‘Sex and the Seasoned Woman: Pursuing the Passionate Life,” the new book by Gail Sheehy, starts with an anecdote in which Sheehy, alone in New York one night after the theater, decides to step into a cafe for a bite to eat. The only seat available is at the end of the bar, where Sheehy comfortably settles in for supper. As she pulls out her journal to make notes for “the book just beginning to cook in my mind,” not one but two 25-year-old men come up to introduce themselves and inquire what she is doing. She asks them why, with a bar full of Wonderbra-clad 20-somethings, they are talking to her. “I knew it wasn’t my neckline — I was wearing a high-necked black T-shirt. It wasn’t my shoes; they were sexy little backless numbers with a tiny heel (so I could actually walk in tem), but they were hidden under my stool. Finally, the taller and handsomer of the two replied, ‘You look — interesting.’”
Precisely the point, according to Sheehy, author of the classic international bestseller, “Passages,” which remained on the New York Times bestseller list for more than three years. A former writer for New York magazine and a contributing editor to Vanity Fair since 1984, Sheehy will speak Wednesday, March 1, at the Forsgate Country Club in Monroe Township. The event is sponsored by Princeton Healthcare System and Friends Health Connection.
“Sex and the Seasoned Woman” compiles interviews with over 400 women across the country and research to reveal, according to a press statement, “a surge of vitality in women’s sex and love lives after 50, and a determination to follow their dreams in whatever direction they lead.” As millions of Boomers turn 60 and life spans increase, those in their “second adulthood” can look forward to “a period of reawakening and a chance to explore new creative or spiritual interests.”
In a phone interview from her hotal room in Oklahoma City, Sheehy says the event she spoke at the previous night exemplifies the very heart of “Sex and the Seasoned Woman.” “I came back from Canada and got a message from my lecture bureau that they needed a sub for the Oklahoma Men’s Dinner Club. Well I knew I couldn’t really talk about sex to a room full of 600 men in cowboy get-ups.” It turns out it was ladies night and Sheehy spoke for an hour at the Natonal Cowboy Museum to a crowd of “oil and gas lawyers and retirees in cowboy get-ups and their wives and girlfriends — including grey-haired wives and long-blonde haired replacement wives. It was delicious.”
Sheehy included a video in her presentation of one of the focus groups with women she held to cull stories for the book. “It was a San Francisco group of five very frank and very frisky-looking women sitting around in a beauty salon and dishing. The ‘star’ is a woman who is 45 and a dental surgeon. Tired of looking at cavities all day, she decides to get out in the world. She takes flying lessons in a Piper Cub and open cockpit biplanes. She learns how to do barrel rolls. She falls in love with her 25-year-old flight instructor and says, ‘He’s not Adonis but we share this passion for flying. Sex with Walt is like doing barrel rolls.’
At the end of her talk, Sheehy says the audience “sat there mostly in a combination of rapt and stunned silence. I thought they were all going to go out and take flying lessons. The women really got it. I was going to say to them, ‘You could buy a Porsche.’ Do you know the major consumers of Porsches are women? A nice-looking round-bodied 50-year-old wife of an attorney came up to me and said, ‘I love it. Fifty is freedom. You don’t have to try to look like Nicole Kidman. My last child is 12 years old. I’m going to go back to work full-time in a whole different direction. I’m just revving up.’”
Sheehy grew up in Mamaroneck, Long Island. Her father was an advertising executive who commuted to Manhattan. Her mother, says Sheehy, was “a frustrated housewife who wanted to be a singer and had been thwarted from taking voice lessons first by her very stern father and then by my, how shall I say it, traditional father. I got the benefit because she gave me dancing and singing and acting lessons — so I’ve always felt very comfortable in front of audiences. When my mother was in her early 50s, my father left her for the proverbial younger woman. My mother remarried and with her husband lived out the ‘sexual diamond’ I talk about in the book. She began buying and running motels in Connecticut and Florida.
“I was very close with my mother. She recognized and was very regretful by midlife that she had allowed herself to be suppressed. She would have loved being in the theater or part of a choral group. When I was writing ‘Passages’ I was thinking about her as the older population who had to make a choice between marriage and a career.”
At the end of her life, Sheehy’s mother had emphysema and osteoporosis and was hospitalized. Sheehy says a young resident at the hospital told her that her mother was not going to live more than a few days. She remembers coming to visit her mother one day and coming to the door of her hospital room, where she found her mother and stepfather being intimate. “She lived a couple more years. It’s true that sex is good for you.”
Sheehy graduated from the University of Vermont in 1960 with a BS in home economics and an English minor. “At that time, actually, home economics was the closest thing to a business degree.” She started working for JC Penney as an executive trainee in New York, traveling around the country putting on educational fashion shows at universities. In 1970 she completed a fellowship at Columbia University for journalists in mid-career, studying with the renowned anthropologist Margaret Mead. “My approach to journalism has always been anthropological.” She started writing for New York magazine and has been a contributing editor at Vanity Fair since 1984.
Sheehy says the “seasoned” woman — who, as Vera said to Auntie Mame, is “somewhere between 40 and death” — is not accepting the stereotype of middle age. “Boomers don’t even recognize midlife,” says Sheehy. “They’re Internet dating. The biggest growth on Match.com is men and women over 50. It expands their universe.”
Women over 50 are also doing other surprising things. “What I found (while researching the book) is that a lot of women may be stepping out of the corporate life before they are in danger of being named CEO because they have so many other vital parts of their lives. They don’t want to work 24/7. Their bankers believe in them and they’re starting their own businesses. If they’re single, some are dating younger men — and not expecting it to turn into marriage.”
Sheehy says the book is “stirring up a healthy controversy. There are women who take comfort in ‘comfort think,’ the conviction that they’re going to be dropped by their husbands for younger women or shunted aside in the corporate world and the cards are stacked against them. The first requirement for being a ‘seasoned woman’ is to be able to be independent financially and emotionally so that you can make choices, because now 50 is freedom. The preparation begins in the 40s.
“According to AARP, two-thirds of marriages that break up when the couple is over 40 are initiated by women. Especially if the husband is an abuser, adulterer, or alcoholic, these women are saying, ‘I have longer to live ahead than I’ve already lived. If this marriage is poisoning my life, I want to get out now, so that I really can take off when the children are older.”
Sheehy, who is married, is equally ardent about helping married women over 50 pursue a passionate life. In the chapter titled “Sex and the Seasoned Marriage,” she writes: “Some of the best sex is among couples who have been together for a long time Surprised? Of course you are. That is not the message suggested in Victoria’s Secret ads or any movie you see, but it’s true. There is a fundamental misunderstanding that good sex doesn’t happen inside a marriage. In fact, it is the emollient of a good marriage.”
Gail Sheehy, Wednesday, March 1, 6 p.m., Forsgate Country Club, 375 Forsgate Drive, Monroe Township. Dinner and booksigning. Register. $60. 800-483-7436