Sex and the Septuagenarians
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When I grow up, I want to be old. Old as in proudly, imperiously fat like my grandmother, free from the need to do "something" or be "somebody," and definitively, unmistakably, not sexy.
Why fear aging when the golden years offer a well-earned rest from the struggles of career, marriage, parenting and -- most importantly -- being a woman? I battled self-loathing in my teens, figured out the orgasm thing in my twenties and spent my thirties mastering intimacy in my marriage. And if I get lucky, the coming year will bring with it the next great challenge of my sexual life: a baby. After decades spent scaling this particular mountain, who can blame me for relishing the prospect of being, finally, over the hill? Time to hang up the heels and bring out the chocolate.
So imagine my horror when I picked up a copy of Gail Sheehy's new book, Sex and the Seasoned Woman: Pursuing the Passionate Life, which seems intent on shaming women like me -- or, at least, the kind of woman I hope to be when I am a "golden girl." Dedicated to promoting the virtue -- nay, the absolute necessity -- of "post-menopausal sensuality," Sheehy recasts life after 50 as the Second Adulthood, a new life search for meaning, purpose and, inevitably, sex, because "sex and the passionate life go together."
Forget about giving your creaking bones a break, it's time to get right back to the grindstone. The task at hand: to reinvent yourself as a "seasoned woman," who is "assured, alluring, and resourceful" and "committed to living fully and passionately in the second half of her life, despite failures and false starts." If it sounds like work, well, it is -- both the physical and emotional kind.
Sheehy's ideal woman is a "Passionate," who is bold, sexy and sexually active. She kicks off "middlesex" -- a coy term for sex in your middle age -- by getting herself a brand-new lover. Nothing gets those juices flowing like romance, which makes you eat less ("You can lose weight, which is nice"), work out more, buy new clothes and stimulate your brain ("You will probably read more."). Sixty isn't the new forty, it's the new twenty-five.
Candidates for that first "pilot light" lover to reignite a dimming libido include married old flames, any willing young man in near vicinity -- and there are many, if Sheehy is to be believed -- or for one lucky gal, an online suitor with a penchant for tantric sex. I guess the latter explains why Sheehy urges online dating on her readers with the fervency of a Match.com marketing executive. Judging from the experiences of the women in the book, dating is no less perilous for a woman in her fifties, but all that rejection is a small price to pay for the joy of entering your "Romantic Renaissance." Yes, that "pilot light lover" will dump you, as may the others who follow him, but heartbreak just allows you to "transcend" the need for something more lasting.
Sheehy often veers wildly between insisting on sexual independence (while presuming the financial kind in focusing primarily on middle class women) and rhapsodizing over soulmates, but she is clear about what makes a seasoned woman superior to her younger peers: "She is less likely to have an agenda than a young woman: no biological clock tick-tocking beside her lover's bed, no campaign to lead him to the altar, no rescue fantasies." Gee, why don't I just shoot my thirty-something self already?
There are some married Passionates in the book, but they've usually traded in the old hubby for a new one in their middle age. Those of us unfortunate enough to hit old age in a long-committed relationship usually end up in Sheehy's less admirable categories: Women Married Dammit (WMDs), Status Quos and Low Libidos. WMDs are women stuck in really bad marriages who are too angry or "emotionally dead" to change their fate. Single and married Status Quos are resigned to sex-less lives, lacking the courage to sacrifice security for the emotional risks of a Romantic Renaissance. Low Libidos rank the lowest in her estimation because they're simply not interested in having a lot of sex: "they don't take hormones or use vaginal estrogen and rarely even use self-stimulation or try to introduce novelty into their marriages."
The book can be silly, earnest and often insightful in turns, but Sheehy's downright scary when it comes to menopause, which she frames as an affliction to be fought by all medical means necessary. It's where she crosses the line between affirming the sexual needs of older women and insisting that they must have sex -- lots of it -- irrespective of their physical or personal inclinations.
While Sheehy throws in some platitudes about platonic soul connections, she spends more time scolding married women who've lost interest in doing the deed. She approvingly offers up Dr. Allen, "the wise and witty New York gynecologist" who bullies a stay-at-home mother into "rehabilitating" her vagina so her husband can "get something out of" supporting his wife and kids. Here's the kind of incentive the good doctor offers her:
I know Robert. He's a good-looking guy, and he's in the city sixty hours a week with hot babes. Unless something is wrong with him, sooner or later he is going to get tired of your obligatory sex.
When it comes to women's sexuality at any age, the line between emancipation and oppression is wafer-thin. The sexual revolution may have liberated our appetites, but it has made it far more difficult for women to say no to sex -- whether it's because we feel too young, too old, too tired, too pregnant. Jane Juska, the 72-year old author who wrote about her sexual adventures in A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance, told Newsday, "I think women and their lives have changed, but with all this publicity [about Sheehy's book], I wonder if there are women sitting around and feeling guilty that they're not out there. I think they should be left alone."
More so in a culture that conflates being sexual with looking sexy (read youthful). Part of the rewards of aging ought to be freeing our bodies from the relentless pressure to keep up with societal expectations. While Sheehy stridently opposes plastic surgery and Botox, she is quick to deride women who are "slacking off on exercise, letting themselves spread, dispensing with the effort of coloring their hair or giving themselves home facials, and settling into a wardrobe of boxy blouses and elasticized waistbands." And she admits choosing "seasoned" rather than "old" or "mature" to avoid upsetting her target audience. In an interview with Macleans, she said, "Those words are freighted with the phobia against aging, and I think boomers are particularly susceptible to that. â€¦ Most boomers in their 50s, if you ask them 'What age are you in your head?' they'll say 30. They never want to go past 30."
Some may call that typical boomer narcissism, but why would anyone want to age in a society that has no time for anyone over forty? Sheehy's real problem is that her book simply repackages the youth-obsessed cruelty of our culture as a grand life opportunity. Worried that your kids, neighbors, boss, or society at large have no use for an old fogey like you? Don't worry, you can always pretend to be young again. The illusion is not coincidentally of as great comfort for the younger folks around you:
If your children are scandalized [by your dating], let them know what a great boon this is to them. When you have a good companion, you're much nicer to be around. Your new self-sufficiency relieves much of the pressure on your adult children, who normally have to ask, "Is Mom all right?" "Do I have to spend the holidays with her again?" From a Darwinian perspective, your adult children should expend their energy on their own children â€¦ not on you. Suddenly, at Christmas time, you won't be in their hair. You'll be off to Costa Rica with your sweetheart."
It marks a revealing and poignant moment in Sheehy's book. Underneath all this talk about staying sexy is the stark reality of the loneliness of old age in America. At a time when women live longer than ever, they often find themselves single in their old age because of death or divorce. The Census Bureau reports that 28.6 percent of boomers between the ages of 45 to 59 were unattached in 2003, compared with only 18.8 percent in 1980. Of course, they should be encouraged in their efforts to find intimacy, companionship and, yes, even romance.
Many are doing just that according to an AARP survey, which found that up to 70 percent of single boomer adults are dating. But surely after a lifetime of toil, these people are entitled to sex that requires less work -- must they really endure long hours at the gym, extensive hormone treatments and the petty humiliations of online dating just to get laid?
Nor should going back on the sexual marketplace be the only antidote for isolation. If my conception of aging is romantic, it's because I was raised in a culture that respects and values its old. My grandmother remained a vital member of the extended family and her community until she passed away at the ripe old age of 92. As difficult as her twilight years may have been, she was never, ever alone or unloved. That is surely the least we can do for the people who made our lives possible.
Lakshmi Chaudhry is a senior editor at In These Times and a former senior editor of AlterNet.