Dr. Pepper’s Prime
Her resumé is long, her career impressive, her stature in the field secure. So she wrote a memoir about a topic few scholars would ever dream of tackling: her own sex life.
She is Dr. Pepper Schwartz, recipient of awards from the American Sociological Association, the International Women’s Forum, and Washington University in St. Louis. She has authored more than 40 scholarly articles, serves on the editorial board for American Sociological Review, and lectures extensively throughout the world. She is a professor of sociology at the University of Washington and is considered a leading researcher in the areas of intimate relationships, marriage and the family, human sexuality, gender, and qualitative methodologies. She has received grants from the National Science Foundation and the Centers for Disease Control, to name just two.
Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual
Years (HarperCollins, 264 pgs) chronicles Schwartz’s whirlwind
international tour of sex partners, using each encounter to render the
practical advice she is perhaps best known for. (Schwartz is a consultant
to perfectmatch.com and has written columns for Sexual Health Magazine
and American Baby.)
It wasn’t Schwartz’s original intention to write a tell-all memoir; she did so at her agent’s suggestion. “I would not have done it a day before this stage of my career,” she says. “I knew this would be controversial, and I didn’t want to cloud my previous scientific work with personal information.”
What convinced her to go forward in a memoir vein was the fact that she had re-entered the dating world in her 50s. “I wrote it to try to inspire women my age (or in the vicinity of my age) that they shouldn’t give up on their sexual and romantic lives,” she says. In the study of sexuality, she finds that women seem to disappear around menopause and reemerge as a topic only in gerontology discussions, when researchers study elder abuse. “If you look at the research, the notion that women have no sex drive after menopause is just garbage,” she says. “I hoped by talking about myself I could show women that even if there were a lot of miserable situations in dating at this age, there was also love, passion, adventure and as much excitement and pleasure as there ever had been.”
It’s not as if Schwartz has locked herself in an ivory tower as a scholar anyway. She’s appeared on Oprah, The Montel Williams Show, Jenny Jones, Larry King Live, and other programs. Her columns have appeared in Glamour, Women’s Day, People, and elsewhere. “In writing for magazines and dong popular media, I have come to realize that while academic research is invaluable for getting the facts straight, it is not exactly motivating,” she says.
Prime’s reception has just about put any fears she may have had to rest. A hundred of her friends threw a party to celebrate its launch, and her adult children, ages 22 and 24, told her they are proud of her (although her son prefers not to read the book). “People have been much kinder and more approving than I thought they would be,” she says. This includes her colleagues, who have been supportive, all the way up to UW President Mark Emmert who, when she warned him of the book’s contents, sent her a humorous letter in response expressing his support and feigning surprise that she would ever write something so provocative.
She did receive one hate letter — or rather, her ex-husband received it. Penned by one of Schwartz’s former travel agents, the letter insinuated what a “loser” Schwartz is and expressed sympathy for her ex. “He was quite hurt and unhappy to receive it and asked if I wanted him to defend my honor! I was touched by his kindness,” she says. “I do understand that some people just cannot bear the idea of this much personal revelation, and I think they are entitled to their opinion and personal style. I think this book is helpful to a lot of women, and that compensates for whatever criticism I receive.”
For Schwartz, one of the most gratifying results of publishing Prime has been hearing women say that reading the book has changed their lives. “It happens almost daily that some woman comes up to me and says I’ve inspired her to put herself back out there. One said ‘I’m not going to be so worried now.’” Above all, Schwartz wants women to know that they do not lose their femininity and sensuality just because they are no longer in their 20s or 30s. Men who’ve read her book often thank her for enabling them to better understand the women in their lives.
Her only regret has been how the book is sometimes covered in the media. In one case, a reporter referred to a man in the book as a “middling lover,” a characterization that Schwartz says does not reflect how she described him in the book. The man, still her friend, was hurt by it but has been gracious about the book anyway.
Her compatriots in the field of sex research are gracious as well. “Pepper is a fascinating and accomplished person,” says Dr. Helen Fisher, anthropologist at Rutgers University. Dr. John Gottman, with whom Schwartz plans to collaborate on a project about the everyday sex lives of couples, says, “I have known Pepper for a long time. We have taught together at the University of Washington. She’s brilliant, lively, charming, a real spark plug.”
Though Gottman hasn’t yet read Prime, he plans to, citing her landmark study (coauthored with Philip Blumstein), American Couples: Money, Work, Sex, as reason enough to pay attention to her work. “She is highly respected in her field, and also loved by many of us,” he says.
One of the saving qualities of Prime is that Schwartz doesn’t let her status as an expert keep her from committing — or owning up to — mistakes.
Her intense affair with multiorgasmic “Dennis” seems to have the makings of a lasting relationship: “When I got to the brink of climax, he held my face and we kept our eyes open looking at each other. I felt like we were entering each other’s body and soul.” But the relationship falls prey to too many problems: long distance, financial differences, Dennis’ unwillingness to commit to monogamy. Schwartz examines her own weaknesses — she was on the rebound, she may have confused ‘vacation sex’ with ‘vacation love’ — and discusses issues such as insecurity, jealousy and safety.
She exhibits the kind of seasoned awareness you would expect from someone used to dealing with questions of love and sex. Realizing she may be in over her head with Dennis, Schwartz visits a counselor, who reminds her that she’s seen this guy on vacation, out of the context of his everyday life and, more importantly, her emotional tie to Dennis may signal fallout from her 23-year marriage, which recently ended.
That’s all we hear about the long marriage, however, and how that relationship may or may not be influencing the choices she makes as she explores her post-50 sexuality. Therein lies the challenge with a project like this one: How can we trust the author to be objective about her own choices? How can we trust her analysis? Even a scholar practiced in research methodology will have a blind spot where the self is concerned.
In a way, this weakness at the heart of the book may be perceived as a strength by readers, especially women readers, who come to learn that not even someone who’s studied the subject for 35 years has all the answers.
©2007 Caliope Publishing Company
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