Saturday Night, June 1993
There’s an old maxim — “few things are more boring than hearing about other people’s sex lives” — that book publishers seem determined to confirm with this year’s offering. Sexually correct attitudes replaced politically correct ones as authors — the ones who weren’t blurting out their own intimate adventures — tried to fit some kind of genital template over all of Western civilization. First came Camille Paglia, with her latest meditation on estrogen, fast-food restaurants and their connection with the later poetry of Gertrude Stein. A more traditional collection of dirty secrets, Wendy Dennis’s Hot And Bothered, followed. Dennis apparently plied some of her suburban neighbors with off-market Sodium Pentothal, interrogated them about their sex lives, and sold the result as pop psychology. Germaine Greer’s latest excursion into sexual politics, The Change, has, in true Greer fashion, taken her through another 180-degree turn. First, she told us that families were bad. Then they were great. Then everyone else’s family was great, but hers was bad. Next, Greer decreed, sex and love were wonderfully liberating. Now Greer has published an entire book crowing that menopause has freed her from the pointless tyranny of her hormones.
Valerie Gibson is not ready to give up so easily. The author of a “humorous and instructive look at [the] increasingly popular trend” of older women dating younger men, Gibson is perhaps the oddest entrant in the season’s sex-book sweepstakes. Her own experience is germane. “After winning (and losing) a million dollars in a lottery and having the latest relationship disintegrate,” her dust jacket biography reads, “she returned, broke and defiant, to journalism, as fashion editor of the Toronto Sun.” As if that weren’t triumph enough, Gibson recently married a man she proudly points out is fourteen years her junior. Before settling down to her current (fifth) bout of matrimonial bliss, Gibson had found that most of her male contemporaries weren’t up to what she, at fifty-three, expected of them in the sack. Younger men, by comparison, were capable of having more sex in more places with less preparation, less coaxing and fewer emotional attachments.
Gibson figured she could save other women countless minutes of grappling with these problems if she distilled her own experience into a helpful little volume, titled The OLDER Woman’s Guide To YOUNGER Men. (Notice the use of upper-case words to give the cover that folksy, non-threatening touch usually found only on hand-lettered signs posted in junkyards and very cheap motels: PLEASE! Do “not” FLUSH paper TOWELLS down they will “CLOG” toilet! “PARK” and “LOCK” it. Not Responsible Thank-You The Management.)
Sex is universal, but you could charge Paglia, Dennis and Greer with viewing as the sole preserve of wealthy, college-educated white folks. Gibson makes no such mistake. She knows there are younger men whose experience and background differ from her own. She claims to have had sex with most of them. And being a thoroughly modern, plugged-in type — a journalist, after all — she’s tried to include every kind in her brief survey of consenting grandmothers and men half their age.
There are, to be precise, fourteen different types of younger men, according to Gibson. For example, the New Age Man “could be more into Mind than Sex,” she writes. The best place to meet this type is at the library by talking about “your out-of-body experiences (even if you only really know about the in-bed, in-body ones), shedding the yoke of earthly inhibitions and your Elizabethan herb garden.” Sadly, Gibson never really tells the reader how to shed the yoke of an Elizabethan herb garden. Instead, she moves on to consider the other thirteen varieties of younger men deemed suitable quarry for elderly females on the make, covering a couple of different political philosophies, two income brackets, both sexual orientations, and something called The Non-WASP.
It’s under this last heading that Gibson demonstrates that she’s “with it,” that she’s kept up with the times, that she can “rap” with the youth of today in their own kooky argot, man. She knows you’re not supposed to make fun of people on the basis of their nationalities or racial origins. “The first thing you do when dating a non-WASP,” she advises, “is buy the relevant cookbook . . . . You’ll show a willingness to communicate beyond the bedroom and at least he can go home and praise your cooking.” (Or he could, if she hadn’t told us one paragraph earlier that “young non-WASPs are skilled at keeping facts hidden that will give their families heart attacks. Dating on Older Woman is one of them.”)
We learn that “non-WASPs have customs. This can mean anything from having the bed facing Mecca, to him sprinkling holy water over the sheets before sex.” There are other disadvantages to non-WASPs: they drink too much of their “national beverage” and then depend on you for a lift home, and many “are dark and hairy. This means having enough hairs in your bed to knit a sweater.” On the positive side, non-WASPs are good-looking when they’re young, and “are often very interesting in bed. They have never read Masters and Johnson and often have some very unusual ideas as to what turns a woman on. They’re often right.” In summary, writes Gibson, “you could say that dating young non-WASPs helps world togetherness — a noble New Age ideal. Short term. Could be shorter if his father is a member of the Chinese triads.”
Paglia, Dennis and Greer may have grabbed all the headlines, but, according to its publisher, The OLDER Woman’s Guide To YOUNGER Men has sold briskly. In many ways, Gibson’s book is the most reassuring, the most cosmopolitan, of them all. We’re now so comfortable with sex that we can snigger about it and blurt clumsy innuendos, just like those fancy-pants Europeans. And we’re so tolerant of our friends from foreign lands that we can actually consider dating them, but only under certain conditions. If, for example, we figure the relationship might lead to something more lasting. Like a book.