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.