The mystery of gerontophilia.
By Jesse Bering
April 5, 2011
Perhaps it's just an artifact of having close, affectionate relationships with both of my grandmothers—one of whom was gnarled by debilitating rheumatoid arthritis but was as sage as a Nirvana-bound monk, the other of whom led a flapper-esque alcoholic lifestyle and was clever, mischievous, and wickedly funny—but I've always found elderly women rather endearing. Just as chubby, doe-eyed infants and the smell of baby powder bring out the maternal part of my androgynous personality, the Loris-like gait of an aged spinster redolent with ancient perfume elicits in me a similar strain of docility. On more than one occasion I have been tempted to reach out and hug a lonely old widow making her way slowly down the grocery-store aisle. Yet it is safe to say that, while I am not immune to other curious sexual rumblings from time to time, I have never been titillated by an octogenarian. (Since I'm a gay man, I should add that this applies to the penis-bearing elderly, too. I never really knew my grandfathers, though, so the inbound anecdote wasn't quite as fitting.)
There certainly are individuals for whom the elderly are equated, quite strongly, with the erotic, and it's these fascinating, little-known souls—referred to in the clinical scientific literature as gerontophiles—to whom we shall now turn. Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing, in his classic 1886 book on sexual deviancy, Psycopathia Sexualis, first described this particular "erotic age orientation." His definition was brief and nonspecific, describing gerontophilia simply as "the love of persons of advanced age." Krafft-Ebing offers the case study of a 29-year-old man who reportedly found sex with "old women" pleasurable after being seduced by one when he was a teenager.
In nosological terms, precise definitions are exceedingly important, however, since younger persons' perceptions of "old" may vary; it's unclear in such cases if we're talking about, say, Sex and the City-old or Golden Girls-old. In a 2005 review of gerontophilia, British psychiatrist Hadrian Ball shows how the definition has sharpened, if only a tad, since Krafft-Ebing's days. For example, in 1981, the American sexologist John Money defined gerontophilia 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.
Ball laments this continued obtuseness in defining how old is old, exactly, when it comes to certifiable gerontophilia. So he clarifies that by "elderly," the clinical insinuation should be an erotic target aged 60 or more years. This is helpful, indeed, because it emphasizes that the 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.
It would be a major understatement to say that scientific research on gerontophilia is scant compared to the study of other paraphilias, but scattered references do exist. In 1929, a psychiatrist by the name of "A. Kutzinski" published a brief case study in Psychiatry and Neurology. The author writes about his gerontophile patient:
At the age of 24 he married, and he had six children; he served in the army during the war. Following complete sexual abstinence for over a year, he encountered, while bathing, an elderly woman with whom he had sexual relations. He lost all love for his wife, showing instead outspoken erotic impulses toward elderly women, which were so compulsive that they rendered work impossible.
In terms of the actual prevalence of gerontophiles, there is no known figure, or even an ongoing attempt to find one (at least so far as I can gather). Unlike pedophilia (peak attraction to prepubescent children), hebephilia (peak attraction to early pubescent-aged children) ephebophilia (peak attraction to adolescents) and teleiophilia (peak attraction to reproductive-aged adults), gerontophilia has not been explored systematically using sexological laboratory techniques—penile plethysmographs, clitoral stimulation measurements, and so forth—that are capable of assessing precise strength of genital arousal to images, sounds, and stories depicting differently-aged characters.
Ball points out that there is absolutely no mention of gerontophilia in either of Alfred Kinsey and his colleagues' most famous works (Sexuality in the Human Male, 1948, and Sexuality in the Human Female, 1951). Kinsey certainly wasn't shy about discussing other stigmatized sexual proclivities, such as bestiality and pedophilia, so this is an interesting omission in his works. Neither is there any specific mention of gerontophilia in the clinician's diagnostic bible, the DSM-IV—odd, since, within psychiatric circles, it is at least implicitly conceptualized as a distinct type of sexual deviancy, especially when it involves elder abuse. "The lack of any specific recording of gerontophilia within classification systems is probably significant," writes Ball:
Other sexual states are independently mentioned; examples include exhibitionism, voyeurism, pedophilia and sadomasochism. It can be deduced that the absence of the term gerontophilia is an indication that the condition does not typically present itself to mental health clinicians as a major clinical problem demanding a solution.
In other words, the population-level occurrence of gerontophilia appears to be miniscule by comparison with that of the other erotic age orientations. There are multiple ways to interpret this ostensible infrequency of the phenomenon. First, it is possible that gerontophilia is more common than we realize; unlike pedophiles, individuals who find themselves aroused principally by the elderly may be viewed as unusual, and certainly confusing, but they are not seen as criminals. Thus, cases of gerontophilia simply may not come to light as often as other erotic age orientations. From a lawyer's perspective, for example, Harold's relationship with Maude was perfectly legal—grist for the gossip mill, but that's about it. Humbert's relationship with Lolita, by contrast, was a criminal affair. Another way to interpret the dearth of gerontophiles, however, and one that makes more theoretical sense, is that it runs against the evolutionary grain. It's not terribly difficult to understand why the average person would become more intensely aroused by a bland coed than a hoary siren. There's the obvious problem with reproduction and menopause, which contradicts our evolved (if unconscious) interest in passing along our genes. The same logic suggests there wouldn't be many "true" pedophiles around, either. Indeed, recent findings suggest that pedophilia, for its part, is much less common than hebephilia or ephebophila.
Yet as unusual and counterintuitive as gerontophilia may be, the pornography industry reminds us—as it so often does—that there is a niche following for just about any form of love. Whether it's genuine gerontophiles who gravitate to these fetish websites or, perhaps more likely, puerile peeping toms with a fleeting carnival curiosity, is impossible to say. But there are at least two fairly "popular" dating websites catering to connoisseurs of the aged, one for straight men (www.nannydate.co.uk) and one—definitely NSFW—for gay men (www.silverdaddies.com). Even these specialized dating websites, however, do not appear to include many admirers of the most senior of senior citizens, but instead are laden with a common vernacular ("mature," "experienced") to connote a primary interest in late middle-age. From a clinical perspective, those with a sexual dependency on cougars, nannies, MILFs, DILFs, silver daddies, and so on would be lumped together under the normative category of teleiophiles, but it is interesting to note that this umbrella group could, in principle, be subdivided further still into even more discrete erotic age orientations through the same physiological measurements discussed earlier.
Literary erotica featuring elderly characters is mostly nonexistent as well; when they do appear in fiction, they're more likely, as Ball points out, to occur in the horror genre. In the short story Awake, Sleeping Tigress (1972), by Norman Kaufman, the narrator is a nauseated 23-year-old fugitive who's been blackmailed by his lecherous 100-year-old landlady into having sex with her:
I looked at her as a sick loathing constricted my throat: I looked at the thin white hair and the sunken cheeks and the toothless mouth; at the flat chest and obscene swollen belly and the fleshless flanks. I moved towards her, found myself touching the mottled body, felt the stink of the dirt in my nostrils, felt the bile in my mouth as the veined arms encircled me …
One man's worst nightmare is another's wet dream, however, and, rare though they may be, we've established that gerontophiles do indeed exist, even toward the extreme end of the age spectrum. Let's take at face value this Reddit thread, for example, in which the fit 32-year-old poster outs himself as a "gay gerontophile" and invites honest questions from the curious. He claims that he is financially secure and that there are no monetary incentives to his taste for heavyset men 60 and above, that he became aware of his predilections for this abundant demographic—one respondent remarks cheekily to the gerontophile that "the world is your oyster!"—at the age of 15, and that the oldest partner he'd ever happily copulated with was a 77-year-old man. The sparse scientific literature focuses exclusively on male gerontophiles like him; that could be because female gerontophiles don't actually exist. Yet maybe, just maybe, we've all been a bit hasty in judging women like Anna Nichole Smith (who at 26 married wheelchair-bound, 89-year-old oil tycoon J. Howard Marshall) and Crystal Harris (24-year-old fiancée of a still-peppy, 84-year-old Hugh Hefner). Nah.
The whole subject, of course, is bound to unleash a torrent of crude jokes, but there are some sobering considerations regarding the safety and well-being of vulnerable adults. In a 2007 report in Aggression and Violent Behavior, Ann Burgess and her colleagues report several case studies involving sexual abuse of the elderly. Although many such cases are opportunistic (occurring, for example, without premeditation in the context of a robbery) or symptomatic of the perpetrator's more generalized sexual sadism, a slim minority do appear to involve individuals who specifically target their victims because of their advanced age. The authors describe the case of a 33-year-old nursing-home assistant who'd been quietly molesting and raping his female charges for several years. Some of this man's victims were rounding the epochal century mark and were suffering from dementia, thus his defense was that they were "not aware of what was happening."
The abuse might have continued in silence, had not the shrewd daughter of a 98-year-old woman deduced foul play by noticing that her mom became uncharacteristically frightened whenever the elder-molesting aide came into the room. Ball also reviews forensic data revealing that, in the U.K., somewhere between 2 and 7 percent of all rape victims are over the age of 60.
Elder sexual abuse is reprehensible, of course; but from a bloodless moral philosophical perspective, it does raise intriguing questions about issues related to consent, trauma, and the impact of sex crimes on victims with different psychological and physical stakes. Is the rape of a 98-year-old Alzheimer's patient—who, whether we like it or not, has only a limited awareness of what is happening, just as the perpetrator says—comparable to, say, the rape of a lucid, vulnerable child who would have to deal with the emotional scars of such sexual violence for the rest of his or her long life, or a teenager who might be impregnated?
It should be stressed that there is no link between violence and gerontophilia, and in fact at least some gerontophiles appear especially concerned with the well-being and safety of their erotic targets. A self-confessed "straight gerontophile" on another Reddit thread writes this, for example, in response to queries about the physical logistics of making love to an elderly woman:
So far as worrying about injuring them, I do worry. Very much so. For that reason I usually let her lead the way, I figure she knows her limitations better than I do. But obviously I don't toss any woman I'm with around like a rag doll. As fun as that might be if she's into it, a broken hip would put a downer on things.
The etiology, or psychosexual origins, of developing such a taste for aged flesh is presently unknown. Not surprisingly, earlier theories tended to highlight Oedipal influences, with gerontophiliac males said to be expressing some form of repressed carnal desire for their own mothers (or grandmothers). John Money, however, pushed aside the Freudian psychoanalysis and instead postulated a hazy, unrefined model of sexual imprinting, in which sexual experiences with significantly older adults stamp on the individual's brain an erotic fixation on this type of age disparity.
In a 1992 issue of the Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology, Ball describes a case that touches on both theoretical perspectives. A 17-year-old male who'd been sentenced to youth custody after trailing elderly women into elevators and assaulting them, reported that at the age of 12, his mother "displayed herself to him and played with his penis." By 16, he realized he could not maintain an erection by fantasizing about girls his own age, but only by masturbating to imaginary (much) older women. His ideal partner, he said, would possess the following characteristics: "face would be old, hair going grey, normal or fat."
Perhaps the oddest theory regarding gerontophilia was the one put forth—without any supporting data—by British psychiatrist T. C. Gibbens in 1982. This inventive author thought that gerontophiles are likely to have underlying pedophiliac tendencies as well, both paraphilias stemming from a phobia of pubic hair. Brushing off the pubic-hair issue, an article from earlier this year in The Lancet does describe the case of three individuals who, on pre-admission to a nursing home, "appeared as frail, nice elderly men." It wasn't long before these men began taking egregious sexual liberties with their co-residents, "massaging the breasts or buttocks of the most frail women," "committing sodomy," and "making rude gestures." Intriguingly, in their earlier lives, two of these men had served jail time for child molestation and, though he wasn't prosecuted, the third man was thought to have molested his nephews. Whether such individuals are pedophiles, gerontophiles, or simply those that would take sexual advantage of vulnerable people, is unclear. It's important to recall that gerontophiles are dependent on having an elderly sexual partner to achieve orgasm, not simply that they are willing to make love to a senior citizen.
Alas, from the perspective of psychiatry, gerontophilia is the youngest of all the paraphilias, and remains a great enigma.
Jesse Bering is an evolutionary psychologist and director of the Institute of Cognition and Culture at the Queen's University, Belfast. His new book, The Belief Instinct, will be published in February (available as The God Instinct in the United Kingdom). He also writes the column "Bering in Mind" for Scientific American and is currently working on a book about human sexuality. His Web site is www.jessebering.com.
Article URL: http://www.slate.com/id/2290515/