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It seems that the AARP recently commissioned a study of the sexual attitudes and practices of Americans middle age and above. Turns out that this is the second one they have done. The first was in 1999. This one conducted in 2004 surveyed a nationally representative group of 1,682 adults ages 45 and older to measure attitudes and other factors affecting their sexuality and quality of life. It represents the viewpoints and revelations of three-quarters of the 78-million Baby Boomers -- men and women ages 45 to 59 -- as well as individuals in their 60's, 70's, 80's, and beyond.
So what has changed in the last six years? Quite a bit, actually. All those ads for Viagra and its brothers have had an effect - the proportion of men who have tried medicines, hormones, or other treatments has doubled since 1999. Not that surprising, I guess. What might be is the enthusiasm with which these medications have been greeted by the ladies - that finding challenges the widely held belief that older women are not all that welcoming of their partner's newfound ardor.
Another headline: despite Baby Boomers' famous open-mindedness, they disapprove of extramarital affairs in roughly the same proportion as do members of the older generation, and they also agree with their own parents that today's popular culture puts too much emphasis on sex. But the truth is every generation in history, I think, has said the same thing.
Still, much of the spirit of the "free love" generation's youthful attitude remains. Boomers feel strongly that sex is for every age, not just the young. And a large majority of both men and women in their 40's and 50's see no reason that sex should not be enjoyed by singles, the divorced, and widows and widowers. By contrast, half the women 70 and older, and 37 percent of the men in that age group, disapprove of sex outside of marriage.
But when it comes to such activities as "swinging" and any form of extramarital sex without a partner's consent, the Baby Boomers are just as traditional in their values as their elders. The vast majority (more than 95%) reported they just would not participate. A contradiction between the more open Boomer attitudes about sexuality while still being committed to traditional ideals of sexual fidelity? No. As one sociology professor who was interviewed for the report said, "If you're having an extramarital affair, you're breaking your marriage vows." Indeed.
Of course, the temptations are always there, and sex is as powerful and sometimes dangerous a drive as ever. That is why Jesus said what he did about lustful looks,(2) and that is why we ought to do more talking about it and less snickering about it than we do. So, I will share a modern parable with you. And if you are wondering about the title of this, it is not original. It comes from a twangy country song by the Statler Brothers from about ten years ago that decries the amorous adventures of a fellow on a double date at the drive-in who was playing kissy-face with his own girlfriend while holding hands with his buddy's girlfriend. No, no, no. "You can't have your Kate and Edith too, you rascal you, doodle-ee, doodle-ee, doodle-ee doo."
The story.(3) It was a bad year for Dan. Work was not going well. His marriage was so-so. He had two teenage children and he did not understand them: the way they dressed, the way they talked, their political views, their music.
That was the year he turned forty-five years old. He was stunned with the thought that he was halfway to ninety, an age he probably would not attain given the fact that the men in his family were prone to heart attacks. Dan's father had died just last year, and his grief was mingled with the grim reality that now he was first in line to the grave. All his life there had been somebody ahead of him in that line, but now Dan was right in front.
"I'm getting old," he thought. "Life is slipping away." He felt that somewhere inside him there was youth, vitality, and a zest for living, but he could not get it to come out.
Then he lost his job. Dan had sensed that something was wrong when Mr. Bealy came into his office. Bealy was the big boss, and the two men never spoke, except at the annual company picnic, and even then the conversation was strained. Bealy was an oily, slicked-back haircut atop five-feet-nine-inches of Protestant reserve. He had a thin, rat-like smile and a voice like a hacksaw. The word around the office was that he had once fired a secretary for dotting her i's with little smiley faces. Bealy was all business.
"We gotta let you go, Dan," he said matter-of-factly. Bealy talked about sagging profits, a lean corporate structure, a general slowdown in the industry. "Sorry to be the one to tell you," he said.
So Dan went home for supper unemployed and broke the news to his family. The announcement did not unleash a tidal wave of sympathy. When Dan said he had lost his job, his wife Kate said, "Well, you can always find another one." His daughter said, "Well, I'm not giving up my dance lessons!" His son fumed, "Way to go, Dad." Dan looked at his family and thought: "To you I am a cash cow. Earn the money and bring it home--that's all you care about." He felt like his family did not understand him. They never asked, "How are you? How are you feeling?"
A week later Bealy called. There was a job opening at the company. It was an entry-level job, twice the work Dan used to do for about one-third the pay. Dan jumped at it. Kate and the kids celebrated his re-entry into the ranks of the employed by going shopping for clothes.
It was a small, unimportant job. Dan worked like a dog, but at least he was working. One bright spot was his new co-worker, Edith. She did not look like an Edith - the only Edith he had ever known was Edith Bunker on television. This one looked like a Babs or a Brittany or something predictably perky. But she was Edith. She had golden hair, dancing blue eyes, a light musical laugh, and the kind of face you would expect to see smiling from under a fox hat on a winter outing as snowflakes drifted by. She was new in town and lonely. Dan advised her to find friends. She found Dan.
The two of them got along famously. They worked hard, coming in early and staying late to reorganize their little department. They devised a new and more efficient filing system. Dan enjoyed working with Edith. She seemed to understand him. She cared about him. Every day she asked: "How are you? How are you feeling?"
One day Bealy marched into their little office. He congratulated Dan and Edith on how efficiently they were running their department. He said he liked the new filing system they had devised. It was saving the company a lot of time and money. Dan said the filing system was Edith's idea. Edith said it was Dan's idea.
"Whoever's idea it was," said Bealy, "these are for you." He handed one to each of them. They were plane tickets to Kansas City. "The two of you leave next week," said Bealy. "We want you to go to our Kansas City office and teach them your new filing system. You will be traveling and staying at the company's expense, of course. And there's a big bonus in it for both of you. Congratulations." And he actually smiled. At least it was as much of a smile as anybody ever got out of Bealy. Then he turned and walked out of the room.
Edith jumped into Dan's arms and the two of them danced around their dingy little office, laughing and hooting. "We're going to Kansas City...Kansas City, here we come! A big bonus! All RIGHT!"
When at last they stopped dancing, Dan did not let go of Edith. And Edith did not let go of Dan. They stood there, staring at each other. The light was playing with her butterscotch hair, and her eyes were like two pools of deep, blue water. Dan felt like he was standing at the end of a diving board, looking down into the beautiful azure water, and he was starting to lose his balance, starting to fall.
When he was with Edith, Dan felt the youth and the vitality and the zest for living that he always wanted to feel. When he was with Edith, he felt so alive. When he was with his wife, Kate, he felt so...married. Dan knew what was going to happen in Kansas City. Edith knew, too.
And so did Bealy. Leaving work that day Dan ran into Bealy in the hallway. He thanked him for the Kansas City assignment. Bealy looked knowingly at Dan with those steely gray eyes and said, "I have three words for you, Dan: wife, two kids."
Their flight was scheduled to leave on a Sunday afternoon. Being with Edith was all Dan could think about. She was a cupcake on the table of life and he was hungry. He was hungry to feel alive, to love deeply, to be appreciated and valued. He rationalized it. He thought: "I have to be true to myself. I have to follow my heart. I am a different man today than I was when I married Kate. I loved her when I married her. But I have changed. I now have dreams and expectations that she cannot possibly fulfill. All I want is to be happy. Is that such a crime, to be happy?"
Sunday morning Dan went to church with his family, as always. Dan felt uneasy in church. The minister had these weird, disconnected eyes. One eye could look straight ahead while the other eye was looking sideways. You were never quite sure where the guy was looking. That morning Dan felt SURE that the minister was looking at him.
"My sermon for today is on the seventh commandment," said the preacher. Dan thought, "The seventh commandment, which one is that?" That's the one about adultery.
Dan was hoping the scripture lesson would be that story from the gospel of John, where they bring to Jesus a woman accused of adultery, and Jesus forgives her and sets her free. No such luck. The scripture lesson was about Joseph. You know the story. Joseph's brothers sell him into slavery, in Egypt, where he becomes a servant in the household of Potiphar, the captain of Pharaoh's Guard. Joseph's organizational skills and strength of character do not go unnoticed, and before long Potiphar makes him administrator of his whole household. Joseph is the chief of staff. He is in charge of everything.
Something else that does not go unnoticed is Joseph's good looks. Potiphar's wife, who is used to having her way with slaves, keeps whispering to him: "Come to bed with me." Joseph refuses. Repeatedly, Potiphar's wife tries to seduce Joseph. Repeatedly, he refuses. Finally, her latest proposal spurned, she twists the facts to make it appear that Joseph had tried to seduce her. Potiphar is outraged, and poor Joseph is thrown into prison.
The minister talked about the barrage of temptation to which Joseph was subjected, and how easy it would have been for him to rationalize, to put a muzzle on his conscience. But did Joseph rationalize? No. Joseph resisted the temptation, saying: "How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?" Dan was sure that the weird eye was looking right at him. After the sermon Dan tried to pray, but the words would not come.
That afternoon, his bags packed, Dan waited for Edith to come and pick him up and give him a ride to the airport. Kate and the kids were shopping. Dan was alone, alone with his thoughts.
It was thrilling to be with Edith. But he wondered, "What happens when the thrill of a new relationship is past? If I leave one woman, will I leave another? Will Edith leave me?"
He looked at the houses in his neighborhood, studying one after another. He thought about his neighbors, their lives. The neighborhood, he realized, was like a fabric, all those little lives touching each other and depending on each other in small, interconnected ways. And just as all the neighbors were part of the fabric of the neighborhood, so all the neighborhoods were part of the fabric of the city. All the cities joined in a fabric that made up the state. The states were part of the fabric that made up the nation. Everything was connected.
And now he was going to tear one little thread out of the fabric. There would be one more divorce in the world. There would be two more kids who would come from a broken home. All his neighbors, when they heard about it, would shake their heads and say, "Dan and Kate are splitting up? That's too bad." And their shoulders would slump just a little bit more, and they would feel that much more hopeless about the institution of marriage. Every rip in the social fabric, Dan realized, no matter how small, weakens the whole.
A voice inside of him said, "I just want to be happy. I have the right to be happy. Is it such a sin to spend my remaining years with someone I care about deeply and who cares about me?" Replied another voice, the voice of Joseph: "How then could I do such a wicked thing and sin against God?"
Edith's red sports car pulled up. She waved and beamed that 200-watt smile of hers. Dan walked down to the car. He stared into her cornflower blue eyes. He had that feeling again, the feeling that he was at the tip of a diving board, staring down into the deep blue water that was calling to him, beckoning him. He felt like he was losing his balance. Edith said, "Are you ready to do this?"
And Dan said...
1. Susan Jacoby, July/August 2005
2. Matthew 5:28
3. Adapted from a story by Louis Lotz, pastor of the Morningside Reformed Church in Sioux City, Iowa in Preaching, September/October, 1994, pp. 21-24