in times like these that helps maintain a sense of feminine erotic vitality. The competition for a right to sexuality in old age is a losing one, both with younger women and with men. Even though we blithely mention celebrity, to be patronizingly told “you’ve still got it” isn’t so far off from what seems to be a woman’s fate – a sense of surprise at the fact that she’s still even there.
 

YOU ARE AS OLD AS OTHERS SAY YOU ARE

There is a fundamental mistake, a kind of pathetic delusion, at the heart of our understanding of aging. The usual view is that ‘you are only as old as you feel’ whereas the nasty truth is that ‘you are exactly as old as others say you are.’ We do not experience old age from within, but from without. Old age is not discovered like some gradually dawning revelation, it is imposed from the outside by a set of strict social norms.

Aging opens up a gap between one’s subjective existence and how that existence is viewed objectively. In old age, one’s being is defined by the way in which one is seen by others, regardless of how one might feel subjectively. This yawning gap cannot be filled by cosmetic surgery. On the contrary, such surgical interventions transform that gap into the grotesque abyss. Of course, one can always lie about one’s age, but isn’t this truly the saddest thing in the world, as it is a denial of the fact of one’s life, of one’s past and memory? We think that it is in the stigma attached to old age that our society stands most condemned.

We live in a prosthetic culture where artificial extensions – penile implants or vaginal rejuvenation surgery – replace or supplement missing body parts. Internally, we use Viagra to enhance our natural endowment, a bionic existence, which simply leaves us feeling disconnected from ourselves. Interestingly, some friends (who would like to remain anonymous) tried Viagra. The male said he was surprised and quite enjoyed his powerful erection but couldn’t find any physical parallel to the waxing and waning of his desire – something that usually contributes to his excitement and eventual climax. Everything started to feel static and homogenous and he had a hard time ejaculating. The woman on the other hand, said, in a rather startling fashion, that she felt like she was being stabbed and had no capacity to respond to her partner. The vagina, which acts like an envelope, was forced into complete passivity. Like the myth of immortality, Viagra sex is erection-dominated; it reinforces the reign of the phallus, whose mortal enemy will always be death.

In light of this, we’d like to make a plea for aging, weakness and impotence as essential to the human condition, indeed vital. Rather than a result merely of old age, Sigmund Freud argues that impotence is the universal affliction of man under civilization. A certain amount of it characterizes the love of all civilized men. The more you ignore it – care to show your animal unhinged self, unruliness, rebellion, unending adultescence, nothing stops you now – the more you show the hold it has on you. You betray your fundamental impotence. Impotence is our all-too-human version of the truth.

Allow us a literary example. Samuel Beckett, the great poet of impotence and its dark comedy, tells the story of Macmann in the asylum in Malone Dies. He develops a carnal intimacy with his keeper, Sucky Moll. The two of them, Hairy Mac and Sucky Moll, aged and impotent, somehow try to fuck:

‘The spectacle was then offered of Macmann trying to bundle his sex into his partner’s like a pillow into a pillow slip, folding it in two and stuffing it in with his fingers. But far from losing heart they warmed to their work. And though they were both completely impotent they finally succeeded, summoning to their aid all the resources of the skin, mucous and the imagination, in striking from their dry and feeble clips a kind of somber gratification. So that Moll exclaimed, being (at that stage) the more expansive of the two, Oh would we had but met sixty years ago! But on the long road to this what flutterings, alarms and bashful fumblings, of which only this, that they gave Macmann some insight into the meaning of the expression, Two is company.’

Admittedly, this might not seem terribly appealing, but we insist that it is a whole lot better than Hugh Hefner using Viagra to fake intimacy with a pair of blonde adolescent twins, or some such. Viagra and its equivalents are never going to plug the gap between desire and love: they leave us incapable of the latter and faking the former. The wonderful tumescent organ whose eye meets mine seems as if it belongs to someone else, someone in those drearily similar desire-deadening porn movies that swarm over the internet like maggots on a cadaver.

We live in a cultural cave whose denial of weakness and terror of annihilation finds its idols in what Catherine Mayer has rightly called ‘amortals,’ those ageless, deathless beings, like Madonna and Simon Cowell, who live in a perpetual tennagerdom and whose corpses will be cryogenically frozen until they can be technologically resurrected in some imagined future. Gerontologist Aubrey de Grey has said that ‘We are in serious striking distance of stopping ageing.’ We are not. Death is the future. Get used to it. We age as swiftly as a day-fly. Perhaps it is only with the old – those increasingly rare mortals who accept that they are old and affirm it – that we can learn something about the relation between love and desire. The point is learning to accept our weakness. Desire is not articulated in the overcoming of weakness, but in relation to its acceptance. If we begin to do this then, like Macmann, we might gain some insight into the meaning of the expression, ‘Two is company.’

 

Romeo, aged 95, seeking Juliet, aged 82, for good times

The problem with Viagra and related products is that they disfigure our understanding of sexuality. Sex is not just about blood being pumped into muscle. The question of the life of desire, especially in the elderly, has been sidetracked by a biological obsession with erections and a longevity that is invariantly considered to be a ‘good.’ So no questions should be asked. Interestingly, the consequence of introducing Viagra into the older married couple was often worse than one would have imagined. Couples tend to create habitual ways of being together that go against the spontaneity required by sexuality. Desire, becoming as brittle as arthritic bones, is finally expressed more in mutual nagging and the other grating idiosyncrasies we associate with grumpy old people. Imagine what it would mean to suddenly introduce into this scene a little blue pill and a throbbing erection without allowing any time for reassessing and recreating these sedimented ways of being. It often led to divorce.

So it isn’t a matter of erection yea or nay but of finding something that works against a stasis and stagnation we wrongly impute to the aged. What is a dilemma for all human relations from beginning to end is mistakenly thought not to touch us. In segregating the old from the middle-aged and the young we are beginning to see that desire hardens in an even worse fashion than what was imagined when we were driven to hide old people away in nursing homes.

For the sake of proof, today’s version of Romeo and Juliet is a story of extraordinary inversion told by Slate magazine, titled An Affair to Remember. Bob and Dorothy, a 95-year-old man and his 82-year-old girlfriend (names are disguised for protection), both suffered from dementia but were on an equal footing with respect to its progression. They ignited an intense and physical love affair in an assisted living facility that seemed to miraculously transform their mental and physical states. The ratty yellow dress that she had worn day after day was shed for more spruced-up duds and Bob was said to jump out of his chair and straighten his clothes whenever she walked in the room. One day, Bob’s son walked in on his father being orally pleased by Dorothy and, horrified, demanded that they never be allowed in the same room alone again. Needless to say, Bob started giving her oral pleasure under a pillow she strategically placed in her lap while sitting in a wheelchair in the common room. Bob’s father then had him transferred to another facility and Dorothy stopped eating, lost 21 pounds and was hospitalized for dehydration. It seemed that she developed severe Alzheimer’s disease as a kind of protection and denied any recollection of Bob.

Part of the moral is that at whatever point one finds oneself in life, if you don’t use it you lose it. During sex, the pulse rate ascends from 70 to 150 b.p.m. (the same as an athlete at maximum effort), it reduces the risk of heart disease, improves bladder control, blood circulation to the brain, prostate health and immunity, it aids in reducing stress and depression and improving sleep. People who report the highest frequency of orgasms enjoy a mortality rate half that of the sexually inert.

But, lest we slip back into a biological reductionism that we have struggled hard to avoid, we cannot forget that the entire universe of sexuality, more than anything else, is a complex psychosocial web. Furthermore, the web of sexual desire has death as both its limit and condition. As countless philosophers have pointed out, an immortal existence would rapidly become meaningless and extremely boring. Whatever sexual enjoyment we draw from life has to be shaped by the certainty that it ends in death. Sexuality and death are Siamese twins. As is so often the case, the French have a word for it: la petite mort, the little death that accompanies the experience of sexual orgasm. Being closer to death, might not the elderly – people like Bob and Dorothy – understand this much more acutely than the rest of us? Might they not thereby lay claim to sexuality in a way none of us could yet dare to imagine? As Philip Larkin wryly points out, ‘We shall find out.’