Assured, alluring and resourceful, she’s open to sex, love, new dreams and spirituality.

Published: January 8, 2006

In her books about adult development, including her landmark “Passages,” Contributing Editor Gail Sheehy has inspired women and men to think about the possibilities inherent at every stage of life. In her latest book, “Sex and the Seasoned Woman,” published this month by Random House, Sheehy reports on the emergence of a new phenomenon in female growth. Traveling across the country, Sheehy spoke with women from their 40s to their 90s. What she found may change how we think about ourselves–and the women in our lives. Here is an adaptation from the book.

A Seasoned woman is spicy. She has been marinated in life experience. Like a complex wine, she can be alternately sweet, tart, sparkling, mellow. She can be maternal and playful. Assured, alluring and resourceful. She is less likely than a younger woman to have an agenda–no biological clock ticktocking beside her lover’s bed, no campaign to lead him to the altar, no rescue fantasies. The seasoned woman knows who she is. She could be any one of us, as long as she is committed to living fully and passionately in the second half of life. “Sex” and “older women” used to be considered an oxymoron, rarely mentioned in the same breath. It was assumed that a woman’s sexual pilot light was extinguished by menopause, and she was content to slip into the desexualized role of on-call grandma and caretaker for whatever members of the family got old and sick first or whined the loudest. Do people really think we all trade the delights of touching and being touched for some hobby utilizing yarn? What makes a woman seasoned? Time. This year, the oldest Boomer-generation women turn 60; the youngest are 41. This is a new universe of passionate, liberated women–married and single–who are unwilling to settle for the stereotypical roles of middle age and are now realizing they don’t have to. They are open to sex, love, dating, new dreams, exploring spirituality and revitalizing their marriages as never before. They are rediscovering who they are, or who they set out to be before they became wrapped up in the roles of their First Adulthood, when their primary focus was on nurturing children, husbands or careers–or all three. Now millions of them are bursting out into a whole new territory: a Second Adulthood.

This is a huge cultural shift, making possible what I call the Pursuit of the Passionate Life. Carole Smith is not young, not thin, not rich and not gorgeous, but she is one of most sensual and satisfied women I met in the course of my research. “Dating over 50 is great,” she enthuses in one of the many group interviews I’ve held with women 50 or over. “I’m looking for fun and companionship and romance.” Before she can finish, another woman interrupts: “You don’t go as far as sex? “Oh, I have a lot of sex,” Carole says, her voluptuous chest rippling with hearty laughter. It isn’t the first guess one would make about Carole. She is a 50-year-old manager of a doctor’s office who has been divorced for more than 20 years. Her naturally full body is probably 50 pounds over the national standard. She describes herself as “a big, bubbly, fun-loving Jersey girl.” When asked how sex has changed for her from 40 to 50, she tosses her hair and grins. “Better,” she says. “I don’t have to worry about getting pregnant. And I haven’t had the same trouble separating the ‘mother me from the ‘sexual me’ since I launched my child. If you’re a sensual person, by the time you’re 50, you’ve become much better at it. And it can be just about you and him.” Carole had a lot of lost time to make up for, having married at the age of 19. Before she was 23, this good Catholic mom was separated and left alone with a 2-year-old boy. The struggle of mothering while working full-time drained her energies. Her desire for men and sex fell dormant. At 42, she decided to start dating, but how? She bought a new computer and asked her son how to access the Internet. “The first man I met online was pivotal in my life,” she says, but when he asked her for a picture, she backed off. He pressed to meet her in person. She confessed that she was afraid to meet and that she was, well, oversized. “Hey,” he responded, “I’m a big guy. My ex-wife was big. I like big.” He was a police officer like her first husband, and Carole says she will love that man forever. Unfortunately, she admits, she zeroed in on him as her next husband. Weighted with Carole’s repressed desires of two decades, the relationship collapsed. “Even though it didn’t work out, he got me out of the house,” she says. “The universe sent me exactly what I needed–not a husband, not a soul mate, but knowledge.” Carole’s big guy is what I like to call the Pilot Light Lover–a transitional figure who appears in many of the stories of seasoned women I have interviewed. The Pilot Light Lover reignites a midlife woman’s capacity for love and sex. He seldom lasts. But he gave Carole the confidence to try online dating, which she found to be a candy jar full of interesting men who became lovers or friends. She has, by now, developed a truly seasoned woman’s philosophy of life: “I may never get that perfect soul mate, but you know what?” she says, raising her glass of sparkling water and rolling her eyes. “I’m going to have a heck of a time trying.” Sexual revitalization is only one of three paths to a more passionate life.

In my interviews, women routinely describe the “aha! moment” that came sometime in their 40s or 50s, when they realized, “I don’t have a new dream.” This is more than a search for a new hobby. It is truly a new concept of your self in the world–one that will generate exhilaration and commitment to the future. I bumped into an embodiment of this principle, literally, when I heard a neighbor walking down our street in New York one evening, singing “On the Street Where You Live.” She wasn’t just humming, she was swinging her arms and warbling. Madeline is an attractive journalist and photographer in her late 50s. She appeared to have had quite a glamorous existence, living much of the time abroad with a successful husband. What I didn’t know was that Madeline had been depressed and in limbo since she extracted herself from a marriage where both sex and emotional intimacy had drastically deteriorated. Valiant attempts to find a spark within the singles scene had only deepened her loneliness. For her, the path out of darkness would not be through sex or romance. “I’m taking voice lessons,” she told me, as excited as a child. “I keep singing this song over and over! It’s like not being able to eat enough chocolate. I always got great pleasure from singing, whether it was singing my son to sleep or singing in the car.” But when she sang, her husband and son would admonish her to be quiet so they could listen to “real singers” on the radio. Madeline was always afraid to try out for a chorus, and it was only now, at 58, that she was giving in to her core passion for expressing joy through music. She will never achieve her girlhood dream of singing backup for Stevie Wonder, of course, but that’s not the point. Singing reawakened her hunger for intimacy, physical touch, someone to dance with, and she is dating again. “It gives me a passionate thrill,” Madeline says about her new dream. “I can only liken it to that feeling of when you’ve just met somebody. I feel like I’ve got a crush on singing.” A third path to the passionate life is through spiritual exploration.

“You don’t have to be divorced to evolve,” Sandy McCall, a silver-haired psychotherapist tells a group of seasoned Texas women who have gathered for an interview with me. Sandy describes herself as “a small-town woman with red-state values, a marriage of almost 40 years, two grandkids and a sex life that is still extremely satisfying, though probably not as often.” The other women nod in recognition. “I think all women in their 40s or 50s come to a choice,” she continues, “but mine was not a sexual revolution. It came from a desire of the spirit to be set free.” She pauses, then blurts a strong religious metaphor: “Mine was a death and resurrection.” Sandy started off like millions of women who came of age in the ’60s. Nobody then asked a woman what she wanted to do. It was assumed she would want what her husband wanted. In Sandy’s case, Ron wanted her to support his dream of becoming a doctor. After teaching to put him through med school and raising their four children, Sandy arrived at midlife longing for a new identity. Going back to school and gaining a psychotherapy degree did not change the pattern now well-etched into her marriage: “I was the dissatisfied one,” Sandy tells our group. “I thought it was my turn. I wanted to be heard.” She began to explore her suspended religious faith, attending the conservative Christian church in town. Once she began defining her values and her core self outside the realm of her marriage, Sandy’s self-confidence began to build. Ron could not relate to what she called her “faith walk.” Their arguments became bitter, repetitive, exhausting. Love is never free of the struggle over balance of power.

As a couple enters midlife, resentments may surface. One partner may declare an ultimatum: Either things change, or this relationship will be over. The McCalls agreed on a trial separation. Each would pursue separate counseling. At some point, they’d get back together and see if they “meshed.” Five months later, Sandy and Ron were resigned to divorce. Then she ruptured a disc in her back, and her husband stopped by to bring her dinner. People were telling him the same thing, he said to her: “She needs to know how tough it’s going to be without you.” Sandy’s response came from her core: “Then they must not understand our relationship,” she said, “because I know what it’s like to be without you. I don’t have a clue what it’s like to be with you.” From that moment on, the disruption in the old balance began to be different, interesting, yeasty. Sandy suggested that they go out on a date and get to know each other again. When they did, they talked about the things newly dating couples talk about–movies, books, what they like, who they are and “would you care for another glass of wine?” When he walked her to the door, he reached for the knob. She laid her hand gently on his. “No. I don’t do that on the first date,” she said. After two months of dating, they took a weekend trip to Santa Fe. For the first time, he agreed to go to the opera with her; and, for the first time she relented on going for a balloon ride with him. Ron could see that the woman he’d once known as his wife was, in reality, becoming reborn. They began to discuss how, as part of their “new contract,” they might rebuild the marriage on a faith foundation that was bigger than the two of them.

Finding a basis for a faith they could share has been important in allowing this seasoned couple to move on to a true and lasting love. Sandy was in her mid-40s when she set off on her midlife passage. She is 59 now and looking forward to more serenity in her 60s. Once you commit to pursuing the passionate life, any one of these three paths may start you on the journey. A sexual resurgence may be the stimulus for a burst of new hopes and a personal renaissance that is also spiritual. Or the decision to follow a new dream, and the wit and work it takes to build it, can generate the gradual transformation from a two-dimensional young woman into a flourishing seasoned woman. And the seasoned spiritual woman, animated as she is by a purpose beyond the maintenance of self, is a naturally seductive creature. Sex, passion and soul go together.

What a Seasoned Woman Offers
· · “what-the-hell, life-is-short” joie de vivre
· · Emotional stability
· · Financial independence
· · The ability to talk about anything
· · No ticking biological clock or toddlers underfoot
· · Knowledge of what she wants sexually and the appreciation of a good lover

What a Seasoned Woman Wants
· · Romance, fun, flirting, finesse
· · Good conversation
· · Mutual sexual pleasure with emotional connection
· · Not to be tied down
· · Men who are not threatened by her accomplishments
· · She wants to go dancing!

See Events Page for Sexuality events for women this summer and fall.