The Old Folks at Home

The Old Folks at Home

Sex, Viagra, and taxes

Just about the time George W. Bush began to campaign for the privatization of Social Security, Medicare officials announced that the new drug benefit would pay for pills like Viagra and Levitra. Representative Steve King, Republican of Iowa, the New York Times reported, immediately declared that he would introduce a bill prohibiting Medicare from paying for such “lifestyle drugs.”

“We are promoting abstinence for young people with raging hormones, and yet we are going to ask them to pay taxes for sex-enhancing drugs for seniors? We have only a finite amount of money. When Medicare covers Viagra pills, you are, in effect, taking money away from someone else’s life-saving drugs. There are only two reasons for sex. One is procreation, and the other is recreation. If we are going to subsidize someone’s recreational sex, I don’t think that’s what the founding fathers had in mind.”

This looks like another instance of callous conservatism: why deny the joys of sex to the elderly? Another explanation may be that King, a Catholic, is merely expressing his church’s orthodoxy—which echoes the American uneasiness about sex. But further reflection suggests that his views and those of the president are closely related, and that both represent a newly emerging perception of the elderly.

The assumption that procreation and “recreational sex” are the “only two reasons for sex” is one of those binary oppositions that pervade language. This one is a variation of our culture’s traditional opposition of work and play. “Work” is a serious, socially responsible, and fatiguing activity that is rarely a source of pleasure. Above all, though, work is productive. “Play” or recreation is its opposite: its nonproductive pleasures are denied by the daily grind. Since all work and no play makes Jack a dull—and therefore less efficient—boy, play can enhance production. But when the requirements of work conflict with its seductive temptations, the latter must be sacrificed to the former: play must always give way to the claims of work.

I doubt that King would deny everyone the pleasures of sex; after all, just as work can sometimes be pleasurable, so pleasure can be a collateral benefit of procreative sex. The situation, rather, is like the one where the family budget will not permit the purchase of the new fishing rod we have been lusting for: Medicare beneficiaries have to forgo the joys of sex if it means additional taxes. And King feels strongly about taxes. He had already introduced a resolution to repeal the l6th Amendment; it would abolish the income tax and the Internal Revenue Service and so “finally rid Americans of that fat leech they feed their paychecks to.” Still, King is probably not comfortable with elderly people engaging in recreational sex even if it would not entail more taxes.

The term “lifestyle” by itself still evokes some vague associations wi...