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Sex In The Public Square

Never an adult moment?

wheelchair-sex-positions-1 2When Will and I are on road trips, we will every now and then see interesting juxtapositions on billboards and road signs. One that I notice every year on our annual trip to Georgia is a billboard for “Adult Entertainment” right before one for an “Adult Community”. I’ve seen this in more than one place and I always notice it because of the strange way that “adult” has become a euphemism for two things we tend to assume don’t go together: eroticism and aging. This juxtaposition jumped to mind again when friends on Facebook started circulating a story last week about a Long Island nursing home that had hired a male stripper to dance for its residents.

The party happened back in January 2012, but story made the New York Post and other news and politics sites last week because the son of one of the residents brought a lawsuit against the nursing home in his mother’s name. The Post reported that Franklin Youngblood found out about the event because he discovered a photograph of his mother, Bernice Youngblood, tucking dollar bills into the underwear of one of the dancers. The suit claims that the nursing home hired the strippers for the entertainment of its staff, and asserts that Bernice has “partial dementia” and “lacks the physical and mental capacity to protect herself,” thus making her status more parallel to that of a child than to that of an adult. The nursing home claims that the strip show was organized by a group of residents, who pooled their money to pay for it, and that nobody was forced to attend.

I don’t know Bernice Youngblood and I don’t know her son. I don’t know if the elder Youngblood has been declared incompetent, or if she is simply treated that way some of the time. But whatever the facts of this story, it touches on something I care very much about: the sexual autonomy of the elderly, and of aging parents particularly. Why aging parents in particular? Because their children are very likely to be involved at some level in their care, and because those same children are likely to be uncomfortable in discussions about their parents erotic interests.

In a second article in the New York Post, there are side-by-side photos of Bernice Youngblood. In the first, she is photographed tucking currency into the waistband of a performer’s shorts at the 2012 party. In the second, taken last Tuesday, she is photographed holding her hand to her forehead and shielding the side of her face in a classic gesture of shame or embarrassment. This second photo was taken in a staged moment, the Post reporting that Bernice’s son Franklin had “rolled his elderly mom before news cameras to insist that she was degraded by the home.” Bernice herself is quoted, saying that she “suffered shame” as a result of the strip show.

Was she ashamed before her son saw the picture, or only after he made a fuss about it? We can’t tell. The Post reported that Franklin’s wife was at the 2012 strip show herself, but we don’t now more about that either, at least not from the Post article. What we do know is that this son of an aging mother was profoundly unhappy about erotic entertainment provided in the nursing home where she lived.

During my mother’s brief stints in skilled nursing facilities for rehab in between hospitalizations I saw first hand how depressing even the nicest of such facilities can be. When you have to ring a bell and wait for someone to come to help you get to the bathroom, for example, it can be hard even in the best of nursing homes to maintain a sense of independence and dignity. Residents in nursing homes should not have to give up every shred of adult autonomy just because they need significant help with daily tasks.

As an adult daughter responsible for managing much of my mother’s care, it was hard at times not to treat her like a child. I am sure there were many times I failed. I remember several arguments, for example, about whether she could keep her debit card in her room, for example. I said no, it wasn’t safe. She said it was hers and she could do what she wanted. She would have needed help to complete an online transaction, so in a way it was a moot point, but for someone in the throes of losing so much control, she wanted very badly to maintain control over anything she could. Her debit card represented a bit of control, even if she would not have been able to manage to use it on her own.

Nursing home residents often share rooms and have very little privacy. Sexual expression is not an easy thing to manage in such an environment. As long as nobody was forced to sit in the rec room against their will, I think it’s worth applauding the courage of these residents for finding a way to have a little celebration of sexuality collectively and safely, since privacy is so rare.

The issue of consent is, of course, a complicated and important one in facilities where judging mental competence is a complex matter. There were times when I thought my mother’s mind was clear and lucid, and other times when it was not. The bright legal line between competent and incompetent is, in lived experience, really a fuzzy and often shifting boundary. I don’t think that means we should deny the elderly, even in nursing homes, opportunities for erotic expression or entertainment.

If you think this story raises interesting questions, I invite you to join Paul DelPonte and me in August at Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit. We’ll be leading a workshop called “My Father Yes, My Mother Never! Sex and the Aging Parent.” Paul is Commissioner on Aging for Montgomery County, MD, and has worked with the AARP, the Grey Panthers, the National Council on Aging, and the National Alliance for Caregivers. I’ll be speaking from my personal experience with my mother, which I am telling here and in a memoir called My Mother’s Cross, and as a sociologist focused on sexuality. Register for the conference now!

While at the Summit, I’ll also be speaking with Susan Miranda, a super smart writer-educator-advocate-caregiver, about the meaningfulness of sex work, and about the radical lessons that sex work can teach us when it comes to understanding human rights. This story about sex workers and the aging or disabled is an important part of that discussion! Join us!

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Wheelchair sex positions image from SexualityAndDisability.org and Streetsie.com, found using a Google Image search for images labeled for reuse.