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5 - Menopause and the ‘menoboom’: how older women are desexualised by culture

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  18 April 2023

Paul Simpson
Affiliation:
Edge Hill University, Ormskirk
Paul Reynolds
Affiliation:
The Open University, Milton Keynes
Trish Hafford-Letchfield
Affiliation:
University of Strathclyde
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Summary

Introduction

It is sometimes said that women of a certain age constitute a ‘third sex’, and in truth, while they are not males, they are no longer females.

(De Beauvoir, 1949 [1997], p 63)

Although written 70 years ago, Simone de Beauvoir's description of women of a certain age as a ‘third sex’ illuminates the uneasy relationship that still exists between gender and age, visible in the continuing cultural ambivalence towards female ageing, and in particular towards the older (post-menopausal) female body as a site for the continued performance of femininity and sexuality (used here to refer explicitly to sexual interest/desire). The cultural as well as the subjective gaze continues to characterise the process of female ageing as one of loss; a journey of inevitable decline. The focus of this trajectory of decline is the menopause: the biological process that ends menstruation and thereby a woman's reproductive life, but by which the female body is both desexualised and degendered by prevailing culture. In exploring the deeply problematic relationship between menopause, sex and sexuality, I draw on selected data from a wider research study (see Anderson, 2019), gathered between 2012 and 2015: a menopause narrative published in the ‘lifestyle’ section of the Daily Mail newspaper (representative of a number of such publicprivate discourses at the time); and two texts from the growing subgenre of semi-autobiographical midlife narratives. I compare these public voices with the private voices of individual accounts of a number of midlife women, using data from a series of qualitative interviews.

The self-described age theorist Margaret Gullette contends that the menopause is culturally constructed by a profusion of menopause discourses which she terms ‘the menoboom’ (1997, p 98). My analysis unpacks the role of the ‘menoboom’ in shaping the experiences of individual women; by artificially conflating menopause with decline, a normal biological process becomes a narrative of loss: of physical strength; of emotional stability; and of sexual attractiveness.

Sadie Wearing (2007, p 284) describes the ‘often unexamined links’ between gender, ageing and sex, and indeed, the complex reciprocal relationship between ageing and gender has historically been somewhat neglected as an area of academic enquiry. This study has, therefore, an important contribution to make to what is still an under-explored and under-examined area within the field of gender studies, but, as importantly, in the wider world.

Type
Chapter
Information
Desexualisation in Later Life
The Limits of Sex and Intimacy
, pp. 77 - 94
Publisher: Bristol University Press
Print publication year: 2021

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