Corinne Sullivan is the author of Indecent, which follows a young teaching apprentice at an elite boarding school who finds herself in a relationship with a student. Here she writes about the ongoing taboo of older women dating younger men.
When it comes to heterosexual relationships, society instils a set of expectations in women from a young age: Women should always be shorter than the male interest. Women should be scrawnier. Women should earn less money. And, of course, women should be younger. In An Affair to Remember, Cary Grant is 53 to Deborah Kerr’s 36. In Autumn in New York, Richard Gere is 51 and Winona Ryder is 29. Perhaps the worst: in Entrapment, Sean Connery is 69 and Catherine Zeta-Jones only 30. But it’s okay, Hollywood says, because older men are sexy – silver foxes and sugar daddies! – while women over 35 are doomed to succumb – as Donald Trump so delicately put it during his infamous 2002 Access Hollywood interview – to "checkout time". Deborah should be grateful that Cary even gave her a second look.
It’s the natural order of the world, some might protest: men have a biological imperative to seek the most fruitful ovarian reserve. Or as any plastic surgeon will convince you, ageing women in the dating pool just don’t stand a chance.
There is the stereotype of the inverse: the thrice-divorced society lady swaddled in furs and pearls with a hunky 20-something cologne model on her arm, but it is a caricature of a relationship, pitiable in its inequity, transparent in its motives. In this scenario, the man still embodies the position of power: the more attractive of the two, the stronger, the abler. From George and Amal Clooney to President and First Lady Trump, the validity of the May-December romance is rarely questioned when the man is the older party.
When these relationships with significant age discrepancies are criticised, however, the issue is usually with consent (or a perceived lack of it). Different ages come with different levels of maturation, life experience, and sexual knowhow. In the #MeToo era, the already oft-misunderstood definition of consent becomes even further confused by different levels of professional authority. Mixed-age couples may raise eyebrows, but those relationships go from titillating to taboo when they’re between an assistant and an executive, or an associate and a partner, or a student and a teacher. Being older is one thing; being more powerful is another.
Authoritative figures are assumed to be (and often are) male: the lothario Don Draper who beds his secretaries. The corrupt Harvey Weinstein who abuses his power (as well as allegedly more than 50 women). The predatory chemistry teacher who lures his underage student into staying after school.
But things are changing; cougars are on the rise. Some credit Brigitte Trogneux, who is 25 years French President Emmanuel Macron’s senior. Others nod to Madonna, or J.Lo, or Kris Jenner. Older women are fighting for a place in the dating pool and reclaiming the stigma of the Sugar Mama. Authority is shifting in other ways as well; though female educators still make up a small fraction of teacher/student sexual assault convictions, the number has been on the rise over the past 10 years, and no one quite knows what to make of it.
Here’s the thing: young women who sleep with older men are often deemed targets, but young men who sleep with older women are either cunning or just plain lucky. Just like when the little old society lady is seen with her baby-faced beefcake, there’s little question as to who is the victim and who the victimiser. So deeply instilled in us is the necessity of the woman as diminutive that we believe, too, that the woman must lack authority, even when she’s the ostensibly authoritative one.
If women are to be thought capable of wooing a younger man (and not just with money), women must also be thought capable of sexual aggression. The time is up for men who have abused their power, but if women are to gain sexual authority, they must be condemned for their misconduct as well (and, firstly, be capable of committing such offences). Power to women who are attracted to younger men – go get ‘em, Brigitte Trogneux! But until we believe women are capable of abusing sexual power, society may never accept that women even have sexual power.
Indecent by Corinne Sullivan is published by Harper Collins.