By virtue of my other life as the newspaper's automotive critic, I get one of Pirelli's coveted calendars in the mail annually. Year in and year out, the calendar is as reliable an almanac of gazing-male sexual imagination as can be found. You needn't consult an expert to deconstruct Harri Peccinotti's 1969 images of ripe young mouths smoking and eating popsicles, the tectonic pressures already building under the cultural taboo of oral sex. The rise in the early 1990s of the gym-crafted Amazon--woman as scientifically perfected sexual Olympian--is documented in Arthur Elgort's idealized images of nearly naked women suspended in mid-hurdle or rising spread eagle in the long jump.
The 2007 calendar, photographed by Inez Van Lamsweerde and Vinoodh Matadin in not-necessarily-edgy Pasadena, reflects our own time's peculiar erotic fixations. The calendar, shot in fine-grain black-and-white, features young A-list actresses such as Penelope Cruz, Hilary Swank, Naomi Watts and--what the hell?--Sophia Loren, who at the age of 72 was photographed tangled in bedclothes, sloe-eyed and ecstatic, her black camisole loose, her sex-wrecked hair cascading over the sheets. No question about it, ladies and gentlemen, she is one awesome-looking old broad.
Of course, older women--even old women--can be beautiful, though I cannot attest to how sexual they may be. I hope to find out when my wife becomes a septuagenarian, if I'm not already dead. I don't begrudge older people the joys of getting busy--God love them, I just hope they remember to limber up first. Also, I'm reliably informed by Betsy Prioleau, author of "Seductress: Women Who Ravished the World and Their Lost Art of Love," that history is replete with older, nay, elderly women so utterly compelling that their salons were SRO with courtiers even as they were dying.
Catharine the Great is one famous example. Prioleau introduced me to one of the founders of psychoanalysis, Lou Andreas-Salome, a sexual sorceress who in her time cast a spell over hundreds of men, including Freud, Nietzsche and Rilke--this despite the fact that she was neither young nor even in the neighborhood of hot.
"Contrary to the hag propaganda," writes Prioleau, "the goddess in her last phase was an ubersiren . . . unface-lifted, unreupholstered, dozens of senior seductresses made conquests that would be the envy of the comeliest nymphet on the man circuit."
Then there's the rise of the "cougars"--older women on the prowl for young men--which seems less about rewriting the civil code of sex and more about the powerful elixirs of diet and exercise. If every 46-year-old looked like Daryl Hannah, would this even be a conversation?
What does strike me as damn odd--call me provincial--is the emergence of the significantly postmenopausal sex object. Dame Helen Mirren is on the cover of this month's Los Angeles magazine, casting a cool, appraising eye at the viewer as she parts her coat to reveal a hint of her black-lace bra (note too the barbed-wire tattoo on her left hand, perhaps a token of Mirren's wild-child days). Late last month, Mirren was named Sexiest Older Woman, atop a list of calendar girls that included, in descending order, Sophia Loren, Meryl Streep, Dame Judi Dench and Diane Keaton.
Me and Dame Judi Dench . . . . Hmmm. Nope, can't see it.
Meanwhile, over in the San Fernando Valley, elder porn is one of the fastest-growing categories of adult entertainment. According to a recent story in the New York Times, the consumers of the "mature-woman genre" are young men who--perhaps inured to the chrome-like perfection of young porn actresses--are quenching their fantasies about teachers and friends' mothers. Never mind MILF's (if you have to ask you don't want to know), try GILF's.
I was first inclined to think all this was a product of America's omnivorous sexual dysfunction. We eroticize children, cars, food, even animals (case in point being the new documentary "Zoo"). Why not gerontology? Sex seems like graffiti that sooner or later gets sprayed on anything that doesn't move.
But looking through the ancien-centric More magazine, I began to suspect something sinister. This phenomenon isn't about liberated boomers reaching the age of retirement, the lifetime tenure of sexual being-ness, or some fundamental decline in modesty. It's about commodities. Resetting the boundaries of sexual eligibility so far upward creates vast new markets for goods and services: home gyms and diet plans, cruise lines and "rejuvenation" surgery. Yikes. I actually feel sort of sorry for women in their 60s and 70s who might have thought that they had finally outrun the beast of sexual expectation.
Afraid not. Sophia Loren is still hot and bothered. OK, dearie, grab your helmet and get back in the game.