Good old sex

Modern Maturity -- the largest-circulation magazine in America -- gets sexier as the baby boomers realize that 50 isn't old after all.


Sean Elder
September 1, 1999 8:00PM (UTC)

At the end of his novel "Breakfast of Champions," Kurt Vonnegut liberated his characters, as if (in his analogy) he were Lincoln freeing the slaves. As the author sails off, turning somersaults in the void, the aged sci-fi writer Kilgore Trout runs after him shouting, "Make me young, make me young, make me young!" Many magazines seem to believe that their readers have the same fervent wish, and repay them with stories on cosmetic surgery and "Dawson's Creek." It is young people, after all, who are having all the fun, drinking all the Chai, coupling in the corners while taking the odd moment out to answer a reporter's lame questions via e-mail. All you old crones and geezers (hey, the baggy shorts and turned-around baseball cap really isn't working, bud) can only recall those bygone days of lust and ardor, and stew. (Easy on the salt.) Kids rule; seniors drool.

So when the AARP publication Modern Maturity released its study on sex among the elderly last month, the press treated it as a man-shags-dog story. The sound bite -- more than half of Americans over 45 are satisfied with their sex life, thanks -- was chewy and counterintuitive, and provided a warm chuckle for the helmet-haired anchors at the end of the local news. But it glossed over the study's sharper truth: that a "partner gap" among men and women over 75 keeps many of them celibate. That, however, is a bummer -- and the spin the magazine wanted to put on the news was evident in its choice of cover girl Susan Sarandon to illustrate the accompanying feature, "Who's Sexy Now."

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"When we talked about picking the sexiest we looked at people who were comfortable with being who they are, not necessarily the Goldie Hawns of the world, who are trying to look 22," says editor in chief Hugh Delahanty. Sarandon, 52, certainly has the natural look -- but she also evokes fond feelings for nearly anyone who grew up in the '60s, whether they first noticed her in "Joe" or doing the Time Warp in "The Rocky Horror Picture Show." And that, according to Delahanty (a mere 50 himself), was at least part of the idea. The AARP (formerly the American Association of Retired Persons -- the group now prefers the acronym alone since so many of its members are working) boasts more than 32 million members over the age of 50 and doesn't need glasses to see the approaching tsunami of baby boomers; it's waxing its surfboard as we speak. "You know how when baby boomers turned 40, all of the sudden 40 wasn't so old anymore?" says Delahanty. "I think with 50 you're going to see the same thing." Indeed, Sarandon (who did not pose for the cover but approved the use of her image) ordered extra copies for her friends, and a number of older stars called to ask why they didn't make the list.

It wasn't always thus. In the past, celebrities have contacted the magazine (the largest-circulation publication in America, with 20.7 million readers) and asked not to be included in the magazine's regular "Big Five-Oh" list of folks turning 50. One of this year's inductees, Don Imus (who looks like he could be Keith Richards' funeral director), frequently complained on the air about his inclusion.

But just as John Lennon's death was made front-page news by a generation of journalists who grew up on the Beatles, doing anything other than waiting for Ed McMahon to come knocking at the door of your double-wide, carrying a scythe, is becoming headline stuff for editors and writers approaching AARP candidacy.

Hiring Delahanty (who began in May, after the sex issue was, um, put to bed) was one of AARP's concessions to its changing demographics. A magazine veteran with mainstream experience as a senior editor at both Sports Illustrated and People, Delahanty spent the last few years editing that countercultural answer to Reader's Digest, the Utne Reader. At the time he arrived, in 1996, the Utne was an anachronism, equal parts old left and New Age and about as exciting as a day at the laundromat. Delahanty alienated some of the magazine's old readers while luring new ones with his themed issues on modern living and how to abide. "One of the things we were doing at the Utne Reader was shifting to helping people find balance in their lives and enrich their lives," he says of his tenure there. "We did a package on 'stuff' -- how to deal with all the stuff in your life, looking at it from a lot of different perspectives. And that story could work here, too."

That's especially true as Modern Maturity's audience morphs into one more like him: concerned with matters spiritual and political, looking for some reading that speaks to them but longing for some humor as well. A cover with Mel Brooks and Carl Reiner fared better with readers under 65 (according to reader interviews), not because the comedians are in that age group (they are 73 and 77, respectively) but because they became legendary in the '60s and '70s. "With the baby boomer group there is much more interest in humor and irony," says Delahanty "They have an ironic point of view about looking at the world, but are also much more savvy about pop culture, whatever is hip now. And a lot [of them are] pretending to be hip."

As co-author, with former Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, of the Zen-warrior basketball book "Sacred Hoops," Delahanty knows a thing or two about making the outri everyday. (It was Jackson, after all, who brought Native American totems into the team's meeting room.) "One of the things we were trying to do with that book [was] take ideas that one could see as countercultural and familiar to a small group of people and make them accessible to a mainstream audience," he says. "And I think that's what I'll be doing largely here."

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Demographically, his audience should be right there with him, nodding knowingly at each Captain Beefheart reference -- and appreciating some frank talk about sex. Expect some sea changes there as well; people who grew up reading "Lady Chatterley's Lover" and watching "Candy" don't need Dr. Laura Schlessinger (interviewed in the current issue) shaking her finger at them.

One of the more intriguing revelations contained in the sex study (conducted by mail in March by National Family Opinion Research Inc.) concerned the partner gap that exists for women over 75 -- more widows than widowers -- and the different attitudes of younger seniors, a true generational divide. "The gap in attitudes between women over and under 60 suggests that baby boomer women, the oldest of whom are in their late 40s and early 50s, will be much less likely than their mother's generation to accept celibacy as the natural outcome of widowhood," writes Susan Jacoby in her analysis of the data.

Perhaps putting the issue front and center will serve as a wake-up call for some elderly women, anyway; sin is a relative concept when you're faced with no nookie and a life of loneliness. Writer Jacoby's mother is 78, notes Delahanty. "All her friends are into their 90s. They were saying things like 'I never even looked at this magazine' before; now they can't wait to get their hands on the sex issue. That's the power of sex."

And all the sisters in the amen corner begin to shout ...

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Rumor control: Speaking of Kurt Vonnegut, I can't wait to hear the commencement address he gives this year. But rather than believing (and then passing along) every piece of e-mail you receive, why not check that rumor out first? You say you don't have the time, the contacts, the motivation? Not to worry. As a regular service of this column, I will try to track down any media rumor that comes spamming your way and confirm or deny it for you in this space. Simply e-mail me at Rumor Control with the latest bit of gossip you've heard -- disasters on the movie set, airhead remarks, the usual suspects. The rumors spread on the Internet today are the urban legends of tomorrow. Be like Smokey, and help stop fires before they start.


Sean Elder

Sean Elder is a frequent contributor to Salon.

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