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Is Meryl Streep Our Generation's Next Helen Gurley Brown?

08/15/2012 10:15 am ET | Updated Oct 15, 2012

The fact that Meryl Streep's new movie "Hope Springs" opened and Helen Gurley Brown died in the same week seems to me a passing of a very important baton. The baton our Post50 generation needs to get us moving toward an honest and candid discussion about sex. Helen did it for us back in the sixties in her books and her magazine; Meryl is getting the conversation going with her movies.

"Hope Springs"is the first movie to explore the issue that is the next frontier for our generation -- sex in our later years. I wouldn't have said this a year ago, but I have learned a thing or two about the barrier to honest conversation from the fallout from my book "How We Love Now: Sex and the New Intimacy in Second Adulthood."

In that book I tried to illuminate the many ways -- including sex, but also work, grandchildren, friendship -- that women were finding love, intimacy, and satisfaction in their lives after 50. But the word "sex" in the subtitle was a red flag for many people. Groups were nervous about inviting me to speak, for fear I would talk about "it." Women were afraid to leave it on their night table for fear that someone would think they were thinking about "it." But one-on-one, women would question me eagerly about the conclusion in the book that many women their age were indeed having "great sex."

When I blogged about this paradox I was inundated with comments. Clearly people wanted to talk about "it" but only behind the closed doors of anonymity. Many women -- and men too -- confided that they were longing for good sex, just like Kay, the Meryl Streep character.

Despite being married to good man, Kay misses the affection and intimacy her marriage has lost. She also longs for orgasmic sex. Like many women before her, she comes to the realization that she might feel less lonely if she were actually alone. Kay gets Arnold (played by Tommy Lee Jones) to join a week-long marriage counseling program, and it becomes clear that they have never talked about what is wrong in their marriage, and, what's more, both of them are so inhibited that they can barely fantasize about non-missionary-position sex. She has to look to a book written by a gay man to figure out how oral sex works.

It is surprising that the generation that is credited with the "sexual revolution" has become so shy about sex in later life. This is in part due to the cultural contempt for older people, and even more contempt, which we have internalized, for our older bodies and the image of them "doing it."

An earlier Meryl Streep movie -- "It's Complicated" -- captures this mindset with humor. Her character spends a wanton night with her former husband and the next morning, he gets out of bed and waddles in all his naked glory into the bathroom; she quickly wraps herself in a sheet. "Why," he asks, "are you doing that? We were naked last night." "Ah," she replies, "but then we were lying down."

Helen Gurley Brown, who was 90 when she died, scandalized the world of the sixties by extolling sex in all kinds of loving as well as pragmatic relationships. I particularly remember her advice, in Sex and the Single Girl, to young women like me who didn't have much luck attracting men at parties. The trick, she wrote, was to walk in thinking "sex, sex, sex" and never stop, no matter what other conversations you were engaged in.

She was the first, wrote the New York Times, "to introduce frank discussions of sex into magazines for women" It is ironic that here we are fifty years later, and the same women are back where they started -- in need of "frank discussions of sex." This time it may not be a magazine editor but a gifted actor, Meryl Streep, who breaks the taboo.