Wednesday, November 19, 2008

“I am not easily repulsed”: interview with Mary Roach

Mary Roach writes books on weird scientific research about subjects we’ve all wondered about. She is the author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers, Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife, and – her latest and my favorite – Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex. I’ve long enjoyed Roach’s quirky style that often has me chortling as I read. Reading a whole book about my favorite topic (sex, not cadavers) was delicious.

In a separate blog post, I've reviewed Bonk and quoted delightful tidbits that will send you running to read the book and give it to all your friends. Here with my interview with the author, Mary Roach:

JP: As cool-headed and sharp-witted as you are, some parts of your research must have embarrassed or repulsed you. What do you wish you had never done or learned, and why? Tell the truth!

MR: As readers of Stiff have probably figured out, I am not easily repulsed. At least not by the physical. I am repulsed by close-mindedness, petty hatred, greed, intolerance, ignorance. But not penises or vaginas or sex. But bear in mind, I was hanging out in sex labs, not fringe sex clubs South of Market. Honestly, it's pretty tame stuff. Embarrassment-wise, well, there was the Dr. Deng scenario. Ed and I were scanned in 4-D ultrasound in the act. That was awkward, for sure, but I knew how much fun it was going to be to write it up, and so it hardly bothered me. Mostly, I felt guilty for dragging my husband into the fray.

JP: What have you seen or learned since you finished the book that you wish you could have included?

MR: Oh, people are always emailing me or coming up to me at talks and dropping all manner of irresistible tidbits that I wish I'd known about while working on the book. One man raised his hand and said, "Are you aware of the phenomenon of surfing sperm?" Apparently they surf the secretions on the vaginal walls. Another man, a gynecologist now in his seventies, emailed to tell me a story that William Masters had told him about meeting a bishop or cardinal, I forget which. His Holiness had asked to hear about the research Masters and Johnson were doing. He listened quite intently, and when Masters had finished speaking, he said, "Very good. Your work might serve to prevent a lot of divorces. Of course, if I am asked about it in public, I will condemn you." Would have loved to include those!

JP: My blog is directed at older readers (most are 60-80) who are interested in sex. What did you learn specific to elder sex, aside from Viagra? If little or nothing, can you talk about why you think scientific research is NOT being done on elder sex, other than taking surveys? Is it the "ick factor," as I call it?

MR: There was a large survey that was published not long ago about frequency of sex and satisfaction levels among people over 75, I think it was. The problem, as I recall it, was that so many of the women at that age were widows. I didn't cover this because as you know it's a book about laboratory-based sex research -- the physiological stuff: arousal and orgasm and such. Rather than the behavioral issues. I cover the two physiological old-age biggies -- erectile dysfunction in men and libido issues in women. I had wanted to include a chapter specifically on sex in the upper reaches of old age, but physiologically speaking, it seemed to be a matter of degree, rather than unique issues. In other words, more ED and lower libido... I don't think of sex researchers as people who easily succumb to the ick factor -- my god, look at Marcalee Sipski and her orgasm work with quadriplegics. If they were, they wouldn't have gotten into arousal and orgasm research in the first place. Then again, I think old age is actually more of a taboo than sex these days, so perhaps it is the ick factor that keeps researchers away.

JP: What's the most unusual experience you had while promoting this book? I imagine people came up to you and told you all sorts of things you'd rather not know.

MR: Call-in radio shows are always entertaining. The DJs will often bill me as a therapist or a researcher, and then open up the lines and say, "We'll be taking ALL your questions on sex!" And I'm in the studio with this panicked look, mouthing NOOOOOO! Because I'm a writer -- I only know about what I wrote about in the book. I don't know, say, whether it's a myth that the Hoo-ha tribe in the Amazon has blue testicles or what the best natural alternative to Viagra is. People do come up after readings and confide all manner of intimate things. It doesn't bother me. I guess I'm used to it. I just wish I had better answers for them.

JP: What's the next book (if you've decided)?

MR: Yes, I'm writing about the fabulous insanity of space travel, of staying alive in a world for which we are utterly ill-equipped. Lots of fun aeromedical history stuff, field trips to Moscow and the Japanese Space Agency, etc.

[Read my review of Mary Roach's Bonk here.]

Sunday, November 16, 2008

“Can I vote on your marriage?”

“Can I vote on your marriage?”
“Straight but not narrow”
“Give love a chance”
“Please let my Dads stay married”
“Marriage is defined by commitment, not genitalia”

These were a few of the signs carried by almost 2,000 people who marched yesterday in Santa Rosa, CA, part of an effort around the country to protest California’s passage of Proposition 8 banning gay marriage. Our own Sonoma County voted 66% against the proposition, but the state as a whole passed it.

Why was I there? I am committed to the belief that we should all be equal under the law -- which seems so obvious that I am horrified, mystified, and embarrassed that Prop. 8 passed.

Beyond that, I had the profound and exhilarating experience of marrying-- spiritually and legally -- artist Robert Rice, the great love of my life. I know the depth, the joy, the emotional power of making that commitment.

Why deny the legal right to that same experience to committed couples who happen to be hardwired to love someone with the same genital configuration instead of the opposite?

I just don’t get it!

We marched yesterday, a rainbow of ages, colors, sexual orientations, united by one firm belief: equality under the law. Some walked nimbly, others were assisted by canes or crutches. Some pushed strollers, led dogs (often with their own signs or stickers), played instruments, or held hands. Many of the protesters were elders, I was happy to see, both gay and straight.

An amusing distraction was a man who carried a Bible and a sign that proclaimed, “God hates shrimp! (Leviticus)” In case you don’t know, the same book of the Old Testament that some people use to “prove” that God hates “sodomites” also includes this: “Whatsoever hath no fins nor scales in the waters, that shall be an abomination unto you.” In case you want to pursue this, visit the website devoted to this. (In case that makes you nervous, it’s a parody.)

I interviewed several elders about why they were there:

Liz Basile will be 81 next month. She left the Catholic church because of its positions on priest celibacy, abortion, and birth control. “I voted no on 8 because it’s just not fair,” she told me. “I’ve had two divorces – what did I do about the sanctity of marriage?”

Whitey Sterman, age 79, has two gay sons. “But I’d be here even if they weren’t gay,” he said.

“I think I’ll die still perplexed about why anyone cares what I do with my genitals,” Harley, a 68-year-old artist told me. Harley (who was a dear friend of Robert) is in a committed relationship with Hamlet Mateo, also an artist. “If I had waited for approval to be myself, I could never have lived my life.”

At a small group discussion afterwards, a grey-haired woman described the joy of being able to marry her partner of 15 years last October. Though she is dismayed that her marriage is no longer legally valid, she told us, “My marriage didn’t start last October, and it didn’t end on election day,”

I welcome comments on this and all my blog posts. If you'd like to comment but don't know how, click here. It's easy, really! If you have a website or a book related to the subject of this blog that you think we'd benefit from knowing about, feel free to include name and link. (No feeble excuses for blatent advertising, though, and no links to drugs or sites that I might consider questionable. If in doubt, ask me.)

Many thanks to Emily Evans for taking the photo above.

For more about this march, view a
gallery of 17 photos by the Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s Kent Porter and read the Santa Rosa Press Democrat’s coverage of the march.

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Has your kid helped you date?

Zosia Bielski, reporter with the Toronto-based Globe and Mail, is working on a story about Assisted Loving: True Tales of Double Dating with My Dad, the book by Bob Morris (see my review here). She'd like to talk to widows and widowers whose sons or daughters assisted them in their search for love, whether it was help with online dating, or setting you up with a date, or giving advice, or any other assistance. If you or someone you know might like to be interviewed on this subject, please email me and I'll put you in touch with Zosia.

Book lovers and gift buyers -- did you realize that you can view all of my book-review blog posts by clicking on the "books" label at the right? A good book is never outdated and is always appreciated! (Coming later this week -- my review of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex, a fascinating book by Mary Roach, and an interview with the author!)

Sunday, November 09, 2008

"Elderspeak" Hurts Our Health

How do you feel when a stranger, sales clerk, or health professional calls you "dear" or "sweetie"? In a widely reprinted New York Times article titled "In ‘Sweetie’ and ‘Dear,’ a Hurt for the Elderly" (October 6, 2008), writer John Leland reveals that elderspeak, "the sweetly belittling form of address" that we've all experienced, can have health consequences. In addition, if we accept and internalize that aging means we're forgetful or feeble, we don't live as long -- just by believing the negative image of aging.

Becca Levy, an associate professor of epidemiology and psychology at Yale University studies the health effects of belittling messages on elderly people. “Those who have more negative images of aging have worse functional health over time, including lower rates of survival," she says.

According to the New York Times article,

In a long-term survey of 660 people over age 50 in a small Ohio town, published in 2002, Dr. Levy and her fellow researchers found that those who had positive perceptions of aging lived an average of 7.5 years longer, a bigger increase than that associated with exercising or not smoking. The findings held up even when the researchers controlled for differences in the participants’ health conditions.

Health care workers are often the worst offenders of "elderspeak," believing that they are using affectionate terms rather than belittling ones. Yet elderspeak sends a message that we are incompetent, childlike, and need to be taken care of. Over time, people exposed constantly to this message actually become more dependent and withdrawn, less self-reliant or competent.

Personally, I wouldn't have guessed this. I'm about to turn 65 (tomorrow!) and I rather like terms of endearment, even from strangers. Robert used to love to go to a particular restaurant because the waitress called him "honey." I take these endearments as they're meant, as warm and friendly overtures, without belittling undertones that I'm incompetent or feeble.

But that may be because I know I am strong mentally (writing books) and physically (dancing, Pilates, lifting weights). If I had doubts about my abilities, perhaps elderspeak would reinforce them.

Certainly having positive images of aging is essential for moving through this part of our life journey with joy and energy -- but does a stranger or health professional calling us "sweetie" really call that into question? Not for me -- but I'd love to hear from you about this.

If it does bother you, do you speak up? Do you say, "My name is...." or respond, "Thank you, darling"?

Thursday, November 06, 2008

I'm a Juicy Tomato!

Many thanks to Susan Swartz for choosing me as one of her"Juicy Tomatoes": women over 50 who are role models of "ripe living."

Immodestly speaking, here's an excerpt from Susan's description of me:

JOAN PRICE, author of “Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk About Sex After Sixty” is another mighty challenger of stereotypes. Her mission is to promote ageless sexuality, not only to make it possible and enjoyable but to banish what she calls “the ick factor,” the prejudice that anyone over 50 is and should only be having sex in their dreams.

Unabashed, articulate and funny, Joan is one of the leading go-to experts when the subject has to do with sex and romance for those beyond the young and hard-bodied. I first met her when she was teaching an exercise class at my gym and now she’s all over the place, as an author, speaker and dance instructor.

Her blog, Betterthanieverexpected, talks about all those things you thought you and your girlfriends only discussed after multiple glasses of wine – like sex toys and the little bottle of slippery stuff you keep in the bedside drawer. Joan, who has a lovely personal story to share about finding love, romance and passion in her 50s, knows of what she writes. Visit her at

Susan Swartz is a northern California journalist, author and public radio commentator. She has been writing about women since the women's movement was new and she introduced to her readers a new "rising star in the women's movement" -- Gloria Steinem. One of Susan's more amusing claims to fame is that she is credited by the Oxford English Dictionary for inventing the term "bad hair day"!

Susan is the author of two books about "juicy living" based on interviews with women over 50 (some are way over 50!): THE JUICY TOMATOES GUIDE TO RIPE LIVING AFTER 50 and JUICY TOMATOES: Plain Truths, Dumb Lies and Sisterly Advice About Life After 50. Both are great gifts for the "juicy tomatoes" in your life!

Lovemaking Tips for Seniors: Funny or Insulting?

A reader sent these Lovemaking Tips for Seniors to me -- I don't know where they came from, though if you know, tell me -- I believe in crediting the author always. Please read them and my question to you at the end:

Lovemaking tips for seniors

1. Wear your glasses. Make sure your partner is actually in the bed.

2. Set timer for 3 minutes, in case you doze off in the middle.

3. Set the mood with lighting. (Turn them ALL OFF!)

4. Make sure you put 911 on your speed dial before you begin.

5. Write partner's name on your hand in case you can't remember.

6. Keep the polygrip close by so your teeth don't end up under the bed.

7. Have Tylenol ready in case you actually complete the act.

8. Make all the noise you want. The neighbors are deaf too.

9. If it works, call everyone you know with the good news.

10. Don't even think about trying it twice.

(This was sent [JP's note: in the original e-mail] in large type so you can read it.)

Now tell me -- are these tips funny? Are they insulting -- one more example of how our society stereotypes and ridicules seniors who are enthusiastic about sex? You tell me.

In my view they're clever, yes. But knowing how devastating it is to elders who lose their sexual ability without losing their emotional need for sex and intimacy, the tone is cruel. Or am I just a fuddy-duddy with no sense of humor about sex and aging? Educate me, readers. And please put your age on your comment so I see if the reactions are different for older readers.

Sunday, November 02, 2008

Discoveries Helping Me Move Through Grief

Robert died three months ago today. Although this post has nothing directly to do with sex, so many of you have sent me compassionate emails that I'd like to share what I wrote to my online grief support group today:

I've been working hard at finding ways to create some semblance of balance and -- dare I say it? -- moments of joy in my life amidst the powerful grief that comes in waves and knocks me to the ground. I'd like to share some things that have worked for me, just in case any of them might be useful to some of you. Feel free to add to the list if you have something to share that has worked for you.

Problem: Out of control crying had reduced me to a crazy, quivering mess and sometimes lasted days without a break, intensified by not being able to sleep for more than 2 hours at a time. I felt physically and mentally ill from the ravages of grief.

Solution: Doctor prescribed an antidepressant (for "situational depression" for six months), a sleeping pill, and a counselor. The combination has brought me indescribable relief. I still grieve and sometimes feel like I'm pedaling through peanut butter, but at least the elephant has stopped kicking me in the chest and stomach.

Problem: I knew journaling would help, but my writing fingers felt paralyzed for the first two months -- did I write memories of Robert and talk to him in my journal, or did I write about ways I was trying to move on? The two seemed to cancel each other out.

Solution: I started TWO journals. In one, I write to Robert and remember the special things he/we did and said. In the other, I write about my steps towards creating a new life: making new friends, insights from counselor and friends, little things that make me happy, if only for a minute. This has worked splendidly -- I write in one journal, then switch to the other.

Problem: Morning ritual was so special. After wonderful snuggling, Robert would say, "I'm going to make you coffee." He would get up, bring me the morning newspaper and coffee in bed. I would share something from the paper that might interest him, and sometimes he would just sit and watch me lovingly as I read, or he would go out to tend his garden. He painted a special bell (he was an artist ) for me to ring when I wanted a coffee refill. It was a glorious and loving start to the day, and without him, mornings felt so empty.

Solution: Replace missing ritual with new one. I cancelled the newspaper subscription (don't even miss it). Now I get out of bed, make my coffee the way he used to, but I bring it to my favorite chair that looks out on the yard and I write in my journal while I sip.

Problem: My world was Robert. I did much independently, don't get me wrong, but he was the one with whom I walked , danced, went out to dinner and films, talked about everything.

Solution: I reached out to old friends and made new ones. I thought about people whom I liked and would like to know better. Several had extended invitations to me, but I wasn't ready. I contacted them and made walking dates and coffee or dinner dates. Now I have people I can do things with, and they understand when I get tearful.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

"Ugly vagina"? Who came up with this?

Oh dear. I'm seldom surprised by any attitude about sexuality or body image, but today I'm shocked. I knew that some plastic surgeons did labiaplasty, trimming of the inner labia, for aesthetic reasons, but I thought this was a fringe element and didn't have to be taken seriously.

Now I learn that many women are indeed self-conscious about what they consider an "ugly vagina" because their labia are bigger or flappier or asymmetrical or in some other way not as neat and trim as those of porn stars. There's a fascinating post about this on the Daily Bedpost, a sex-advice blog by Em & Lo--Emma Taylor and Lorelei Sharkey--the self-proclaimed "Emily Posts of the modern bedroom."

I never saw a reason to compare myself to a porn star, but if I were to find reasons, they would be more along the lines of breasts and buttocks, not labia! As much as my labia are wildly imperfect, as evidenced by the "before and after" photos of labiaplasty, it wouldn't have occurred to me to fret about this, much less consider reconstructing them. Personally, I shuddered at the "after" pictures because of the unnatural uniformity.

Who determined that our labia should look alike? Men's penises certainly don't look alike, and that's one of the joys of discovery, so to speak.

I think this must be a young woman's issue, because I never heard older women mention it, but I beg you to correct me if I'm wrong. If you're a woman, have you spent a moment worrying that your partner might find your labia ugly? If you're a lover of women, have you ever been turned off by labia? Please say it isn't so!