Sex through the Ages

Published in: July-August 2005 issue.


WHEN I WAS IN MY THIRTIES I remember walking by the Empire State Building one day thinking, How did they get people to stop looking for sex long enough to put up a building this big?

Years later, I’m home in the evening with my laptop, browsing the sex ads on, like an old man playing solitaire. Everything’s changed. When I go to the gym or baths to see actual bodies, I’m content with glimpses, or end up, at the latter, walking the halls like a man in a museum, looking into the rooms—and usually leaving without doing anything.

Conceptions of sex, after all, vary from one cultural epoch to the next, but also during the lifespan of an individual. The urge to reproduce is an arc, you might say, that rises into the sky, like a rainbow, and then returns to earth. Once it occurred to me to ask a friend who’d sired six children if this had lessened his sex drive, and it made no sense when he said No.

There seems to be an idea in this culture, judging by the medications being sold, that one should continue to have sex till the day you die. However, how you view sex in your later years may have something to do with the way you viewed it all along. Seneca said the diminution of the sex drive was like being freed from “a cruel and insane master.” Some people may not be so relieved. In the Visconti movie Il Gattopardo (“The Leopard”), Burt Lancaster hangs himself after an episode of impotence. A friend of mine jumped off a bridge—after saying he could no longer “access Lust.” Most gay men—the generation that read books, at least—are not quite so upset by this change, though they probably do think of Aschenbach in Death In Venice and Blanche Dubois in A Streetcar Named Desire.

As a matter of fact, many young gay men fear that after a certain age they will never be offered sex again. But only last week at the baths I came upon a young man copulating with a much older person in the hallway; and I thought of the opening of Proust’s Cities of the Plain, when the narrator discovers that the Guermantes’ butler is attracted to the Baron de Charlus because the only thing he desires is an older man—like the man I know in Key West who at 85 is still looking for a Daddy. He may be doing so now on, which features two galleries: one called “Daddies,” the other “Admirers.” The first time I viewed the latter I assumed the good-looking young men all must be hustlers. Not so. Beautiful young men who want a sixty-something bald chubby do exist. Why else would some of the Daddies, their enormous stomachs rising like Ayers Rock above the Australian plain while getting blown, put their images on line—images that at times, it must be admitted, come close to aversion therapy for the rest of us?

The existence of gerontophiles of any age is a great comfort to the older man, and the reason at least one friend of mine has the wonderful younger partner he does; though this is apparently not the solution for everyone. Some older men find the young boring, callow, fill in the blank. Others are so disgusted with their physical state that they think anyone who desires them must be an idiot—the same way Groucho Marx said he had no wish to belong to a club that would have him as a member. “See that old Chinese lady over there?” someone at the baths asks in a picture book by David Leddick comparing men in their youth and old age. “He used to be the most beautiful man in New York.” A kind of physical self-loathing may dampen the later years among people of any sexual orientation. The sad truth is that older gay men too often show no sexual interest in their peers, but regard one another as broken down wrecks. Then there are the particularly sensitive who are so afraid of being taken as a dirty old man that they refuse to make the first move, remembering all too well the older men who, when they were young, would not take No for an answer. The English writer J. R. Ackerley, for instance, so agile a seducer in his beautiful youth, became marmoreal in his maturity; he had to be spoken to first. This may have been a matter of wounded pride.

There is an element of narcissism in all sex, after all. In worshiping the Beautiful, people usually assume their own beauty, or youth, or fitness; they approach the altar because they know they bring gifts. When one feels poor, one remains in the back of the church. Thomas Mann said old age was essentially feminine; what I think Mann meant was that old age was weak, unable to be aggressive, to be the active courtier. Or, as Madeline Kahn, playing the dance hall girl in Blazing Saddles based on Marlene Dietrich (who was not about to let the public see her in old age), put it: “I’m kaput from the waist down.”

Hugs are nice, however. A man my age and I go out to museums and a restaurant; and sometimes, after the outing, return to my apartment. There we lie down on the day bed and hold each other. A sort of electrical current passes between our bodies. It’s like recharging my electric toothbrush or shaver. It means a lot to me. I used to worry about the fact that I was not having an orgasm. Was this Lesbian Bed Death? It seemed to me a problem we should talk about; but when we did, nothing came of broaching the subject, so I stopped worrying. This is one of the main things that may happen when you age: Eros gives way to Agape, sex to intimacy, desire to friendship. Instead of going to the baths, you sit home reading Nancy Mitford’s biography of Madame de Pompadour. A case in point: “This love affair took its course,” writes Mitford of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour. “After a few years of physical passion on his side it gradually turned into that ideal friendship which can only exist between a man and a woman when there has been a long physical intimacy. There was always love.”

This waning of genital sex in favor of a more companionable connection means the older gay man no longer feels as frequent a compulsion to possess people physically, but still needs the intimacy. (In Florida retirement communities, however, the question a woman asks when considering a boyfriend is less sentimental—not how strong, handsome, or rich he is, but merely: Can he drive at night?) Affection is still needed. Beauty makes an impression but does not constitute a crisis. It’s a bit like going deaf: you see the lips moving but no longer have to hear what is being said. If sex required no effort, I suppose people would have it indefinitely; but it does. Even one’s role becomes hard to figure out. The older man may wonder: Does the young person expect him to be a top or bottom? Is one being viewed as the Virile Older Man or as a geezer who will fall down and worship Youth and Beauty?

In Peter Parker’s biography of Ackerley, we read of a handsome young man in Ackerley’s neighborhood who always smiled at him when they passed, but with whom he never got together because, when Ackerley ran into him, he didn’t have his dentures in, and when he did wear his dentures in hopes of a meeting, the youth never showed up. (Of course, Ackerley had already given up cruising at that point and married his dog.) Others were luckier. As an old man living with the Blue Nuns in Rome just after World War Two, the philosopher George Santayana loved being taken out in an Army Jeep to drive around Rome with a handsome American soldier. Still others made do with less. Cavafy wrote a poem about a clerk who’d waited on him in a store; Thomas Mann fell in love with a waiter in Switzerland.

What, then, of friends who still must have two loads a day? I have one in Boston with a large doorbell trade, another in California who offers massages on the Internet. How, I wonder, can they still be doing it? Their rhapsodies to the penis, their energy and resourcefulness, their sheer vitality, seem inexplicable; though the answer may be staring us in the face. “It is said,” Mitford writes, “that the King’s doctor warned him that he was making love too often. ‘But you told me I could, as much as I wanted to, so long as I used no aphrodisiacs.’ ‘Ah! Sire! Change is the greatest aphrodisiac of all!’” Obviously the sex drive endures at various levels as men age. “We know that when Madame de Maintenon was seventy-five and the King seventy,” Mitford says of Louis XIV, “she told her confessor that it tired her very much to make love with him twice a day and asked whether she was obliged to go on doing so. The confessor wrote and put the question to his bishop, who, of course, replied that as a wife she must submit.”

Versailles is what pre-AIDS gay America looks like to some youngsters, a lost world they regard as a golden age (of promiscuity). At Versailles “the four main pastimes were love, gambling, hunting and the official entertainments. Love was played like a game, or like a comedy by Marivaux; it had, of course, nothing to do with marriage.” But there was a difference. At Versailles, Mitford writes, “in those pre-Freudian days the act of love was not yet regarded with an almost mystical awe; it had but a limited importance. Like eating, drinking, fighting, hunting and praying it was part of a man’s life, but not the very most important part of all.” That must be why getting older as a gay man feels more civilized somehow—though of course this could be an illusion. Thom Gunn’s last book of poetry was called Boss Cupid; Tennessee Williams said he hoped when dying he would have a handsome doctor.


Andrew Holleran’s Dancer from the Dance has recently been issued in France as Le Danseur de Manhattan.