Gerontophilia (Sex!) and Linguistcs

I’ve written about linguistic relativity in the past. Briefly, there is ongoing and evolving research that attempts to explore the relationship between acquired language and perceptions of reality. The classic example from way back when I was in college was that because snow and ice are such a prominent environmental reality for indigenous people living above the arctic circle, their language has evolved many different words describing snow.  Because they have precise language to describe very fine gradations in snow conditions, they recognize and experience snow conditions differently than the rest of us.

I just finished reading an article in Slate that reminded me again how the use of language shapes our perceptions. It’s about a sexual orientation I was unaware of that’s characterized by sexual preference for the elderly called gerontophilia. I’m pretty comfortable with the subject of sex, but I’m very uncomfortable with author Jesse Bering’s use of normalizing language to describe sexually abusive scenarios.  

First I should disclose my personal biases:

1. As long as everyone is old enough and mentally competent to give informed consent, the encounter is free of coercion and force, and everyone is safe and happy, then I say engage in whatever you like. Consent is a key issue for me, which undoubtedly influences my interpretation of Bering’s article.

2. Bearing’s article is written exclusively from the perspective of male sexual gratification, even when he wanders away from gerontophilia, which leads me to strongly suspect his credibility.

Bering begins well with a great discussion defining gerontophilia and the subjective concept of old age. Not surprisingly, the line of demarcation varies depending on how old you are. He gives a couple of interesting case histories, and goes on to explore the difficulty measuring population-level frequency of gerontophilia:

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.

The phrase “other erotic age orientations” falsely equates mutually consenting gerontophilia with pedophilia in my opinion. Bering defines “other erotic age orientations” as, “...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)...”

The precision of age orientation vocabulary is clinically interesting and similar to my snow conditions example above. Clearly there is a range of age-related orientation. Some age preferences represent non-abusive sexual diversity while others are indefensibly rape. Lumping them all together under the age orientation umbrella minimizes the rape end of the spectrum.

Here’s what really raised my hackles:

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 ephebophilia. 

No true Scotsman indeed. Of course this completely ignores predation on boys. Also, when he describes “the average person,” Bearing actually means “men.”

Although I hope to maintain a mutually gratifying physical relationship with my husband for the remainder of our lives, I can understand and even agree to some degree with Bering’s appeal to evolutionary antecedents to explain why many of us are attracted to reproductive-aged partners. I do think he comes far too near to using evolutionary underpinnings to excuse abusing children, whom our society has determined to be all people under the age of 18. The legal age demarcation helps alleviate confusion about the law regardless of whether the aroused adult is pedophilic, hebephilic, or ephebophilic.

Bering makes a similarly sketchy statement regarding elder abuse later on:

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?

Again, I can almost understand what Bearing is getting at, but I wonder how this argument would look if you substituted “cognitively compromised child” for the 98-year-old.  

Bearing makes a valid point near the end that would have been worth exploring in depth. (He doesn’t, but it’s worth mentioning.) He states that what motivates pedophilia may be what also motivates elder sexual abuse. This seems logical within the paradigm that rape is about power and control rather than sexual gratification. Children and incapacitated adults both represent vulnerable targets for this type of predator.

I obviously bring a strong bias against sexual abuse in all its forms to my reading of Bearing’s article. I find the discussion anthropologically interesting and also completely distasteful. He could have written a great article about the phenomenon of gerontophilia itself without the distracting digression into the topic of rape and the anesthetizing clinical language he inappropriately chose for a lay audience.

This piece originally published as an Editor's Pick on Open Salon. (Recycled because I've been riding my bike. A lot. Velophilia.)