Published on Monday, April 10, 2006 by CommonDreams.org
Sex and the Older Woman
by Joyce Marcel
Sorry to interrupt the political debate with what might appear like a frivolous topic, but the question of older women and sex has recently been raised in the literary journals, and I have something to say about it.
The argument about the sexuality of older women - "older" is defined as menopausal or post- - began a few months ago when author and New York Times Sunday Magazine pundit Daphne Merkin trashed Gail Sheehy's new book, "Sex and the Seasoned Woman." Sheehy calls menopause "a second adulthood" and celebrates women over 50 for "enjoying a resurgence of desire for romance and sex, and actively pursuing new dreams and passions to enliven the many decades they have ahead."
In an article entitled "What's So Hot about 50," Merkin responded with, "It should come as no surprise that Sheehy's book bears little resemblance to any actuality I have stumbled up against."
According to Merkin, women over 50 may want to have sex, but older men - at least where she lives - seek younger women who have "fresher eggs," leaving no one for the desirous older woman to date. "Men move away from older women, I would argue, almost instinctively, because they sense the impending shadow of nongenerativity like a negative pheromone," Merkin said.
Jumping into the fray to defend Sheehy's book was 84-year-old Helen Gurley Brown, who wrote "Sex and the Single Girl" and reinvented Cosmopolitan magazine. She called the book "realistic and inspiring." And Erica Jong, who wrote "Fear of Flying" in the 1970s, said that only in America could this be an issue. "There are Italian sexpot actresses who are much older," Jong said. "But somehow in our strangely puritanical yet sex-obsessed country, people are shocked. That's uniquely American."
She has a point. If we take radical far-right Christian dictums about sex seriously (and by that I mean, without gagging), then Merkin is absolutely right. Sex is only about procreation. Every sperm is sacred. Birth control pills are despised by God. Thanks to Viagra, men can produce babies right up to the day they die. And older woman? They have neither eggs nor standing in society. Off with their heads!
However, in the real world, Merkin is wrong, wrong, wrong! What's with these Times babes, anyway? The lovely and witty Maureen Dowd wrote a whole book about how she can't find a man, and now we have Merkin chiming in. Is there something about having the best writing gigs in America that makes women less attractive to men?
If you look closely, you can see that huge unexpressed, unrealistic and antiquated expectations are playing a part in this discussion.
If you're at the top of whatever totem pole you have chosen to climb (an unfortunate but apt image) - and by the way, congratulations to you! - then you probably do have a limited pool of available partners up there with you. (In "Sex and the City," Candace Bergen, playing a Vogue editor, memorably described it as "a wading pool.")
But marrying "up" is an outdated and sexist concept.
For one thing, our culture is now full of successful May-December relationships where the December part is played by an older woman. Think of Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins. In "Prime," an older woman (OK, she's Uma Thurman, but still) falls in love with a 23-year-old. She teaches him where the clitoris is, and he wows her with his spontaneity and openness.
In fact, according to an AARP poll I read about on MSNBC, almost one-third of women between the ages of 40 and 69 are dating younger men - defined as 10 or more years younger.
And while sex plays a part in these relationships, it's not the only trigger. Older women like the sense of adventure that comes with a younger man. They like the fact that these men are accustomed to women in positions of influence, since their own mothers worked. It is helpful that the men's careers are not as well-developed as their older female partners, so they are able to move around more easily, travel and have fun.
The younger men enjoy having a companion with interesting life experiences, one who is financially settled, and one who is, because of advances in medicine and health clubs, still attractive and in shape. Older women are also more sexually adept.
Ben Franklin was way ahead of his time (or we are terribly behind in ours) when he recommended older women as mistresses. He praised them for their ability to be friends as well as lovers, for being more prudent and discreet, more interesting to talk to, and, bluntly, "so grateful!!" (Exclamation points his.)
Another antiquated expectation is that women must demand educational or class equality in their partners. But a successful relationship isn't about worldly power. It's about kindness. It's about accepting his/her flaws and still liking him/her. It's about warmth and laughter and spending time together.
The truth is that each of us is free to follow our own hearts, wherever they may lead us. And the "experts?" Well, leave them be. Helen Gurley Brown, Erica Jong, Gail Sheehy and Daphne Merkin do not speak for me. As Bob Dylan wrote in "Subterranean Homesick Blues," "Don't follow leaders/Watch the parkin' meters."
I learned a long time ago that sexual pleasure doesn't have to stop for a woman, even when she is over 50, even when she becomes elderly, and even when she no longer has a partner. That thought has always brought me comfort and cheer, because you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.
Joyce Marcel is a free-lance journalist who lives in Vermont and writes about culture, politics, economics and travel. A collection of her columns, called "A Thousand Words or Less," will be out in May. She can be reached at email@example.com.