Let’s Talk About Sex. Or Not.

I haven’t had a conversation about sex for a long time.

This realization hit me while I was reading the collection of essays and stories put together by the inimitable Erica Jong, Sugar in My Bowl: Real Women Write About Real Sex (ecco, June 14, 2011). In these pages Gail Collins, perhaps my favorite New York Times columnist (because she’s so fuckin’ funny), muses about the effect of Catholic school on sexual awakening. (It was slow, but on the other hand, she was great at diagramming sentences.) Susan Cheever writes about a one-night stand and concludes that, “casual sex is excruciatingly hazardous. Those who are not ready to have their life changed should probably abstain.” Daphne Merkin (how did I miss you at Barnard?) teases out to full recognizable form “that” kind of guy, the manipulative, cruel but sexy man you should avoid at all costs, but don’t. J.A.K. Andres talks about her daughter the diddler with wit—and probably more patience than I had when my kids were little. Marisa Acocella Marchetto’s graphic fantasy is hilarious, and, oh, so true.

So if Erica Jong could get these well-known women to talk about sex so frankly, even Jean Hanff Korelitz who professes to be a prude, why don’t I talk about sex?

It isn’t if I never talked about sex. When I was ten and at overnight Girl Scout camp, Betty, in the sleeping bag next to mine, told me she listened to her brother have sex with his girlfriends of the front porch and he peed inside them. That, I thought, was gross. I remember when I was in Jr. High my sister’s friend Susan (who was something of a Grateful Dead groupie) tried to explain to me the difference between an erect and a flaccid penis. (She kept on saying “flat,” and as I had never seen a penis on a boy over two, I couldn’t visualize that at all.)

Then in high school and college it was all about sex. In a way. Looking back, I realize I knew graphic details of friends’ exploits. I knew where people did it and how they did it. But what were we talking about? How it made us feel? Our anxieties or pleasures? I don’t think so. Mostly the mechanics.

Report from a roommate: a boyfriend had made fun of a guy who performed oral sex on his menstruating girlfriend because he came up with “a red mustache.” Then same said boyfriend couldn’t wait to go down on her when she had her period. Report from guy friends: a roommate had a jar of lubricant by his bed. Never occurred to me at the time that he and his girlfriend might have been having anal sex. I just thought she had a lubrication problem—something quite usual when one is fucking like bunnies, which young people did in my time and probably still do. Still, I remember feeling about this guy that maybe he was gay, because this was in the 1970’s when straight women not involved in the arts knew relatively few gay men. Years later some guys I knew emerged from the closet, including a guy I dated who dropped out of college to become a ballet dancer. So maybe the guy with the KY-Jelly tub was maybe 1) having anal sex with his girlfriend, 2) having anal sex with men, or 3) having a girlfriend with a lubrication problem.

By the 1970’s, everyone was having sex. Even some Orthodox Jewish couples were “dry humping” to the point where the guy would have an orgasm. Did the girl? Funny, that’s what I mean about sticking to the mechanics. We knew he wiped himself with a handkerchief and then felt guilty. The girl very wisely told him, “God’s too busy to watch what you’re doing.” But what she got out of it? I don’t think we ever asked. Girls who had sex with many guys still sometimes “got a reputation.” Serial monogamy, with a three-month relationship being considered long-term, was more acceptable. Still, there was Jenny H. who had a Friday night boyfriend and a Saturday night boyfriend, and we all thought it was cool. Odd, but cool. The arrangement lasted less than a couple of semesters because when one of the boyfriends asked her to choose, she chose the other one. I supposed that Jenny spoke with friends who were closer about the whole thing, how if felt having sex with two different guys on consecutive nights, every week. I wondered about it, but I never asked.

More mechanics: A few years post college a guy friend reported to me a woman he knew said that her breasts were so sensitive, she had orgasms when she got felt up. I believed it then. Now I’m like, hmm, I doubt it. But maybe it was true?

AIDS came around in the ‘80s, and people had to be more careful. But by then most of my friends were getting married. A few years later we had babies, and then it was all about our kids. I remember a friend going on a “second honeymoon,” theater and an overnight stay at the Plaza Hotel, while her parents watched their young boys. She and her husband had sex four times during that 24-hour period. We were all envious. Sex had already become something that could be interrupted by a crying child, or just the mysterious appearance at your bedside of a sleepless child. Sex was something we sometimes wished were over already because we were soooo tired from working and being primary parent. Even the stay-at-home moms were soooo tired. Considering that most of my friends—since high school!—have been in marriages that are at least 30-years-long, and the ones who were divorced and then remarried are looking at 20-years or more . . . well, obviously we worked it out the sex thing with our partners. But it doesn’t really get talked about. These days, not even the mechanics. Maybe because we’re too married? Because we’re so rarely without our husbands socially? And when we are, it’s the important things that are top of our list: menopause and our grown kids.

Erica Jong did a wonderful thing for her accomplished daughter, Molly Jong-Fast, who has just published her third book, a novel, The Social Climbers Handbook (Villard). (Coming attractions—and that’s not a sex pun: I’ll be reviewing this on the “books” page of my site any day now.) Molly has an essay in Erica’s anthology discussing how, basically, when she was little, she just wanted her parents to put their clothes on. As part of the publicity for Erica’s book, she and Molly have been doing a mother/daughter tour. Monday 6/13 they’ll appear on the Gayle King radio show XM 201/SIRIUS 111 at 10:35 a.m. EDT and on Wednesday June 15 at the 92nd Street Y in New York City at 8 p.m.; visit 92y.org online for information. I can’t imagine this ever happening to me—I mean the mother/daughter tour—even if I ever managed to talk about, let alone write about, sex. When my daughter was about 10 and I tried to sit down and talk to her about sex, she said, “Don’t bother mom. I have a 14-year-old friend”—meaning the girl next door.  “I already know everything.” And that may be a good thing because evidently, judging by what Erica and her writers have done, I don’t know how to talk about sex.

As always, I’d love you to comment at the bottom of the page. Here’s what I’d like to know.

  • Do Boomers talk about sex? Are we prudes these days? Did we turn into prudes. If so, why?
  • Do Boomers talk to their kids about sex? Can you imagine pulling off the Erica and Molly show? My 28-year-old son still covers my eyes if we’re watching a movie and there’s a sex scene.
  • Do our kids have different attitudes about sex than we did? I think so. I think that they were actually more casual than we were and that there is still a horrible double standard.
  • Should we be talking about sex with our friends? With our partners, most definitely. With our friends, probably. But how, after 25 years, do we begin these conversations?

Sugar in My Bowl will be formally released on 6/14/11. Meanwhile, you can read excerpts at http://bit.ly/jNnjLs. For ordering and sale information, look at my book review page on this site: http://Generationbsquared.com/what-boomers-read. Also, Erica did a great job on “Hardball” with Chris Matthews talking about why men take sexual risks: http://t.co/G2Nw8uf.

Comments? Please, comments.

Sugar In My Bowl

I’m giving Erica Jong’s new collection of essays and stories about sex to my 25-year-old daughter, and I’m going to tell her to read Ms. Jong’s daughter’s essay first. As far as sentiment goes, my daughter could have written that. Not that I provided her with the kind of material Jong gave Molly. Look, I came of age in the 70′s. So I used to have few inhibitions. But when the children came into our lives, my husband and I put our clothes on. And our kids would prefer never to speak to us about anything to do with sex. When my son was younger, he would cover my eyes if we were watching a movie with a sex scene.One amazing thing about Jong’s collection is how various, how new (to sort of quote Shakespeare) each writer is in her approach to sex. Karen Abbott’s “Herman and Margot” tackles sex between the elderly with grace and beauty. Ariel Levy’s “My First Time, Twice” captures the naivete that even a precocious teen can’t escape.

Erica Jong jumped onto our radar screen in 1973 with Fear of Flying and her idea of the “zipless fuck.” She  has been writing with wit and ease about women’s sexual desires ever since. Now she has curated great writing about sex from a diverse group of women writers of all ages. It is a book even prudes will devour. (Click on the cover picture for the Barnes & Noble website and pre-order information.)

Wrinkles Happen

Marc Freedman thinks this Baby Boomer stuff is all about “encore careers” or “the big shift”—a new stage when we can embrace a fresh outlook on life and think positively about what we are able to contribute to society.

He’s wrong. It’s really about wrinkles.

This past weekend I attended an amazing conference on social media at the Columbia University School of Journalism. Spearheaded by former students of the J School’s Dean of Students, Sree Sreenivasan (who was all over it for the entire 2 ½ days, and, actually, really remembers the names of hundreds upon hundreds of people, if not their Twitter handles), attendees had a chance to consult with “social media doctors” and get free headshots for their Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, About.me or whatever accounts.

The photographers were lively and earnest—and had volunteered their time. So I had my headshots done twice. And they are totally awful.

This has nothing to do with the photographers’ skills. It has to do with the fact that I’ve gone all crinkly around the eyes, even when I’m wearing foundation and powder. And my neck, oh, my neck. I now know completely why Nora Ephron wrote her book I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts About Being a Woman.

I don’t know when my neck began to look so . . . old. For almost all my life I’ve looked a lot younger than my age. I’m short (very), and so from far away people think I’m a chubby kid. Also, due the miracles of modern hairdressers, my hair is still brownish/blondish. However, it too has changed. I used to have nice wavy hair. Now it’s curly and coarse. On good days it looks OK. When I’ve been to the hairdresser and gotten a profession blow-dry, it looks great. On muggy day, it’s worse than frizzy. Pulling my hair back into a ponytail this morning before I went to the gym, I noticed that my face was surrounded by an aura of “wispies” (what ballet teachers used to call the hairs that slipped out of tightly wound buns).

So I posted on FB that I needed someone who was good with Photoshop to take out the wrinkles and frizz. A high school friend (actually we were in nursery school together; that’s what they called it back then) commented that she couldn’t help, but she felt my pain. Another friend said her sister Photoshopped hers. Cecilia is young enough to have no wrinkles and kind of looks like Sophia Loren. I have no idea what her sibling could have done to make her look better.

So now that I have visible proof of my age in the form of un-photoshopped professionally taken headshots, I decided to come up with “The Baby Boomer’s Seven Wrinkle Principles.”

  • Own your wrinkles. I won’t follow this at all. But if I could, it would be really healthy, I think, you know, psychologically. I know a lot of people my age who have let their gray hair shine in, (I’m thinking of the musical Hair). I admire them. But, not me.
  • Always use sunscreen. This one is really smart. Sunscreen can help prevent skin cancer along with those sun-begat age spots. However, how is someone supposed to get a suntan if she’s wearing SPF 80?
  • Get great with makeup. So what one does is go to someplace like Bloomingdales, Saks or Nordstrom when a cosmetics line is hosting a visiting make-up artist. Get a free makeover; ask lots of questions; and if they have a diagram, make them fill it out. You don’t have to buy anything: you can say you want to see how it all feels after a few hours. If you do like the products, you can always go back with your diagram. I’ve been using by Lancôme for years, which is expensive and probably not much different from Maybelline. I’ve always thought about taking my diagram to CVS or RiteAid and seeing if I can match the colors at a much lower price. (But this little part of me actually believes the expensive stuff works. So much for science.) The trick is to rotate stores and vendors and get as much beauty advice as you can. I’ve been doing this for a while, but since I hate the way a heavy foundation or powder feels, my wrinkles still show. Hence my need for Photoshop. (You can also MAKE your own lipgloss—a tip for the frugal among us. Here’s a link to the video: WATCH: Homemade Lip Gloss http://huff.to/lf8bX8).
  • Botox. Next.
  • Plastic surgery. As if I could afford it. But I think I might do it. Think=know. Not scared, just broke.
  • Moisturizers. So I use this expensive fancy schmancy stuff from Lancôme, and I’ve been using it for years. Guess what? I still have wrinkles. Consumer Reports gives its highest rating to Olay Regenerist UV Defense Regenerating Lotion, and you can buy a 2.5 ounce tube on Amazon for $8.99 (Facial Moisturizers: Best Face Moisturizer Reviews http://bit.ly/lilWuP). But now read this: “One popular misconception involves the relationship between dry skin and wrinkles. Scientists say a moisturizer will smooth skin to temporarily make wrinkles less apparent, but moisturizing your skin will not have any long-term effect on wrinkles.” (Facial Moisturizers Reviews http://bit.ly/kQY58p)
  • Get advice from “wrinkle” blogs. Yes, they’re usually trying to sell you something. You can look at Dr. Alex’s Shrink Your Wrinkles blog (http://www.shrinkyourwrinkles.com/blog/). Or this: Cosmetics Cop on arresting wrinkles | Style Notes blog | The Indianapolis Star | indystar.com http://bit.ly/mn06lE. Or read the always brilliant Tara Parker-Pope in The New York Times (WRINKLES – Well Blog – NYTimes.com http://nyti.ms/kNzAUM).

A friend just posted a picture of me taken over last weekend. I’m asking a question into a microphone. For some reason I’m looking up. To the ceiling. My neck is stretched out in all its wrinkly glory. Thanks for the photo, Rafiq. You are a great guy, but I am not going to post a link to that picture.

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Hey readers: along with posting comments to my FB, you can also post them to this blog. The “comments” box is at the bottom of the post, and the more you comment, the better I do in search engines. Sharing this link on FB also makes me visible to your friends who aren’t my friends (it’s beginning to sound like a little kid song). So, thanks. And for those of you who have wondered what happened to my blog on Blogher—well, it’s gone, along with three years of work, and it wasn’t completely my fault. I made a query about how to cancel the blog, and they just did it. My “How to Get on Facebook” column is coming, soon, I promise. That one you can print out for your friends who are still saying, “I don’t know. What’s in it for me?” because I’ll show what’s in it for them.

Here’s Marc Freedman’s book. It’s really good, though I have other ideas too. I’m going to talk about it in a column one of these days. Marci Alboher likes it a lot, and she’s the best. (You can follow her on Twitter @HeyMarci.) Finally, if you are inclined to read either book mentioned, I suggest your public library, a wonderful institution I have recently re-discovered. If you are the purchase-book kind of person or want to download it to your nook click on either book cover, you’ll go right to BarnesandNoble.com. For your Kindle, well, now you know the name of the book. Amazon will take care of the rest.