By: Valentina Valentini
My friends and family have always gotten giddy when I’ve told them about a new love interest. They want to hear all about him and how we met. And when I tell them about my current boyfriend, and the saucy, yet sweet, tale of how our holidays in Portugal collided and a transatlantic relationship ensued, they practically swoon. But there’s one part of our origin story that I always save for last.
“So, he has this great job in marketing, and we both have a degree in journalism, and he’s well-traveled, and — oh yeah — he’s 24,” I say. I’m 33.
People often gasp or give understanding nods. Sometimes, they do this weird winking affirmation thing, but it’s always something. People feel compelled to react to our age gap.
By now, I’ve learned that this is both unfair and sexist. If my boyfriend were just a couple of years younger, or even significantly older, than I am, the “age thing” (as I call it) wouldn’t even be a thing. Heidi Klum knows what I’m talking about. The 43-year-old supermodel recently received flak for dating a man 13 years her junior. (Luckily, she has plenty to say in response to her critics.) Meanwhile, Madonna, Jennifer Lopez, Robin Wright, Kim Catrall, Mariah Carey, Susan Sarandon, and Demi Moore (who also happens to have dated Klum’s current partner) also know what I’m talking about. The sexist criticism of older woman / younger man relationships are as old as time, and Klum — who seems to have a smart, sophisticated 30-year-old boyfriend — is just the most recent casualty of this double standard.
In my experience, men tend to be praised for being on the older end of a May/December romance. As the New York Daily News put it, “It’s a time-honored tradition in Hollywood for older men to date younger women.” Recently, Sean Penn, Mel Gibson, and Robin Thicke have made headlines for their younger female partners, but back in the day, Old Hollywood couples boasted major age gaps, too: Think Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, and Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow, with 25 and 30 years between them, respectively. This kind of heterosexual dynamic has become the norm.
Women partnered with younger men, on the other hand, are often seen as “cougars” who have cunningly captured prey, Freud-invoking mother proxies, or simply “crazy good in bed,” all in an attempt to justify why such young catches would be with them — as if mutual attraction, love, and respect weren’t enough. By 2009, The New York Times caught on and wrote a trend piece on these so-called “cougars.” I’ll admit that I’ve sometimes wondered if I’ve just trapped an unsuspecting boy into my web because my age makes me wiser and wilier. But this kind of thinking ignores that there’s another, fully autonomous person in the relationship: the younger man.
My boyfriend has his own mind, wants, and needs. They may not be the same ones he’ll have in 10 years — Lord knows, mine weren’t final at 24 — but they were very much a part of his thought process when it came to our relationship growing and working out, and they still are.
Getting together, despite the the age gap, felt so natural, relaxed, and fun, and everything happened organically. My anxiety, which is usually sky-high when I get involved with a new guy, was barely detectable. I have no scientific proof of this being a result of my boyfriend’s relative youth, but he’s the only man I’ve been in a relationship with who’s significantly younger than me — and this is the only relationship I’ve had that hasn’t caused me anxiety. If our age difference has had any major effect on our relationship, I’d say it’s only been positive thus far.
The major long-term concern for me is biological timing. While we’re still in the early days for our relationship, the topic of kids has come up (vaguely and in no certain terms), and my boyfriend is understanding of my eventual needs. He hasn’t bolted yet, so it seems like we’re on the same page.
No one seems to ask Penn or Thicke what it’s like to date a younger woman, and no one should be asking a woman that question about a younger man.
Now, I’m not saying that every younger man is going to make a great boyfriend — just as not every older man makes a great partner. No relationship is guaranteed to work forever, no matter the age difference of those involved. I’m not even 100 percent sure about mine, but for now, my boyfriend and I work, because we’re both intelligent and like-minded in our values and politics, because the chemistry is there in spades, and because the desire to learn more about each other grows every day. The old adage “age is just a number” has never been truer for me than now, and I bet Klum feels the same way. No one seems to ask Penn or Thicke what it’s like to date a younger woman, and no one should be asking a woman that question about a younger man. It’s nearly 2017. Isn’t it time we finally stopped considering older woman/younger man romances so shocking?
Ultimately, the two people involved in a relationship are the only ones who should be concerned with the intricacies of it. Everyone else can keep their reactions and unsolicited opinions to themselves, and stand by for support when asked.