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Our Bodies, Our Salves

By Carolyn See,
who can be reached at carolynsee.com
Friday, January 20, 2006

SEX AND THE SEASONED WOMAN

Pursuing the Passionate Life

By Gail Sheehy

Random House. 354 pp. $25.95

I hope it's not unfair or unkind to say that Gail Sheehy has a split literary personality. Her celebrity profiles are often dazzling -- insightful, nonjudgmental, amazingly informative. As a reporter, a journalist, Sheehy is fascinating, a genius at her craft.

But mention the word "menopause" to her and she's like Spencer Tracy in that movie about Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. She trances out in a parallel universe of peri-menopause, menopause, post-menopause and dozens of other variations on either the word or the phenomenon. Menopause means the very world to her. It would seem that she's already written the subject to death, and the title of this book, "Sex and the Seasoned Woman," a homage to Helen Gurley Brown's "Sex and the Single Girl," would suggest that Sheehy may have gotten past her preoccupation with the M word. But on Page 24, having already been menopaused left, right and center, I started counting variations of that word, which occurred 54 times after that. Fifty-four times! And I may have missed a few. So I think it's fair to say that if menopause doesn't "loom large in your legend," you can safely skip this book.

Sheehy's thesis is that all women should be living passionate lives no matter what their age. She helpfully divides existence into labeled decades: The "Tryout Twenties," "Turbulent Thirties," "Forlorn Forties," which she further defines as the "First Adulthood." But now comes the "Second Adulthood," which, she says, with persistent, virtuous effort, can allow the "Pursuit of the Passionate Life," which in turn precipitates a "Meaning Crisis," but not to worry. Soon we proceed into the "Feisty Fifties," the "Selective Sixties," the "Spontaneous Seventies" and thence to the "Enduring Eighties, Noble Nineties, and the Ascent to Centenarian."

The dividing point between the First and Second Adulthood is, of course, menopause -- which at least she doesn't capitalize or modify with an alliterative adjective as in "Menacing Menopause." But Sheehy is very earnest and stern about her message: Whatever we've been doing during our First Adulthood -- raising kids, keeping house, working in a high-powered corporate job, gaining weight, not paying enough attention to our appearance, allowing our sex lives to become humdrum and ho-hum, we can rectify all that during our Second Adulthood. We can cruise off the shores of Croatia, start a new business, find new and better lovers, attend sex-toy parties, hike, ski, do yoga and aerobics. (But no shortcuts! The author disapproves of Botox and facelifts.) It's up-and-at-'em all the way.

Sheehy suggests she's debunking a myth: that in the old days (and she's speaking of the '70s, when she wrote "Passages"), women over 40 were routinely dismissed as invisible old crones, dried up, spinsterish, of absolutely no importance in life except to fill in as babysitters for the grandkids every once in a while. Now, she insists, everything has changed -- 60 is the new 40, and so on.

Except, what if that's a myth as well? The editors of AARP magazine, which can't have the word "maturity" in it anymore, enthusiastically endorse this concept. Anti-aging-cosmetics magnates espouse this position. The dieting industry is certainly behind it 100 percent, and so are the Viagra manufacturers. Conversely, women who get a little bored with sex are referred to as dysfunctional, and as you read this, "experts" are trying to find a "cure" for their condition.

But is all this stuff "true"? Have women changed that drastically over the rather short period of 40 years? I'm not an expert. But I had a couple of aunts -- over 50, over 60! -- one on each side of the family, who back in the '20s and '30s took it upon themselves as a sacred vocation to have sex with the entire male population of Dallas and the Southern California high desert, respectively. And when Gail Sheehy talks about being hit on by two guys in a singles bar in one night, I can assure her from personal experience that you'd have to be dead for a week in a singles bar before clueless guys stop hitting on you.

So what is this book really about? Sheehy put a questionnaire on her Web site, asking women of middle age and beyond what they thought about sex, love, dreams, adventure, work. She lectured at many women's groups, where women told her their stories, many of which are very touching. She visited an erotic getaway where for $6,800 couples could spend a weekend together. She took erotic dancing classes. She took a striptease class. She recommends that if seasoned women can't find men, they should use a vibrator and localized hormone creams. She says "use it or lose it" only twice.

But here's the deal. Some people like to be lectured and some people don't. It's like the difference between reading "Moby-Dick" and being assigned to read "Moby-Dick." I don't want to be assigned to use a vibrator for my own self-improvement! I don't even want to be assigned to sail in Croatian waters unless I damn well feel like it.

Unfortunately, I know many women who don't perceive life that way. They love to be told what to do, and if they're told that strenuous exercise is mandatory six days a week in their Spontaneous Seventies to ward off the forces of decay, they'll do it. They'll even spend 10 years feeling Forlorn in Their Forties if they think that's the "in" thing to do. This book is cannily aimed at Aging Female Baby Boomers, and if you capitalize it enough, They will surely Come.

Sunday in Book World

· Paul Bremer remembers Iraq.

· Richard Clarke meets Osama bin Laden.

· Ward Just extols Nadine Gordimer.

· The Vanderbilt women liberate themselves.

· Conan the Barbarian flexes his muscles.

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