'Divorced men in their 50s or 60s want a replacement wife but women their own age aren't interested in just looking after someone anymore'
Gail Sheehy is a prize-winning author and cultural observer. Her book Passages was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than three years. Her other books include The Silent Passage (about the taboo ofmenopause) and Understanding Men’s Passages. Her new book, published on the 30th anniversary of Passages, is Sex and the Seasoned Woman: Pursuing the Passionate Life.
Q:Why seasoned woman, why not older woman, mature woman? Well, because those words are freighted with the phobia against aging, and I think boomers are particularly susceptible to that. They have a phobia about aging?
Oh, yeah. Definitely. 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.
So tell me a bit about the phenomenon you’re observing here. You’re looking at women in, I guess, the second half of their adult lives, who are finding new ways of exploring relationships and their sexuality, and sort of redefining how we think of those years. But first, how did the book get started?
Well, I put a questionnaire on my website. I put an 18th-century Courbet painting of a naked woman lying on her back in a glen with a parrot on her finger with the mock statement, “Sex over 50 for women is for the birds.” And I got this deluge of responses from women
who didn’t think that way at all, and who then also told me about what they were doing. I interviewed about 400 of them, and those who were the most interesting I asked to get together a group of like-minded women and I would visit them. I drove around the country to parts of North America most of us don’t visit, big cities as well as the rural South...
Yeah, conservative places like that where women have to batde the idea that any woman over 50 who’s been divorced and is dating is a hussy. And everywhere it was the same—you couldn’t shut them up, they were so excited to talk about these new vistas in their life, because nobody’d ever asked them before. The running theme was that some time in her late 40s or 50s a woman comes upon the realization that she needs a new dream, because she’s going to live at least into her 70s, probably her 80s, and maybe she’ll be one of the three million boomers in America who live to 100.
Well, you’ve got a lot of options at that age, don’tyou?I mean, generally we’re talking about people who have raised a family, had something of a career perhaps—they’re mature, accomplished. Why pursue a passionate life, why not run for office or open a business?
Oh, those are passions! Come on! A passionate life doesn’t just mean a sexual life.
But you do say in the book that sex and the passionate life go together.
Yeah, that’s right, but... I mean, it may start with a romantic renaissance, or it may very well start with having the boldness to dream. I have stories in the book of women
who ran for office for the first time and that then awakened a kind of new force field around them, and made them magnetic.
Are men ready for women pursuing a passionate life? I’m thinking ofthat Jack Nicholson movie a couple of years ago...
You mean Something’s Gotta Give.
Yeah. I think one of the most frequently noted scenes ofthat movie was his startled reaction at seeing the naked body of a woman that age. What kind of response are you getting from men?
I’ll tell you, but let’s just flip the switch on that and remember where you have the visual of him wearing the what-do-you-call-it...
The hospital gown.
A Yes, flapping, have tractive with and a particularly body, his he but cheeks doesn’t someathow you guys always have a protective covering... But the kind of reaction from men I’ve been talking to, if they’re single and in their mid-50s or 60s— and they often are-their careers are winding down, or maybe they’ve been downsized, or they’re afraid of being downsized, and they pretty much want to have a replacement wife. You know, they had somebody who was their-usually single-source of intimacy, and who arranged their social life and so on so they could focus on their careers, and they pretty much want that again, and among women their own age—those women aren’t particularly interested in that anymore. So I find that the single men in their 50s and
beyond tend to be floundering.
Right. Gail, I think one of the wonderful things about the book is it does recognize that people crave intimacy and close relatmiships through their lives. But part of what I’m reading in the book is that people are looking to keep themselves alive in intimate and sexual terms through a rather serious denial of aging, and this kind of plays into a youth-obsessed culture. Even some of the examples you use, like the Demi Moores and the Madonnas of the world who’re with younger men—they’re in their mid-40s but they don’t look like it. Can a woman pursue the passionate life without trying to hold on to her teens?
My book isn’t about those people. I just use celebrities as touchstones for how reinventing yourself is part of this generation’s MO, and how those celebrities we read about all the time—often women—are now very boldly marrying much younger men. And then I found that phenomenon actually in the earthlings as well, not necessarily marrying but having relationships with much younger men, which they often were surprised to see themselves doing. I mean, I have the periodontist in her mid-40s who had been through three failed marriages, and she realized it was time she could actually exercise a long-held passion and learn how to fly. Well, once she opened up to that dream, she fell in love with her 25-year-old flight instructor, and they’re still together four years later. So that’s a bold example, but I think the really seasoned women are not wanting to be like teenagers, they don’t want to go back to being 30. Once they get over the little phobic bridge from 49 to 50 it’s a whole new territory and they have the experience to make much more selective choices.
QYOU mention the book A Round-Heeled Woman, byJaneJuska. She was a Berkeley professor who, at age 67, decided to spend a year having sex with a lot of men. You tell a bit of her story and say that unfortunately too few women are enjoying their sex lives. I didn ’tget the sense she enjoyed her experience all that much, or it was certainly mixed, anyway. There seemed to be high points, but there were also some degrading situa tions a nd it caused problems in her family. And you’re pretty clear you’re not just promising women a happy relatmiship with a man half their age that’s going to last forever and be perfectly happy, it’s something that comes with challenges.
Yes, forging a soulmate takes time, it takes trust, it takes going through the vicissitudes of life. It’s something to be worked for and then cherished if you get there. I’m very realistic about that.
You mentioned the boomers and aging as one of the influences behind this phenomenon. The divorce rate plays into it, too, doesn’t it?
A Oh, big-time, yes. The divorce rate was highest in all American history among the early half of the baby boomers, and so roughly one-third of those women are single. They’re feeling pretty feisty, many of them. They learned how to support themselves so they’re not dependent on a man, and they don’t want to give up their independence, they don’t want to give up their girlfriends, they don’t want to give up time to go to the spa now that they finally have it.
On the other hand, there are still many women who depend on a man as a provider— they’re not necessarily unhappy but they’re resigned. Or they belong to that category I called WMDs—Women Married Dammit. They look with envy at friends who might be out there leading a seasoned woman’s life but they’re not willing to take the risk. They’d rather be angry and frustrated and play bridge in the afternoon and maybe have a little too much to drink and complain about life.
You present some evidence in the book that this late-life passion seeking isn’t anywhere near as prevalent among men as women. In fact, it’s kind of bleak in some respects that men don’t feel the same passion, don’t feel they have their lives ahead of them when they hit their 50s, 60s, as a lot of women do.
Well, I think men have a different life cycle. Their ambitions are very high, and they tend to pursue them single-mindedly through their 20s, 30s, 40s, into their 50s. They get to 50,55, and first their pension is taken away, and their health care, and then they’ve gotten divorced and now they have a new young wife and she wants to have another family, and then they get downsized, and it’s kind of hard for them to get restarted on a new dream. Or they’re single and out there floundering. And they may really want to do organic gardening or be an ambassador to the impoverished peoples of the world, but they may not feel they have the opportunity or know how to do it because they haven’t had to cultivate other sides of themselves, whereas women follow a more chaotic set of passages through their first adulthood.
They’re always trying to balance, please everybody and be supportive of their husbands and look out for their children, and also trying to keep their hand in careers. So by the time they get to 50, very often women are really just starting to pursue a dream, whereas men may be burdened with debts to previous wives, and looking at entertaining a new young wife, or they may not be able to afford doing something that could be called a passion, and not quite ready to figure out how to be alone and who they are and who they’re going to be.
Did you come across any women who said, “Look, I’m 60, I’ve been through all that, I dated, I married, I lived with a man for 30 years. Sex
just isn’t that important to me anymore. ”
Yes. Been there, done that, not interested. Now my work is of engrossing importance, and I have friends—men and women friends—I have my ski pals or my bridge pals or whatever, and that can be just fine. But I also pointed out that I put people in categories just for the sake of being able to talk about different attitudes toward this period of life. Very often a woman who might be in the status quo category, let’s say, for 10 years and completely consumed with her work— as I described one woman—one day on her 60th birthday says, “Hey, wait a second. I don’t think I’m going to be totally satisfied with nothing but my work forever.” This woman sold her warehouse and downsized her employees and took a break to see if she
Some women still dependent on a man 'belong to a category I call WMDs, Women Married Dammit.'
was ready to find somebody else, and the next thing you know she meets a man on Christmas Eve and she’s off and running. So there is a lot of movement between categories.
I showed your book to a colleague, and his response—to paraphrase—was, “Why are the boomers trying to appropriate sex now? We’re younger, and we can do it better, and look better doing it. Why do they have to have sex too?” That’s really cute. I can see that. But, you know, these seasoned women are very interested in younger men, so there’s a new hookup, an intergenerational hook-up, right? Right. So they should see it as an opportunity. Opportunity, there you go! Not a threat. M
ON THE WEB Read an excerpt from Sex and the Seasoned Woman, www.macleans.ca/sheehy
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