Sex and the Seasoned Woman: Pursuing the Passionate Life, By Gail Sheehy, Random House, 336 pp., $25.95
Gail Sheehy predicates her new book on the theory that sex for women 45 and over is a formerly taboo subject. But formerly taboo when? In the 1950s? The subject hasn't exactly been taboo in the media and among people who talk about these things for several decades.
In ''Sex and the Seasoned Woman," she's late, very late, in her formulaic presentation that concludes with the earth-shattering fact that women 45 and older are looking and feeling younger than their mothers and grandmothers did at that age. Sixty is the new 40, Sheehy finds out through an elaborate website-aided interview process with hundreds and hundreds of American women, and she writes that their sexual activity goes along with their youthful feelings. For years now, this has been the subject of magazine cover stories (as in Parade magazine just last month), organizations such as the American Association of Retired Persons, and television talk shows, so all we can say to Sheehy's profound statement that ''Americans are taking longer to grow up and much longer to die," is . . . no kidding.
The author divides her interviewees into five groups: Passionates, Seekers, WMD's (Women Married, Dammit!), SQ's (Status Quo's) and LL (Lowered Libidos), and of all the women, she says, 40 percent were Passionates. Meaning, a good percentage of women that heretofore were thought ''old," and therefore nonsexual, are healthier, and thus sexier, sometimes into their 80s and 90s. And she has the interviews to prove it.
So, women are having sex, with their husbands, their lovers, their lesbian partners, their flying instructors -- just about everyone but the family dog. Even unmarried older women are having sex, according to Sheehy, and even in the Bible Belt, she finds, there is a persistent gulf between public moral values and private sexual behavior. Sometimes women are even having sex with themselves. A woman who sells sex toys for women out of her home in Sheridan, Ark., is making very good money, she reveals to Sheehy, and the national company that started her on these ''Passion Parties" does about $20 million worth of business each year.
Since women acquire more testosterone as they age, and testosterone increases women's sexual desire and satisfaction, they're finding newly enhanced pleasure, Sheehy says. It helps to have what she calls a ''pilot light lover," some transitional figure who reignites a midlife woman's capacity for love and sex, if she has lost her husband or partner along the way to old age. It also helps -- in fact it's vital, Sheehy contends -- to have a passion, no matter what it is, as long as it isn't knitting or needlepoint; ''Do people really think we all trade the delights of touching and being touched for some hobby utilizing yarn?" she asks.
Sheehy even gets into medical advice for woman over 45, telling us that as we age, we must keep in shape by eating more nutritious food and exercising. This is not news, Gail. Neither is the fact that ''Internet dating has been a godsend to the seasoned woman." We have heard about the Internet, and we've even heard that some people meet one another that way. But here it is in a book in 2006, so maybe we should go out and buy one of those computer things so we can go on it, too.
The best sentence in this ''sex book" is, ironically, not about sex but about grandparenting. Sheehy says, ''Grandparenting is a rebirth that eases the pinch of boundaries closing in on our own brief existence." Here's hoping that her interviewees can find time for the grandkids between all the nursing home hookups and the romps between the sheets.