Ben Franklin Ruined My Life as a Cougar
By Elaine Viets
Thanks a lot, Ben. I would have enjoyed meeting you, back in 1745. You didn’t have the leading man looks of Thomas Jefferson, but you were smart and funny, and that counts for a lot with me.
But did you have to put your "Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress" in writing? Because I’ve been getting the condensed version since I turned forty, and I’m tired of hearing it.
Ben wrote what should have been the ultimate cougar manifesto when he advised a younger man that an older mistress is a better choice. Older women don’t get pregnant, he said. A decent man is not ruining the life or the reputation of a young, marriageable woman. (That used to be important.) And if a man can overlook a few sags and wrinkles, "the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement."
Bartender, a fresh Cosmo for our Founding Father, who preached safe, rollicking sex without ageism.
All would have been well, if Ben’s words had been left alone. But some wag reduced Ben’s advice to a sign which hangs in hundreds of bars. It says, among other things, that older women "don’t swell, don’t tell, don’t yell and they’re so grateful."
Those are the words that haunt me in my cougar years. Because the kind of younger man who tries to pick me up hasn’t read the essays of Ben Franklin. He’s read the bar sign. And he’s dumb enough to think I’ll be flattered by those words.
During Spring Break, Florida beaches are infested with drunken, hungover college men who see themselves as cougar hunters. Alas, Clive Owen look-alikes are not running loose in Lauderdale. The cougar hunters are more like Opie in Mayberry RFD – young, pale, callow, with muscles in their abs, chests and heads. Visions of beer and double cheeseburgers (paid for by me) are dancing in their sweet, empty heads. They have fantasies of being the next Ashton Kutcher, the man who married the much older, richer Demi Moore.
The Ashton Kutcher Wannabe is as suave as a fraternity beer bust. Here is a sadly typical conversation:
"Can I walk with you, ma’am?"
"No." That refusal would have discouraged most men. But a cougar hunter will endure almost any discomfort for the prospect of free food and beer.
The AKW ignores my wish to walk alone. He says, "I like a woman with experience."
Silence. I brace myself, knowing what’s coming next.
"Ben Franklin had it right, you know, when he wrote that thing," the AKW says.
"You mean, ‘Fart Proudly’?" I ask, sweetly.
The AKW looks scandalized. Cougars aren’t supposed to know about that F-word. AKWs have no sense of humor.
"That’s the popular name for Franklin’s notorious essay, ‘A Letter to a Royal Academy,’ calling for a serious scientific investigation into flatulence," I say.
"No, that other thing he wrote." The AKW looks scared. Good.
"Oh, Ben Franklin’s seven reasons for having an affair with an older woman."
AKW looks a little brighter, which isn’t too difficult. I go in for the kill. "Which some idiot reduced to ‘Don’t tell, don’t yell, don’t swell and they’re so grateful.’ It now hangs in zillions of bars. "
"Uh, yeah. That one."
It is time to end this cruel game and quit toying with the AKW like a cougar with a fresh rabbit. I make sure I’m stationed in front of the lifeguard stand before I deliver the killing blow.
"I’m not interested," I say. "I’m not grateful. Your main advantage is that you are young, and I don’t find young men all that interesting. Find yourself a nice college woman who will appreciate you. Have a good time with someone your own age."
"But – " The AKW is not ready to give up his dream.
"Beat it, kid," I snarl, "or I’ll scream and that lifeguard over there will come running out and call the cops."
The young man lopes alone down the beach. I hope, on behalf of cougars everywhere, that he will hit on a wild bikini his own age.
"Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress" is a letter by Benjamin Franklin dated June 25, 1745, in which Franklin counsels a young man about channeling sexual urges. Due to its licentious nature the letter was not published in collections of Franklin's papers in the United States during the 19th century. Federal court decisions from the mid- to late- 20th century cited the document as a reason for overturning obscenity laws.
Franklin begins by advising a young man that a cure for sexual urges is unknown, and the proper solution is to take a wife. Then, expressing doubts that the intended reader will actually marry, Franklin names several advantages of marriage. As supplementary advice in case the recipient rejects all previous arguments, Franklin lists seven reasons why an older mistress is preferable to a young one. Advantages include better conversation, less risk of unwanted pregnancy, and greater prudence in conducting an intrigue.
According to John Richard Stevens, the unnamed correspondent is a friend of Franklin's named Cadwaller Colton, and it remains unknown whether Franklin was serious or if the letter was ever delivered. Whether serious or humorous, the letter is frankly sexual:
The Face first grows lank and wrinkled; then the Neck; then the Breast and Arms; the lower Parts continuing to the last as plump as ever: So that covering all above with a Basket, and regarding only what is below the Girdle, it is impossible of two Women to know an old from a young one. And as in the dark all Cats are grey, the Pleasure of corporal Enjoyment with an old Woman is at least equal, and frequently superior, every Knack being by Practice capable of Improvement.
The Mistress letter was not the only document by Franklin that later generations censored. The bawdy portion of Franklin's writing was accepted during his own era. Although the Mistress letter was not published during his lifetime, Franklin's public works include an essay called "Fart Proudly". A passage from his Autobiography describes an unsuccessful attempt to seduce a friend's mistress. As John Semonche observes in Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through American Media, the autobiography was widely read during the 19th century because of its moral lessons, but the passage about the failed seduction was variously altered or deleted entirely. The Mistress letter was omitted from 19th century publications of Franklin's works, and by some accounts it was singled out for suppression.
This censorship occurred both informally and under law. The first state to enact obscenity legislation was Vermont in 1821. During the following decades every state except New Mexico adopted similar laws. Then the Comstock Act of 1873 made it a federal crime to circulate "obscene, lewd, and/or lascivious" material through the mail.
Although Franklin had mistresses throughout his life (including one still-unknown mistress who bore his only son William Franklin), such circumstances were incompatible with patriotic sensibilities a century afterward. Amy Beth Werbel opines bluntly:
At a time when America was scant one hundred years old, Benjamin Franklin was an important part of its founding mythology. Some Americans felt it their patriotic duty to hide the fact that the conqueror of electricity and continental congressman was also a raunchy (and probably unfaithful) lout.
By the mid-20th century, United States federal judges were citing the letter in originalist reasoning to overturn obscenity laws. A Jerome Frank appellate opinion of 1957 named "Advice to a Young Man on Choosing a Mistress" along with "The Speech of Polly Baker" as two examples that would have convicted one of the nation's leading founding fathers on federal obscenity charges if they had been written and mailed under subsequent law.
The most notable of these citations occurred in the United States Supreme Court case, United States v. 12 200-ft. Reels of Film. In a dissenting opinion, Justice William O. Douglas states:
The First Amendment was the product of a robust, not a prudish, age... This was the age when Benjamin Franklin wrote his "Advice to a Young Man on Choosing a Mistress" and "A Letter to the Royal Academy at Brussels". When the United States became a nation, none of the fathers of the country were any more concerned than Franklin with the question of pornography... The Anthony Comstocks, the Thomas Bowdlers and Victorian hypocrisy—the predecessors of our present obscenity laws—had yet to come upon the stage.
The letter is also referenced during a conversation with Benjamin Franklin in the 2012 video gameAssassin's Creed III during a cutscene in a general store.
- ^ abBenjamin Franklin, "Advice to a Friend on Choosing a Mistress" (accessed 19 July 2008).
- ^John Richard Stevens, Weird History 101: My Dinner with Attila the Hun, I Started World War I, Adams Media, 1997 p. 219. ISBN 1-55850-715-9
- ^ abJohn Semonche, Censoring Sex: A Historical Journey Through American Media, Rowman & Littlefield, 2007, p. 14.
- ^ abcAmy Beth Werbel, Thomas Eakins: Art, Medicine, and Sexuality in Nineteenth-Century Philadelphia, Yale University Press, 2007, p. 161. ISBN 0-300-11655-1
- ^Semonche, pp. 14-15.
- ^Semonche, p. 15
- ^Daniel J. Kevles, "The Secret History of Birth Control", The New York Times, 22 July 2001 (accessed 19 July 2008).
- ^Stevens, pp. 219-225.
- ^Nat Hentoff, The Nat Hentoff Reader, Da Capo Press, 2001, p. 60.
- ^United States v. 12 200-ft. Reels of Film, 413 U.S. 123 (1973); accessed 19 July 2008.
- ^Assassin's Creed III - Benjamin Franklin's 8 Reasons for Dating Older Women"