AMERICAN men are renowned the world over for their frank speech. In my recent travels around the country, I discovered, however, there is one word that causes them to stutter and stumble and reveal their cultural misperceptions.
"Menopause!" yelped a male Cleveland talk-show interviewer. "Is that like impotence?"
"Um, no." I replied. (Is baldness like Alzheimer's?)
Michael Jackson, king of Los Angeles talk radio and ordinarily exquisitely well-informed, led off our interview with the question, "Do men have less-satisfactory sex with a woman who's gone through menopause?"
Off-mike, he caught himself. "Listen to me. I asked about his pleasure, not hers." Mr. Jackson's first caller was his own wife. Ignoring the sexist teaser, she got right to the heart and bone of the matter: How does hormone replacement therapy affect the risks of heart disease and osteoporosis in a menopausal woman?
An articulate male caller to a popular Washington radio show started off sweetly with a testimonial to his post-menopausal wife.
"She's now 62," he said. "I was thinking about how these past 20 years have been the most creative of her life. And I'm just so thankful and amazed that the traumatic period of um, hrmmph, of, ah, of, humphh -- " He stammered for 15 seconds, simply unable to get the word out.
It is not only men who find that their tongues go numb when they first try to utter the "M" word. No less dauntless a conversationalist than Oprah Winfrey admitted on camera, "Of all the things that I have talked to people about in my lifetime, this is one thing -- in private conversations, on television -- I have never discussed with anybody."
The show's producer said it had been easier to book guests to talk about having murdered their spouses than about menopause.
In the space of a month, there are strong signs that the silence is breaking. When my book was published in early May, a male editor at the New York Times sneered, "Menopause, gross! Who would want to read about that?"
A few weeks later -- preempting Newsweek's thoughtful one-word cover story on "Menopause" -- the Times suddenly found the subject newsworthy enough to launch a series on its Sunday front page.
If women have unconsciously submitted to the taboo surrounding this subject, imagine how difficult it must be for men to think about their wives or "girlfriends" going through this phase of life. Most men approach it with fear that their sexual pleasure will be diminished.
This is less and less the case. In a recent Gallup poll of couples who had come out the other side of the menopausal passage, 70 percent of both the husbands and wives affirmed that their intimate lives had not been compromised, and a good number reported renewed sexual zest. Many seemed pleasantly surprised.
Is the surprise any wonder, given the ruthless cultural stereotyping that menopausal women have so long and silently accepted?
Obstetricians in the 19th century taught that "the change of life unhinges the female nervous system and deprives women of their personal charm." As recently as 1969, in his best-selling pop primer, "Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex But Were Afraid to Ask," Dr. David Reuben noted:
"Once the ovaries stop, the very essence of being a woman stops . . . To many women the menopause marks the end of their useful life."
In fact, with American women now living routinely into their 80s, menopause becomes a bridge from youth to a second adulthood. If a woman supports her body and mind through the accelerated demands of the transition -- by making herself an informed health consumer who can choose wisely among the herbs and acupuncture of ancient medicine systems and the hormones widely prescribed by Western doctors -- she is liberated like never before. Coming out of this passage, she enjoys a burst of vitality accompanied by relief from pregnancy fears and mood swings, free at last from the daily emergency of parenting to pursue her passion.
I noted that the times were changing when a cabbie in Houston, a typically macho Texas male, pressed me: "Well, little lady, what's the subject of your book?"
"You don't want to know," I said. He insisted. "Menopause," I said feebly, expecting embarrassed silence. But instead he said, "Hey, I think men are ready to hear about that one. Our churches down here have family seminars and support groups about everything else -- why not menopause?"
In some circles it's almost becoming chic.
When I'm away on a book tour and my husband goes out alone in New York, the women at the party corner him to tell their menopause stories.
Gail Sheehy is author of "The Silent Passage: Menopause."