Q&A With Leslie Morgan Steiner
Leslie Morgan Steiner is the author of the New York Times best-selling memoir, Crazy Love, the anthology Mommy Wars, an exploration of infertility titled The Baby Chase, and two TedTalks. Her latest memoir (The Naked Truth, Simon & Schuster May 2019) explores femininity, aging and sexuality after 50. Visit her via her website, Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn and Twitter.
As women, we sometimes get accused of oversharing about our personal lives. Your memoirs are deeply personal dives into parenting, sexuality, and inner debates about the kind of mothers we are. What’s your take on TMI?
Isn’t “oversharing” just a euphemism for telling the truth? I love being a woman and a mother. I love all the magical things my body and mind can do. It’s our birthright to be open about our experiences as women, through our creativity, how we dress ourselves, and our work and parenting choices — no matter our age, shape, our how neatly we fit into the cultural ideal of femininity.
In many ways The Naked Truth is a book about struggles with intimacy — your own and others — which so many women (and men) can relate to. Have you come to any grand insights about it? We want to know!
Despite its emphasis on men, The Naked Truth is not about finding your soul mate. It’s a book about figuring out how to feel comfortable and beautiful in your own skin, no matter your age or physical appearance. The key to happiness is intimacy with yourself.
When I got divorced at 49, not only had I lost my marriage, I’d lost myself. Our culture encourages women to absorb ourselves in motherhood and marriage, and our partners tend to be baffled about how to support us. Years of being with a husband who didn’t love me or even like me turned me into someone asexual, invisible, and unmoored. The Naked Truth was my road map for rediscovering confidence, joy, and sexuality.
Society’s rulebook suggests that a middle-aged divorcee needs to get remarried as soon as possible. I thought this was a depressing and absurd reaction. Additionally, despite being an ardent feminist, I knew I couldn’t reclaim my mojo on a diet of self-help and yoga. I needed men, and I needed a lot of them. So I came up with the idea of having five boyfriends for a year. To my surprise, I stumbled across interesting, attractive men everywhere — in airports, on the sidewalk, and taking out the garbage. To my even greater surprise, my five boyfriend plan worked. The first man I slept with (to my delight, he was smoking hot and 20 years younger) told me I had a spectacular body. Me? The woman whose husband had told me not to leave the bathroom without a robe because my naked body made him “edgy”? Another partner used to stroke the cellulite on my belly and say, “I love this part of you.” I started to see myself through my lovers’ eyes, instead of my own critical ones, or the societal lens that demands we all look like swimsuit models in order to find love. In a few short months, I rediscovered how much I enjoyed sex and men, and that despite the physical imperfections wrought by childbearing and aging, I was more at home in my own naked body at 50 than I’d been at 19.
The bottom line is that to find partners, older women need to widen our dating pool – in the exact ways older men do. We need to date older AND younger, and seek romance outside the traditional ethnic/educational/economic constraints we applied when looking for “mates” in our 20s and 30s. As a 50 year old divorcee, for the first time I approached men like a buffet – taking what I wanted – without worrying about pleasing a man or following society’s rules about relationships. And it worked.
But sadly, I’m a unicorn in terms of my sex life as an older woman. There are more women over 50 in this country today than at any other point in history, according to the United States Census Bureau, but the facts about our sex lives are pretty grim: 30% of women in their 50s, and half of women in their 60s, haven’t had sex in a year. Despite the fact that older women enjoy sex more and have more intense orgasms. The data begs the question: why are older women having so little sex? Why was my solution shocking? If a 50ish man ended a sexless marriage and had five partners in a year, we’d cheer him on. Popular society gives women limited sexual options: you are a good girl, a prude, a slut, or desperate. Especially older women. I was none of these, as you can tell from reading The Naked Truth. One of the first naked truths I learned: I like sex a lot, I always have, and having fabulous sex with amazing men was a surefire route to feeling better about myself and life.
You’re frank in the book about coming from a place of financial privilege and I wonder if that was something you wrestled with.
It always strikes me that men are never accused of being “overprivileged,” one of society’s thousand cuts to undermine women’s legitimate achievements and power. So this observation strikes a feminist nerve in me – economic stability and achievement by women benefit all women, and we should never, ever apologize for shining our light. However, it’s patently true that In my case, I did and do enjoy great privileges – I was born in the United States, I grew up with college-educated parents, I have two Ivy League degrees, and I generally conform to mainstream femininity in my appearance. But that’s not my whole story. My mom was a Waspy ice queen who’d gone to Radcliffe, but she grew up without money because of alcoholism in her family, and she was a mean drunk during my childhood. My dad was a poor Southern boy who was the first in his family to finish high school, before continuing onto Harvard College and Harvard Law School, and becoming a steadfast workaholic whom I could rarely count on emotionally. I’ve worked my tail off for my success. As a girl, I was the nerd in the front row of every classroom, and I started babysitting and walking dogs when I was 11. As a young woman I left a career as a writer and editor at women’s magazines in order to get an MBA from Wharton and be financially independent. I worked hard for two decades at Johnson & Johnson and The Washington Post to achieve my current financial stability. The bottom line: without the economic security I gained, I could never write so openly and freely about the reality of being a woman in America today.
I’m dying to know how your kids feel about this book, as you detail their father’s failings and your own sex life, two thing teenagers generally don’t want to hear or know about.
Ugh. No kid wants their mom to write a book about sex. But my children are adults, or awfully close to it. They’ve been frank about the feelings triggered by The Naked Truth, which is painful at times, but also validates that I raised them to be as candid as I am. They always benefitted from my openness as a mom, and I gambled they would be able to handle my honesty. Through my books, and the way I live my life, I’ve shared with my children the person I am as a woman. I believe that’s a great gift. Many children never know who their mother truly is. Mine do.
Your first book, Crazy Love, which details the story of your first marriage in your twenties, established you as an advocate for victims of domestic violence. How much of your career these days is devoted to that work, and how have your feelings about it changed as you’ve gotten older?
Crazy Love remains a bestseller 10 years after publication, and I speak about 20 times a year on the topic of surviving relationship violence. Survivors of all forms of abuse are now breaking the silence, showing the social, political, and legal power of female unity. What’s most interesting to me personally is connecting the dots between myself as a 27-year-old abuse survivor and the confident single woman in her 50s I am today.
Abuse wasn’t an anomaly for me; it was part of a pattern. Like every woman I know, as a girl I routinely encountered men flashing their penises at me. Teachers, coaches, and friends of my parents kissed me without my permission. On two separate occasions in school, drunken teenaged boys tried to rape me. At every job I’ve held, at least one creepy guy made inappropriate sexual comments to me. In my 20s, fresh out of Harvard, I married a Wall Street banker who held loaded guns to my head on a regular basis, which is the story I tell in Crazy Love and my TEDTalk on why victims stay in abusive relationships. Throughout my life, I’ve marched, written, and ranted for men to be punished and for our society to expunge the destructive scourge of toxic masculinity.
Then, 18 months after the #MeToo tsunami roiled the world, I wrote another memoir about how much I love men. Writers don’t always pick our topics; sometimes, they pick us. Ironically, as a feminist who marched against cat-calling, sexual harassment, and exploitation of younger women, now my goal is to increase sexualization of women over 50. Just as important as the #MeToo Movement is this nascent revolution – led by Helen Mirren, Dr. Ruth, Jennifer Lopez, Halle Berry, Elle McPherson, Iman, Gloria Steinem, and other vibrant older women — to convince our culture that femininity, aging and sex go together rather fabulously.
An enormous part of the problem lies with our culture’s devaluation and desexualization of older women. Of course, tremendous power comes from claiming our right to be invisible, to walk down any sidewalk, dark alley, corporate or bedroom hallway protected from attention and harassment from men — at any age. At age 15 or 25, I would have found it gross, or possibly traumatic, to encourage the brazen male attention I sometimes seek as an older woman. But at my age and station in life, there is no reason for alarm; men can no longer deny me a promotion or pressure me into sex.
What I find catalytic is the power of saying yes, notice me, I’m still a sexual being. The key is each woman’s ability to choose whether, and when, she wants to be invisible or visible. For too long, men in our culture – from Donald Trump to Woody Allen to Harvey Weinstein — have been the deciders of when, and under which parameters, women are granted permission to be sexually appealing.
This is the real message of #MeToo: it’s our choice when, and with whom, we have sex. This includes having sex with zero, one, five or 500 people. Whether we are men, women, or some combination of both, our laws, our norms, our conversations with our sons and daughters about rape, pornography, unhealthy relationships, harassment, and female sexual pleasure must be rewritten to reflect this fundamental truth: we are all entitled to enjoy sex, our bodies, and our lives to the fullest.
What’s next for you?
Ha! Everyone asks me if I’m “still” single – which is revealing, right? Our cultural imperative dictates that the only fairytale ending for a woman means getting married and living happily ever after. But one of my naked truths is there is no such thing as prince charming; you must be your own fairy godmother. My happy ending is that I’m living my life and collecting new material for the sequel to The Naked Truth. Men keep giving me absolutely unbelievable copy. Since TNT came out, I’ve fielded a marriage proposal from a wealthy investment banker in Hawaii, gone on a date with an Ivy League educated man so insecure he interrogated me about how much I liked his shirt, been ditched for a 28 year old by a 55 year old tennis instructor, been deceived by a charismatic counter-terrorism expert about his marital status, and had a 20-something Israeli with a gym-sculpted body create personalized porn for me. Men are amazing. It’s exhilarating to be an empowered woman. I intend to keep on telling this story of aging while female with abandon.