The allure of younger lovers

Why are we so shy to talk about it?

A fortysomething friend wrote recently from Paris to say that he’d met a wonderful new man, and things were going swimmingly. In fact they were about to move in together. Just one problem. The other guy was considerably younger and my friend felt like a “paedophile.” As it turned out, he need not have worried too much about his unnatural lusts. The new man in his life was a not so very twink-like 33.

Gay men have always ogled younger guys. It’s a theme as old as the Greeks. Way back in 1918, novelist André Gide even had a name for gay guys who cruised young. He called them pederasts, as distinct from sodomites, who apparently prefer a more manly kind of man, and the invert, who, “in the comedy of love, assumes the role of a woman and desires to be possessed.”

Leaving aside the absurdity of separating sodomites from inverts – surely the butch ones are always the first to bend over? – Gide’s is a perfectly serviceable typology. It just won’t fly in a society like ours that’s obsessed with age and yet deeply uncertain as to how to deal with it. Any time anyone starts dating someone even slightly younger or older, we toss out the P-word, like a dash of holy water in a church, or a ritual incantation against a host of demons and taboos that haunt the subject. It’s a preemptive strike: an attempt to turn the accusation into a joke before anyone else can discern a reality. But the humour only highlights the unease that shadows this kind of relationship.

For a society as hung up on diversity as ours, it’s a bizarre reaction. We seem to think it’s great to have people of all different races, religions and gender affiliations mixing and mingling in one great, big, self-described stew of diversity. We like those differences and the tensions they provoke.

But we’re not at all keen on age differences, especially when they face off in the sexual arena. Oh, we pimp those differences. We titillate ourselves with the spectacle of intergenerational couples like Mrs Solis and her boy-toy gardener on Desperate Housewives, where the surreal tone of the piece sugarcoats the sexual subversion. I mean, he looks 23 but he’s supposed to be a 17. From the way he sheds his shirt in absolutely every episode, it’s perfectly clear what he’s there for – jailbait porn for every dissatisfied wife in the country.

Still, as Letterman would say, don’t try this at home, kids. The justice minister won’t like it. As if youth sexuality were not already hemmed in by a myriad of rules and regulations, our charming federal government now wants to raise the age of consent through the covert and rather sneaky expedient of incorporating an idea of “exploitative relationships.” Soon, if you’re a teen aged 14 to 18, you might have to worry about your date’s age. Date someone too old and a judge might deem it “exploitative.” This is bound to create a whole new market in fake ID. Soon teens will have to card their dates to make sure they’re young enough. But it doesn’t give much credit to teens or their ability to choose their own partners.


What’s interesting is that we privilege certain kinds of difference but not others. Millennia after it first started, the man-woman thing is still going strong, for no apparent reason except that it promotes some furious intra-couple friction (aka, the famed “war between the sexes”). And interracial couplings are big right now, at least among the black-spectacled set in the downtown core. Don’t believe me? Check out Omni TV’s dismal new soap, Metropia, where relationships just don’t make the grade unless they get so many ticks on the diversity checklist. The sweet Italian has a crush on the hot Korean and so on and so on.

But intergenerational matches, hmmm, doesn’t that just make us pause and purse our prim little lips. “What could they possibly have in common?” goes the accepted puritanical response. Meaning that sex doesn’t count. Meaning that partners had better be playing from the same page when it comes to career, ambition, education and class.

Difference is of the essence in relationships and while many prefer to marry within the safety of their class, race and age bracket, others prefer the tension that comes from sharply different world views. “Love isn’t an insurance policy,” said novelist Christopher Isherwood, himself a noted fan of intergenerational relationships. “Love is tension…. With love there ought to be a need to worry, every moment.”

Sure, difference can generate power imbalances, but don’t bet on them favouring the old. As the English novelist Zoë Heller remarked last year in a Globe And Mail interview, sex, age and gender aren’t the only things that decide whether a relationship is good or not.

“All kinds of relationships can be wounding…. Just because you’re 41 and I’m 15 doesn’t mean that you’re going to be the exploiter and I’m the exploited.”

If society were truly interested in empowering individuals, it would spend less time on hidebound rules and more on the particularities of individual relationships.

* Brent Ledger’s column appears every issue.

Read More About:
Dating, Culture, Love & Sex, Youth, Toronto

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