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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“Just a phase”? Freedom to be a little sexually flexible

Queer women’s sexuality appears to be having something of a media ‘moment’. The new series of Orange is the New Black has got many heterosexual women claiming they’d “go gay” for genderfluid star Ruby Rose and supermodel face-of-everywhere Cara Delevigne is on the cover of Vogue describing her loving relationship with singer Annie Clarke. A comment from journalist Rob Haskell has drawn particular anger “Her parents seem to think girls are just a phase for Cara, and they may be correct.” Having their same-sex attraction written-off as “experimentation” is an experience many queer people can relate to. Photos of Kirsten Stewart sharing intimate moments with her partner Alicia are often naively captioned as “Kirsten and friend”. Bisexuality is often treated as invisible when the individual is in an opposite-sex relationship, as though their past relationships, attractions, preferences and sexual experiences are no longer a part of their identity. People of non-heterosexual identity are keen to stand up and proclaim that their sexuality is not a “phase”, that it’s who they are and it’s here to stay.

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But what’s wrong with having a “phase”? Tastes and preferences vary throughout our lives and experimentation is a way in which we can work out what we like, what we want. The phrase has become imbued with negativity – connotations of inauthenticity. Ideas that sexual experimentation is motivated by ideas of what is “cool”, what is expected at a certain age, being a part of a peer group where such a thing is “expected”. Sexuality is treated as a trend, a fashion. Implicit is the notion that the experience, and any feelings attached to it, is not genuine. In cold hindsight it is rewritten as meaningless.

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

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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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Unmentionables: Talking about sex in the healthcare setting

'The Sessions', in which a disabled man sees a sex worker, draws attention to the desire for individuals with disabilities to enjoy a sex-life

‘The Sessions’, in which a disabled man sees a sex worker, draws attention to the desire for individuals with disabilities to enjoy a sex-life just as much as the able-bodied.

Doctors, psychologists and other healthcare professionals, both in mental and physical health, are used to talking about difficult subjects. Bowel movements, terminal diagnoses, suicide and self-harm, tricky topics are a standard part of the job. Yet somehow when it comes to sex, many struggle to find the words or avoid the topic all together.

Sex, whether defined by sexual acts, more generally as intimacy or in many other ways, is an important human need. It contributes highly to individuals’ quality of life. On Maslow’s famous Hierarchy of Needs it comes only after physiological and safety needs in terms of importance. I think I can go as far as to say that changes or difficulties relating to sex are common to the majority both physical and mental health problems, whether they relate directly to the symptoms (e.g. impact of pain and limb weakness on sex positions, hypersexuality in mania) or are secondary to medication used to treat the problem or further consequences (such as impact of taking on a sick/carer role, self-consciousness relating to skin conditions). Anti-depressants are very widely prescribed, yet often information on the (common) sexual side-effects is left to be read in the small print. I’m reminded of a quote from Ben Goldacre on SSRIs,

“ I’m trying to phrase this as neutrally as possible, I really enjoy the sensation of orgasm. It’s important to me, and everything I experience in the world tells me that this sensation is important to other people too. Wars have been fought, essentially, for the sensation of orgasm.”

Stroke for example, is a condition where sexual dysfunction has been well documented. Yet in research speaking to rehab staff, they rarely brought the topic up with clients and on the occasion when it was brought up, staff often felt embarrassed and uninformed (McLaughlin & Cregan, 2005). Reasons given for staff not approaching the topic also included fear of upsetting clients and there has been other research suggesting that (often unconscious) stereotypes relating to sex, relationships, illness and disability, play a role in this silence. Although sex problems have been particularly highlighted in stroke, there is evidence that these staff attitudes and difficulties exist in a variety of settings and in relation to many other conditions. Whilst working in a clinic for Chronic Fatigue, I approached staff about the possibility of including sex and relationships as a topic to include in a psycho-education group, and was met with quite a dismissive response. It was too sensitive, and time was needed for other important areas. However, a friend with the condition informed me that on a service-user forum, the sections relating to questions and advice about sex were by far the most used. Service-users often have to go and seek out their own information because professionals fail to provide it.

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Exploring Non-Monogamy – Many & More

Big Love’s Polygamist Mormon family

A few years ago I made a friend who told me his was polyamorous and I genuinely had no idea what he meant. I’d come across the idea of polygamy (more than one wife, generally not viewed very favourably in western society) but really as far as I knew it, a relationship was always two people, that was what was normal and that was what worked. For some people, being monogamous isn’t something they’ve ever felt comfortable with and they see this as part of their identity, a form of sexuality. For others, it may be a lifestyle that they choose to be a part of. The rather amazing and comprehensive map below shows some of the various forms non-monogamy (by Franklin Veaux, click to expand).

One of my friends is a poly activist and through a lot of in-depth conversations with him and my own experiences and explorations, I’ve come to a place of questioning how we arrive at ideas of what a relationship ‘should’ be. Some of the ideas he and others have espoused to me have definitely challenged some of my previously held views. In the same way that we might be brought up to think that a relationship should be between a man and a woman, of similar age (perhaps the man can be a little older, but not too much), race and background, but may later go on to reject or adjust these views to include more diversity of experience. Similarly, I wonder if notions of monogamy just something I’ve swallowed from my upbringing and taken on, without ever really considering? (note – I’m not expert on this topic, these are merely my own thoughts and reflections and no doubt they don’t reflect all of the complexity of different forms of non-monogamous relationships)

Love doesn’t run out – This was one of the main ideas I’ve heard people using, and it rings very true for me. Is love a finite resource? And if I love one person, does that mean I don’t have any left for others? Indeed, I have a lot of friends and family members that I love. The presence of others doesn’t seem to impact on how much I care about these individuals or the quality of our relationship (provided others don’t actively interfere). So I do believe it’s possible to love more than one person, and that I’ve often seen that in romantic/sexual love as well as the more platonic  So it seems very possible that you can fall in love with more than one person at the same time, so what happens then? I guess traditionally (and as is often part of the plot of the cheesier of soap operas), you have to (often painfully) pick. But what if you didn’t have to? It feels quite a strange notion to consider that you could love two people (or even more) without it being a conflict, which to me feels quite freeing.

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Young and Naked: Vee Speers’ Party Guests

I caught sight of Vee Speers‘ photographs in an article recently in the Metro, where residents living near her Chelsea gallery show had kicked up a fuss about her work being ‘distasteful’ and ‘semi-pornographic’. No doubt the complaints have generated more publicity for the exhibition and the artist than they have deterred visitors. The exhibition, entitled ‘The Birthday Party’ features children dressed up as if to attend a party in a range of quirky and curious outfits. The pictures have an almost-painted quality, they’re pale and slightly eerie, staring doe-eyed, reminding me of the work of Erwin Olaf and digital artist Ray Caesar. The photographs are of Veers’ own daughter and her friends, though she has put together the outfits for the photographs. Some of the shots do involve nudity; a girl clutches dolls to her bare chest, a boy poses with in his underwear with boxing gloves, a girl wears a Minnie mouse-style outfit un-buttoned at the chest. Admittedly these poses might be more provocative for an adult, but I don’t think they’re presented in a sexualised way. Even the shots in which the children dress in more ‘adult’ outfits, the image seems more like ‘playing dress-up as grown-ups’ rather than imitating maturity.

Nudity in itself need not be something sexual or offensive, and in childhood it can be very innocent and playful. Often family photos of children when they’re young will involve some nudity, perhaps playing on the beach or in the garden. Sometimes kids don’t want to wear clothes! Young children don’t tend to feel embarrassed or ashamed of their naked bodies, they haven’t yet learnt to treat it as such. Where does the concern come from over these images? Is it that they might encourage others to view children in a sexual way, or that those who have an attraction to children might find them arousing? Unfortunately we can’t choose what other people get turned on by, one man’s porn is another’s M&S lingerie catalogue. Personally I find these photos rather fascinating, they seem to create a rather bizarre and perfect world ruled by children, with its own rites and customs, that we are not invited to. Sometimes children wear less clothing, but it’s for themselves, it’s their own, not for others. The photos are beautifully composed, simple yet exquisite. The combination of something soft and natural and something more fantastical. We’re all naked underneath and maybe there’s nothing inherently offensive or erotic about a nude body out of any associated context. Maybe we need to decouple the body and nudity from sexuality, which though often intertwined, can exist separately.

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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