Older Men, Younger Women with Meghan Murphy: podcast up

Is age every really just a number? I tend to say no, and have written quite a bit about the problematic nature of older men/younger women relationships. (See my archive here, this interview with Tracy Clark-Flory here, and this post at the Good Men Project: What Young Women are Really Looking for From Older Men.)

Meghan Murphy of the F Word interviewed me last week for her radio program, and the show — all about older men and younger women — aired today. Here’s the podcast for download and streaming.

Talking Older Men/Younger Women with Meghan Murphy

Meghan Murphy and I had a spirited series of exchanges here on the blog and at her site. But though we disagree about pornography and the decriminalizing of prostitution, we agree on some other issues — including the general inadvisability of older men/younger women relationships. (Particularly when the “younger woman” is 25 or less and the older man is 10 or more years her senior.)

We taped a lengthy interview last week and it airs tomorrow, Monday, July 18th, at 12 noon Pacific Time. You can listen to it live here. It will be set up to stream on the site not long after air time, and will also appear as a podcast (eventually) here.

Never Just a Number: on Doug Hutchison and Courtney Stodden

Tracy Clark-Flory, Salon’s wonderful staff writer on sex and relationships, spoke with me yesterday about last weekend’s marriage of Doug Hutchison (the “Lost” TV star) to country singer Courtney Stodden. Problem: Hutchison is 51, and Stodden (who needed her mother’s permission to wed) is 16.

Here’s Clark-Flory’s Salon story that posted this afternoon: Is Age Really Just a Number? I’m especially pleased that Clark-Flory also spoke to my friend Heather Corinna, whose site Scarleteen is nothing short of the single most important source on the web for good sex information for teens.

Excerpt:

Hugo Schwyzer, a gender studies professor who conveniently happens to be working on a book proposal on this very subject, told me by phone that teen girls in these situations typically try to explain it by saying things like, “I’ve never felt like the other girls. I’ve always felt mature for my age. Guys my age are immature little dweebs,” he said. “They believe the myth of their own exceptionalism, which is reinforced by the older man in a really predatory way.” Instead of telling her that he just likes underage girls — “because that would be pervy,” Schwyzer says — the older man showers her with compliments about how very special she is.

Of course, the desire for this sort of praise from an older man often goes hand-in-hand with so-called “daddy issues.” Some girls in statutory relationships report with surprising self-awareness that they seek out older men to fill the gap left by their absent fathers, and many researchers argue that “the adult males in these situations are perceived by the female adolescents as ‘rescuers’ who give them the much-needed emotional support, love, attention, and stability these adolescents are lacking in their homes,” according to a 2006 paper that surveyed the relevant research. Also common among underage girls involved with older men is a history of sexual or physical abuse, or an otherwise “chaotic home environment.” Poverty also plays a strong role: The same paper notes that “the adult men can provide them with financial security, material things, and prestige among their peers.”

Some point to evolutionary theory — specifically, that men are attracted to the reproductive desirability of youth — to explain these relationships, but Schwyzer calls B.S. In an article titled, “Is It Natural for Older Guys to Lust After Young Women?” he writes, “The great lengths to which countless men go to avoid fatherhood suggests that the continued evolutionary imperative to ‘spread one’s seed’ is oversold to the point of being illusory.” The real motivator here is cultural cachet, he told me: “We continue to see teenage girls as yardsticks to measure men’s power and men’s ability to compete with other men.”

Read the whole thing.

“Stop before you become the ‘dirty old man'”: a remembered morsel of advice

Not an hour ago, I had a vivid flashback to a conversation I had had in 1996, and hadn’t thought about since. I sometimes joke that it’s the drugs I did that have robbed me of certain memories, and that may or may not be true — but particularly when it comes to the mid-1990s, there are substantial lacunae in my recollections.

In the fall of 1996, I was 29. Three years into my teaching career, my reputation as an energetic lecturer was quickly being eclipsed by rumors of my sleeping with students. Most of the rumors were true. I was reckless to the point of stupidity, showing little interest in protecting the job I loved. I was trying to get sober and failing. I stashed drugs in the same file cabinets that held student papers, gave lectures with booze in my bloodstream. I had sex with students on my office desk.

It was a “slipping-down life”, and more and more people were noticing. Continue reading

Perfectionism, Libido, and Older Men/Younger Women links, plus a conference

Different websites have radically different commenting communities. This has been driven home to me in recent months as my pieces have been republished at other places. It’s not that various blogs and magazines have widely divergent rules for commenting; it’s that they often seem to have completely different readers.

For example, my post on the problem of older men sexualizing younger women attracted a storm of male criticism at the Good Men Project. What runs on Tuesday at GMP runs on Thursdays at The Frisky. Though you need to be logged in to read responses at the latter site, the largely female readership at The Frisky offered a starkly different take. Though the responses were more positive, as one might expect, many young women who are in relationships with older men were strongly critical of what they saw as my refusal to differentiate between teens and early twenty-somethings.

Jezebel kindly reprints my post on the Damaging Expectation of Higher Male Desire. It got only a handful of responses here, but about 80 so far (and counting) at their place.

And I’m very grateful to Chloe at Feministing for driving some Friday traffic to yesterday’s post “If I Were Thinner, I’d Have the Right to Expect More”: on perfectionism and the scarcity model.

And I’ll be speaking (and moderating) at the Applied Women’s Studies Conference at Claremont Graduate University tomorrow morning. The panel I’m chairing is on Feminist Masculinities, and I’ll be sharing the dais with some terrific activist men. Here’s a link to the program; come on out today (or tomorrow)!

No such thing as a safe perv — and more on Abercrombie’s padded bikini

This week’s column at the Good Men Project is a slightly longer one, on a familiar theme: What Young Women Really Want From Older Men. I touch on Sean Penn and Scarlett Johansson, and on the work of evo-psych debunkers like Cordelia Fine and Martha McCaughey. The conclusion:

Part of being a good man is matching your language to your life, matching your desires and your values. Teen girls, and teen boys, need to see the older men in their lives as trustworthy and reliable. Like it or not, in the eyes of a young woman, you’ll never be trustworthy if you’re hitting on girls her age. You’ll be a “creep” and a “perv.” And you’ll have earned those names.

This isn’t about shaming adult men for doing a double-take at a cute high school cheerleader. It’s about gently reminding all of us that what looks so grown up isn’t. It’s about remembering that our libidos should be growing along with the rest of us. Most of us who are over 30 don’t have the same haircut or listen to the same music that we did when we were teens… shouldn’t we be attracted to a completely different age group than we were when we were too young to drive?

If we’re not fathers, we can still be role models. As I see in my own work every day, young people are so hungry for that comforting, steady male energy that only guys who won’t see 30 (or 40, or 50) again can provide. This isn’t about infantilizing young adults. It’s about building a culture where good, kind, and responsible men serve as guides and mentors to young people, boys and girls alike, who need our safety and our strength.

And I’m quoted in this post at Healthy is the New Skinny: Stop trying to steal our SPARKLE!. Commenting on the Abercrombie & Fitch decision to market a padded bikini top to 8 year-olds:

“As offensive as the pushup bikini is, we have to remember it’s part of a larger problem: the aggressive sexualization of children and teens. Girls are taught at an ever earlier age to perform sexiness. Girls are hungry for validation, and the marketers tell them the best way to get that validation is through pretending to be ready for something they barely even understand. Abercrombie and Fitch is part of the problem, but they didn’t create the problem; it’s not as if 8 year-olds can buy these clothes for themselves. The real problem is that we raise girls to believe that the only affirmation that matters is based on looks and desirability.”

Kate, William, Charles, Diana, and Camilla: a note about love, age, progress and compatibility

Count me among those who felt a twinge of excitement when the news broke Tuesday of the long-awaited engagement between Prince William and Kate Middleton. This excitement has very little to do with being a British citizen. For all intents and purposes, I am culturally American — but Americans have a long-standing fascination with the House of Windsor and their goings-on, and in that regard I am no different from most.

I can’t help but do what so many are doing, which is compare this engagement announcement to the one that came nearly thirty years ago from William’s parents, Charles and Diana. As I’ve written before, I was not quite fourteen when I first saw the future Princess of Wales on television, and I promptly fell into the strongest and most passionate celebrity crush of my adolescence, surpassing even Kristy McNichol. Like millions of others, I stayed up all night on a warm summer evening in July 1981 to watch live coverage of the royal wedding from London. I was absolutely captivated, my normal pubescent cynicism replaced by wide-eyed and unabashed romantic fascination. I never quite lost my fascination with Diana over the years, and when I learned of her death (in Manchester Airport, just after I had arrived in the UK to give a paper) I was rocked to my core. Though it always surprises people when I say it, I consider the events of 9/11 to be only the second most shocking news event of my life; the first happened four years earlier in a Paris tunnel.

In 1981, much was made of Diana’s purported virginity. Much was also made, but hardly ever in a critical way, of the age gap between Lady Spencer and Prince Charles. He was 32 when they were engaged, she had just turned 19. And much would be made, in retrospect, of their painful awkwardness together, including their infamous answers to an interviewer who inquired whether the couple were very much in love; Diana offered a blushing “Of course”, Charles, a devastatingly diffident “Whatever love is.” As we would eventually discover, he was already very much in love with the woman to whom he is at last now married, Camilla Parker-Bowles.

The difference between the Charles/Diana and William/Kate engagements — and more importantly, between the relationships themselves — says a great deal about the evolution of our society in the past thirty years. Very few people think Kate Middleton is a virgin, and no one in their right mind likely cares. Equally important is the difference in the narrative arc of the two courtships: Diana and Charles were the poster children for rushing into something, while Kate and William have been very much young people of their generation, showing no interest in hurrying to the altar. As most folks know, the young couple have dated for eight years since meeting at university, and took a much-publicized “break” along the way. A great many young people in the Western world today will be able to identify with such an extended courtship that has had such obvious ups-and-downs. The sensible modern idea that sexual compatibility should be determined before marriage, and deep intimacy already established before walking down the aisle, is made manifest in the story of newly engaged couple. This is to be applauded.

And of course, I’m pleased that we’ve got a marriage between chronological peers. While Diana was thirteen years Charles’ junior, Kate is six months older than William. I’ve made the case again and again that older men/younger women relationships, for all their culturally-constructed allure, are frequently problematic, even exploitative. This is especially true when the younger woman is below, say, the age of 25 while the man involved is a decade or more her senior. (As was very much the case with Charles.) It certainly ended disastrously for Diana, not merely because her husband was unfaithful, but because she and the Prince of Wales were, like so many other age-disparate couples, manifestly incompatible. It’s no surprise that the great love of Charles’ life, Camilla Parker-Bowles, was his same age (actually, as with Kate and Wills slightly older than the prince.)

While attraction, fueled by fantasy and need, can offer flourish across a significant age divide, deep and enduring romantic compatibility can rarely survive that divide when the younger partner hasn’t even reached full adulthood. (And the rental car companies are right — most of us, as the brain research suggests, need until our mid-twenties to hit that full adulthood.) Charles lacked the courage to push against the culture and the palace in order to marry the woman he loved, but the heartbreaking example of his tragic first marriage seems to have made a considerable impression on his elder son and future daughter-in-law. Kate and William, despite colossal media pressure, have allowed their relationship to unfold slowly, have allowed themselves their very public doubts, and have built a bond based on both the eros and shared experience of the sort that is really only possible with a generational peer.

As a feminist, I worry for Kate — but I’m hopeful as well. Diana tried to fashion a more modern vision of royalty, and met with spectacularly mixed success. Middleton will face tremendous pressure to conform to a traditional ideal, and the fear is real that she may find her individuality disappearing behind the royal veil. But if she and William can be as different from his parents in their married roles as they were in their engagement process, then there is real hope that she can be a more modern and egalitarian icon than we’ve yet seen.

So here’s to their marriage, but more so, here’s to the route they’re taking to get there.

Older Men, Younger Women, Integrity: reprinting my first “big hit”

I’ve been blogging for some seven years now (the blogspot site I had from August 2003 until January 2004 is defunct, but archives from January ’04 until the present are available via the sidebar here.) When I think about a post that was my “breakout” piece, it’s this one from January 2005. I’d been gaining readership before then, primarily because of my reputation as a progressive Christian blogger. By early ’05, I was switching towards more gender-focused blogging. The original post got 307 comments, still a record for this site. Here it is, and nearly six years on, writing now as a middle-aged husband and father, I stand by it.

My fiancee and I made it out of the house this past weekend, despite the rain and our mutual flu affliction.  We went to see A Love Song for Bobby Long starring Scarlett Johansson and John Travolta.  It was a passable film if not a deeply memorable one, and the two leads were quite fine.  (I do want the soundtrack.) 

Johansson’s character, "Pursey", is 18 and lovely.  Travolta plays the title character, a 50ish alcoholic former English professor prone to quoting George Eliot and making odious sexual remarks to Pursey.  At one point,following a particularly obscene comment, Pursey turns to Bobby in hurt and frustration and cries out "But I’m just a girl."  It’s the line that lingered for me.   Pursey is legally an adult, and the film makes clear she is not sexually unexperienced — but the plain power of that one line drove home for me the reality we often choose to ignore, that those who appear outwardly fully adult may still be in need of our care and protection.

I thought about this just now as I read this post by Sofia at Volsunga.  Among other things, she touches on issues of older men dating younger women, and I thought I’d add some musings. No, there will be no personal disclosures in this post.  All I will say is that I can say in all honesty that today my private life matches my public pronouncements on this issue, and to God be the glory for that.

I don’t think I need to defend the proposition that we live in a culture that sexualizes and objectifies young women starting very early in life.   I work with junior high and high school age girls in my church youth group, and am well aware that a substantial number of them struggle with the overwhelming pressure to be alluring, to be sexy, to be powerful.  In frank group discussions, we’ve touched on these pressures many times over the years.  I’ve had countless similar (if slightly more sophisticated) discussions in classes with my students at PCC.

I see a great many young women eager for attention and validation from older men.  By "young", I mean both underage girls and college-aged women.  (What I mean by "older" depends on the age of the girl who is the subject of the conversation.  20 is an "older man" for a 16 year-old; 30, or even 40, might be an older man for a 21 year-old.)  For all of the progress our culture has made on some issues, it is truly remarkable how the older man/younger woman ideal has persisted.  Though there remains considerable disagreement about how old might be "too old" and how young might be "too young" (especially given legal considerations), most folks seem quite prepared to accept these relationships not only as normal, but perhaps even ideal. 

Now, I don’t think that significant age gaps in relationships are always a problem, but I do think that they are far more problematic than we are willing to let on.  When we are talking about men over, say, 27 and women under 21, they are almost invariably a very poor idea.

I’ve often written about how much I enjoy working with young men and adolesecent boys.  I’ve talked about the importance of male role models, and about how crucial it is that older men take an active interest in the emotional  and spiritual development of young men, not just their athletic and intellectual achievements.  I love "my guys".  But I also think it’s equally vital that adult men work with adolescent girls and young women.   I’m convinced that young girls badly need the presence of loving older men who are not parents or relatives, but who are still fundamentally safe.

Continue reading

Flirtation, adultery, student-teacher boundaries — again!

I get a fair number of emails from college students, almost always young women, who found this blog after having googled the phrase “student crushes”. I reposted the piece that I did on Tuesday after receiving two such emails at the beginning of the week, both from women who had crushes on older, married, male professors.

Let’s review: professors should not date students who are enrolled in their classes, for some excellent reasons. We shouldn’t suborn adultery for some equally important reasons, as I wrote in January ’09 in a post called Helping Him Become What He Pledged Not to Be.

And while I don’t have a problem with professors dating their former students (though the ideal would be that a student would be sufficiently “former” as to have left the campus entirely), I do have a very serious problem with decentralizing the relationship status of the parties in this discussion. I think we can have a serious discussion about whether or not professor-student romantic relationships are invariably unethical and a bad idea. I take that negative position, but know that others — in good faith and at times with very thoughtful reasons — can take the opposite one. But I don’t think that it’s possible to make a compelling case in defense of adultery. While it is possible to critique monogamy as an institution, it isn’t ethically viable to defend dishonesty. And at its heart, the sinfulness of cheating is not in the sex, but in the lie it creates. As I wrote fifteen months ago:

One of the great tragedies of infidelity lies not in what it does to others but what it teaches us about ourselves — that we are fundamentally untrustworthy. And it is hard to be happy while living with the dissonance between one’s language and one’s life.

So let me be clear. I’m happy to chat with folks — in “real life” or through this blog, email, social media and so forth — about the ethical and human issues surrounding this topic in which I am deeply invested. What I’m not interested in doing is co-signing any behavior that dishonors another person’s monogamous commitment. Relationships can end, of course, and romantic statuses can shift. But when we’re dealing with people who have pledged fidelity to others, we have an obligation to do all that we can to help them honor that commitment. Honoring the commitment to fidelity can include breaking up prior to sleeping with someone else. But it cannot include idle flirtation, emotional affairs, or outright seduction.

Older married men who flirt with younger women do so, generally, for ego validation. The longing to know that one still has “it” can be overwhelming, particularly for a fellow who hasn’t really dealt with his own fears about ageing and mortality. But whether he is a politician or a plumber, he needs to grasp that young women — heck, women of any age — are not yardsticks with which to measure the sexual appeal he longs to know has not diminished. When the greying Romeo is a married professor flirting with his own students, that behavior moves from being unfortunate and unwise to reckless and irresponsible.

And that’s a message that apparently needs frequent repeating.

Older Men, Younger Women, and Older Women’s Sexual Invisibility: a response to Rachel

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. Continue reading