Older, heterosexual men and sexual 'failure'
By David Jackson
I suppose my fear of shame and humiliation has kept me from admitting to and learning from my sexual ‘failure’. Those fears probably come from both growing up in a highly restricted, masculinities’ 1950s culture in the U.K. and what the male, adolescent, peer group did to me between my ages of 12-17 after being sent to a single-sex, state boarding school with the death of my mother. I remember that peer group as a bristling pack of wolves, always glaring into your eyes, always nosing out any suggestion of softness or hurt and abruptly pouncing on ‘weakness.’ I wanted to avoid, at any cost, their brutal laughter and ridicule entering me so I boasted, desperately tried to fit in and invented and elaborated sexual success stories with girls.
But at 70 I don’t need to go on being regulated by my imaginary fears of ridicule. Even though I live now in a hyper-sexualised culture in the U.K., and am occasionally turned on by cleavages and bare midriffs, I’ve discovered what a mutually trusting, ageing men’s peer group feels like and it’s woken me up to the savage contrast between that adolescent, peer group and my present group that has offered me a sense of warm belonging and support over the last ten and half years as well as encouraging me to speak more openly without glancing back over my shoulder.
So here goes. I can’t get it up any longer. I can’t maintain a firm, upright erection. I want to publicly share my farewell to penetrative sex, my farewell to heterosexual dreams, to being too orgasm-centred. Now I’m in the process of negotiating a sensual relationship with my partner that is much more other-centred, that prioritises her sensual pleasures before my own. That won’t be easy. There’s still some half-understood regret and loss linked to my fading fantasies and memories of penetrative sex. At the moment I’m still in transition but moving towards a more gentle appreciation of physically holding, cuddling, caressing and stroking.
But what am I talking about sexual ‘failure’ for? It’s only ‘failure’ if viewed from a heterosexist perspective that totally ignores the inventive, sexual adaptations, fluctuations and movements to be found in the shifting, life courses of older men. Annie Potts et al. have argued that the purpose of sexuality and sex changes with age and experience. There is less emphasis in older men’s sexual lives on penetrative sex and achieving orgasm at all costs. More importance is given to what Potts refers to as , ‘non-penile pleasures’ and other neglected, bodily sensations and sensual intimacies. In some older men’s lives this involves a deliberate turning away from the more ‘selfish, adolescent sex of their youth’ to value a more slowed down, reciprocal and gentle sex.
Another way of viewing older men’s giving up of penetrative sex is through the notion of sexual retirement or the stopping or reassessment of sexual activities in later life. Many older men are ambivalent about sexual retirement. Some of them seem to sense that sexual retirement is a tricky business where they have to be careful about negotiating potential loss of manly face in a cultural context of possible dishonour and shame. As a result, some older men search for face-saving excuses and justifications that try to avoid the most exposing humiliation.
These defensive excuses take a variety of forms that include a buying in to the discourse of biological, ‘natural’ ageing, a taking refuge in illnesses or medication, depression and fatigue. While other older men might want to explore the relief and escapist release of not being pressurised to live up to the exacting demands of continuously having to perform and measure up to the normative standards of heterosexual sex. Certainly more psycho-cultural work needs to be done in investigating this extremely murky area of older men’s lives.
What is popularly known as ‘normal’ sex for men needs to be re-assessed and re-practised in the light of these fluidly diverse, older men’s sexual experiences. There is an urgent need to recognise what can be learnt from these changing, sexual experiences-in terms of the different knowledges, relations, and priorities of older men. Perhaps sexual ‘failure’ experiences like mine can open up new spaces and dialogues in our men and masculinities’ debates about , ‘What is sex?’
It might be through the shocks, losses and sexual dislocations in many older men’s lives that the dominant, conquering ideals of heterosexual masculinity and gendered expectations begin to become destabilised and unsettled and more open to reflection and change.