Are female boomers getting any, or not?

A skeptical Daphne Merkin takes on the upbeat Gail Sheehy.

Published February 12, 2006 11:54PM (EST)

In yesterday's New York Times magazine, Daphne Merkin came out swinging against cheerful assertions from Gail Sheehy that the sex lives of over-50 women are booming. Sheehy's new book, "Sex and the Seasoned Woman," has already been tackled hard by the Times, but Merkin, who recently wrote a piece about her vagina, has more to say.

While Sheehy's book is full of tales of women who rediscovered their sexuality through sex toys and boy toys, Merkin is not feeling the love, and plainly asserts that "Sheehy's book bears little resemblance to any actuality I have stumbled up against."

Merkin contends that Sheehy has not dealt honestly with the realities of dating after 50. "As women enjoy longer and more active lives in a culture that venerates youth, especially in women, something's gotta give," she writes. "And what gives, mostly, are men. Men of 45 aren't looking for women of 45; men of 55 aren't looking for them, either." Merkin offers a story about the time she recognized a guy on J-Date (an online Jewish dating site) as a writer of around 50, neither a tycoon, nor "delusional about his attributes." Trouble was, this guy was looking for a woman in her late 20s, she presumed because he wanted someone who would look up to him and/or had fresher eggs than a playmate his own age.

Men reject older women, Merkin theorizes, "almost instinctively, because they sense the impending shadow of nongenerativity like a negative pheromone. They don't need to want to have children, either consciously or subconsciously, for this to happen ... They like their eggs ready to rock just in case."

Merkin's thoughts on the appeal of aging women reminded me of an old Broadsheet post about John F. Ross' Amazon review of Maureen Dowd's "Are Men Necessary?" in which he asserted that "women have an expiration date. Men don't." I also recalled that a reader recently sent me a link to Ross' Web site, which now carries a response to that Broadsheet fray. The response is not that compelling, but I was interested to learn, while poking around his site, that John F. Ross has his own business: "Looking for a unique way to celebrate a special occasion with friends? Want to create some memories unlike any you've ever had? Have John Ross orchestrate your own private machine gun shoot! Perfect for: Bachelor Parties, Milestone Birthdays, Graduations ..."

But I digress.

I guess that whatever cheer Sheehy's book offers aging women, Merkin's reminder in the Times is that the world is full of John F. Rosses: men who believe that a woman's desirability and value shrivel with age, who elude her on J-Date, and who can transform your son's bar mitzvah into a bullet bonanza his friends will never forget!

As Merkin writes, "I'm not suggesting that older women are doomed to stagger around like Jean Rhys characters, eyeliner running and drinks sloshing, lost to themselves and overlooked by others." Some, she says, will take after sexually rapacious senior Jane Juska, while others, "less brave and less thick-skinned, will have to make do with ordinary consolations."

By Rebecca Traister

Rebecca Traister writes for Salon. She is the author of "Big Girls Don't Cry: The Election that Changed Everything for American Women" (Free Press). Follow @rtraister on Twitter.

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