Today, I am participating in the virtual book tour for Joan Price’s The Ultimate Guide to Sex After 50 (Cleis Press, 2015).
Price, author of the book Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud About Senior Sex (Seal Press, 2011) returns to book format with a compilation of advice and information drawn from her extensive web presence and experience educating others about the joys of life-long sexual pleasure. The eighteen chapters are thematically organized around such topics as “Sex With Yourself and Toys,” “You and Your Doctor,” and “Cancer, Cancer Treatment, and Sex”; each chapter has a brief narrative interspersed with anonymous quotations drawn from Price’s online discussions and breakout sections with advice from experts, case studies, and further resources. The back of the book provides a brief recommended resource section, though some of the subsections of the bibliography are sparse and the selection criteria is unclear — could she really only find one recommend resource on the subject of body image, for example? And no trans- or gay male specific sexuality resources under the LGBT heading?
My reader’s response to The Ultimate Guide was mixed. Setting my age aside for the moment, I did not feel like I was the target audience for this book. My crunchy granola queer feminist sex nerd attitude toward human sexuality was unevenly represented within its pages. I agree with Price’s premise that we must counteract our youth-centric culture with targeted sex-positive resources for those whose bodies and experiences are not shaped, for example, by the college relationship scene or decisions about whether or not to procreate (and how). Yet I remain unconvinced that The Ultimate Guide (or its like-minded successor) will be my resource of choice in thirty, forty years’ time.
On the one hand, I embrace many of the basic underlying messages that Price seeks to impart: That empathic, mutual communication is essential for a joyful sexual relationship; that sexual pleasure is a human right (while sexual relationships must be consensual and actively earned); that we benefit from having expansive definitions of sexual intimacy — particularly when our bodies falter, or our relationships fail to mirror the heteronormative ideal peddled to us by the mainstream culture. These are basic tenets of human sexual thriving, I would argue, and virtually universal. At no age are we immune to chronic illness or dis/ability. At no age are most of our bodies or relationships going to live up to the stringent requirements of “sexy” that are being marketed to us from all sides. These are messages that most queer-friendly, progressive sexuality educators would champion.
At the same time readers were being verbally encouraged to expand and adapt their notions of satisfying, ethical sexuality to their changing circumstances, I felt the undertow of a fairly conventional subject. I felt, for better or worse, that Price was writing her book for an audience of straight, cis, able-bodied, conventionally attractive white women who had carried along through much of their lives without questioning the mainstream norms of heteronormative behavior — and now, as age caught up with them, they were having to face the fact that they can’t keep up the facade (or, indeed, may never have enjoyed doing so). The book seems primarily to respond to what I, on the fly in the margins, termed heterostress: The abrupt realization that the narrative of one’s life no longer maps onto the heteronormative foundations you’ve either passively accepted or actively embraced in your earlier decades.
For example, chapters on issues such as masturbation and sex toys, BDSM, open relationships, and body image, feel like introductions to the topic — suggestions for rejuvenating or spicing up your sex life rather than considering how those life-long sexual activities may be reshaped by ageing. The social and cultural context of our sexual selves, identities and practices alike, often get second billing in preference for a very self-improvement focus on the individual who is depicted as able to make changes to the self and her attitude: get more exercise! change your sleep patterns! buy a better sex toy! There is nothing wrong with most of these pieces of advice taken individually — but read one after another in the context of a single book they began to feel a bit glib. Just have the right attitude, Price seems to suggest at times, and you too can remain ageless.
I use the term “ageless” deliberately, because I think what I finally — and ironically! — found most off-putting about The Ultimate Guide was that it didn’t dig deeply enough into the specific contours of sexuality in our elder years. In seeking to help its readers “maintain–or regain–a spicy, satisfying sex life,” The Ultimate Guide perpetuates a lot of the same sexyness narratives that, in passing, it critiques.
Take, for example, the cover (something, I understand, Price may not have had much if any control over). The slim, shaved, youthful, feminine white legs, manicured toes peeping out of what look to be high-heeled shoes, seems like an odd visual for a text that, overall, is seeking to encourage readers to be expansive and inclusive in their understanding of human sexuality. While the text inside the book encourages us to think outside the box about sexual intimacy in the face of the disability and illness that comes with age, for example, and to reject cultural narratives that equate sexyness with youth … the cover does nothing to undermine conventional mythologies about what is sexy.
Similarly, Price may include LGBT anecdotes throughout her text, but LGBT-specific issues feel like an afterthought. “Special Issues for LGBT Elders” gets its own section…on page 359. And, as I previously noted, the further resources section does nothing to make up the lack. We also see tension between her exhortation that all bodies can be sexy juxtaposed with advice to lose weight to regain sexual vigor; no in-depth discussion the fatphobia endemic to our culture and how it affects our sexual selves appears in its pages — despite the fact that weight gain and changing body size has profoundly shaped the sexual experience of most elder adults with whom I have had discussions about these matters. I also felt, throughout, that the book was geared specifically toward cis women — not a problem per se, but a niche that unfortunately perpetuates the notion that women are our sexual relationship problem-solvers.
Overall, I expect that the people for whom Joan Price’s work resonates will find this book a useful compilation of encouragement and advice. For folks seeking more theoretical-cultural analysis with their sexual advice manuals, and/or more inclusive guides to elder sexuality, I would probably point toward Emily Nagoski’s Come As You Are (forthcoming March 2015; full disclosure I was an early reader on this project), the work of the folks at Our Bodies, Ourselves, or Fenway Health’s LGBT Ageing Project, among others. I would hope that a future edition of Price’s book can incorporate some of these more paradigm-shifting, inclusive projects into its narrative — such a move would only strengthen Price’s admirable goal of embracing elder sexuality at both an individual and cultural level.