Older Men, Younger Women, and the Slide Into Invisibility

Reprinted from May 2010.

I’ve been meaning to respond to some of the questions raised in the thread below this post, particularly those raised by “Rachel”. In this comment, Rachel turns away from the narrow issue of professor-student affairs to the broader issue of older men, younger women relationships, challenging what she sees as my refusal to see younger women’s potential for agency. Rachel asks:

And why is it so terrible it needs effuse apology that a man enjoys feeling virile and brilliant as he enhances the intellectual and sexual life of a younger woman surrounded by men her age who don’t know what they want out of life, are still selfish in bed so can’t (or won’t expend the effort to) pleasure her the way she deserves? In many ways, May-December romances can revitalize the lives of both parties involved.

Let’s agree to disagree about whether there ought to be blanket rules against professors sleeping with students whom they are currently supervising. (I think there ought to be, Rachel and a few other commenters aren’t quite so sure.) Let’s also stipulate that when we refer to “May-December” relationships, we’re talking about relationships between women Rachel’s age (25) and men two or three decades her senior (she mentions men 30 years older than herself). Is there a reason why 25 year-old Rachel and 50 year-old Ludwig shouldn’t have an affair, one in which Ludwig “enhances Rachel’s intellectual and sexual life” while she helps him to feel “virile and brilliant”?

Look, I’m not the sex police. I’m not going to stop age-disparate couples on the street and write them citations for violating what I regard as an acceptable chronological difference. I know full well that relationships between older men and younger women have worked quite well for both parties, even when the age gap is as significant as a quarter-century. And of course, from a psychological standpoint, I think a safe assumption about these relationships is that the potential for damage decreases as the younger woman’s age increases. I’m more concerned about a 30 year-old man dating a 20 year-old woman than I am about a 25 year-old woman dating a 40 year-old man, even though the gap in the latter relationship is larger.

That said, even if the relationship between Rachel and Ludwig is mutually fulfilling, that relationship doesn’t take place in a vacuum. When the happy pair stroll the streets or canoodle in sidewalk cafés, others will observe them. Now, it’s true that we shouldn’t let societal disapproval condition our actions. If Rachel were white and Ludwig were black, they might meet with considerable hostility, particular in certain communities. That wouldn’t be a good reason for the two of them to avoid having a relationship. Sometimes people need to be discomfited; sometimes people need to be challenged to rethink their assumptions.

But we also live in a culture in which older men/younger women relationships have a way of reinforcing the sexual invisibility of older women.
Rachel’s words are telling; she implies that an older man might feel more “virile and brilliant” with a younger woman. The unspoken but obvious assumption is that he might have a more difficult time feeling that way with a woman his own age. I touched on that in a 2006 post:

So many older men hit on younger women for reasons that have little to do with sex and everything to do with a profound desire to reassure ourselves that we’ve still got “it.” “It” isn’t just physical attractiveness; “It” is the whole masculine package of youth, vitality, charm, sex appeal, and, above all else, possibility. When a 19 year-old flirts with a 39 year-old , it feels like the world is reassuring the fella that there’s still time, there are still new opportunities, still a chance to be young.

Rachel seems to be asking, “what’s wrong with reassuring the man he still has “It”? And my answer is that that it is based on a fundamental devaluing of the older man’s female peers.
I always advise younger women who date older men to ask their lovers how they feel about women their own age. Frequently, the older lads will complain about the ways in which older women are “bitter”, “demanding”, “jaded”, or have “let themselves go” (meaning that they have tired of trying to live up to an unattainable ideal.) Whether the Rachels of the world are conscious of it or not, they are being set up in opposition to the older women that they themselves will soon be. And while I would not go so far as to say that the Rachels are taking from older women what is rightfully theirs, I think it’s fair to say that when Rachel sees it as normal and healthy that older men feel more “virile and brilliant” with younger women, she’s directly contributing (as are her lovers) to the depreciation of older women’s worth.

Despite the recent media hype, there is no epidemic of women in their forties and fifties taking up with young men in their twenties. Older women pursuing younger men are still mocked; we can call them “silver vixens” instead of the more disparaging “cougars”, it doesn’t change the base reality that relatively few young men are interested in women twice their age. Simply saying, “but women can chase younger men too” ignores the reality that such relationships are considerably more difficult to pursue than the reverse. It’s also not clear that women in their forties or fifties are as interested as their male peers in relationships with men twenty or thirty years younger. This isn’t to say that older women aren’t attracted to hot young guys — they certainly often are. But physical desire and an interest in actually pursuing a relationship are two different things. If young men are as sexually incompetent as Rachel implies, why would an older woman find them any more pleasing than she does?

Am I arguing that young women should spurn older men’s advances out of a sense of feminist solidarity with their mothers and big sisters? Partly, yes. Young women do need to understand that in the patriarchal sexual marketplace, female youth and beauty are fleeting but valuable currency. Sexual relationships that offer aging men a chance to feel virile and offer young women a chance to learn and grow may seem innocuous, but we need to see that the value of the exchange is inextricably linked to a contempt for the worth of older women. I’ve written many times of why it is that older men ought to be cautious about pursuing romance with significantly younger women, and vice-versa. I also think both young women and older men owe something to aging women. What they owe them is not necessarily a refusal to engage in age-disparate relationships, but a willingness to look hard at the ways in which the idealization of older men/younger women love affairs contribute to the cruel devaluation of aging women’s worth.

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21 thoughts on “Older Men, Younger Women, and the Slide Into Invisibility

  1. There are also male bio clock issues if pregnancies result from these relationships, no?

    Autism, bi-polar disorder, schizophrenia and some other diseases thought to have at least some genetic basis are more common in older fathers. Not to mention the “nuture” issues with older fathers who may not live long enough or be healthy long enough to be effective parents.

    Also, it’s not just a matter of older women being alone. I know too many divorced women over the age of 40 who are living in near poverty, and some raising children – often with special needs – in part because of this problem. Very serious and stressful situations. And these often end up costing all of us in the programs needed to deal with this issue.

  2. as always, i appreciate the thoughtfulness you display toward men and [especially] women of all ages, ethnicity, backgrounds, et cetera, hugo, but i think you’ve missed the mark a teensy bit here.

    if a ‘refined’ gentleman is determined to pursue younger females, then a female who ‘spurn[s] older men’s advances out of a sense of feminist solidarity with mothers and big sisters’ will not deter him; he will simply move on to the next. and, fine, let’s say that the woman spurns the man not in hopes of changing his ways, but with the purpose of ‘feminist’ support; i don’t see the benefit of that either.

    here’s why: for most people, with age comes a comfort in one’s own skin, an acceptance of their lives and relationships, and, most importantly, wisdom. i, in my 20s, feel empowered enough as a woman to discern and deny a man whose intentions do not match with mine. if i am in it strictly as a sexual relationship, he needs to be in it for the same. likewise, if i am in it for an emotional relationship, it’s not healthy if he’s just in it for the sex. in my 40s and 50s i know that i will have come to an even higher level of self peace, and if there is a man who is looking for a degree of sexual acceptance by way of a 20 year old, that’s his right, but i doubt i will consider that a slight against me [or my age, or my peers].

    yes, i think your intentions in this article are good, but i think you should give us women a little more credit with regard to respecting and appreciating ourselves without the approval of a man, especially as we age. the simple fact is that, in my opinion, as long as someone is being honest with themselves about their actions [and the root of them], then i don’t think there is any harm in a may-december, strictly sexual, cougar-boy toy, anything relationship.

    in my opinion, this topic has nothing to do with ‘feminist’ support, because the fact of the matter is that a woman has just as much right to date a younger man as a man has to date a younger woman. it doesn’t matter whether the latter happens more frequently because the woman still retains the right to determine her sexual relationships. and that’s what feminism is; gender equality. as long as both men and women have the choice to define their sexual and emotional identities, a may-december relationship will remain a feminist union.

  3. Mom tells me that my bio-daddy, who she divorced when I was 8, had a thing for much younger women, including herself, and a student he cheated on her with before I was born. He went thru several before hanging himself 25 years back. (He and I were not close.) Reason 253,000,000 I am glad to be asexual/aromantic…
    Agreed 100% about the need for symmetry in how old people are valued. What’s good for the gander is good for the goose.

  4. I wonder if older men/younger women relationships are truly based on just a “contempt for the worth of older women” rather than a contempt for themselves. Considering my own experience in an age disparate relationship, I believe the older man felt like he was a “black sheep” and was not solid in his own self worth. In his instance, I think the pressures of maintaining a mature relationship were too much for him and he constantly retreated into himself, especially when any kind of expectation was placed upon him that made him feel uncomfortable. He would “spoil” in my perspective, any possibility of growth in the relationship with negativity aimed towards himself, feeling that he already was or would be a disappointment to me, and lacked the self confidence and motivation to really own himself as a man and as a result, allow the relationship to flourish. The result was a very stop and go, guard up-guard down type of pattern, which is frustrating, and after time, becomes very exhausting and boring. Ironically, when I first met him, he came off as very confident and sure of himself, living life to the beat of his own drum, which I found very attractive. After getting to know him well, I realized living life to the beat of his own drum was also his mode of protecting himself from having to fulfill or acquiesce to other’s expectations of him, he always had an out. In any event, I don’t know if his attitudes towards himself are a reflection on his attraction to me, a woman 13 yrs younger. All I can assume is that commonly younger women have less serious expectations than older women, such as “settling down.” I am in my 20′s and still have a lot I want to accomplish in my life before I have a family, whereas a woman 13 yrs older than me, in his age group, is most likely seeking permanence with a mate. However, regardless of age, there are always expectations in a relationship that build trust and while younger women may not have the same expectations as older women, there are still expectations. I believe if a man feels he cannot or refuses to meet the expectations of others and chooses to insulate himself in a comfort zone of minimal responsibility, then it is not women he holds contempt for, but himself. The man chooses to fail a relationship or chooses a relationship he knows will eventually end because he doesn’t believe in himself and his biggest fear is being 100 percent in a relationship and still failing. I think that in some cases of age disparate relationships, women serve as a catalyst for a man’s own insecurities and contempt for himself.

  5. Of all the pieces you’ve written on this subject, I think this is the best and most important.

  6. Amelia- I think you are correct. Many older men are very lacking in relational skills and have difficulty with anything but competitive achievement.

    I am in my mid-40s and very encouraged and optimistic for women your age, though. There seem to be many of you twentysomethings who have much more differentiated psychology, much more ability and expectation of achieving economic and political autonomy and who, most importantly, see yourselves as equal to men. I hope I get to see what you all accomplish in the political economy. I suspect you will also build very successful families (there also seems to be some critical mass of younger men who are also more well-rounded, have better relational skills and who are better able to handle relationships with wives and children than even many men of my generation).

  7. “I believe if a man feels he cannot or refuses to meet the expectations of others and chooses to insulate himself in a comfort zone of minimal responsibility, then it is not women he holds contempt for, but himself. The man chooses to fail a relationship or chooses a relationship he knows will eventually end because he doesn’t believe in himself and his biggest fear is being 100 percent in a relationship and still failing. I think that in some cases of age disparate relationships, women serve as a catalyst for a man’s own insecurities and contempt for himself.”

    a couple of years ago, i had the misfortune of falling in love with a man 19 yrs my senior who is like this. he ultimately drove me away as he could not deal with my holding him accountable for his behaviour. a friend called him a misogynistic douche-bag, whereas i’m convinced he doesn’t like himself.

    it’s very difficult to accept yourself when you’re someone you don’t want to be (or like for that matter), and when you are at this stage, it is completely impossible to have a healthy, mature relationship with a PARTNER.

    some older men can have that healthy relationship with a younger woman, however, both have to be self-aware and willing to work at that relationship.

  8. Hugo,

    Let me play devil’s advocate. You wrote:

    “If Rachel were white and Ludwig were black, they might meet with considerable hostility, particular in certain communities. That wouldn’t be a good reason for the two of them to avoid having a relationship. Sometimes people need to be discomfited; sometimes people need to be challenged to rethink their assumptions.

    But we also live in a culture in which older men/younger women relationships have a way of reinforcing the sexual invisibility of older women.

    If you can say that old Ludwig/young Rachel reinforces the invisibility of older woman, couldn’t one also make the argument that black Ludwig/white Rachel reinforces the invisibility of black women? In both cases, there is a stereotypical power dynamic–younger women have more sexual power than older women, white women have more social power than black women.

    It’s a serious issue, racially speaking, among black women, probably even more serious than age disparities.

    For the record, I agree with what you’re saying in most cases. However, I think the black/white question is just as complex.

  9. I’m not sure the sexual invisibility of older women, in a patriarchy, is all that bad. I sure don’t miss being catcalled and threatened and pawed when I’m trying to go about my business.

  10. “Sexual relationships that offer aging men a chance to feel virile and offer young women a chance to learn and grow may seem innocuous, but we need to see that the value of the exchange is inextricably linked to a contempt for the worth of older women.”

    And since young women do inevitably age, it’s a good investment in her own future to hold out for a man who isn’t into her mainly for her youth and how virile that makes him feel. The pressure to be “better” than one’s peers in order to make your partner feel good about themselves is exhausting.

  11. I had an odd experience last month. Bear with me, this is a bit long, but relevant.
    I ran into a man whom I’ve had a crush on for approximately thirty years! Which should indicate, among other things, that neither he nor I are in our first youths. And that he is somewhat older than me. And he was a man of tremendous sexual charisma, much of which he retains. And I had this thoroughly delightful encounter with him in which I deliriously learned that he is also kind, patient and gracious. Ka-ching!
    Debriefing with friends afterwards, I regretted my loss of self-possession, my gushing fangirl demeanor. Most of my friends dismissed this; one said “You probably made his day.” But my only thought was “No, I couldn’t have made his day. If I were 20 years younger, that would have made his day.” So although I am about 15 years younger than this man, based on all my observations and experience, I felt that I was too old to be attractive to him.

  12. Theresa, but does he actually feel that way? Do you really know that he would have been so much more pleased to hook up with a younger woman, or is that all you?

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  14. Mythago, short of him throwing me over his shoulder and carrying me off, I don’t know how I would have known that. ;) None of this actually came from him at all, it’s perfectly true; it did come from within myself; but it came from within myself, I’m sure, in response to all these cultural lessons (?) I’ve been absorbing since I was that nubile girl.

  15. We live in a culture that places automatic value on competition and its outcomes. We worship winners and heap scorn on losers. Sometimes, the reason for sexual attraction is that each finds the other attractive, sometimes it’s just what it is.

    Justifications are for those who are so bought into the zero-sum game they have no other way to soothe their injured egos.

    I’m 55. I judge each woman I meet on her own merits, and my attraction to her (or lack thereof) follows next. I react to my personal ideal of feminine beauty as instinctively as the next man, and the day I stop noticing and at least thinking “yes, wow” is the day after they forgot to bury me. That said, we also seem to be a culture that secretly envies those who abandon impulse control, especially those who get away with it. For me, if she’s 30 years younger than I am but able to meet me as a peer emotionally and rationally, my only worry is keeping up with her physically, and if she didn’t know about that at first she’ll find out soon enough. However, if my first reaction to her is “she’s a nice kid”, it won’t matter how strongly she comes on to me. My impulse control is apparently outside the norm in that regard.

  16. Huh. I will be 40 come fall, and you know, I seriously do not think any 20-something woman owes me ANYTHING out of some sense of sisterhood or whatever else. If she is truly happy with a guy my age or older; he treats her like a partner and not a prize and they are well suited and happy? Heck then, more power to ‘em, it ain’t gonna twist my shorts. People, regardless of age or age differences deserve some happy in their lives, and if a Rachel finds it with a Ludwig, so be it, and she owes me nothing.

    In fact, this whole inviolability of, oh, women over 35 or whatever thing perplexes me sometimes. A couple of famous women who are, from what I can tell, considered “super hot” are not, oh, 20 somethings. Halle Berry and Angelia Jolie come to mind. I sometimes think that the Sexual Invisibility of older women thing is, well, played up like a boogyman to, well, encourage women to worry about their looks and all that even MORE. In media, tons of tales of the man walking out for the younger woman, so on…and THAT sorta thing fuels women looking to compete with their juniors- and buy everything from cosmetics to face lifts to do it….hummm…

    Now, that said, there are older men who I honestly find to be disturbing and creepy because they are SOLEY interested in younger women due ONLY to their youth. And often they go through A Lot of younger women- dates, girlfriends, so on, and never move anywhere as people beyond “she’s young and hot”…in which case whoever the woman with him is, she’s in trouble, because he does not care about her at ALL, and everything with the whole situation is ALL about him and HIS vanity and ego.

    But as far as younger women having some sense of OBLIGATION to help us older sisters out? Pfft. They owe no one anything IMHO- NOTHING at all.

    And I honestly think, well, maybe as a dude you do not realize exactly how many younger men DO actually have some interest in older woman…I’m 39, and well, it’s not like myself or a great many of my same aged friends have become invisible to the male of the species, even younger ones.

  17. The heart and gonads want (or don’t want) what the heart and gonads want (or don’t want) and all the feminist theory in the world will not change that one bit.

  18. @JohnE,

    Most of us use our MINDS when we decide whether to have a relationship with somebody. Perhaps you should focus on that instead of your *gonads*.
    Oh, and BTW, some of us don’t even have gonads and manage to *want* someone nonetheless.

  19. This seems like another case of “Paternalism against the Patriarchy” – the old paternalistic stereotypes being trotted out against a presumed “Patriarchy”. The anecdote you refer to is simply a millenia old “cautionary tale”.

    Here is my situation: I am in an open relationship. I am not trying to replace my primary, though we both joke a little about being cashed in for 2 30s. Pre-internet, my age range was +/-5. Now, thanks to internet and play parties, it’s +7/-35.

    What is their attraction to me? A number of things: 1) I am a self-avowed slut and unabashed about it. 2) I’m not a TWUE DOM(R) of either the poseur or pontificater variety. 3) Genuine respect and affection. I do not feel that I elevate anyone by patting them on the head and saying “When you are older, you’ll understand, little girl.” 4) I take “No” as “No”, “Not now/Not Sure” as check with me later, and “Yes” as “Yes”.

    Now I would think this all would be basic. However, whether it’s left wing PC-ness or right-wing “Appropriateness”, entirely too many people waste a pile of time mindfucking everything and not actually engaging people of all ages as THE legitimate operators of their own lives.

    Sometimes I am rejected by women more my age. Why? It could be that I am not “spiritual”, which you gotta admit is hard for an Atheist to be. It could be that I am not a sub or particularly dominating. Pray should I change that and, if so, how often? Of course, sometimes isn’t all times. Of course, sometimes I am rejected by women much younger. No accounting for taste. Uh, that may be why I have a chance at all. :-P

    BTW – When a significantly younger woman expresses interest in me, I really don’t feel “virile and brilliant”. I feel enjoyed and enjoyable – probably the absolute best reason to have sex. I feel this with women of all ages.

  20. “Am I arguing that young women should spurn older men’s advances out of a sense of feminist solidarity with their mothers and big sisters?”

    I am kicking myself for not making it here last week, and thereby missing two posts on which I’d have wanted to say something fairly strong, but I like the subtlety of this sentence and the closing paragraph. One could read this sentence as saying either, “Younger women should (always or generally) refuse older men’s advances, and here’s why,” or, “When younger women refuse older men’s advances, this should be a significant reason.” And there is no parallel sentence that younger women should not make advances to older men, or that feminist solidarity should give them pause when they consider doing so.

    I’m half inclined to invoke Agatha Christie’s character Colonel Bantry, but I’m not quite sure how. He doesn’t pursue younger women, just gets a little fatuous about young girls at tennis parties, and wonders why all the young men aren’t hot in pursuit of one such or other when the girls turn out not to have Sex Appeal.

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