Monica Bellucci, older women, sexuality and the media

The sexuality of older people is frequently denigrated and neglected. This is particularly true for women. People of all genders are taught a dogma of youth=beauty and marketed a multitude of products to fend off the effects of time. But whilst men become “distinguished” with age, women are touted botox in a bid to keep their partners from trading them in. 54-year-old George Clooney is still considered a sex symbol, Hugh Hefner surrounds himself with bikini-clad bunny girls and it’s not uncommon for women to talk lustily of “salt and pepper hair” and be-suited “silver foxes”. Where is our celebration of older women? Of grey hairs, lines around the eyes, ageing breast tissue and hot flushes? Women are encouraged to continue to remain looking youthful, or risk being deemed “ugly” and discarded. Meanwhile, men are taught to only see attractiveness in the young. Where does this leave us?

Ever see this gender-swapped?

Ever see this gender-swapped with an older woman?

Much has been made of the casting of Monica Bellucci in the latest Bond film, Spectre. The choice of the 51-year-old actress as a Bond Girl (or should that be, Bond Woman), a pedestal of sexual attractiveness, has been lauded as “ground-breaking” and a “triumph” for feminism. Should it really shock us that Bond (played by Daniel Craig, aged 47) has finally been cast alongside a woman of his own age? We think little of him being paired with women in their 20s and 30s, as is common for the franchise. Bellucci, who can hardly be described as“old”, holds all of the assets commonly associated with “beauty”. She is famed for looking younger than her years and an ex-model, so perhaps her casting will not give great comfort to other middle-aged women. The film makes a small step for representation, but the furore around the issue reminds us of how few examples we have of older women portrayed as “sexy” in film.

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Daniel Craig (47), with “older” Bellucci (51) and Seydoux (30)

Narrow and negative views of women’s sexuality are punishing at any age. Younger women struggle with Madonna/Whore attitudes, which both encourage them to be “sexy” and then shame them for it. As women age, they quickly become stereotyped as “desperate” and predatory “cougars” if they choose to be visibly sexual or become entirely invisible. Although some women may prefer younger men, fantasies of the sexually experienced “older women” (a la The Graduate) aren’t helpful if they’re the only image of sexuality in older women we see. In a depressing excerpt in porn documentary “Hot Girls Wanted” a 25 year old performer describes progressing quickly from being cast as a “teen” to a “MILF”. These fantasies aren’t only damaging to women, who should be given opportunities to explore and express their sexuality as they age as more than a vehicle for a younger man’s naughty adventures. Women who sexually abuse young people are frequently given lesser sentences than their male equivalents and attitudes that boys would be “lucky” to receive such attention abound. Women don’t sexually deactivate at the age of 35, with some women describing feeling more sexual at this age than when they were younger. But all too often this part of women’s lives is silenced and we see little of it represented in the world around us.

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Six Feet Under’s Ruth, a great image of a sexually active older woman

Ideas about age and attractiveness are multi-faceted and can’t be entirely blamed on the media. However, greater representation of older women (and not just middle-aged) as attractive and viable sexual partners rather than the butt of jokes or pornographic fantasies can go some way to expand our narrow terms of reference. One particularly good example I’m reminded of is the character Ruth Fisher in HBO’s Six Feet Under. The character is widowed at the start of the series and begins to explore her sexuality, taking a number of lovers. Although there are jokes to her storyline, Ruth’s love life isn’t a humorous sideline and is treated seriously. Ruth’s adult children struggle with her newfound life, but her sexuality is shown in an honest and unedited manner. In one shot, she is shown naked, grey hair falling on her shoulders, lying in bed with her partner, also an older man. How often do we see images like this? Or are we encouraged to see them as somehow “disgusting” or ridiculous?

Recent years have shown an increase in films with older characters, reportedly vying for the “grey-pound”. We need to have accurate representations of people of all ages in the media, not just so that people can identify with characters like themselves, but for the ways in which it challenges and teaches us to think critically about our stereotypes about age. Monica Bellucci is a great addition to the Bond films but let’s not laud her as a game-changer for women in film. We need more representation of older women (not just those with model looks), as beautiful, sexy and sexual. They need not always be centre-stage, but included alongside other plots and characters, for a drip-by-drip education that can encourage us to see activeness in all ages. Images like these could serve to remind women that they don’t have a “best before” date and their sexuality, at any age, is something to celebrate.

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Stroke, sexuality, sexism…back on track!

Harmless fun? If my meal's going to be unnecessarily gendered I hope it comes with pink icing and glitter

Harmless fun? If my meal’s going to be unnecessarily gendered I hope it comes with pink icing and glitter

After a long hiatus I’ve finally got time to get back to this blog. I can see that my last entry was Halloween 2013 – which was about 6 months before my thesis hand-in (so you can imagine how the time following this was spent). I’ve now completed my studies, qualified and am working as a clinical psychologist in a brain injury service. Getting up to speed on my new job (not to mention actually having to go to work 5 days a week, without a study day in sight!) has left me pretty shattered but I’m slowly adjusting to my new routine. A quick update on my recent movements:

  • I recently submitted my thesis (which was about sexual issues post-stroke and how rehab professionals work with these) for publication and I also presented it as part of a talk on sexuality and acquired brain injury that I did at the last SHADA (Sexual Health and Disability Alliance) meeting. I think I’ve now exhausted the potential to spread this piece of research (until it’s finally published), I’m ready to move onto studying something a little different now and also getting back to writing.
  • Following the submission I finally got round to writing something for my university blog, “Discursive of Tunbridge Wells”, something I’ve been meaning to do for ages. Salomons runs their own blog as part of their public engagement drive, it covers a whole range of issues related to applied psychology – debates within mental health, professional roles, lived experiences. It has some great content from a really wide range of contributors and I’m quite proud that my old department is putting something like this out there – I think it’s the only clinical psychology course to do so. My piece is about supporting people with cognitive impairments (e.g. brain injury, LD) to vote and how mental capacity relates to this (or doesn’t). It’s something I’d come across in my work recently and I definitely feel it needs more awareness! I’m hoping to do more writing relating to health and disability issues in forums such as this.
  • A couple of days ago I received a request from a journalist. I was initially quite excited as I thought maybe they’d picked up my voting piece (it is topical after all…). But alas no, they were running a piece on something on twitter I’d responded to the other day. The “story” relates to a picture of a cafe menu in Bristol that has “for him” and “for her” breakfasts. The masculine meal is a greasy Full English whilst ladies get a lighter option with salad leaves and blueberries. Whilst I don’t think a gendered breakfast is the biggest threat to feminism, this kind of lazy stereotyping annoys me, especially the underlying idea that women should have the diet-friendly dish. The story was originally published in the Bristol Post, but was then picked up by several other media sources (including the Daily Mail) which pretty much recycled the entire article and quotes “Outrage at Sexist Menu!!”. The article has of course attracted many entertaining commenters who see us as miserable feminazis with nothing better to do than get offended. I’m amused that this has generated far far more interest than any of my research or any of the many articles I’ve written over the years!  I feel sorry for the cafe who admittedly acted thoughtlessly but didn’t really deserve the level of attention this piece of non-news has achieved.
No need to actually go on the Daily Mail website, here's the bit that mentions me as if I have some kind of special knowledge on these matters.

No need to actually go on the Daily Mail website, here’s the bit that mentions me as if I have some kind of special knowledge on these matters.

So I’m hoping to do much more writing, presenting and generally getting out into the world in the coming year. If anyone needs a comment or piece written on any of my usual topics (brain injury and rehabilitation, neuropsychology, sex and disability, ableism and “invisible disabilities”, sexual and gender minority issues and related things) do let me know! Or I can comment on minor acts of unintentional sexism, I’m versatile.

X-rated Mind-Control: Why do we think watching porn is risky?

XXX

I’m currently working in a Learning Disability team (supporting adults who have low intellectual ability that causes significant functional and social impairment) and I came across the ‘Three Rs’ guide, which provides guidance on providing sex education, including several more controversial and problematic topics. One of these topics is pornography. The authors state that they do not recommend aiding a person with LD to access porn, as it gives unrealistic messages about sex and women. When I first read this I thought this view was quite narrow-minded. Adults without an LD can access porn without anyone else’s permission. There’s no one questioning how ‘realistic’ the porn they watch is, so shouldn’t adults with LD be able t to enjoy their sexuality in this way? Also is this a narrow-minded view of porn that carries with it assumptions of how porn influences behaviour?

I’m not an expert on the literature on how porn influences thought and behaviour (and if anyone knows any good papers I’d be interested in reading them), here I’m more interested in considering why it is we assume porn does influence us, even in the absence of evidence. Wikipedia has a bit of a summary on the mostly inconclusive and conflicting findings here

I’ve been considering the authors’ point of view. It’s made me wonder how much porn influences actual sexual behaviour, and also how much people think porn influences sexual behaviour (which may be quite different things!). Anti-porn campaigners feel strongly that porn distorts our views of bodies, women and sex/intimacy. Porn is said to be anti-women and exploitative and has been linked to increased pressure on women to engage in sex acts, and change their bodies to resemble those of porn-stars. I’m not sure what the actual evidence is that this happens. The allegations remind me of claims that violent films and computer games make people more violent, which has often been debated but very lacking in concrete evidence. What I do know is that porn as a topic tends to upset people and bring up strong emotions. Porn is frequently depicted as something unhealthy, deviant and a a threat to ‘normal’ relationships and sex. We don’t like to talk about it, but a very large proportion of adults (both male and female) enjoy porn as part of their sex life, without any obvious negative consequences.

Porn is essentially fantasy. In order to enjoy watching porn, and feeling turned on, there perhaps needs to be certain suspension of critical thinking. On some level you need to believe it’s real so you can enjoy it without thoughts like “Is she really enjoying that? Was that a fake orgasm? Would a plumber really be that easily seduced on the job?” Admittedly this might be easier with some porn that others! But it isn’t real, and part of the appeal is just that, it’s the sex you wish you were having, perhaps removed from inhibitions and other barriers, the women you wish you were having sex with, it’s the enactment of fantasies. Porn also provides gratification without any of the effortful interaction with another person. So people know it isn’t real yet they still enjoy it.

But how is it that you understand that porn isn’t real? I’d guess this is mostly a process of comparison, having enough experience of real-life men and women and sex to be able to identify which aspects of porn are less than realistic. And some people might be in a better position to engage in this kind of critique than others. If you have limited experience of sex (e.g. young people who may not yet be sexually active or people who are quite socially isolated) you might not have much of a basis to discriminate. Certain complex cognitive skills might also be necessary in order to discriminate between porn and reality and consider that what porn shows to be ‘true’ may not be so for others. If someone has cognitive abilities that are impaired or not fully developed (such as a child), this process might be a lot more difficult. Ideally good quality sex education would help someone to learn the discrepancies between porn and real-life sex, but this may not always be available in a timely and detailed manner. For some people, porn may be the only way they learn about sex. If this is the case, family and school have really let them down, and it makes sense that they might develop some more distorted views about sex and women.

More on ‘rape-porn’ and links to risk under cut…

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Vaginas are revolting

And they refuse to do it quietly.

I was recently involved in a research study about women’s perceptions of their labia. Seven-plus pages of questions about my opinion of my labia majora. Do I think they’re too big? Too small? Too droopy? Too hairy? Do they bother me? Do I avoid swimming or sex to prevent others from noticing them? Would I like to pay to get someone to nip and tuck them to a more acceptable standard? The questionnaire was definitely something of an eye-opener and did leave me feeling somewhat depressed. Although I was often ticking at the ‘never’ or ‘rarely’ end of the scale, there were some questions where I did have to admit that sometimes I do have less-than-positive opinions about my body. Also I was fully aware that there would be some women out there who would be ticking ‘very much’ and ‘always’ to many of the given statements. There are many people out there who truly hate their labia, or other parts and aspects of their genitalia. That makes me really sad.

I’ve been umming and erring over what language to use in this piece. It’s about female genitalia, vaginas, vulvas and everything that comes attached to them. Often the word ‘vagina’ is used in a non-anatomically-correct (oh, this makes me seethe!) to mean the entire internal and external genitalia. I like ‘cunt’, though I know a lot of people find it offensive. It’s a short strong word that I think holds a similar impact to words used for male anatomy. Plus it’s an old English word, it has the history. Don’t like ‘pussy’, it’s become a little too America-porno and I’m not a fan of cutesy euphemisms, as if there’s something rude or shameful about calling it what it is. I do find myself using phrases like ‘lady-garden’ (mostly because I find this one quite funny, as is the equivalent ‘gentleman-forest’!) and girl-parts, which probably contradicts my previous statement, but it works for me. And you’d probably use different words in different contexts; though anatomical terms are the most accurate, you might not want to throw them into an intimate moment. The Vagina Monologues does a great piece all about this. But we’re talking about the same thing, whatever we call it.

I’m not a historian, but I don’t think this level of dissatisfaction with genitalia was always around. Female body-dissatisfaction is obviously not something new, though it seems to be ever-growing. Operations to ‘trim’ labia into a ‘neat’ shape have not always existed. Whereas much plastic surgery focuses on parts of the body that are immediately obvious to others – bigger breasts, straighter noses, slimmer buttocks. If you wanted to appear more attractive to others, perhaps this makes sense. But your labia aren’t (usually) on show, they’re actually hidden most of the time. Yet woman may feel this pervasive need to change this part of their body that may only be seen by themselves, their gynae and their partner.

I imagine plastic surgeons would say they are responding to a demand, they may well be right. Though I wonder what effect it has even knowing that such an operation exists. A standard is set for the ‘correct’ and ‘appealing’ labia, and the question is posed ‘Is yours attractive? Is it normal? Would you like to change it?’ Health and beauty companies thrive off the fears and insecurities of the masses. Once the customer has been made aware of their need, a product can be sold to them to ‘fill’ this need. Wrinkles, a natural part of aging, are demonised, and a magical cure is sold. Women didn’t use to buy razors. Now the sight of a woman with hairy arm-pits is often treated with disgust. Yet there is no particular hygiene benefit to shaving arm-pits (after all, the majority of men don’t), yet now for women it is considered the norm. As is shaving leg-hair. A new market is created. Special razors for women are marketed, in pretty baby-pinks and blues. A generation of girls are born into a culture where this is completely normal and grooming of body-hair is just something you do.

Looking at older pornography can be quite enlightening (all in the name of research!). I think if you showed a bunch of teenage boys Playboy images from the 70s, with their full-bushes, tan-lines and natural breast, they’d probably laugh and show signs of disgust. Yet this was the height of sexiness not too long ago. For many people, porn is the first time they get to have a really good look at the genitalia of another person. A heterosexual woman may not have many opportunities to have a close to look at another’s parts, being only able to see her own and these images in the media. Even if you do have sex with women, I don’t imagine everyone really gets an opportunity to have a really long, well-lit, inspection of another person’s genitals (doing so may unnerve your partner, so please approach this with caution!). Porn is now very easily accessible. So for many women (and men), they’ve only ever seen their own goods, and the neat and tidy presentations on screen.

Labia show as much variation as human faces, they vary in their colouring, amount of hair, relative sizes and lengths, symmetry…they’re wonderfully diverse. Yet if you’ve only ever seen one particular type and your own, a negative comparison is easily made. (I think this is probably true for men to some extend too, and insecurities around penis size relating to the well-hung men who are sought out for porn. Although culturally men do tend to see other men naked more often – think showering and urinals, than women see other women). Hungry Beast created this fantastic mini-documentary about labia in the media, particularly relating to censorship and photo-editing. As someone who has worked in nude photography I can relate to this. A photograph that displays more labia is often considered more explicit than one that does not. Yet for a model with larger labia, the same pose may show off more than that of another model. Is this in itself inherently offensive? The result is fewer and fewer images that show the true variation of labia, leading those who don’t fit this model to believe that there’s something strange and ugly about themselves.

I once over-heard a conversation given by someone I know about a ‘scary vagina’. A ‘scary vagina’ apparently has hair on the outer labia, and the inner labia and larger than the outer. This isn’t a ‘scary vagina’, it’s a totally normal one! And it’s this kind of attitude that perpetuates shame and body-loathing.

The recent back-lash over the latest Fem-Fresh campaign has pulled this campaign for cunts of the world into the more mainstream attention. The team behind the adverts for vag-wipes probably thought they were empowering women, with their adverts of a jubilant woman saying ‘Woohoo for my froo-froo!’ and ‘Whatever you call it, love it’. It isn’t all bad, we should be able to have information about women’s body parts out there. Recently a women’s group were reprimanded for leaving ‘sexually explicit’ material around where children could see them. The material in question was a poster advertising support services and awareness of female genital mutilation and featured an image of a young woman of Africa-heritage. I have looked at the material several times and all I can come up with is that the school did not wish for children to see the word or references to ‘genital’. What message does this send, to sufferers of these atrocities, but also to young people in general? That we can’t talk about what’s between our legs?

Anyway, back to Fem-Fresh. It seems we can only talk about vaginas under cutsey euphemisms. And this is the razor story all over again. Create insecurity and need: your vagina smells bad. Sell product to fix need: here is a wipe to make your vagina smell lovely. Provided you wash regularly and don’t have an infection, your vagina smells completely normal. It isn’t supposed to smell like a flower. Vaginas are moist, it’s how they clean themselves. They have their own, natural smell. I don’t think it would be a big leap to say that many people like this smell, it’s erotic. I’m reminded of Pamela Des Barres 70s groupie memoir when she talks about using chocolate and strawberry douches (now out of favour mainly due to being particularly unhealthy and actually promoting infection). Vaginas aren’t supposed to taste like ice-cream.

It goes without saying that it is absolutely a woman’s choice to do exactly what she wishes with her own genitalia. And if that means that she wishes to have her labia surgically cut and trimmed, all the hair waxed off and for her vulva to be lightly fragranced, so be it. It’s her choice. But it should be because that’s what she wants, rather than out of a fear that her vagina is shameful and disgusting as it is and needs to reach a certain standard before it can be unleashed on others. Unless you work in the sex industry, your genitalia are probably only seen by yourself and the people you choose to have sex with. It’s something personal and private, not on show to the world in the same way that other parts of the body are. There are women around the world who are having their genitals savagely mutilated and disfigured, having their right to a natural body and sex-life taken from them, yet we’re inflicting our own private battle on our lady-parts. Owners of vaginas: Your genitals aren’t an identikit flesh-light, they’re a diverse and wonderful piece of human anatomy. You weren’t born believing there was something wrong with your body, yet somehow the idea became more and more acceptable to the point where it’s completely accepted. An entire industry thrives on making you hate what you have and buy a piece of altered perfection. It doesn’t have to be that way.

And for everyone else who loves vaginas: Show them some appreciation! Each is different and they’re not strange or scary. Go and tell your favourite vagina how much you like her, just as she is.

It’s not really in the flavour of this article, but as some of you may be at work, images below the cut.

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