Hugo’s piece was originally published at the Good Men Project Magazine.
Both at the Good Men Project and at my own blog, my most popular posts in terms of page-views are invariably those that focus on one particularly controversial subject: older men and younger women. (Here’s “What Young Women Are Really Looking For From Older Men.”)
As I’ve laid out in those pieces, for a number of reasons I think we should be suspicious of age-disparate heterosexual relationships in which the male partner is substantially older than the female one, and in which the woman is still quite young (say, under 23). Put simply, the potential problems in these relationships seem to diminish based less upon the actual number of years in between the partners and more upon the age of the woman involved. I’m more concerned about an 18 year-old woman and a 30 year-old man than I am about a 30 year-old woman and a 55 year-old man, even though the latter relationship has twice the number of years separating the partners. The research of psychologists like Lynn Phillips—who has written extensively about relationships between teen girls (including those above the age of consent) and older men—bears out how damaging these relationships can be.
Since this topic comes up so often, I frequently get asked whether I think older women/younger men relationships, or age-disparate relationships between lovers of the same sex, are as problematic. It sounds as if they ought to be—if age really is “more than just a number,” then why not see all relationships with a substantial gap as equally “bad”? But I think a compelling case can be made that older women/younger men relationships (and those between same-sex partners of unequal ages) are less culturally and psychologically damaging.
This isn’t about seeing women as less inclined to exploit younger sexual partners. It’s about how our sexual desires are distorted by social expectations. We don’t fall in love, or fall into bed, in a vacuum. What we want sexually is shaped by the society in which we’re raised. Long before we hit puberty and start having sexual feelings of our own, we’ve picked up on what’s “hot” or “not” from the broader culture. And those cultural rules show an astonishing—and depressing—resilience. Ask anyone who’s found himself or herself falling into a stubbornly familiar traditional pattern in heterosexual relationships. A determined young feminist finds herself almost overwhelmed by the impulse to do her boyfriend’s laundry and “look after him”—even when he hasn’t asked for help. An egalitarian-minded guy finds himself strangely troubled that his girlfriend makes more money than he does. This has nothing to do with biology, and everything to do with the gender-role straitjacket with which most of us have been raised.
The older man/younger woman relationship reinforces those traditional gender roles. These relationships have their individual nuances, but they’re all variations on what is essentially the same thing. The older man offers (or pretends to offer) wisdom, experience, and wealth; the younger woman offers her innocence, her beauty, and her malleability in return. She gets a rocket booster into adulthood; he gets to be with someone too young to call him on his crap. Win-win or lose-lose, it’s a very old story.
When I wrote my original piece at the Good Men Project about older men and younger women, many readers of both sexes wrote in to defend these relationships, suggesting that it was “natural” for girls to seek out mentors—and natural for older men to want to sexualize that mentoring relationship. Others argued that these relationships made reproductive sense: older men, according to this theory, always want to be with younger, more fertile women. The theory falls apart when you consider what happens to the quality of men’s sperm after 35; why guys my age would want to sleep with 20-somethings might make evolutionary sense. Why those young women would want to sleep with us, given the degraded nature of our swimmers, is a question evolutionary-psychology is powerless to answer.
Older women/younger men relationships don’t reinforce unhealthy gender stereotypes. They subvert them. They don’t make “reproductive sense” to the aficionados of junk science. (Though if you believe the questionable stereotype about when men and women are said to hit their respective sexual peaks—guys around 19, women in their mid-30s—perhaps there is some sense to be made after all.) Straight women may eroticize youth and vigor in younger men, but they rarely are taught to be turned on by displays of masculine ignorance or uncertainty; high-brow Western literature and low-brow pornography are filled with countless examples of men being aroused by much younger women who either “play dumb”—or are the genuine article. (This doesn’t mean that traditional roles never emerge in older women/younger men relationships. In many societies, boys were initiated into sex by older women, often prostitutes. There’s a notable reference to the acceptability of that practice in last year’s Oscar-winner for Best Picture, The King’s Speech. But that tradition is, thankfully, much rarer now.)
I’m not saying that every older woman/younger man relationship is inherently progressive while every older man/younger woman coupling is oppressive and reactionary. A great many young women do exercise great agency in relationships with older men. But there’s no escaping that given who has power in our culture, the reality is that the potential for abuse and exploitation is likely to be much higher in an age-disparate relationship where it is the man who is the elder of the lovers. We must note, too, that we live in a world where men are seen as growing both more “visible” and more powerful as they age, while women, past a certain age, are either desexualized or mocked. “Cougar” was not coined as a compliment; “silver fox” was.
Young men in consensual relationships with older women (or older men) aren’t having sex in a culture in which they are told, over and over again, that their beauty is their number one asset. We raise men to believe that good looks are a happy and welcome bonus, not an essential component of success. While underage boys can be victims of rape by women (a point I made here), their slightly older male counterparts are culturally better equipped to enter into consensual sexual relationships with older women (or men) than are their female peers. This isn’t because boys mature faster. This is because boys aren’t raised to believe that their sexual value has a rapidly approaching sell-by date. Whatever sexual power he may have in his youth, a young man knows he’s likely to have far more of a different—and more enduring—kind of clout when he gets older. Girls, raised as they are in a culture that values youthful female beauty above all else, have no such reassurance.
What about gay men and lesbians? Of course, same-sex relationships can replicate unhealthy dynamics from the dominant culture. But by their very nature, same-sex relationships “subvert the dominant paradigm” in constructive ways. A romantic relationship between two men or two women reminds us that biology alone isn’t destiny, and that while a certain degree of complementarity is surely present in any enduring relationship, that complementarity doesn’t require radically different genitalia. The age-disparate relationship, while certainly quite common in gay and lesbian communities, doesn’t reinforce an unhealthy norm. Even a wealthy older man with a beautiful young but broke “boy toy” is a fundamentally distinct phenomenon from that of a wealthy older man with his hot young girlfriend. The latter relationship reminds us all of women’s relative powerlessness—and of older women’s disposability—in a unique and far more damaging way.
This doesn’t mean that young men (even those over the age of consent) can never be exploited or harmed, any more than it means that, say, a 19 year-old young woman will invariably suffer lasting trauma from a sexual relationship with a man twice her age. But though individual experiences can and will vary, every older man/younger woman affair sends a clear and visible signal to the outside world that our toxic social norms are left untouched; every older woman/younger man relationship sends the exact opposite signal. An older man and a younger woman need to work twice as hard as an older woman and a younger man to keep unhealthy power dynamics at bay. And so for reasons that have nothing to do with our individual intentions, and everything to do with the culture in which we live, we need to acknowledge that silver foxes have more capacity to do more harm than do cougars.