- The Washington Times - Saturday, February 11, 2006

SEX AND THE SEASONED WOMAN: PURSUING THE PASSIONATE LIFE

By Gail Sheehy

Random House, $25.95, 358 pages

REVIEWED BY SUZANNE FIELDS

The most important dogma in the boomer catechism was “never trust anyone over 30,” and boomers have struggled to come to terms with adulthood since. Seventy may be the new 50, but 50 is not the new 30, and the boomers are beginning to get a little long in the tooth. The boomer taste in movies tells the story. In the 1970s they loved “The Graduate,” with Dustin Hoffman as the guy with the freshly minted college degree who indulges in an affair with Mrs. Robinson, but marries her daughter.

Boomers today are likely to groove on “Something’s Gotta Give.” Jack Nicholson plays the older guy with an appetite for young women but falls for Diane Keaton, the mother of the young woman he planned to take to bed. Diane Keaton is the senior woman Gail Sheehy targets as the reader for her new book, “Sex and the Seasoned Woman: Pursuing the Passionate Life.”

The over-50 woman is lively enough to capture the passionate appreciation of both younger and older men.

She’s in control of her choices in both love and sex. “The middle years, between 50 and 65, constitute the apex of adult life — the Age of Mastery,” she writes. “Most women come to realize they have been defined in their First Adulthood by their relation to others — the parents, husbands, children, bosses, and mentors for whom they performed. Now is the time to construct one’s own new Second Adulthood identity.”

If that simple psychological construction knocks your socks off, you’ll find a lot to like here, of women who see the world in terms of creating a new identity, but it’s precisely that formulation — the need to pigeonhole women in neat psychobabble categories — that turns this book into a series of soap operas for women over 50, all searching for themselves.

Rita Mae on turning 54 discovers that she has always loved sex, just not with her husband. It’s not that he wasn’t a good lover, but he was abusive in many ways and that killed romance. Or Passionate Patricia, who was dealt a bad hand when she married a much older man, whose heart failed shortly after the wedding.

She was faithful for 18 years until he died of a stroke and now she’s ready to rock. Some women in transition require a “pilot light lover,” someone to turn up the heat. Not all these women want fun and flirtation; some choose the spiritual life as in “soulmates” in sex.

Ms. Sheehy’s women make up the “Feisty Fifties,” the “Selective Sixties,” the “Spontaneous Seventies,” the “Enduring Eighties,” and there’s even a few (but a very few) “Sexy Centenarians. There are “Seasoned Sirens,” WMD’s, (Women Married, Dammit!) and “SQ’s,” who are resigned to the status quo for better or for worse.

The cutesy phrases and acronyms turn this book into a Sesame Street treat for adults who want their doses of instruction to amuse, like dancing numbers. The author visits corporate women, Southern Belles, artists, political activists and sex therapists, singly and in groups, from coast to coast.

She concedes that her interviews, which run in the hundreds, are not “academically stringent.” (You would have to retreat to the 60s of Esalen and “peak experiences” to find a control group.) Still, she’s on to something: “In the year 2006, almost a million of the earliest boomer women will be ready to celebrate their sixtieth birthday.”

While her intentions may have socially redeeming value in offering the aging woman an upbeat scenario to live out the rest of her life, her anecdotal stories are more voyeuristic than empathic, addressed less to issues of self-help than exhortations to self-indulge.

She writes about women who sell sex toys like Tupperware, visits an erotic spa where a couple can spend a weekend for $6,800 to learn how to rekindle the fires. One couple frequents a private club in Hollywood that rents movie sets on Saturday nights. For $200 an evening the men walk around in Speedos and the women in sexy lingerie, dancing to hard rock with strangers who offer the promise of living out their sexual fantasies “Behind the Green Door.”

The most embarrassing “scene” in the book takes place when the author, age 68, joins women of similar age, and learns how to do a striptease, ” … to shake her booty, dangle her ornaments, and toss her head in that slave-to-love swing, all while stroking her chair as if Brad Pitt were sitting right there.” Gypsy Rose Lee this is not. (Brad Pitt is not there, either.)

Gail Sheehy is an acute observer, a good reporter and a facile writer with an instinct for trends and a talent for coining cute names for them. “Passages,” her book on psychological transitions, published in 1976, has sold over five million copies. She discontinued her examination of adult transitions at age 50. She tries here to pick up where she left off, but there’s less analysis than meets the eye-witness.

As she tells older women to find their personal pathways to heavenly sex, she resorts to insulting recipes where “ripeness is all.” The seasoned woman is not food for thought but a spicy pot roast who has been “marinated” in life experience, or a complex wine that is sweet, tart, bubbly or mellow.

If you prefer horticultural comparisons, the blushing rose has faded, but the aging woman still stands out “like a flowering shrub pruned over many seasons.” Gertrude Stein might observe that a shrub is a shrub is a shrub.

Apparently many women like the idea of thinking of themselves as shrubbery. The book quickly made the New York Times bestseller list. We’ve come a long way, baby, but there’s a long way to go if we must be marinated to be vindicated.

Suzanne Fields, a columnist for The Washington Times, is nationally syndicated.


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