SEX GOT TO DO WITH IT?
editor-in-chief of More magazine, Susan Crandell is the author of THINKING
ABOUT TOMORROW: REINVENTING YOUR LIFE AT MIDLIFE
(Warner, January 2007), which profiles 45 men and women who've made big changes
in their forties and fifties. When she is not writing about her sex life, she
tries to stick to subject matter her mother can enjoy. She's written about gorilla-tracking
in Uganda for Town & Country, attended Bikini Boot Camp for Luxury SpaFinder,
driven her Boxster on Lime Rock Racetrack for AARP and climbed Kilimanjaro and
hiked New Zealand's Milford Track for More. She has also written for Travel &
Leisure, Prevention, Ladies' Home Journal, Gourmet, Reader's Digest and Country
piece that follows is one of a pair which Susan and husband Stephan Wilkinson
wrote for the book OVER
THE HILL AND BETWEEN THE SHEETS: SEX, LOVE AND LUST IN MIDDLE AGE
after Stephan's radical prostatectomy. These excellent pieces show clearly some
of the differences between the way men and women regard the issue and are well
worth reading. Stephan's contribution is entitled MECHANICAL
Sex Got to Do With It?
By Susan Crandell
other day, the Today show did a segment about what women really want from their
love life, featuring a survey in which 47% of women ranked cuddling as more important
versus a mere 25% who'd rather have sex. This is hardly breaking news to the nation's
women. Women's magazines have long published statistics pointing out that physical
closeness is more cherished than the actual act. But for the majority of guys,
the bedroom is a sporting arena, the venue of victory or defeat. You won't see
hugs-versus-sex scores reported on ESPN. When it comes to sexual agendas, we're
like conservatives who only watch the news on Fox or liberals whose radio is perma-tuned
to NPR. Women have the reputation of not caring much about sex, but nobody asks
the follow-up question: What is it that we do want?
I know what I want:
a husband who stays alive.
Steve and I faced the question of how central
intercourse is to our marriage nine years ago when he had a prostatectomy that
left him impotent when he was 60 and I was 45. From the moment we heard the biopsy
report, I had one thought in mind: Please, just let me keep this guy. When his
surgeon explained the less-than-appealing potential outcomes of surgery-incontinence,
impotence-it didn't slow me down a bit. I wanted that cancer out of his body and
in a jar. Damn the side-effects, full-speed ahead. So did Steve, and there was
no argument about which course of treatment he should take.
we were embarking on our third decade of sex. Who could be so greedy as to ask
for more than that? When Steve and I married in the late Seventies, I felt invincible.
We were young, we were healthy, sex was great, and within a year we had a baby.
There's a little bronze sign under a shade tree in our backyard. "Beneath this
tree were wed Stephan Wilkinson and Susan Crandell. A fruitful bond soon to flower
and ever to endure." When we added Brook's name to the plaque, our life was perfect,
complete. The frequency of sex may have waned over the years, but if quantity
was down, quality was still AAA. Until that day in his doctor's office, I thought
sex was something we'd always have.
Maybe that's because I'm a boomer.
Remember the summer of love? We claim we invented recreational sex, though it
may actually be simply a matter of timing: We were lucky enough to come of age
sexually in that golden moment post-Pill and pre-AIDS when bad sex meant you didn't
climax, not that you died. Surely, we thought, someday we would be shaking the
walls of the old-age home-eee-eee, eee-eee, eee-eee.
When prostate surgery
put the brakes on our sex life, I was so thankful the cancer hadn't spread that
I couldn't think about anything else. Hmmmm, let's see: Sex life or life, sex
life or life? Is that even a choice? And yet, that old Venus/Mars thing did crop
up. While I looked forward to many years of emotional intimacy, Steve despaired
that we might never have sex again.
Nobody can say we didn't give alternate
methods a try. I may have had my eye on the real prize-Steve's continued good
health-but neither of us was going to let our sex life go down without a fight.
Steve received a prescription for Viagra the very day it came on the market-no
joy-and he labored manfully with a medieval torture device to "pump up" his penis.
I remember lying in bed one night, candles burning, music playing, listening to
him smash the pump onto the bathroom floor in frustration (luckily the pump was
sturdy stuff; we were still able to return it at the end of the 30-day trial period
for a full refund).
Turns out, when Viagra doesn't work, Pfizer can upgrade
you: they've got another little erectile re-function system called Caverject Impulse
Therapy. Yes, that's 'ject as in inject, and it is Little Stevie who's going to
get shot. How important is intercourse? Important enough to Steve and me to report
to his urologist for a lesson on proper Caverject technique. Ajit, a talkative
mid-forties guy with a Hindi lilt and a passion for drawing diagrams, sketches
out a penis with its chambers, or corpora cavernosa, that fill with blood to create
an erection. Shoot that Caverject juice in there, and in no time Little Stevie
will be standing at attention.
Ajit demonstrates how to do the deed, injecting
Steve all the while chattering away about how when I perform the injection at
home, I must be careful not to nick an artery or punch a hole in the urethra.
Now here's the really fun part: Like Viagra, the Caverject doesn't work on its
own; you've got to create the mood. Exiting the examination room, Ajit tells us
to get busy so he can see whether this is going to be the answer for us. The walls
are so thin I can hear somebody whispering a couple of rooms down. After two decades
of marriage, sex is suddenly awkward again. I mean, are we talking hand job here,
or am I supposed to drop my pants and climb up on the examining table? And what
about poor Steve-how is he possibly going to get in the mood? Suddenly, I have
oceans of empathy for all the guys who've stood in stalls at doctors' offices
wretchedly paging through old, dog-eared issues of Hustler to provide a sperm
sample. In deference to my mother, who I fervently hope never reads this, I will
withhold the details. Suffice it to say, we have liftoff. Ajit returns to admire
Steve's erection, and we're in business.
We now have an erectile system
that will work-that is, if I am willing to stick a needle in my husband's dick
every time we want to make love. Steve, who doesn't give blood because it involves
such a big needle, is gung-ho. I chalk this up as one more example of men's one-track
mind-intercourse at any cost. Medical school is an unrealized dream of mine, so
while I can't say I'm eager to jab a needle into the man I love, I'm not squeamish
about it either.
Our druggist outfits us with a box of hypodermics (Steve
later rinses out the empties and uses them for some arcane ritual involving the
model airplanes he builds) and two little vials of the Caverject elixir (I note
that this stuff is unpopular enough to require a special order). Tonight's the
I am not going to be cruel enough to ask gentlemen readers to put
themselves in Steve's place, but for you women, I'd like to pause a moment here
so you can imagine sticking your husband in the penis with a hypodermic. To think
that we used to say inserting a diaphragm was a mood-killer. This is the big league.
It isn't what I'd call a normal sex life. Here's the drill. We head to
the bedroom, get all cozy. When the moment is right, I pad downstairs to the refrigerator
and fetch the little vial of magic fluid (of course, I've forgotten to pick up
the supplies before we got going and now have to assemble everything on the bedside
table: hypodermic, check; sterile gauze wipe, check; stiffie fluid, check), and
wash my hands like I'm scrubbing up for surgery. I fill the hypodermic, then tap
the side and give it a jaunty little squirt to make sure all the air is out. I
locate the right spot (now that I think of it, a tattoo would be mighty useful),
stick the needle in, and confirm the positioning by drawing a little blood into
the syringe. Finally I push the plunger. Still with me? Once I remove the needle
and press an alcohol wipe to the spot until the bleeding stops, we're good to
We do it, it works, and afterwards we sit in bed grinning goofily.
Next morning, Steve calls Ajit to see how often we're allowed to do this. Twice
a week? Twice a day? Twice an hour?
You can tell that we are seriously
sex-starved because a week later, we're back in Ajit's office raving about the
Caverject. We are having regular sex. It's a miracle. Why doesn't everybody do
this? Ajit tells us few are willing to even try it, and almost everybody quits
after a couple of months. "That Ajit-what a spoilsport," we tell each other as
we drive home, shaking our heads at the folly of people who would forfeit a chance
at good old-fashioned sex.
We continue to have hypodermic-enhanced intercourse
for nearly a year, but eventually we too become Caverject drop-outs, just as Ajit
had predicted. I never got totally comfortable with jamming a needle into Steve's
penis. The fact that my aim wasn't faultless and sometimes the injection failed
didn't help. In the end, it was like the MasterCard ad: Knowing that we could
have sex was priceless. But the cost of actually doing it-the mood killing, the
dick pricking, the uncertainty of success-was too high. Finally, we figured out
that plenty of fun could be had without my Nurse Diesel impersonation.
the way, we discovered the real meaning of intimacy: that sex pales in the face
of love. The best part of a party is lying in bed together afterward, gossiping.
Steve installed a home theater in our bedroom, and the martial bed is now a comfy
place to watch movies on the eight-foot screen that pulls down over the closet
doors. We lounge against big piles of pillows, dipping into a bottomless bowl
of popcorn. We can talk if we want to, or even throw popcorn at the screen. Yes,
we are that pathetic couple who sit at dinner and talk about their cat. We can't
get it up to fight the way we used to. The old arguments, like why he deposits
drain hair on the bathtub edge, or why I leave the kitchen countertop speckled
with water in the exact spot where he always sets the newspaper down just don't
seem that important anymore. It's amazing that they ever did. As for sex, we do
what we can, and don't worry about what we can't. By the time you're 50 you've
figured out that life's too short for regrets.
Two years ago, I quit my
staff editor's job to freelance write. Now Steve and I both work from home, and
friends ask me, "How can you stand it? Don't you drive each other crazy?" Not
at all. I'm just so grateful to have the love of my life here for the long haul,
not to mention all that extra time to cuddle.