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The other day I casually remarked to my ex-wife that our son’s new teacher is ‘really hot’. She gave me a look of disgust, shook her head and said, ‘You dirty old man!’
It’s not the first time I’ve been called that, and usually I just keep smiling and stay silent. But this time I bridled. Recently, in two separate courtrooms, both Dave Lee Travis and Bill Roache had been denounced as ’dirty old men’. OK, I confess: maybe I did emit a ‘phwhoar!’ or two too many for my ex’s taste — but did I deserve to be branded a dirty old man?
I hope not. When I was a teenager I always swore that I would never grow up to be a dirty old man — like my dad. Whenever I found him with his arm around some woman I used to say to him, mimicking the voice of Harold Steptoe, ‘You dirty old man!’
My dad was still at it in his seventies. I remember the horror of seeing him on the floor of the Groucho Club after he made a puckered-lipped lunge at a woman — and missed and fell off his bar stool. At 80 he would wobble along on his walking frame and go up to women at bus stops and say: ‘Hello beautiful, want to have lunch with me?’ No, I would never be like that!
But the problem for us ageing baby-boomer blokes is this: what makes a mature man a dirty old man? That used to be an easy question to answer: a dirty old man was defined by his sexual interest in girls. To the tabloid press of the 1970s, he was a drooling letch in a dirty brown mac, lingering outside the school gates; to feminists he was that bottom-pinching, girl-chasing cretin who Benny Hill played on TV.
But now dirty old man no longer refers to an older man’s singular sexual interest in much younger women — it’s become shorthand for any mature man who is still interested in sex: men who think and talk about sex or just have sex — and not with young women either.
The Collins online dictionary defines the informal usage of dirty old man as ‘an expression some people use to describe an old man who they think shows an unnatural interest in sex’. Merriam-Webster defines it as ‘an old man who is too interested in sex’. But who defines ‘unnatural’? And what’s ‘too interested’?
Given the current concern — some would say overreaction — about sexual harassment, it’s not easy being over 50 and having the demanding libido and the dirty mind of a pimply 18-year-old boy. If I talk about sex in a candid way, my women friends groan and give me that look that says: ‘Shut up, Mr Perv!’
Consequently, when I’m in the company of young women I’ve become a cautious paranoid. I would never pay a twentysomething girl a compliment on her appearance, even something as innocuous as, ‘That’s a lovely outfit.’ (The last time I told a 20-year-old she looked terrific she replied: ‘That’s so gross!’) In the presence of young women I keep my gaze averted; I do not kiss or hug them as a form of social greeting: I just nod and grunt — and all because I don’t want to be seen as a dirty old man.
There’s an obvious gender-based double standard at work here. An older man who chases young women is denounced as a dirty old man, but an older woman who chases young men for sex or love — think of Demi Moore — are called cougars. Such women are said to be ‘empowered’; we men who do it are merely pathetic. At least we men who aren’t rich and famous — they are ‘lads’, ‘lotharios’, ‘wild men’ and ‘bad boys’ who are admired by women and men. Funny how saggy flesh doesn’t look so saggy when it’s worth millions.
Nobody said that Michael Douglas was a dirty old man when he married Catherine Zeta-Jones — a woman 25 years younger than himself. Was Sean Penn called a dirty old man when he dated Scarlett Johansson, who was 29 years younger? Was Picasso a dirty old man because he was 40 years older than his lover Françoise Gilot?
What really lies behind the current usage of dirty old man is a form of pure ageism: mature male sexuality is something that makes people — both young men and young women — squeamish. Ordinary men after a certain age are expected to be sweet, sexless eunuchs; not lusty lads with liver spots and wobbly necks, receding hairlines and — the horror! The horror! — erections. And yes, I concede that older women face this on a far worse level (unless they too are rich and famous).
My point is that it’s time to get rid of the term dirty old man. We who are in our fifties, sixties, seventies and beyond are not going into that good night silently and without a struggle. And is it any better to have your bottom pinched or your breasts squeezed by a dirty young man than a dirty old man? I hope not.