How to Frighten the Young

By Jenni Gainsborough

Do you sometimes wake up in the morning feeling optimistic, hopeful about the world, trusting that people are generally getting more tolerant and civilized? If so, there is a simple cure. Go read the comments section of almost any online article about almost any topic you can think of. The level of hatred, anger, ignorance and, often, misogyny, is awe inspiring. Where do people find the energy, never mind the time, to rant so viciously to so little purpose? Don’t they have work to do, kids to take care of, writing assignments to finish? And why do they do it? No one can seriously believe that they will ever change anyone’s point of view spewing the vitriol that passes for commentary. And it is hard to believe that the writer can feel better after it — surely the raised blood pressure, thumping heart and blood-infused cheeks are going to take some time to return to normal.

I used to think that it was my choice of on-line reading that led me to this view of the state of the cyber world. Perhaps there were places where reasonable discussions took place, with everyone respecting the views expressed by the article’s writer and the other commentators. But no. Even the most mainstream sites, where rules are applied and comments are monitored, display similar, if less vividly expressed, ad hominem attacks and irrelevant, illogical outbursts. And it is not just the obvious issues like abortion, guns and Obamacare that draw the trolls. For example, any women who dares to post on a tech site is at risk for slurs about her personal appearance, sexual proclivities and all manner of other issues unconnected to her technical pursuits. Any suggestion that people who have been imprisoned should be treated like human beings can produce similar outpourings — threats not against the law breakers but against those foolish enough to believe that human rights apply to all.

One of my go-to websites (by which I mean I go to it every hour or so, especially when I am procrastinating about my writing assignment) is which, in its own words, “covers breaking news, politics, culture, technology and entertainment through investigative reporting, fearless commentary and criticism, and provocative personal essays.” Its political slant is generally to the left so predictably it is followed by many right-wingers who can barely bring themselves to read the political articles without slamming the writer and every other leftist on the planet. But it is the “provocative personal essays” which seem to provoke the most anger and abusive language.

Most of the personal essays are written by women who, as a gender, generally attract the most abuse anyway, and many of them are also to do with matters of the body and sex, also favorite targets of the trolls. So when I saw an essay posted last week entitled “My Sexual Awakening at 70” — written by a woman — I was just waiting for the torrents of abuse to flow. When I first read the piece there was only one comment, a warm and friendly one, and it was written by a man. But then the article had only just been posted (I am not ashamed to say that it immediately caught my eye, so I was no doubt one of its first readers). I checked back a couple of times over the next few days but still only friendly comments. How could this be? Here was an older woman unabashedly talking about her delight in sex, albeit discovered at a late age, and no one was hating her for it? No one was pointing out that she was old and disgusting, that no real man would ever have anything to do with a woman her age, that all women over the age of 40 should wear paper bags over their heads or, better yet, burkas to save men from the horror of looking at them. Now, four days later, there are still only eight comments, all of them supportive.

This puzzled me at first. Surely this article was perfect troll bait. Then it hit me. The headline to the article made it absolutely clear what it was about — an old woman enjoying sex — and there was even a picture of a pair of old, age-spotted and wrinkled hands. (Where have I seen hands like that before? Oh yes, here on my keyboard.) Of course! No one was reading the article. No one was unintentionally lured in, thinking this was going to be about some cute young thing complaining that men always wanted to have sex with her. This was in your face with the most scary and off-putting story of all time. Old woman wanting sex. Who could read that? Who could even write a comment without reading the story (which people clearly do all the time) because a comment would at least imply that you had read the story, and that would mean you had an interest in the most taboo subject of all. Old people having sex.

I understand, and indeed once shared, the repugnance — horror even — of young people being forced to accept that their parents must have had sex in order to reproduce. But why does this horror also envelop non-parents? Wouldn’t you think that young people would be happy that the old folks were still getting it on — or at least wanting to (no one is denying the many barriers in our way)? Wouldn’t it give them hope for the future? That they too could lead full lives in their twilight years? But of course to think that would be to forget the first principle of youth: “I will never get old.” I don’t think this principle is necessarily voiced in quite such an absolute way. It is more of an implicit assumption. Old people are so “other”; so unlike the young that it is impossible to associate one’s own firm, unwrinkled, unblemished skin with that of a 70 year old. So how could a youngster possibly imagine that such skin might enjoy, long for, the same kind of touches from another that their young flesh does? No wonder the article attracted so few readers.

But what does this mean for those of us who want to write about women as they age? We know from personal experience that these women are interesting, have lived long — and sometimes colorful — lives and have stories to tell. We are these women. And no honest human story can deny the significance of sex in the way we live our lives, the way we relate to other people. But if we write these stories will they ever be seen by anyone outside our writing groups? How will they be published if the first step must be to convince a smart young editor that people will want to read this shocking tale? How can a woman at the height of her own sexual power be persuaded that there is a market for tales about those of us on the downslope of the curve?

So perhaps we are better off self-publishing. But then we are faced with a marketing dilemma. If we put a young and beautiful woman on the cover, we might reasonably be accused of false advertising. And more importantly will probably not reach the audience who will find what we have written interesting. Even Kindle books apparently require an illustration to draw in the reader. If we are brave and put those old wrinkled and age-spotted hands on the cover, will Amazon even agree to carry the book? I can’t imagine our local bookstore, with so many titles competing for space, will want it.

Oh dear. It all sounds like too much work. I’ll think I’ll go back to digging around on the internet and see who those trolls are after now. Who wants to be a writer anyway?

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