An Elderly Freud

Susan Kay Smith
May 01, 2002

There's never been a Sigmund Freud for old age. No theorists of Freud's magnitude have explored the sexuality of the elderly, notes doctoral student Sarah Goodfellow. "Culturally speaking, we have a difficult time thinking about the elderly being sexual. It makes people giggly and nervous."

older couple hold each other in front of window
Gretl Collins

If romance lasts into old age, can't sexuality? Historian Sarah Goodfellow researches the history of such ideas as the "dirty old man."

As a history student, Goodfellow wants to put today's attitudes into historical context, to explain how our assumptions came about. "For instance, the image of the 'dirty old man' is very old," she notes; she finds its sources in scientific and medical representations of late-life sexuality.

In examining medical texts from the 19th century, time and time again Goodfellow read doctors recommending that in order to have a long life, men and women alike past age 50 should not have sex. When scientists studied sexuality in the 1800s, they did so predominantly in terms of biology, she explains. When sex no longer has a biological function, the scientists concluded, it was actually detrimental to health. "Notions of what's old and what's not have been closely tied up with fertility and reproduction. Having babies gets closely associated with sex and sexual identity. The point at which a heterosexual couple is not reproductive is when the woman reaches menopause. The doctors' idea, then, was that men should not be reproductive either." Men became a focus of Goodfellow's work, she says, in part because more research has been done on menopausal women than on their spouses.

For a chapter in her dissertation, Goodfellow spent eight weeks in France and England examining old court cases involving "senile" sex offenders. (The world "senile" itself originally meant elderly, not demented.) She hoped to learn what the experts said about the defendants in these cases.

In London, she looked through crime archives, specifically seeking sex crimes involving men over the age of 50—the age when doctors said men entered the "climacteric," what was then envisioned as a kind of "male menopause" and a transition to old age. One of the so-called symptoms of this climacteric was a form of sexual insanity. Would Goodfellow find that doctors simply excused the older male defendant as unable to help himself?

Her question remained partially unanswered in England. The records were so dispersed that in two weeks she was unable to piece together a single case. "The depositions are in one place, the verdicts in one place, and the date of the trial in another," she says of the archives in the London Public Records Office. Instead, Goodfellow used her time in England to examine newspaper articles at the British Newspaper Library for images of the dirty old man who couldn't help but act inappropriately. She thought she would find the idea pervasive in the 1880s and '90s, during a time of widespread sex reform legislation. Instead, most instances she found were from the 1850s. "This is interesting," she says, " because it places the image of the predatory dirty old man in the popular press well before the sex reform movements of the turn of the century that focused on the corruption of little girls, and instead much closer to the publication of Darwin's Origin of Species and the popularization of the theory of evolution."

Later, in Paris, Goodfellow spent six hours a day in the city archives and police archives, looking through cardboard boxes of court records. As she paged through the handwritten and difficult-to-read paper, her hands blackened and she sneezed from the dust. She was lucky to find one case per box in which the accused was over 50 years old.

Goodfellow examined 30 or so court cases total in French. "A surprising number of them involved non-violent and consensual relationships between girls aged 14 to 16 and men aged 55 to 75," Goodfellow says. "The reputation of the girl, whether she 'ran wild in the streets' or was 'well behaved,' often influenced the outcome of the case, but assumptions about the sexually corrupt nature of old men also played a significant role." In one case, a 60-year-old man was tried for "attentats à la pudeur" (indecent assault) against a girl under age 13. The police commissioner wrote in the accusation (as translated by Goodfellow), "He lives apart from his wife, and like all debauched old men, he wants nothing more than to pervert young girls."

"This is exactly the kind of thing the medical profession said a man of his age is liable to do," Goodfellow says. "Old men are presumed to be despicable sexual predators who prey on those least able to defend themselves—weak and innocent children."

Instead of seeing old men as "dirty" if they show any interest in sex (while at the same time excusing their inappropriate behavior), Goodfellow hopes society will recognize sexuality as a normal part of life at all ages. "The elderly are sexual and continue to be sexual beings, but to our culture that's not acceptable and we tend to ridicule, stigmatize, or pathologize it," she says. "Culturally, we want the sexes to age together. To fall in love, marry, have children, and then lose all interest in sex and die—effectively neutered but content. We need to think critically about our assumptions about late-life sexuality. Knowing where these ideas came from helps us evaluate their validity for today."

Sarah Goodfellow holds two master's degrees, one in the history of science from the University of Oklahoma and one in modern European history from Vanderbilt University. She is a doctoral student in the history department of the College of the Liberal Arts, 108 Weaver Bldg., University Park, PA 16802; 814-865-1367; sxg205@psu.edu. Her adviser is Londa Schiebinger, Ph.D., Edwin Erle Sparks professor of history; 863-7303; lls10@psu.edu . Goodfellow's research is funded in part by the National Science Foundation.

Last Updated May 01, 2002