Cougars, Silver Foxes, and the new AAUW Sexual Harassment Study

Two new posts at Good Men Project this week:

Sexual Harassment on Campus: It’s a Guy Thing looks at the powerful new AAUW report on sexualized harassment in schools (co-authored by my friend Holly Kearl.) Excerpt:

What drives sexual harassment isn’t testosterone. Boys are not born to harass. What enables and encourages so many of them to harass girls and other boys are the “rules of manhood” that prize cruelty, swagger, and aggression. Boys who are shamed out of crying and who are shamed out of forming close friendships with girls are “set up” to become bullies and harassers. They use words (and worse) to enforce a strict Guy Code among other boys. (The study found, not surprisingly, that male-on-male harassment tends to employ homophobic language.) And they harass girls to win attention and praise from other boys—and to feel the thrill of power over vulnerable young women.

And a reworking of an old post on an old theme: Why Cougars are Better than Silver Foxes. Excerpt:

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.

Sugar Daughters: why “Sugar Daddies” bother me more than johns

I’ve got a short piece (a blog post rather than a more thoughtful column) at GMP today on the Sugar Daddy phenomenon: Buying ‘Sugar Daughters’: What’s Really Wrong With the Sugar Daddy Phenomenon. Riffing on this Amanda Fairbanks piece in the HuffPo, I note that I’ve known students who’ve sought out these “arrangements” with varied results. And I touch on why the Sugar Daddy phenomenon bothers me far more than traditional prostitution:

By blurring the lines between a genuine romance and prostitution, the sugar daddy relationship is more problematic than a traditional john/hooker encounter.

That pretense of intimacy is inherent in the term “sugar daddy” with its hint of the incestuous. While the term “john” (for a male client of a sex worker) suggests anonymity, “sugar daddy” reeks of emotional (as well as sexual) boundary violations. The implication is that the real fathers of these young women have failed to provide the right combination of emotional and financial support; the term reinforces the not-entirely inaccurate trope that younger women who seek older men have “daddy issues.” And it suggests that the older men who seek out “sugar babies” are looking for young women whom they can spoil and fuck, deliberately blurring the line between paternal indulgence and sexual objectification.

The real question is whether the term “sugar daddy” is an unfortunate misrepresentation of what’s going on, or an all-too-accurate description of something dark and especially ugly.

Read the whole thing.

See also this terrific Alternet piece from Sarah Seltzer.

Don’t Call Them Cougars: Women Dating “Slightly Younger” Men

I did a piece for Jezebel that runs today: The Dating Paradigm Shifts for Women in their 30s. It begins:

This is so weird,” my friend Nicole -– a successful 33 year-old entertainment executive — tells me. “Ever since I started dating, I went for older guys, sometimes much older. But now I’m head over heels for a 29 year-old. It’s crazy, but right now, it just makes sense.”

While the “cougar” (the older woman who pursues significantly younger men) is at least partly an overhyped media creation, there’s some evidence that for one age group in particular, this is a real emerging trend. More than a few women in their late 20s to mid 30s who generally dated older men are now switching to going out with younger guys. While the stereotypical cougar is a woman in her 40s with a boyfriend little more than half her age, these women are still in their 30s going out with guys just a few short years younger than themselves…

Read the whole thing.

Age gaps, cultural barriers, and contemplating a tutor-student affair: a response to “Robin”

I got a Facebook message last week from a friend of mine named “Robin”. Robin is in her late twenties, and recently started tutoring English to Spanish-speaking employees at a large business in her hometown. Knowing my posts about teacher-student relationships (and about age-disparate affairs), she wrote:

I speak Spanish fluently, so there are plenty of opportunities to build relationships with staff members who are not at this time conversant in English or interested in learning. But, it seems as though a new staff member has developed a more-than-passing interest in me. The trouble is not just that my student is interested in me, it’s that I have some pretty strong attraction to him, as well.

I have no idea how long I may be tutoring there. It could last several years or more. I also have no idea how long this particular individual may be studying English under my instruction. Even if he worked really hard and became conversational within a year (a remarkable feat!), he’d still likely be working at this company, and that could make things uncomfortable for the others if I decided to lower that boundary. I care about all of them very much; it’s more than tutoring; it’s ministry with these wonderful people. It’s much more clearcut when the rule is “Not until this person is out of my class/Not until this person has graduated.” How would I know in this case?

Two other considerations for if/when the student/teacher relationship is no longer a concern: Our age difference and the different cultures we represent. By the time there’d be license to ‘go for it’ he wouldn’t be as “Fresh Off The Boat” as he is now (two months). But, I’d still be 8 years older than him, which is a big deal considering that means he is 19 right now. Cultural differences won’t necessarily get less important as he ages and adjusts to living here in the States.

Or maybe he’ll do what most 19-year-old boys I know do, and he’ll have a new crush on someone else next week.

One key difference between Robin’s situation and that of other teachers who are romantically interested in their students is that Robin is teaching a skill for which no grade will be assigned. Her judgment in that sense isn’t compromised; there’s less worry that a relationship with this young man will damage either her integrity or that of the business for which she works as a result.

The age difference, of course, is real. 27 and 19 is a significant gap (much more so, developmentally, than 35 and 27). Add in the cultural and class differences, and you’ve got a number of signs that Robin should proceed with considerable caution. Robin doesn’t mention the fellow’s immigration status; if he’s undocumented, then his vulnerability is increased exponentially, as is his potential dependency upon her, another red flag. She should consider all of these factors before moving forward towards either a fling or a relationship with this 19 year-old. Continue reading

All age-disparate love affairs are not the same: why I prefer “cougars” to “silver foxes”

I’ve written quite a bit about the older man/younger woman dynamic on this blog. (See archives on that topic and on the somewhat related topic of student crushes.) I’ve generally taken a dim view 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 25 or so). Put simply, the potential problems in older men/younger women relationships seem to diminish based less upon the actual number of years in between the partners and more upon the age of the gal involved. I’m more concerned about an eighteen year-old woman and a thirty year-old man than I am about a thirty year-old woman and a fifty-five year-old man, even though the latter relationship has twice the number of years in between the partners. Read through the archives for more explanation of my position.

I’ve written virtually nothing about age-disparate relationships between same-sex partners, of course, and very little about the increasingly celebrated older woman/younger man pairing. A superficial concern with consistency would suggest that my feelings about all older/younger relationships ought to be the same, regardless of the sex or the sexual orientation of the partners involved. But I think a compelling case can be made that older women/younger men relationships are much less problematic than their reverse, and that the same is true of same-sex age-disparate couplings.

We don’t fall in love, or fall into bed, in a vacuum. Our desires are heavily shaped by the culture, as is our sense of how power is negotiated in sexual relationships. Patriarchal rules about gender roles show a surprising and depressing resilience; ask many young feminists of both sexes who, despite their deep ideological commitment to egalitarianism, struggle to resist social pressure to conform to traditional ideas about what a man and a woman should do in heterosexual relationships.

The older man/younger woman dynamic reinforces patriarchal conventions; the older woman/younger man dynamic subverts them. This doesn’t mean that traditional roles can’t emerge in older women/younger men relationships. I did write once about the notion of older woman as teacher and initiator, and the exasperation many women feel at being asked to “mother” men. Several folks pointed out that plenty of women are forced to take on mothering roles to male partners their own age or older. That tendency towards a kind of uxorious helplessness that afflicts so many men in their romantic relationships with wives and girlfriends can emerge, it seems, at any age and with any woman. The key is that far fewer women than men generally want to take on the “teaching” role. Women may eroticize youth and vigor in younger men, but they rarely are turned on by displays of 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.

Please understand, 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 the reality 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.

Same-sex relationships can replicate unhealthy dynamics from the dominant culture. But by their very nature, same-sex relationships “subvert the dominant paradigm” in a very healthy and important way. A romantic relationship between two men and 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 infinitely more damaging way.

Critics on this blog frequently accuse me of double standards, and of being harder on men. By noting that, all things considered, older men/younger women relationships are more problematic than any combination of partners of a different age, I open myself up to that familiar charge. Yet it’s simply absurd to pretend that we have, even now, achieved full equality for gays and lesbians; it is equally untrue that women, despite the tremendous advances of the past half-century, don’t still get the short end of the stick in virtually ever area of human activity. No matter how well-intentioned the parties involved, every older man/younger woman sexual connection sends a clear and visible signal to the outside world that the patriarchal norms are left untouched; every older woman/younger man bond sends the exact opposite signal. This doesn’t mean a good feminist can’t be involved with an older man, or a pro-feminist man with a younger woman. But it does mean that they will have to work twice as hard as anyone else to keep unhealthy cultural discourses out of their relationship.

Older woman, younger man, and a crush misinterpreted: a response to Luke

My most popular posts, in terms of repeat visits and search engine queries, have to do with age-disparate affairs and student crushes. Generally, I write about older men, younger women relationships. But sometimes, the proverbial shoe is on the other foot.

I got an email a few days ago from “Luke”. Luke is 22, and just finished up an undergraduate degree in sociology at a mid-size and prestigious eastern university. For the last two years, Luke has been mentored by a female professor in her early fifties, a woman he has admired tremendously and from whom he has learnt a great deal. His professor is divorced and lives alone, and at the end of last semester, he was invited over (by himself) to her house. Pleased to be able to spend some quality time with his mentor, he eagerly agreed to visit.

Luke’s mentor offered him drinks (he is of age), and then propositioned him, telling him in fairly explicit terms how attracted to him she was. Luke made his excuses and left. As might be expected, he’s fairly shaken up about it:

I feel like it changed things,
but I don’t know how to be honest and deal directly with her. Honestly I am
anxious and saddened. I also feel guilty about it because as strange as it
seems to me, I started to develop quasi-romantic feelings for her midway
through the semester. Those feelings were oddly innocent (like a feeling of
tingling), but they were there. Something like: I had the strange compulsion to
hug her one moment after school (which I didn’t do). But we talked about these
kinds of things and I was frank with her… but withheld the cookies of sex
from her. So I feel like I arrested a natural progression of where things were going, and I also
feel like my mentor will resent me for it, at least at first. Even the first time I went over her house, I thought to myself as I got ready to go, ‘woah!… this kinda feels like a date…. hmmm, weird.. . . . . . Oh, well!”

My question is how do I continue this relationship
professionally while taking into account that I was propositioned; no I do not
want to take her up on the offer. She is actually a very cool, unique, and laid back lady,
and I take after her. I don’t want to condemn her for what she did. She was
tempted (I guess?), and I am an adult legally. But this relationship is not an
equal one. How could it be? She’s as old as my mom.

I suppose the first point to make is the most essential one: our skewed perceptions about male and female sexuality lead us to see older women, younger men relationships very differently than the reverse. With some considerable justification, we see women as having considerably more potential to be victimized and harassed than we do men; we see men as having considerably more potential to victimize and harass than we do women. And of course, when we look at statistics around rape, assault, and harassment, those perceptions are validated by the evidence. But we make a mistake when we confuse a patriarchal power structure that privileges men over women with the notion that each individual man always has power over each individual woman. And we make an even graver mistake when we deny that men — not just young boys, but grown men — can be victimized by asymmetrical sexual relationships. Continue reading

“I’m not here to be anyone’s babysitter”: some reflections on older women, younger men

Got an email a week or so ago from “Dana”:

I am 40, single and loving it. I am not ready to settle down yet but I realized a while ago that I am starting on that path. I look much younger than I am. Most people think I’m in my 20’s (Thank you Mom and Dad!) and both my age and the way I look have had some interesting effects. Over the past few years I’ve found it harder and harder to find men my age who want a romantic relationship with a woman *my* age. They all seem to want that young under-30 type of woman. I’m at the point where almost all the men I date are 10+ years younger than I am! In general, I have no problem with it (or the opposite scenario). I get along fabulously with people (male or female) who are younger than I am, but I do find the generation gap (and there is one!) to be somewhat irritating at times. They’re fun to date but I can’t imagine settling down with someone who lacks so much life experience. I have no desire to be anyone’s mother or babysitter.

I had a similar conversation recently with an old friend, my age (and Dana’s). Single again after a twelve-year marriage, she’s recently been repeatedly “hit on” by her daughter’s soccer coach — a handsome lad in his late twenties, well over a decade her junior. My friend is flattered and physically attracted, but said essentially the same thing Dana did: she has no desire to be anyone’s mother, teacher, or babysitter. “I’m not here to give anyone experience”, she says. Continue reading