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Posted by Nighat Gandhi
“When we begin to live from within outward, in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, and allowing that power to inform and illuminate our actions upon the world around us, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense.” ~Audre Lorde
It was during a writers’ panel on Writing Sex In the Time of Corona, organised by Bangalore International Centre and Out of Print e-magazine, that I began thinking about older women’s sexual desire. On the panel, I was talking about an Urdu short story by Firdaus Haider called The Cow (Gaey) which I had translated for Out of Print. The Cow is an allegorical story about a woman’s unfulfilled sexual desires. The cow (and the woman, symbolically) breaks free of its tethers and escapes to seek sexual fulfilment. Women and sexual desire? We can accept the sexual desires of younger women within marriage and if it is tied in with her reproductive function. But what about the desires of older women? The post-menopausal, post child-bearing age woman?
Think of the respectable elderly Aunty-ji in your mohalla who started going out or dating after her husband passed away. How do you and the mohallawalas view her character? How do we view sexually active older women? Progressive or transgressive? Do we consider romantic and/or sexual desires of older women normal and natural? Where does a flirty, mysterious, wooer, romance and/or sexual fulfillment-seeking older woman fit into this schema?
The stereotype of the older woman in our cultural imagination is still that of the grandmother. She can be a doting grandma, or a whining and nagging grandma. Other stereotypes about the elderly: socially and politically conservative, limited interests and activities, excessively religious, progressing towards senility, pessimistic, unattractive, and definitely ASEXUAL. Asexuality is not always an imposition. Some women may choose to be asexual. And that’s fine, as long as it is a freely made choice.
Perceptions of old age and aging are subjective categories, but for the sake of discussion, let’s say we are talking of women aged 60 or above. In South Asian cultures, sexual desire of older women is considered virtually non-existent. Anything denied, repressed, and invisibilised, eventually ceases to exist. If there are no words in the language to express the concept of elderly women’s sexual desires, thoughts, ideas or feelings, such concepts, thoughts, ideas and feelings are erased from the collective imagination. If the concept is also socially vilified, its existence becomes even more of a threat to social morality and its erasure is strictly implemented.
Neglect of the older woman’s sexual needs is a bit strange when you consider that the life expectancy of the elderly population in India is growing steadily. At present, it is 69 years for women and 66 years for men. It is estimated that by 2050, 20% of the population will consist of 60+ persons. Every fifth person will be 60+. The more startling fact is that because of women’s slightly higher life expectancy, of this 20% older population, women will form the majority.
According to the 2011 census data, while the overall sex ratio is in favour of men (940 women: 1000 men), by age 60+ the sex ratio tilts in favour of women (1022 women: 1000 men) and by age 80+, the sex ratio tilts drastically in women’s favour: 1980 women: 1000 men. There are almost twice as many 80+ women as men in the population. Does it make sense to not take into account the needs and desires of such a statistically significant group?
Because women everywhere on the whole are poorer and powerless compared to men, it is easy to ignore their concerns. Even when concern is expressed, it is mostly from a patriarchal, protective, and welfare perspective and it is always about the older woman’s lacks: her lack of financial resources, lack of health services, lack of medical facilities, lack of family support, lack of social connections. If at all we worry about the older woman, it’s how the poor old woman will survive threats of destitution, isolation, alienation, disability, and financial insecurity. As to what gives her pleasure, does she seek fulfillment of her erotic desires, who cares?
Indeed, the more self-effacing the older woman is, the more desireless, the less demanding, the more respect and sympathy she garners. The older woman with a healthy, normal sexual appetite is such a cultural aberration that most older women, whether single, widowed, divorced or separated, will rarely acknowledge, much less act out their sexual desires unabashedly. Dimensions of social marginalisation increase with increasing age. Social class and sexual orientation differences further add to the marginalisation of older adults. An older lesbian from the lower socio-economic strata is likely to feel much more marginalised than an older, upper class, financially well off straight woman.
I recall a conversation with Salim Kidwai, the co-author of the classic, Same Sex Love In India, where he mentioned the ageism rampant on dating apps such as Grindr. The older gay man looking for dates faces a paucity of choice on dating apps which are predominantly populated by the net savvy younger gen. What about the older gay man seeking companions, in their 50s, 60s and beyond? Do they feel safe or comfortable using dating apps? Fear of ridicule? Fear of not being out? What is true of older queer men’s dating experiences is even more emphatically true of older queer women.
Erasure Of The Erotic As A Creative Life-Force
I want to expand on the meaning of the word erotic so as not to confuse and limit its meaning to sexual arousal only. Audre Lorde’s essay, The Uses of the Erotic, is a must-read essay for anybody desiring to understand the true meaning and power of the erotic. Audre considers the erotic as a creative and provocative life force of women, a source of creative power that comes from women’s “deepest and non-rational knowledge.” The word erotic comes from the Greek word, Eros, meaning love in its varied manifestations. It is a source of power that our anti-erotic patriarchal cultures denies us. The erotic is confused with the “trivial, the psychotic, the plasticised sensation, the pornographic. But pornography is a direct denial of the power of the erotic for pornography emphasises sensation without feeling.”
This is an important point Audre makes: porn is a denial of the erotic. Porn is about sensation without feeling. The erotic is not so much about sensation as it is about feelings, about how we feel when we do what we do whether it is cooking, making art or making love. Thus, the erotic as a creative force can be celebrated in all aspects of life, whether it is “reclaiming our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives. Of course, women so empowered are dangerous” warns Audre. The erotic is our innate capacity for feeling joy and satisfaction in whatever we do.
The erotic is not limited to our capacity for sexual joy alone. But of course, if women understand and come to use the power of the erotic in every aspect of their lives, women so empowered are dangerous. Which is why the erotic energy of younger women is allowed some expression for reproductive purposes, but that of older women is completely suppressed.
“In touch with the erotic,” writes Audre, “I become less willing to accept powerlessness, or those other supplied states of being which are not native to me, such as resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, self-denial. When we begin to live in touch with the power of the erotic within ourselves, then we begin to be responsible to ourselves in the deepest sense.” Coming from a black lesbian feminist at a time (1970s) when mainstream feminism in the United States was predominantly white women’s feminism, these are fierce words, words of a self-directed, intelligent, independent, responsible, woman, who is telling all of us how we must live.
The restless, unfulfilled woman in Firdaus Haider’s short story, The Cow, eventually “began to find solace in the cries of her own music. Only when the pain crossed its limits, the moment she was waiting for would arrive. This faith kept lamps of hope lit within her. The world simply belittled her desires and her convictions nothing as more than mental distress. But within herself, she felt she was becoming an indefatigable strength. Her worldly lord, angered by her growing strength tightened his grip on her. He began forcing down her throat strong and bitter drugs. Under no condition was he prepared to give up the Cow.
She was the symbol of his power, the proof of his towering grandeur. But no tool can rip out creative desire nor can one repress the ecstasy borne of such desire. In such ecstasy she realized that no hovel was too small, no castle too large. No diamond was too precious, no pebble totally worthless. Then came the voice of revelation, and self-knowledge, like lightening. She, a mere droplet, became the ocean of oceans. When pride and desire embraced, earth and sky lowered themselves before her. She knew the much-awaited moment had arrived for which she had smoldered in the cauldron of anguish. She rose and tore off all her golden veils and iron chains.”
Aging can be about reinventing ourselves creatively and erotically.
Also read: Where Does Ageism And Sexism Meet In India?
Older women can find solace in the cries of their own soul-music, they must honour their creative-erotic desires, ignore the world that belittles their creative-erotic desires, rise and break off the iron chains of respectability holding them back. This is what older women must do: reclaim our dangerous, inherent erotic legacy.
In touch with the power of the erotic in all the ways in which we act, think, make love, make art, make music, we will reclaim our world in a responsible, joyous manner. Why must we succumb to resignation, despair, self-effacement, depression, and self-denial as inevitable consequences of aging?
We are older persons, not goods that have a limited shelf-life with an expiry date.
Nighat Gandhi is a psychotherapist and writer. She’s the author of WAITING: a collection of stories.