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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Asking about gender – inclusivity and trying to get it “right”

The young person sat in front of me is noticeably androgynous in a loose tunic, with elfin features, the sharp cheekbones of a male-model, and an overgrown pixie-cut. My assessment form demands a tick in the box, are they male or female? I wonder if they fall somewhere outside of this binary, if maybe they define themselves as genderqueer, or somewhere else on the gender spectrum. Maybe they don’t use any label for how they see themselves. I’d like think of myself as reasonably open-minded and something of an ally for LGBT rights and gender diversity, so I want to make an effort, to get it “right”. But I’m also conscious of causing offence – what if they do identify as male, will they be insulted by my asking? Maybe they’ve had a lifetime of being mislabelled as feminine. Will this break down our relationship before it’s even begun?

“What would you like me to put down for gender?”

(pause, confused expression) “Um…male”

“Okay… I only ask because some people identify as genders different from “male” or “female””

“Oh yeah… I know some people like that”

“Okay, what shall I put for your ethnicity?”

And so we move on.

This encounter made me think about how I ask questions about demographics and diversity. In healthcare often the forms we use as restricted – used to generate statistics and leaving little room for greyer areas. But there are many aspects of personhood that aren’t immediately obvious. I have no difficulty asking someone their age, but somehow checking in with someone about issues such as gender and sexual orientation feels more difficult – my concern is that others will think I have made assumptions about them, “What makes you think I’m gay?”.

One way of making diversity questions less personal is to ask them routinely, even when the answer may appear “obvious”. Guesses at ethnicity and sexual orientation are also open to error without checking in (for example: someone who appears caucasian but is actually of mixed heritage). It is time-consuming to run through these kinds of questions but when I have the chance I do find it helpful. Most of the clients I work with have “majority” characteristics but they are rarely offended when I ask anyway. Often the form can be a starting point for these conversations “It’s something we ask everyone” and can reveal difference that isn’t immediately obvious in a relatively safe manner. Giving people assessment forms to complete themselves may also be another route, and including “other” boxes alongside diversity checklists. I also wonder, for those who sit in the majority groups, whether being asked the question provokes some thinking about diversity and brings a degree of normalisation.

NB – I don’t consider myself an expert on these topics, this is merely a reflection on my own experience. I recommend anyone interested in informing themselves about being sensitive and inclusive towards gender diverse individuals do some research – e.g. BPS, genderbread  , Christine Richards

Strong & Beautiful Style at MAC

strength

I’m currently loving the current MAC ‘Strength’ campaign, featuring fitness model and female body-builder, Jelena Abbou. I’m a long-term fan of MAC make-up and they’re known for employing eye-catching concepts and styling for their photo-shoots, but it’s really refreshing to see a mainstream advertisement that celebrates some diversity in female beauty. Other than rather tokenistic (and often insulting) ‘real women have curves’ shots, a particular standard of young, waifish (and usually white) beauty is very much the published norm. Though being fit and exercising has never exactly been unfashionable, often it seems to be marketed only as a means to losing weight and becoming a particular shape. See this rather depressing article about a New York-based trainer who helps agency models get down to sample size with a very particular exercise regime “Push-ups are out — developing the chest is bad news — as are squats and lunges, which make the derrière too round to fit into the clothes”. When muscular women have featured in ad campaigns and editorials, they’re often portrayed as something of a freak-show attraction, or in a rather masculine manner. It’s nice so see that this campaign celebrates Abbou as a feminine woman as well as an athlete, whose body is a testament to her power and dedication. Strength indeed.

Shop the collection here.

New guidelines for working therapeutically with Sexual & Gender Minority Clients

It’s already shaping up to be a good year for gender and sexual diversity in mental health. Last month the BPS (British Psychological Society, the organisation that oversees all practising psychologists in the UK) released the document ‘Guidelines and Literature Review for Psychologists Working Therapeutically with Sexual and Gender Minority Clients‘, which can be viewed for free online here. Although aimed particularly at those delivering therapy in sexuality/gender-focused settings, this advice has relevance for health professionals working in all areas. The report states its aims: ‘These guidelines have been developed in recognition of the importance of guiding and supporting applied psychologists around their work with sexual and gender minority clients in order to enable their inclusion in clinical practice at a high standard. They also aspire to engender better understanding of clients who may have suffered social exclusion and stigmatisation in order to reduce the possibility of this in the clinical arena.’ Attention is given to the harm caused in the past by perspectives in mental health about sexuality, which began to be put right the the removal of the diagnosis of homosexuality from the DSM in 1973. However, there is still a long way to go before services truly are inclusive and sensitive to the needs their clients, regardless of their sexual or gender identity. High levels of mental health problems have been reported in this client group, but they often experience difficulty accessing services, and may experience discrimination (unintentional or otherwise) from uninformed professionals.

It’s a large document that I’m still in the process of digesting, but so far I’ve been struck by how inclusive and wide-ranging it is. The report discusses ‘less-visible’ sexualities and identities, such as the spectrum that gender identities can take, forms of bisexuality and more fluid identities. Controversial and often-overlooked topics such as non-monogamous relationships/orientation, BDSM and sex-work are also tackled. It is worded sensitively, with effort to use quotes from service-users and use current phrases and slang, to bring professionals closer to the world inhabited by the clients they may meet.  The report encourages professionals to consider their own understandings of gender and sexuality, the context we live in and how this has shaped our own and others’ perceptions of.There is also a focus on doing away with myths that perpetuate throughout the system about certain identities, and a strong opposition to attempts to ‘cure’ a sexual or gender identity. It seems to be a really positive and well-researched report that would be beneficial to individuals working in a wide range of sectors, to inform and advise on a range of issues with working with this client group. If you’ve seen the document, what were your thoughts?

Rape happens to men too

  If you’ve used the London underground in recent works you probably can’t help but have noticed the posters for charity Survivors UK. Under a dark, stormy sky, it features a rugby ball, punctured with a nail. The stark slogan above reads ‘Real Men Get Raped’. 

The advert has an underniable shock-factor. Maybe that’s just because it has the word ‘rape’, displayed so boldly and publically. We’re British, we barely even like talking about sex, especially not anything relating to anal sex, and definitely not sexual assault. What if a sweet, middle-class child saw this, tugged his father’s coat and said ‘Daddy, what’s rape?‘. Now, that would be an uncomfortable conversation! But maybe it needs to be had.

Rape is horribly common. Amongst the people you work with, it’s likely that a couple of them have been victims of some kind of sexual assualt. Amongst your friends and family, it’s likely that a couple of them have also been victims. Statistics hide the large number of people who never come forward about what they have experienced, secrets that go undetected and unchallenged. And rape doesn’t just happen to young women. Perpetrators of sexual violence and abuse can be both men and women. Rape happens to women of all ages. It happens to people of all sexualities and appearances. It happens to children. And yes, it does happen to men. Survivors UK quote the statistic that every hour, a man is sexually assaulted in London. And there will be countless other crimes in other cities, and indeed all over the world.

We don’t usually get too worried about men being sexually assaulted. Men typically don’t wear short skirts, low-cut tops or engage in the other ‘provocative’ behaviour that has too-often been blamed for women’s assaults. We worry about women walking home on their own, about their getting their drinks spiked or picked up by unlicensed taxis. What about men? Are they somehow safe, immune? This article, though focused on sexual violence against men as a weapon of war abroad rather than in the UK, highlights some of the horrific realities of male rape. It’s quite graphic and intense, but worth reading. This is another very powerful article  about a police officer’s experience of being raped and the following investigations. It does happen, far more often than we might like to think.

The Survivors UK campaign has attracted some flack for their use of the phrase ‘real men’ as critics says this perpetuates the idea that there is such a thing as a ‘real’ man, or that a certain type of man may be more ‘real’ and ‘manly’ than another. This is unfortunate, but I don’t think it detracts from the impact of the posters. Their aim has been to try and dispel myths that male rape happens to only a certain subset of men, perhaps those who are gay or men who are physically weaker or more effeminate. The reality is that rape can happen to any man, regardless of whether he fits a stereotype of ‘manliness’ or not. Rape happens to ‘macho’, muscular, heterosexual, beer-drinking, sport-playing, hunting, fishing, all-round red-blooded men, as well as any other variety. On the use of the image, Michael May of Survivors UK said: “We’ve chosen to use an alpha male sport in our advertising to challenge assumptions about the type of men who get raped. It’s just as likely to be a rugby player as a librarian, a suited city banker as a hooded gang member. And we hope that by challenging our innate assumptions about the identity of male victims, we can make it even fractionally easier for a male rape victim to ask for help.” This rugby-themed poster deliberately coincides with the Six Nations, so it’s aimed at these men in particular. Maybe it’ll start a conversation. Maybe people will look at it and then awkwardly look away. If all the poster does is make someone think, perhaps for the first time ‘Rape actually happens to men’, the it’ll be a success. There is a great stigma and culture of shame around rape and this can make it even harder for men to come forward to receive support and justice they deserve. Survivors UK quote that only 11% of men ever report the crime they’ve experienced. This is disturbingly low. Would you ever know if a man in your life had been raped? Would anyone? Let’s start a conversation.

More information and support at Survivors UK

Bisexuality in the UK

On February 15th a report was published bringing together research and information on the UK’s bisexual population. In particular the paper highlights the discrimination bisexuals face, often related to misconceptions, negative stereotypes and ‘invisibility’ within the community. It seems amazing that it’s taken this long for us to have a paper of this kind, but hopefully it is a step towards greater public and professional awareness of this often unseen group. It has been produced by BiUK in conjunction with the Open University, Bi Community News and the Bisexual Index. You can read it here.

Twice as nice? Or double the discrimination?

The paper offers some definitions of bisexuality, explaining that many different forms of identity may come under the umbrella of the term. Bisexuality includes individuals who are not attracted exclusively to one gender (regardless of whether they engage in sex or relationships with individuals of more than one gender), people of fluid and changeable sexuality, individuals who do not see gender as an important factor in attraction and those who dispute the concept of a gender binary in sexual attraction. A bisexual need not actively engage in relationships with people of different genders or have an equal preference for different genders. Not all individuals who fit with the used definitions may actually use the term ‘bisexual’ to describe themselves, picking a more precise term or preferring not to label themselves.

Biphobia is a term used to describe discimination against bisexuals on the basis of their sexuality. Distinct from homophobia, bisexuals may experience discrimination both within the heterosexual and homosexual community. This can often centre on beliefs that bisexuals are confused, promiscuous, greedy or not acknowledging that bisexuality truly exists. Presentations of bisexuals in the media have often conformed to stereotypes and further perpetuated myths. Female bisexuals are often presented as people who break up relationships, tease and generally exist for the fantasies of heterosexual men. Bisexual men are an even lesser spotted species, often considered to be an insecure individual’s ‘stepping stone’ before fully coming out as gay. Much progress has been made in recent years about tackling homophobia, but prejudices against bisexuals are rife and even seen in the communities that seek to promote gay rights. This can lead to bisexuals feeling alienated and having to conform to either a ‘gay’ or ‘straight’ identity in order to be accepted.

Bisexuals can often seem invisible when judgements about sexuality are often made based on a person’s current relationship, their involvement in the gay community and even their appearance. A bisexual does not cease to be a bisexual if they marry an opposite sex partner, or same sex partner, or even if they choose to not be in a relationship at all! LGBT campaigning and activism often makes very little mention of the ‘B’, such are in recent discussion over same-sex marriages, and LGBT groups and events (such as Pride) may have little visible represenation for the bisexual community. The difficulties faced by bisexuals can be undermined as people erroneously think that they ‘have it easy’ compared to homosexuals, and some how their struggle is halved by having ‘one leg in the straight community’. Statistics on bisexuals are often lumped together with the other LGBT groups, rather than examined in their own right as a separate sexuality.

One of the most attention-grabbing and upsetting details of the report is the statistics that Bisexuals have poorer mental health than both homosexuals and transsexuals. This is something difficult to publicise without unintentionally feeding into stereotypes of bisexuals as ‘tragic’, ‘dramatic’ or ‘confused’. Indeed, much of the distress experienced by bisexuals has been linked to hostile and unhelpful reactions from others, rather than the sexuality itself. Coming out, an already difficult process, may be more marked for bisexuals who may need to come out when they choose a same sex partner, then again when they choose an opposite sex partner. There has been quite some media attention about depression and suicide in the gay community but similar issues in the bi community seem to have been overlooked. The evidence suggests that Bisexuals are more likely to suffer distress and to have a diagnosed mental health problem. Medical and mental health professionals are often uninformed about bisexual issues and may even make remarks suggesting that the individual’s illness has something to do with their sexuality. This kind of treatment can make it challenging for bisexuals to access mental health treatment and get appropriate care. Manchester group BiPhoria have created a fantastic and informative document for mental health professionals to guide them on working with bisexual clients, I’d really recommend it. Can be read here.

Quotes from BiPhoria

Much of the reccomendations in the report, and from other Bi media sources, amounts to not making assumptions about Bisexuals and considering them separately from homosexual groups. The mental health statistics are worrying and if we’re going to do anything to solve this problem, we need to be sensitive to individuals’ needs and be open-minded to different perspectives. Bisexuality may present in a wide variety of ways so it’s difficult to predict exactly how a bisexual may live their life, or what their experiences will be. As with working with other individuals, an individualised, person-centred approach and a genuine curiosity to learn about and understand another’s view point, can help us to support Bisexuals and help them to become a more visible part of the UK’s community.

Gender Fatigue – Andrej Pejic & the trend for the ‘bend

Edit 22/04/15 – In the time since I wrote this piece I’m aware that that Adreja Pejic has “come out” and transitioned. In light of this I’ve considered whether this piece comes across as mean-spirited. My intention was to criticise the idea that the only kind of acceptable gender non-conforming body was one that conformed to idealised standards of (female) beauty, and that this was not as ground-breaking and empowering as some media sources had made it out to be. I have no issue with Pejic herself and however she chooses to express herself, more the way the media paraded her.

Barnes & Nobel censored this cover, worrying that customers might mistake him for a topless woman

Barnes & Nobel censored this cover, worrying that customers might mistake him for a topless woman

Here comes an unpopular opinion. I am bored of Andrej Pejic. There, I said it.

Yes, he’s pretty, I don’t deny that. I’m not bored of looking at him,  he’s gorgeous and has created some stunning images. What I’m bored of is the way he’s being continually lauded as the patron saint of gender diversity as if he’s the first bloke to ever wear a dress.

You’ve probably heard of the Serbian-born male model, famous for, well, looking like a girl. And not just any girl, a beautiful girl, with the high-fashion look designers crave. Andrei shot to fame following a Marc Jacobs editorial which showed the blond, elfin model in a short dress, showing off his slender, well-oiled legs. A sensation was born and Pejic became one of the first male models to take part in female catwalk shows and fronting many campaigns for men’s and women’s wear. Controversy and world-wide fame insued after he gained a place in FHM’s ‘hottest women’ list, generating some rather ugly transphobic abuse, and when he starred in a push-up bra advert.

Pejic, who does not identify as transgender, has been quoted saying that he enjoys dressing in both masculine and feminine styles and has been mistaken for a girl since he was a child, suffering no hostility for it “I can’t really say that it was ever a bad thing. All I’ll say is … a lot of free drinks!”. Journalists and media have applauded his bravery and defiance in the face of gender-norms, his innovation and his status as an icon of gender-fluidity, someone judged on their ‘merits’ rather than their gender. So does the acceptance of Pejic into the mainstream media and fashion world mean that society is becoming more accepting of variation in gender and individuals whose identity differs from their biological sex? I’m not so sure.

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