A Florida woman has just been sentenced to six months in jail for disorderly conduct and indecent exposure after being caught having sex in a public place. The sex itself took place in June. In a retirement community. The woman in question was 68 on the night of the public sex, and her partner was 49. The age of the woman and the location of the sex are apparently what makes the story notable to The Sun Sentinel, The Smoking Gun, The Huffington Post and others. Notable only in a “weird news” kind of way, that is. One article in HuffPo even begins with a walker joke.
That’s pretty offensive. The headlines are sexist and agist. Each sends a clear message that older women are generally supposed to be asexual, and when they refuse to abide by that restriction, we, the public, are to be dutifully shocked and disapproving. The Smoking Gun headline indicates the age of the woman but not the age of her male partner (men can be sexual at any age). One HuffPo headline notes that the sex allegedly occurred in a retirement community, and another makes a point to identify the woman as Grandma while omitting the man altogether. The Sun Sentinel headline begins with “Cougar Caged” and never mentions anything about a man being involved. While each article ultimately names the man, and even includes photos of both of them, the headlines name only the woman, and such is the sexism in this story that even the police report (linked in the TSG article) mentions only the woman by name, and hers specifically are the only actions identified as corrupting “public morals,” despite a notation that “both parties were placed under arrest and transported to Sumter County jail.”
When people talk about “public morals” and sex in the US, they are often talking about protecting children from sexual messages or interactions. The Villages is an adult community, reserved for people over 55. In addition, the sex in question took place after 10pm, in the dark. Now, I understand that the police were summoned because a resident made a complaint, and I am perfectly willing to agree that it is reasonable to enforce rules against sex in the public spaces of The Villages. But a six month jail sentence? That seems excessive punishment for adults having sex in an adult community. (There is, perhaps, one thing to be grateful for in this whole criminal justice fiasco: there was no indication that either person involved would have to register as a sex offender.)
I have a better idea about how to respond to incidents like this: Have both parties do community service. Have them distribute information about STI testing and safer sex practices. Have them distribute information about how to talk to health care providers about sex. Both kinds of information would be tremendously helpful public health measures. An analysis of Centers for Disease Control data done by the Orlando Sentinel and republished by AARP found, for example, that syphilis and Chlamydia rates increased 71% between 2005 and 2009 in central Florida. And a 2007 published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that while nearly 75% of U.S. adults between 57 and 64, and over 50% of adults between 65 and 74 reported recent sexual activity, only 38% of men and 22% of women reported having talked with a doctor about sex since the age of 50.
A community service assignment could even include distributing information aimed at negotiating and destigmatizing consensual non monogamous relationships. The Villages is reportedly home to a large married swinger population, and the woman at the heart of this story has been, according to the Sun Sentinel article, married to her husband for 50 years. Whatever their marital agreements are, her husband has stood by her during the ordeal.
The US population is aging, but that doesn’t mean it is becoming less sexual. We need to take issues of aging and sexuality seriously instead of resorting to walker jokes and cougar references. Our elders deserve better.
Interested in issues of aging and sexuality? Come to Woodhull’s 2014 Sexual Freedom Summit, where there are no fewer than 3 workshops on exactly those issues. On Friday afternoon, Paul DelPonte and I will present “My Father, Yes. My Mother, Never! Sex and the Aging Parent,” and then on Saturday Melanie Davis and Robin Goldberg-Glen of the Widener Sexuality and Aging Consortium will present “Sexual Privilege: What’s Age Got To Do With It?” They are followed by Susan Milstein and Melissa Keyes DiGioia who will present “Let’s Get It On: It’s Time To Talk About Sex & Aging.” And that’s just the tip of the Sexual Freedom Summit iceberg. There is a whole lot more to do and learn. Click here for the full schedule, and here to register!
Also, a huge thanks to Joan Price, author of Naked At Our Age, whose Facebook post last night alerted me to this story, and whose writings and workshops on sexuality for people over 60 contribute to the important work of affirming sexual freedom as a fundamental human right.