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Review: More Books about Women and Sex

E. Kay Trimberger, The New Single Woman, Fitzhenry and Whiteside, $37.95

Gail Sheehy, Sex and the Seasoned Woman, Random House, $35.95

First of all, it must be said: both of these books claim to be revelatory, exposing "hidden" realities about women, and I would say that is mostly nonsense. I do not know any woman in her fifties who is not acutely aware that she suddenly has explosive energy, clarity and focus, a big, bubbling desire for change or if she is luckier she is already in mid-change. I have the same conversation with many such women, single or coupled: now what?

And for almost ten years the literature and evidence have been unmistakable that being single is no longer the cobwebby, shameful closet for women who can't find men, that women can afford to choose to be single, forever or after marriage, and that women, single or coupled, expect to enjoy good sex. And, about lesbians: Sheehy is astounded to find women who made the leap from hetero to lesbian in Santa Fe, and wonders if this is the only place in the world where this happens, and where is the research on this and could it possibly be a trend? Well, come on up to Vancouver, Calgary and rural Ontario, Ms Sheehy, and especially to Toronto where there is a veritable lesbian mafia. Latter-day lesbians are so not news in Canada.

The New Single Woman is especially not new. Nor, in the hands of Ms Trimberger, is she especially interesting. Most of Trimberger's case histories (only twenty-seven middleclass women, all living in northern California) would not even make it into Sheehy's book, because they are plodding, longwinded and not sexy, certainly not Passionate or Seekers. Trimberger's main point is that the search for a soul-mate must be abandoned as a fruitless and limiting cultural hangup. And.?

Trimberger chose not to ask women about their sex lives; why on earth not? She did not talk about celibacy or sex, unless the subject came up, which apparently it rarely did, which I can scarcely believe. She explains "the reluctance of women to talk about sex" as "confusion" about desire and intimacy. (In researching and writing Solitaire, five years ago, I spoke to about 200 single women who all talked easily and openly about their sex lives, or lack thereof, about secret sex lives, about celibacy as a lifelong choice they were comfortable with or an often frustrated temporary state.)

Trimberger does not even mention menopause or hormones, and the two case histories she includes about single women with active sex lives she seems somewhat prudish about. Trimberger herself has been celibate for twenty years. She recommends "sensual celibacy" as a replacement for genital sexuality. Not a bad thing! But in Trimberger's arid, flat prose, about as attractive as a plate of dessicated raisins.

So let's talk about sex.

Sex and the Seasoned Woman is addressed to women 50 and older; on the cover is a perfect peach (inside a quote from T.S. Eliot; Do I dare to eat a peach?). Gail Sheehy's latest book is similar in format and style and thesis to her earlier "Passages" series; as she ages herself, she sets out to create both a portrait of American women and to suggest a template for how they might see and live their lives. To use both Sheehy's rubric and style, it's for women who are Pursuing the Passionate Life in Second Adulthood, dealing with Lowered Libidos and moving beyond their Pilot Light Lovers into a Romantic Renaissance, Cashing in on the Sexual Diamond and finally sailing into Grand Love.

Sheehy's seasoned woman sounds a bit like dinner: spicy, marinated, "like a complex wine alternately sweet, tart, sparkling, mellow." The women she writes about with admiration have survived at least one crucible and made big choices about their lives in their 50s and beyond. They are, or become, risk-takers. They seek out and revel in affairs with younger men. If they live in Santa Fe they run galleries and inns and throw splendid parties. If they live in the South, they come directly from church to Passion Parties where they buy and are instructed in the art of cock rings, "lickin' lubes" and "little beaver finger vibes." They attend health ranches where they join erotic couples workshops-$6800 for a long weekend-or take African and strip-dancing classes, lying on the floor "on our backs, kicking our legs and pulling up with a long erotic moan.."

"So, let me get this straight -- despite the fact that my body looks like a bean bag, the lowlights in my hair defy highlighting, my last date was with the worst of my 2 ex-husbands, and NO WAY can I get a movie ticket seller to challenge me on senior discount, you're telling me all I have to do is Get Out There online and start tantalizing the boys? .wish I could be proven wrong in my bad attitude -- HELP!"

That cri de couer appears in the "Seasoned Women's Network" forum on Sheehy's website. It seems that Sheehy's readers are both invigorated and frustrated by the book. They would like to be like the women that Sheehy describes-petite platinum blondes in short skirts and high heels, women who ride horses and race sailboats, women who take occasional top-ups of estrogen to keep their vaginas as pink as their pant suits so that they are ever-ready for an amazingly robust sex life.

These gals, are, well, zesty. (If they are not, if they can't make the jump out of dull marriages into Second Adulthood, into bed with the Pilot Light Lovers and out again, or if they wear muddy-coloured, shape-hiding clothes, Sheehy is slightly patronizing; one such woman is described as "colorlessly gray. a Status Quo," a poor specimen indeed amongst all those zaftig dames learning the tango and wearing stilettos and dating younger men. Ah yes, those younger men; pace the forum:
".if you're willing to look "outside the box" you will find just what you are looking for in a buff, hard-bodied package because there are loads of younger men who love and adore older women. I have been with my guy for almost 3 years now and I am 25 years older than he is. :)"

It seems the only fly in the lube so to speak, might be menopause. If there is anything revealed in Sheehy's book, it is this: many, uhm, mature women are no longer on long-term, systemic HRT but they are "grazing" with "top-ups" of estrogen in the form of a low-dose vaginal cream, "to make the desert bloom again." Sheehy insists the studies that scared women off HRT several years ago were wrong about the ameliorative power of estrogen, post-menopause. As one New York "guru gynecologist" says, "vaginal estrogen is absolutely necessary for comfortable sex after menopause for most women." Sheehy endorses this, in the form of a "lima-bean-sized" dab of estradiol cream on the clitoris but she considers women who self-medicate with their husband's testosterone patch (who knew?) reckless.

I'm sure almost all the women in Sheehy's book are dipping into the estradiol cream and that Sheehy herself has at least the writer's equivalent of that potion. The book bursts with vitality; Sheehy dashes around the country embracing, dining and dancing with women (the oldest is mid-90s) who are making the most of their lives. The book is like a comet, trailing diaphanous scarves and cock rings and boy toys; women are roaring around in Cadillacs and Mercedes (packing a pearl-handled revolver in the cup holder) and living half the year in Buenos Aires so they can dance, and also running charitable enterprises in Africa.

You're wondering about that Sexual Diamond, aren't you. Until age ten the gender characteristics of males and females are similar; by late 30s and early 40s we are hugely differentiated and in 50s and beyond, the gap shrinks; men nurture and become emotionally vulnerable; women get managerial and political. Men want to play golf; women want to run something, anything. Sheehy describes this as the "upper point of the sexual diamond- where the tension of male-female differences relaxes at last."

A Passionate woman, a Seeker, flashes that sexual diamond and in the book at least such women ascend to glorious heights of pleasure and companionship, sexual and otherwise. But a post to Sheehy's website forum suggests there are, perhaps, some unexpected side effects:
"I'm 60, overweight, widowed three years after 38 year marriage, met a guy at the fitness center who is funny, sexy, great body but single for 20 years. He's MY Pilot Light Lover. Problem is, he needs Viagra and it doesn't work for him unless his stomach is empty so we seldom go out.I've been feeding him AFTERWARDS and he says he is beginning to feel like a whore and that all I want him for is sex. Any suggestions?"