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.