Episode 5: Sex, Tech, and the Meaning of Aging, mostly sex
In this episode: Would you rather have the sex you had when you were 18, or still enjoy sex at 80? How did Viagra change the meaning of aging? Learn about andropause, clitoral insufficiency syndrome, and other maladies made up to market pills and make people feel bad about growing older.
Wrinkle Radio gets a little racy as Professor Emeritus Barb Marshall talks with host Professor Sally Chivers about:
- the promise of Viagra
- age-related sexual discontents
- sociology vs urology
- the degendering of age
- what we miss when we reduce the body to function/dysfunction
- retired life
Find Barb Marshall’s articles
- ‘Hard Science’: Gendered Constructions of Sexual Dysfunction in the ‘Viagra Age’ (paywalled)
- The New Virility: Viagra, Male Aging, and Sexual Function (paywalled)
Read letter to the editor Viagra Vindicated
Find Peggy Kleinplatz and A. Dana Ménard’s book Magnificent Sex: Lessons from Extraordinary Lovers
Read Peggy Kleinplatz on The Joys (and Challenges) of Sex after 70 (paywalled New York Times article)
Read Barb Marshall's work about function vs dysfunction:
- Functionality: A Challenge for Cultural Gerontology (free access)
- Forever Functional: Sexual Fitness and the Ageing Male Body (with Stephen Katz, paywalled)
- Is the Functional 'Normal'? Aging, Sexuality, and the Bio-marking of Successful Living (with Stephen Katz, paywalled)
Barb Marshall 00:03
I remember reading this passage about age related sexual dysfunction in men. It's described as becomes less sexual, sensation becomes less genitally focused and more diffuse, it takes longer to come to org... and I was like. Oh, they become more like women, this is the problem. They don't want to become more like women.
Barb Marshall 00:26
If you think back on it, the sex you had when you were 18 probably wasn't the best sex you've ever had in your life. I mean, I'm just speaking for myself. And yet that seems to be the standard that we want to aspire to.
Sally Chivers 00:48
Welcome to Wrinkle Radio, where the stories we tell about aging matter. I'm your host, Sally Chivers, and I am so glad you're here. I'm joined for the next two episodes by Barb Marshall. We're going to be talking about sex, tech, and the meaning of aging. In this episode, we focus on sex. Spoiler alert: it's gonna get a little bit racy.
Barb Marshall 01:22
There was a cover story in Time magazine on Viagra. I mean, I didn't really know anything about this at all. I'm just a feminist theorist. I didn't do any of this stuff. I read this article in Time. And there was this quote from Bob Guccione, who was the publisher of Penthouse magazine, saying that feminism had emasculated man, and this drug was great. It was going to restore masculinity and counter all the detrimental effects of feminism. And it really made my head spin. Like I'm like, This drug is going to counteract a political movement? And then in the same article, there was a quote from Camille Paglia, the sort of notable gender critical scholar, and she said that men really need this drug because it's going to give them the steel that they once would have got by going to war. Making these kinds of claims that to me, were just ... it really made my head spin. And I thought, well, there's a paper in here somewhere.
Sally Chivers 02:28
That's Barb Marshall, professor emeritus at the Department of Sociology at Trent University, who among so many other topics to do with aging, gender, culture, and the social found much more than a paper in this topic of Viagra.
Barb Marshall 02:46
I've spent the better part of 20 years now reconstructing histories of sexual technologies and sexual dysfunction. I started clipping stories from the media, just started clipping things out of the newspaper. I ordered a bunch of pop books that were just popping up everywhere about Viagra, the wonder drug and how you can have sex until you're 102 now and all that stuff. But most interestingly, I started reading urology journals, like I started reading the actual clinical science of this stuff. And it was astounding. Like it was really astounding. Every one of those scientific articles opened with a paragraph that said something like sexual dysfunction or erectile dysfunction, or whatever they were writing about is an age related progressive disease that has the potential to become epidemic given the ageing of the population. This is just a crisis situation and we need to deal with it. It demands a social response. It was a bit like the equivalent of the standard gray tsunami paragraph you see in articles about aging in place, technology or threats to health care.
Sally Chivers 04:01
Those of you who've been listening to Wrinkle Radio know about the silver tsunami or gray tsunami from Episode Two on age panic. What Barb Marshall is talking about here is how every paper in gerontology, or it feels like every paper in gerontology and topics about aging, laments the crisis that is about to overwhelm us, rather than taking a different tack in talking about how the aging population is going to affect the world. And she's saying there's something similar in the eerie repetitive opening paragraph in all of these urology journals, something that's social and cultural, not exactly biological, something that refers to something not at all contagious as an epidemic. We might be a little more sensitive to that these days.
Barb Marshall 04:55
Everyone was at risk. It was progressive; it was posing great social problems. And of course, there was a promise here that somehow the degendering effects of age could be reversed. That this was also a terrible thing. A potential resexing of later life.
Sally Chivers 05:15
You might be asking, what's the degendering of ageing? It's this idea that men somehow become less masculine as they age. But they only become less masculine because we arbitrarily assign certain physical characteristics to binary gender identities. Bodies change as we age. It would be strange if your body didn't change as you grew older. Viagra promised to maintain key physical traits: traits that are arbitrarily assigned to binary gender identities. So it seemed to promise men who took it that they could stay masculine well into later life.
Barb Marshall 06:01
Masters and Johnson actually wrote about aging and sexuality at one point, and I remember reading this passage about age related sexual dysfunction in men. It's described as becomes less sexual, sensation becomes less genitally focused and more diffuse, it takes longer to come to orgasm ..and I was like Oh, they become more like women. This is the problem. They don't want to become more like women.
Sally Chivers 06:29
If you're sitting there thinking, okay, but what's wrong with a little pill that lets men get erections that they otherwise might not? Maybe you're feeling even a little bit defensive? A little bit annoyed with Barb at this point? Well, you wouldn't be alone. I found a letter to the editor from March 24 2008 from someone who felt similarly. This is what the gentleman wrote to the Globe and Mail:
Sally Chivers 06:58
10 years ago, Viagra for the first time offered an effective, simple, well tolerated treatment for men with problems achieving erections. There is a small cohort of crotchety critics, such as those cited in this article. Trent University's Barbara Marshall is a sociologist who doesn't seem to realize how important the ability to function sexually is to men's lives and self identity as men. We are told, the letter continues, she studies the impact of Viagra, calls it the McDonaldization of sex. No, treating erectile dysfunction doesn't trivialize sex, but comparing those treatments to Big Macs does.
Sally Chivers 06:58
Barb is probably the least crotchety colleague I can think of. So I asked her what she thought of being referred to this way.
Barb Marshall 07:51
Haha, I'm totally crotchety when it comes to this stuff. Yeah. Oh, but I love that. I mean, I love that. You know when someone writes something like that, that you've poked them.
Barb Marshall 08:02
Let me give another example here. In one of the studies that got cited in virtually every piece on erectile dysfunction that came out around Viagra was the Massachusetts male aging study. And it indeed demonstrated that as men age, their erections become less reliable and consistent, and all these kinds of things. That was cited in every one of those articles. So, of course, I went and dug out the Massachusetts male aging studies and looked at it. And what those studies never reported was the fact that in the questions where they asked men about their satisfaction with their sex lives, their satisfaction didn't decrease. You know, the physical changes may have happened, yeah, but their satisfaction was not noticeably different in later life than it was in midlife. So what that industry had to do was create the dissatisfaction and create the anxiety to market the drug.
Sally Chivers 09:04
This is such a good example of age panic, the ways that we're arbitrarily and unnecessarily taught to fear aging, and then encouraged to take a certain action to prevent it and to prevent any signs of it. Very often, the motivation of age panic is economic. In this case, it's tied to profit. So what better way to make a profit than to expand the target market?
Barb Marshall 09:33
Of course, they were trying to apply the same scientific principles to women, thinking that if this drug opens up vascular pathways in the penis, maybe it'll work the same way on the clitoris. And it really produced some really funny stuff. I thought was funny, like clitoral erectile insufficiency syndrome. The claims being made became so outrageous to me as a sociologist. You know, these are smart people. So I want to understand the way they understood the world: that they could look at this and see something so terribly different than what I could see and just the different vantage points. You have the construction of sexuality as being this mechanical problem. Irving Goldstein, who was one of the key urologists and clinicians involved there, he quite explicitly said it's a simple mechanical problem. He says, I'm an engineer and I can approach this hydraulically. A penis needs to be able to have sufficient axial rigidity to overcome the resistance of the typical vagina, which is two pounds, specifically two pounds. Whenever I heard the resistance of the typical vagina, I used to get this little picture in my head of vaginas dressed like guerrillas with bandanas, you know? it's this mechanical problem. There's a particular way of thinking that leads one to view sexuality in that way.
Sally Chivers 11:18
Not only did this research on Viagra reveal the ways that we construct gender around aging, and how doing that can actually change what we think of as sexuality and sexual pleasure in later life, and, in fact, the whole life course, the research Barb was doing also led her to do very important work on the distinction between function and dysfunction and how that can also cause trouble as we age.
Barb Marshall 11:47
The other thing that happened around the same time was a colleague and really renowned age studies scholar, Stephen Katz, and I having hallway conversations about stuff we were doing and putting things together, and just really starting to expand on this idea of function and how function had become such a key concept and key term for reinforcing the importance of measurement and standardization. So that example of being able to calculate the specific axial rigidity of a penis needs to overcome a resistant vagina and quantify it and standardize it. And then you can measure and then you can intervene. So we started working together in terms of fleshing out that idea of how what we used to think of as normal/pathological was the old binary, (and that had its problems as well) was really being supplanted by this function/dysfunction binary that was linked far more to biomedical intervention, to setting up endpoints for clinical trials for discrete subsystems that you could be assessed on: the circulatory system, muscular, hormonal stuff, but the way that that became operationalized, in so many contexts, was again to me as a social scientist seemed kind of ridiculous.
Sally Chivers 13:18
Barb had such a glorious example of what reducing ourselves to and our parts to functioning and dysfunctioning, what doing that misses.
Barb Marshall 13:31
One of the problems I was working on, or one of the issues I was working on was the resurgence of the andropause: this idea of the andropause for men that, you know, could be treated with testosterone, which was a very old idea that from the rejuvenation experiments back in the 1920s, when it was revived as a key problem for aging men. This idea of the andropause. And you probably saw those ads in magazines for the test you could take, the little questionnaire, and I remember having all this stuff on the kitchen table. Once when I was working on this paper, I had one of the andropause questionnaires, Running on Empty thing, had about eight questions. And at that point, my daughter was, I don't know, she was probably about 10. And she picked this thing up and she looked at me, she goes, Mom, I think you have this. Right? Because it had things like, Do you find yourself more tired than you used to be? Are you sometimes cranky? Do you sometimes want to nap after dinner? I mean, it was perfectly reasonable of her to look at that and go, Oh, do you have this? That was a good example of how it redefined stuff that was quite normal and quite normative as dysfunctional: wanting to have a nap after dinner. Who doesn't?
Barb Marshall 14:50
Then of course, you go into the science and you go into the clinical literature on this. And they actually defined the functional level of testosterone to be that of a man in his 20s. So you measure the testosterone of someone in their 70s. And well, obviously, you're dysfunctional. And this idea of fixing as functional things that are typical of younger adulthood extends right across that sexual spectrum. To go back to that example of the men in that Massachusetts male aging studies. Yes, they were aging, their, you know, function was changing. They were okay with that. But the sexual dysfunction industry fixed functional sexuality as erect penis, lubricated vagina and, you know, repeat as necessary kind of model of sexual functioning. As a feminist sociologist, I'm like, why would we do this? Why would we pick that point? Or that standard? Quite frankly, if you think back on it, the sex you had when you were 18, probably wasn't the best sex you've ever had in your life. I mean, I'm just speaking for myself. And yet that seems to be the standard we picked as what we want to aspire to. This is why I very much like the work of people like Peggy Kleinplatz. She did a fabulous study on great sex, where she only interviewed people who were over 80, because her logic was, she said, if you want to really know what the components of good sex are, why not ask people who've been doing it for a long time, and are still after, you know, all these years consider themselves as having a great sex life? In that study, she finds that great sex does not have a lot to do with erect penises and lubricated vaginas, but has a lot to do with nakedness and shared vulnerability, and intimacy and touch and all these kinds of things. But those things aren't standardizedable, they're not measurable, they're not as easily linked too. So there is this kind of biomedical underpinning of that functional/dysfunctional binary.
Sally Chivers 17:01
I love that humorous example of andropause and the uplifting example of sex into our 80s that together show what we miss when we reduce our bodily parts to function versus dysfunction, especially when those are defined in terms of youthful bodies. But Barb explains that as thinking about function versus dysfunction, gains power, it becomes a bit of a runaway train.
Barb Marshall 17:10
It tends to define as dysfunctional things that there isn't even any normative data for. So it's not so much a disconnect, as we'll just talk about functioning in the absence of any normative data. And we saw that, for example, in the stuff that tried to make a link between female sexual, I don't like to say dysfunctions, female sexual discontents, with things like vaginal engorgement that clitoral erectile insufficiency syndrome language. We didn't have any data. There was no data on what the normative level of engorgement of the clitoris is, yet there were claims made about the function of that in producing sexual pleasure. There's a responsibilization: for you to be aware of this, to be health literate, to take steps to correct, to prevent, to do all these things. And while that was certainly apparent in the clinical work on sexuality, They talked about using the idea of sexual life courses as a motivator for getting people to eat better and exercise more: that it will extend your sexual life course. And that even came out in official government documents. Health Canada produced a fact sheet on sexuality and later life. Government health agencies. This is something I learned that I wasn't aware of when I started doing the research: government health agencies often contract out these Fact Sheet things to private firms that produce health information. And a lot of them also work for pharmaceutical companies. So you get this bleed over in the claims being made and in the recommendations. The post Viagra focus on lifelong sexuality became part of this whole healthy aging lifestyle and sexiness gets added to the Third Age kit of things that you need to demonstrate vitality.
Sally Chivers 19:38
This is what scares me the most about age panic: that it encourages people to believe that if they just take certain actions, they can essentially stay young, in this case in relation to sexuality, but it applies across all kinds of physical, social and cultural aspects of being human. So I asked Barb to talk directly about how Viagra affected social fears and ideas of aging.
Barb Marshall 20:07
Has Viagra changed panic about aging? Has it had an effect? I think it's a yes and no question. So yes, Viagra has shifted the way that people think about sex, particularly in relation to age, because it opened a conversation in public that we weren't having before. It made it acceptable to say penis in The Globe and Mail. That was a new idea. So yeah, it opened conversations about older people as sexual, as potentially desirable, desiring you know, all those kinds of things that I don't think we were having. I don't think we would have had those depictions of things like vibrators on Grace and Frankie, and I mean, I love that storyline with the vibrators for people with arthritis and that yam lube, and the toilet that's easier to get up off of. I mean, those are great things to be talking about in a humorous sense.
Sally Chivers 21:08
Grace and Frankie is that sitcom featuring Jane Fonda and Lily Tomlin. They become roommates after their husbands leave them, and they start a business making vibrators that are friendlier to arthritic hands. It came up here because I remembered a time when Barb told me that some of the people she was interviewing got some of their later life sex advice from watching the show. Or at least that's how I remembered it. But of course, the societal effects of Viagra have not been all so humorous and uplifting.
Barb Marshall 21:41
But I'm gonna say it also has been detrimental in a lot of ways as well because it has just shored up that very conventional notion of what sex is, which is penetrative vaginal intercourse ... that's, that's what sex is. And I think it's also been harmful in the way that it's enshrined a particular kind of sexiness into that aspirational figure of the successful ager. Here in Canada: the Zoomer, I read nine years worth of Zoomer magazine. And, boy, there's just a particular kind of sexiness. I don't think it's going to relieve any anxiety about sex and age I don't think. I think in fact, it probably just creates more anxiety about sexual aging.
Sally Chivers 22:38
We'll pick up more on the topic of the successful ager and why that's a slightly frightening figure in the next episode of Wrinkle Radio that will also feature Barb Marshall, professor emeritus of sociology at Trent University. We'll be talking about her research on wearables: technologies such as Fitbits. And her work in the field of sociogerontechnology. Try to say that five times fast!
Sally Chivers 23:13
As you know, on wrinkle radio, we're serious that age studies scholars also experience aging, and that we need to be able to talk about that. I surprised Barb with a question about her sex life. And she very diplomatically and not at all crotchety suggested that that might be too much information. But here's some of what she said about retired life.
Barb Marshall 23:37
I'm enjoying aging, I am. I'm enjoying aging, I'm 65 will be 66 this year. I have to preface that though, by saying I'm so aware of my privilege, in having a good retirement income, reasonably good health. I've had, you know, some challenges, but you know, on the whole pretty good health, nice place to live and a career that's allowed me to continue working. Even though I'm not officially employed at the university anymore, I still am involved in a number of ... in fact, I've probably had a better publication record in the last two years. Because all of a sudden you have this time: to think and you know, write and stuff. I mean, I'm enjoying aging, I'm privileged to be able to enjoy aging in the way that I am. I'm also cognizant of, you know, mortality. There's no question and I really enjoyed your conversation with Albert. So I'm going to make a point of laughing when I get my terminal diagnosis because tha was wonder... I just thought that was wonderful.
Sally Chivers 24:53
And there you have it, the opposite of crotchety. If we've left you wanting more, join us next episode where we'll hear more from Barb Marshall, including her reflections on aging and retirement. If you don't want to wait until then, you could check out the episode she's referring to featuring the conversation with Albert Banerjee: episode four of Wrinkle Radio called Aging for Mortals.
Sally Chivers 25:27
This has been Wrinkle Radio. I'm your Host Sally Chivers. Thank you for listening. Please like, share, subscribe, tell your friends, tell your parents, tell your kids, tell your students, tell your neighbors, and remember, don't panic. It's just aging!