By Rashah Neason
Ageism: What it Means, Whom it Hurts, and Why it Thrives
The Myth of the Undesirable Asexual Older Black Woman
In this society, we reserve sex and sexuality exclusively for the young. As a result, we view sexuality through the lens of gender, sexual orientation, and race. This is due partly to the fact that sexuality studies are a subdivision of gender studies. They were not included in college curricula until the late nineteen-eighties to early nineteen-nineties. They have evolved into a major course of study that tackles issues of gender, race, class, sexual orientation, identity, religion, and other issues. However, older Black women have not been included in the conversation.
What sparked my interest in this topic about two years ago was the Netflix show Grace and Frankie, starring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin . The series follows two women in their late seventies or early eighties as they navigate through life after learning that their husbands had been secret lovers for decades. Their response to this knowing is shock and anger, and that response is followed by a curiosity about sex, and that response by ways that can liberate them sexually.
They talk about pleasure, independence, and surrendering to their ever-evolving body, something they never thought they would be doing at their age. In one episode, they attempt to create a vibrator and lube business designed specifically for older women. Although they started the business, they faced setbacks along the way due to both their age and their gender. The humor of the show is the deeper message that aging does not mean we should stop living.
Why was this the first time I had ever seen two older women talk about sex on a popular show on television, especially since I am living in a time when sex is such an open topic in society? I could not imagine this conversation taking place between two older Black women or two queer women in a television series. One very clear answer to most of my questions is both ageism and sexism. Both explain why we do not discuss that, for men, sexual performance decreases as they age. Viagra is proof.
And yet, it is not uncommon in television series and television commercials that older men date younger women. They are desirable as a “silver fox” indicates. By contrast, older women who date younger men are called “cougars,” which is negative in meaning. Although there are herbs and remedies that can help women as Viagra helps men, they are not advertised because ageist thinking tells us that older women should retire, knit sweaters for grandchildren, and not concern themselves with matters of sex.
We believe that menopause marks the end of a woman’s reproductive years. It also marks the beginning of the narrative of the undesirable asexual aging woman. For centuries, in patriarchal societies, sex for women is for one thing only, reproduction. Therefore, once women become menopausal, they are sexually uninteresting. This is especially true for Black women. They are viewed as either hypersexual “welfare queens” or asexual mammy figures.
A study conducted by the Department of Psychology, California State University Northridge, between July 2009 and June 2020, has meaning for this research. The subjects were thirteen African American women between the ages of 57-82. Eleven women identified as heterosexual, two women identified as bisexual, and one woman as a lesbian.
Conducting this research was difficult because older Black women were not willing to talk about sex. It is a taboo topic in the Black community. Because most of the women in the study were heterosexual women, their responses to questions about their sex life were either that their husbands had passed and, therefore, they were no longer interested in having sex, or that there were not enough eligible men with whom they could develop a relationship. It is important to note that most of the women in the study equated sex with marriage or with a relationship, which is why many of them referred to husbands.
It is also important to note the difference in longevity of the four groups. White women live longest. They are followed by White men, who are followed by Black women. Black men have the shortest longevity of any racial or gender group in the nation. If this statistic were different, perhaps Black women would respond to the question with different answers. Perhaps if their husbands lived longer, they could find “suitable” older men who fit their tastes. Perhaps they would have the luxury to explore their sexuality further. Perhaps.
[This is a draft of the research paper I want to submit on the impact that racism, sexism, and ageism have on the sexuality of older Black women. The sources I consulted for this draft are listed below.]
Laganá, Luciana, et al. “Exploring the Sexuality of African American Older Women.” British Journal of Medicine and Medical Research, U.S. National Library of Medicine, 11 Feb. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4306574/.
Alexander, E., et al. “Still, Nothing: Mammy and Black Asexual Possibility.” Feminist Review , Palgrave Macmillan UK, 1 Jan. 1970, link.springer.com/article/10.1057/s41305-018-0140-9.
“Sex Less Likely and Less Satisfying as Women Hit Older Age.” Physician’s Weekly, 11 July 2019, www.physiciansweekly.com/sex-less-likely-and/.