Aging and sex. Those two things don't seem to go together. Jamaica Plain resident gender and sexuality sociologist Dr. Elizabeth Anne Wood feels otherwise.
Wood's new book "Bound: A Daughter, a Domme, and an End-of-Life Story" looks at BDSM and sexuality, and how it gives "chronically ill people agency and control over their bodies at a time when it can feel like doctors and family are taking those things away."
Wood answered questions about her new book, her unique relationship with her mother and more.
Q: Why did you decide to write "Bound," and when did the writing process start?
Wood: My mom was a writer. She’d been a journalist by training, but most of her work was administrative. Still, she loved to write. When she was sick we talked about writing a book or an article together about our unconventional relationship and about her sexuality and illness. Ultimately, though, her illness made it impossible to write, but also, we both realized we couldn’t have told the story together because of concerns about hurting one another’s feelings. Specifically, I’d have been too afraid of hurting her feelings to be emotionally honest. I took a lot of notes while she was sick and was very open about the fact that I was going to write this story. She even gave feedback and input on the title!
Q: You’ve said that healthcare providers are reluctant to discuss death or sexuality. Why do you think that is, and do you have any advice for today’s caregivers?
Wood: I think it’s fascinating that sex and death remain hard to talk about despite how pervasive the representations of them are in our media. "Game of Thrones" comes to mind immediately! But very few of our media representations of sex and death depict the most common experiences of these facets of our lives. Nor do we see enough thoughtful conversations about them. So that’s one thing: at least in the dominant culture we don’t have a lot of modeling of these things. Specifically related to medicine: doctors don’t typically get much training in talking about sex with their patients, or even in sexuality in general. And death is hard for many doctors to talk about because so many are trained to see death as a failure of treatment. The focus is on healing, not on creating the best death possible for a person.
Q: How can the aging, or their relatives, better advocate for their sexual health?
Wood: Doctors are unlikely to ask you -- especially if you’re a woman over 40 -- about your sex life and how it’s being affected by your condition, so you have to be willing to bring up the question. A year ago I attended a workshop with Joan Price at Woodhull’s Sexual Freedom Summit and she had us all memorize a statement to say to our doctors. It went something like this: “My sexuality is important to me and I want to enjoy it as long as I can. I need you to be able to talk to me about my sexuality and how my health or my treatments might affect it. Are you able to do that?” And of course if the answer turns out to be no, then you have to be willing to ask for another doctor who can.
Q: You’ve said that the purpose of your book is to open spaces for conversation between parents and their adult children, between caregivers and those who need them, and between health care providers and patients and that the quality of our lives depends on them. Can you elaborate on that?
Wood: This is SO important to me. Some of the most important elements of our lives -- aging, illness, sexuality, caregiving, and death -- are among the hardest to talk about. About 34 million people -- that’s one-tenth of the population -- are caregivers in any given year. Quality of life, especially at the end of life, rests on several things, but one foundation is good communication. People, as they are aging, need to talk to the people who love them about what kind of care they want as the get old, or if they get sick. And those are not one-time conversations. People’s ideas about care needs, or end-of-life wishes, develop and change over time. Patients and health care providers need to be able to talk about a person’s needs for intimacy and pleasure, and need to be able to discuss how the care they receive will affect it. They also need to be able to talk about how to adapt to those effects, or how to accommodate the person’s sexual relationships or desires as best they can. These conversations are hard, and my hope is that books like mine will help people have some of those difficult conversations. It’s often easier to open a conversation if you have something to point to or share that isn’t immediately personal.
Q: You describe your relationship with your mother as unconventional. How so?
Wood: My mother and I had a codependent relationship from the time I was very young. What this meant in our case is that she shared with me many kinds of things that a parent wouldn't typically share with a child. She talked to me about her financial worries, her sadness and frustrations, and treated me more like a friend than a daughter. I felt like it was my responsibility to help take care of her. Despite the obvious downsides, from my perspective as a kid there were definitely some advantages: my mom was never much of a disciplinarian and let my sister and I do mostly what we wanted. She was always super supportive of us as people and I don't think she ever really saw us as children, but treated us as full human beings with power and agency. As an adult, after therapy helped me sort out a lot of issues, our relationship was one where we could share a lot of intimacies that other mothers and daughters might not share. This is the reason she was able to talk so freely to me about her sexuality (and I was able to talk freely with her about mine.)
Q: At what point did you know your mother was into BDSM?
Wood: It was in her late 50s, shortly after she started to explore a network called Alt.com. She called me up because she was having trouble with her profile. It's a story I tell in the book, so I don't want to give it away here. Actually, several years earlier she'd had an experience -- also a story I tell in the book -- that gave me a sense that she might be curious about BDSM, but it wasn't until that phone call in her very late 50s that I new she was actually meeting men and having BDSM relationships.
Q: What was yours and your mother's relationship with your father?
Wood: My father died just before I turned 10, so this is a hard question to answer. My mother told me that she fell in love with my father in college, and that he was very conventional -- as was she -- and that she loved the idea of being a middle class stay-at-home mom even though she also loved her budding career as a journalist. I have always believed that this conflict between her career aspirations and her family aspirations was one of the emotional trouble that fueled her drinking. Her drinking was one factor that led to their divorce, and I remember them being relatively cold, but not unpleasant to each other in the few short years between the time he moved out and his death. My relationship with my father, as I recall it, was perfect. I adored him. Physically, I remember him as tall, good-looking, and athletic. He always made me feel safe. And he was playful and adventurous. He took us camping, hiking, skiing, and loved to be outdoors. I think the fact that he died when I was so young allowed me to idolize him in a sense. I have no idea what it would have been like to be a teenager or a young adult with him. I don't know if he'd have approved or disapproved of my choices. In my mind, he was always perfectly supportive.
My mother told me that she had never enjoyed sex. This started with my father and ran through a short series of troubled relationships (one of which was abusive). For about 20 years prior to her sexual awakening she'd been both single and celibate. I think that when she found BDSM one of the appeals to her was that she could have sex with men in a way that let her maintain control. That was really important to her, and I believe it's one reason she could finally find pleasure in sex.
Q: Sex positivity is a topic that has become to the forefront in recent years. Why do you think that has occurred?
Wood: I think the short answer is feminism and the fight for LGBTQ rights. The long answer is more complex because both of these movements have branches that are more sex positive and branches that are less sex positive, but there's no denying that the activism, theorizing, writing, and media-making spurred on by these movements has done enormous good in terms of weaving sex-positive messages and ideas into the culture.