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Older Sex Comes out of the Closet

It's a watershed event when the mainstream media praise a book titled 'Scary Old Sex'

Arlene Heyman

Dan Callister/Writer Pictures/AP

Arlene Heyman's "Scary Old Sex" dispels myths about boomers and sex.

Could sex between older partners finally be enjoying its moment in the cultural sun? That's what I joyfully concluded after seeing the laurels rain down on a new short-story collection about later-life lust.

Ignoring the book's dreadful title — Scary Old Sex — Vogue magazine hailed its author, 74-year-old Arlene Heyman, as "a major figure on the literary landscape."

The New York Times, meanwhile, gushed that Heyman "pays such sustained and stylish attention to late-life lovemaking that you may feel you are reading about it for the first time."

Even the discerning New Yorker climbed aboard the Heyman wagon, praising the "fierce candor" with which her stories "examine the sexuality of older women, a demographic generally assumed to have none to speak of."

Having just read Scary Old Sex, I second the hosannas. And I celebrate the fact that an edgy and explicit book about sex among boomers (and beyond) has grabbed the mainstream-media spotlight. Heyman crafted the stories from her imagination, but when you encounter the rich inner voices here — and the even richer fantasies — you can't help wondering how much she may have drawn from her "day job," as well: Heyman has been a practicing psychiatrist for 40 years.

Marginally depressed but far from repressed, the older protagonists of these stories pursue and participate in sex, and their after-action pillow talk is anything but Hollywood precious: In one story, a sexually frustrated wife berates her husband for being too fastidious to give her anal sex. So although Scary Old Sex was written by a grandmother, it is most certainly not your grandmother's short-story collection.

When I contacted Heyman at her apartment on Manhattan's Upper West Side, I discovered that the author of the most sexually adventurous book I've read in a long time is refreshingly unsentimental about her topic: "Fantasies are private, perverse and different for each person," Heyman observes. "They really have no deeper meaning — the point is to help you come." And if people recognize themselves in her book, says Heyman, more power to them: "Perhaps they will say, 'Oh, this character has that fantasy; maybe my own fantasy is not so shameful.'" (Indeed, after one recent bookstore appearance, a satisfied reader approached the author to thank her for "striking a blow for women who want orgasms.")

Heyman considers herself both an explorer of the sexual landscape and a tour guide, jazzed by the prospect of "getting in there" and "excavating people's intimate lives." As she puts it, "I have never been 74 before — it's an adventure! I go into the dark woods and look around with my flashlight: What's going on here?

"The territory could stand some illuminating, that's for sure," Heyman continues. "The way old people are portrayed in the movies, for example, is painful: Either they're eccentric or they are these cute, cuddly babysitters. But instead of being stereotyped as old codgers, they should be portrayed as people who have sex with one another, people who have jealousy and passion and intense relationships and full lives."

So let's hear it for older sex — messy, hungry, pragmatic, intimate, distant, private and vulnerable sex — and let's hear it for a publisher (Bloomsbury USA) with the good sense to publish this intense look at older people having at each other. Because who knows where this cultural wave will crest: A year from now, might #OldPeopleHavingSex earn its hashtag moment?

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