Gerontophilia is defined as "the condition in which a young adult is dependent on the actuality or fantasy of erotosexual activity with a much older partner in order to initiate and maintain arousal and facilitate or achieve orgasm." But should attraction to old people really be considered a fetish?
The issue has come to the fore recently with the sentencing of London's "night stalker" rapist, suspected of sexually assaulting hundreds of senior citizens. Of the media reaction to his choice of victims, Hadley Freeman wrote,
London's Evening Standard, for one, felt that this was so extraordinary that it merited its own little article in the middle of its double-spread report of the case, expressing "bafflement" at a "family man's sexual attraction to the elderly". [...] this response is borne out of the still all-too prevalent belief –- sometimes subconscious, sometimes less so –- that sexual attacks are the expression of untrammelled desire and, ergo, the victim in some way has to be desirable, which brings us back to ye olde hoary chestnut of the victim being in some way at fault.
It's true that thinking of rape as a crime of "untrammeled desire" can have the effect of placing blame on the victim and excusing the perpetrator. But in order to condemn the night stalker's actions, we don't have to think of his victims as inherently undesirable. Just because he sexually assaulted elderly people doesn't mean that it's not possible for others to have non-abusive sexual attraction to them.
It's this attraction that Jesse Bering explores in a recent Slate column. He quotes the definition above, and adds the view of another expert, who specified that true gerontophilia should mean attraction to partners 60 or older. Writes Bering,
[T]he particular sexual orientation is not so much in line with our fetish du jour of a cougar subculture — which, in everyday parlance, implies a libidinous middle-aged woman soliciting the attention of a much younger man. Rather, in sheer chronological terms, gerontophiles are perhaps better thought of as being closer to necrophiles than cougar-hunters. The same applies for women (or men) who prefer old men as partners: While a conventional "silver fox" in his 40s or 50s may be a bit long in the tooth, true gerontophiles are more likely to find themselves with someone who has no teeth.
The last line paints gerontophilia as something of a joke, and indeed, sexual attraction to old people has often been figured as ridiculous. It's also seen as disordered, an idea Bering doesn't really challenge. Though he does quote gerontophiles who have consensual relationships with elderly partners, he winds up his piece with the theory, offered by a British psychiatrist, that gerontophilia is linked to pedophilia. But while sex with children is abusive by definition, sex with elderly people isn't — and it's worth asking whether those who seek out consensual sex with the very old really have a problem. As long as their older partners are on board, isn't it just a preference?
That pedophilia comparison may be telling. Contemporary Western culture tends to infantilize the elderly, to paint them as sweet, harmless, and incompetent. And while it's true that people with dementia may not have the ability to consent to sex (though the extent to which mental impairments preclude consent is by no means a simple issue), old people aren't kids. While some of them are happy to leave their sex lives behind, many remain sexually active — and acting like anyone who desires them is automatically a freak does everybody a disservice.