Clapping Back at the Stereotype of the Perverted Old Man
Celebrate sexuality — don’t shame it
“I wanted to tell you a joke, but it’s a little bawdy and I don’t want you to think I’m a perverted old man,” Frank said to me one day, recently.
“Why would I think that?” I asked. My friend is such a kind man and very appropriate. I can’t imagine anyone thinking of him as “perverted.”
“You know how it is,” he says, and waves his hand. “Older guys get that sometimes.”
We eventually get to his joke (which was hilariously raunchy) but I only half-listened because I was still thinking about the “perverted old man” comment. Frank, at 71 years old, is 23 years older than I am. So yes, you could perhaps call him an “old man,” at least just in terms of his age, but “perverted?” Why? Because he has a slightly naughty sense of humor (as do I) and happens to still be interested in the topic of sex? He is a human being, after all, so this hardly seems like anything out of the ordinary.
This isn’t the first time I’ve heard men bring up this term. In fact, I’ve had many older men reach out to me in the past six months who have specifically referenced it for one reason or another. Some wanted to ask for advice about their relationships with their wives or girlfriends, but were hesitant to express themselves fully either to me or to their partners for fear of appearing like that “perverted old man.” Others shared their frustrations that since they reached a certain age, any expression of sexuality makes them feel judged as a “perverted old man.”
It’s true that I have encountered some men who have made my skin crawl with their lewd behavior, inappropriate words, and unwanted physical contact — some who happened to be old, yes — but I’ve always bristled at the phrase “perverted old man.” I don’t think it’s fair, for a few reasons.
Are we supposed to lose interest in sex after a certain age? And if so, what age is that? 50? 60? 70?
Our culture would make us believe that sexuality is only real, interesting, and viable if it involves people who are young and attractive. Believe me, every woman over 40 can tell you that even though you might feel like you’ve just hit your sexual peak, the world suddenly starts to treat you differently. You might finally feel liberated enough to hop in the sack with any partner that strikes your fancy, but the world is not as eager to witness the sexuality of a woman over 40.
Men can get away with it if they look and/or act a certain way — and, let’s be honest, money helps. But eventually, they face this ageism, too. Like, eww, if you’re a wrinkly, bald dude with graying chest hair, oh my god, surely you can’t possibly be interested in sex anymore. And if you are…eww!
This is, of course, total bullshit. Human beings are sexual creatures, and in general, their sexual desire doesn’t just disappear one day because they happen to reach a certain age. It might be harder to act on it or achieve sexual satisfaction, but the desire does not go away.
Here’s where it gets really sticky: Men have always been relatively free to express their sexuality in our culture. In fact, their sexual expression and fulfillment is, in general, celebrated.
Men have been taught that it’s okay to express themselves sexually — so they do. But when they reach a certain age, their sexual expressions, a privilege once so protected, suddenly meet a culture that shames older people for having sexual desire. Thus, an older man who happens to want to make a bawdy joke, watch porn, or hope that his date will end in his bedroom is suddenly considered a pervert.
This isn’t a problem for women, you see, because our expressions of sexuality have never been protected, encouraged, or celebrated. We face being shamed for our desire whether we are young, old, or anything in between.
Just to be clear: In both cases, this isn’t a healthy response to appropriate expressions of sexuality. There’s nothing gross or wrong about older people being interested in sex.
Damaging word choice
Most of the issue I take with this pejorative phrase is the term “perverted.” As a writer, I know how important words are. And “perverted” is a strong word. Here’s a definition of pervert: a person whose sexual behavior is regarded as abnormal. Synonyms include degenerate and deviant.
I don’t know about you, but that seems pretty harsh to me.
Is it perverted for a human being to have sexual feelings or expressions just because they are older? Just because they are male?
Before you get mad at me, yes, I know, there are some older men who are sexually aggressive and who feel entitled to express their desires in whatever way they choose — with or without consent, with or without appropriateness. I’ve experienced that all too often.
But that’s not a “perverted old man” thing — I’ve had young men do that to me, too. That kind of behavior is the product of our sexist, misogynist culture that teaches men that their sexual expression and fulfillment are more important than anything else.
Ultimately, though, is there really anything wrong with an older man feeling desire when he sees a bosomy young woman walk by? Is there anything wrong with an older man wanting to tell a bawdy joke in the right setting?
The problem only comes when expressions of sexuality are made in unwelcome, inappropriate ways. And even that isn’t necessarily perverted. Douchey, yes. Wrong, definitely. But perverted should be relegated to actions that are genuine transgressions.
Ultimately, I find the term “perverted old man” to be an instrument of shaming male sexuality. Though some sexual behavior absolutely needs to be called out, shame around sexuality isn’t helpful for any of us, no matter our gender.
Wouldn’t it be nice if, instead, we could encourage one another in appropriate expressions of our sexuality? If we’re comfortable with a bawdy joke that our older, male friend just asked for consent to share, can we thank him for being thoughtful enough to make sure we were comfortable with this turn in the conversation and then enjoy the joke? If an older man expresses a desire to have more sex with his wife, can we (as a friend) encourage his desire or (as a wife) have an open, non-judgmental conversation about his sexual needs?
Even in situations where an older man is behaving in a “pervy” way, sometimes a more helpful response might be to state a clear boundary rather than to shame his behavior. Neither move will correct his behavior or elicit an apology, no doubt, but it sets the right example for anyone within earshot.
And let’s also remember that many of these truly offensive transgressions aren’t really about sex, anyways, but about power and domination.
I think we need to work at being clear about the dynamics of a situation and to very specifically express boundaries and call out inappropriate behavior without attaching sexual shame to the incident.
Can we celebrate male sexuality in way that honor them as whole beings — just the way we women want our sexuality to be celebrated?
No, I’m not talking about someone taking their dick out on the subway, or grabbing a woman’s ass as they pass by, or making lewd jokes about a woman’s sexuality while leering at her, or propositioning a stranger who clearly doesn’t want to be bothered. Those are the acts of a predator. Maybe a pervert, yes. Definitely a misogynistic asshole who gets his rocks off by dominating and intimidating women.
I’m talking about men who classily express sexual appreciation in an appropriate way, in appropriate circumstances. I’m talking about men who ask permission of their female friends to tell a randy joke. I’m talking about men who are open enough to discuss their unmet sexual needs within their relationships.
The term “perverted old man” isn’t fair, compassionate, or sexually empowering and it’s time we stopped perpetuating this stereotype.
© Yael Wolfe 2020