I was prepared to love this book even before I opened it. Scary Old Sex — what a title! — and it was written by Arlene Heyman, who had been a classmate of mine at Bennington College in the 1960s. We didn’t know each other well, but her reputation as a brilliant writer, certain to succeed, was well-known even then. Now Heyman, a therapist/psychoanalyst in New York City, has written a stunning collection of stories, some (not all) of which feature people our age. What I love most is that her characters, whether old or younger, have bodies and sex drives and sometimes quirky ways of living with both.
This collection is not erotica, and many of the stories are not directly about sex at all. Some of the characters are old; others are not. But overall, the characters’ sexual behavior and longings; their feelings about sex, their own bodies and their partners’ bodies; the effects of the passing of years on sexual expression and desire; and how relationships work (or not) — all of this provides both chaos and clarity about how we age as sexual beings.
For example, in “The Loves of Her Life,” 65-year-old Marianne needs both Vagifem and a progression of explicit fantasies in order to make love with her second husband, 70-year-old Stu. “For them, making love was like running a war: plans had to be drawn up, equipment in tiptop condition, troops deployed and coordinated meticulously, there was no room for maverick actions lest the country end up defeated and at each other’s throats.”
In “Dancing,” Matt, who is hospitalized for cancer treatment, must devise constant work-arounds for the pain when he tries to eat. Yet he is absorbed by how to make love to his wife, Ann, despite the fear that their tongues touching might kill him, as immunosuppressed as he is. Their resolution: he triple-gloves his hand, they both wear masks (she also wears a hospital gown, hairnet and booties, taking no chances), and he brings her to orgasm manually. “And he wept. Because she came and because it was over so fast and they were back to themselves with her underpants down around her ankles, the pad beneath her, and leukemia.”
Sometimes the bodies Heyman describes sound quite alien — except that we (who have lived this long) know them to be ours: “Aged flesh is so fertile, grows excrescences: papules, papillomas, skin tags, moles that have to be checked yearly; yet the hair thins out, underarm and pubic, as if the soil had changed to one that no longer supports that verdant shrubbery, but instead nourishes an astonishing variety of wild mushrooms — beautiful, if you have an eye.”
I highly recommend Scary Old Sex if you’re fond of literary short stories and you’re willing to look at aging, bodies, relationships, and sex with a magnifying glass.
I invited Arlene Heyman to answer a few questions:
JP: Kudos for this collection of beautifully crafted short stories that portray our age group with compassion and insight. Your scenes of older-age sex are powerful because they are realistic and fully human – no caricatures, no derision, no skipping the joys and challenges of sex in older bodies. What went into your decision to write about “old sex” this way?
AH: I didn’t decide to write about old sex. Scary Old Sex contains two stories about old people and their sexuality; five other stories are about people of different ages. There is sexuality and the body in almost all of the stories, because the body is with us throughout life and we live to a great extent through it.
JP: Were the sex scenes difficult to write?
AH: I think it is hard to write about sex at any age. The Guardian ran 3 articles about writing about sex, one by a guy in his twenties, one by a woman in her forties, one by me in my seventies) and we were all scared to death of what others would think of us. Frankly, I think it’s hard to write about anything. I find writing very difficult. Some great writer said, “Oh, writing is easy. You just sit down at the typewriter and open a vein.” (Note from Joan: this quote has been attributed to Red Smith, Paul Gallico, and Ernest Hemingway.)
JP: Why do you think it’s so rare to find books that treat older people as sexual beings?
AH: I think it’s because of oedipal taboos that it’s rare to find books that deal with old adults having sex. The little girl loves her mother, then her father; the boy loves his mother, and then again his mother until the age of 5 or 6. Everyone who has had children and was open-minded saw that the boy wants to marry mommy and the girl daddy.
Then the passionate intensity goes underground and in adolescence the main job is breaking the passionate attachment to parents and turning the passion towards one’s peers. It is a period of mourning, of giving up the parents, and it is hard.(It is also a time of great excitement because one is entering the larger world.).
Part of the way one turns away from the parents is by finding them disgusting as sexual objects. One tries not to think of them as sexual. That barrier one has to set up to start out on one’s own life remains firmly in place. And it extends throughout life: one views one’s parents as asexual throughout life. Old people are people’s parents. They must be asexual.
And then old people do it to themselves; they neuter themselves as they had to neuter their parents. Hence, books about sex in old age–disgusting. And no one writes them.
JP: What else would you like my readers to know?
AH: A fiction writer doesn’t have an ax to grind. I’m not a politician. I didn’t write that book to propagandize anyone. As a person, I do hope to stay alive until I’m dead, and part of being alive is having a body. I wish for myself (and so I suppose for your readers) to think freely, know what I think, and to try to act on it so long as it doesn’t hurt myself or another person. Life, more life!