Too Old To Hold
The mystery of gerontophilia.
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.
Jesse Bering is the author of the forthcoming book Perv: The Sexual Deviant in All of Us. He is a frequent contributor to Slate and writes the "Bering in Mind" column for scientificamerican.com. Follow him at www.jessebering.com, on Twitter @JesseBering, or try adding him on Facebook.
Illustration by Robert Neubecker.