Relationships between older men and younger women have become a romanticized norm in our society; from Hugh and Crystal Hefner to Anna Nicole Smith and J. Howard Marshall, the scandalous stories of elderly, wealthy men and young women captivate us, but rarely do we understand their implications.
Historically, young women were shunted from one male guardian (her father) to another (her husband) as they were presumed too fragile and innocent to survive in the real world. Given that it was far more likely that an older man had the wealth, land, and status fathers wanted when sorting out the business of marrying off their daughters, women as young as 14 could be wed to men over three times their own age. Historic marriages were business transactions, meant to be mutually beneficial to both men involved. Women were simply capital to be traded. While we’ve certainly progressed a great deal from this state, the way we discuss similarly situated relationships in the modern world is incredibly flawed.
The term “hegemonic masculinity” refers to the seeming omnipotence of masculine culture in the modern world; for men, masculinity is the primary determinant of their self worth, and despite our many socio-cultural advances, typically masculine traits possessed by traditionally masculine men are seen as infinitely superior to the typically “feminine” traits women go their entire lives attempting to cultivate to perfection. In many ways, a great deal of the reason young women find themselves seeking significantly older men is due to the way that hegemonic masculinity permeates our culture. Success and wealth are seen as traits that are inherently masculine. Generations of women grow up being taught that their greatest hope for a comfortable lifestyle lies in being successfully “feminine” in order to gain the attention of an already wealthy and successful male. Women are told that “marrying rich” is a legitimate aspiration, and one that ought to trump all others. Women are told that they need a man to take care of them, and that they ought to use their youth and sexuality to get a suitable man to look their way.
This seems extraordinarily harsh, and it is indeed true that loving and legitimate relationships can exist between those with a significant age gap. However, the way that we’ve come to romanticize these types of relationships is extremely problematic. This is a type of relationship that is seen as a badge of glory for the men involved and a mark of shame for the women, and we perpetuate this by the way we discuss such relationships. If and when something goes wrong, it is the female who is put at fault. We say that she was simply a “gold digger” looking to capitalize on the significant wealth and often fragile health of her “sugar daddy.” We never question the system that taught her this was her only means of self preservation, the same system that teaches girls that the only other way for them to be successful is for them to “sleep their way to the top.” We tell them that their sexuality is both something to be ashamed of and something to be utilized for personal gain, and then chastise them profusely if they fall too far on either side. And, just as in Lolita, we tell them that finding more “mature” men and winning them over with their sexuality is the best way to ensure their comfort.
Not only is this extraordinarily demeaning, but it provides means for society to ignore a great many other issues that come along with it. Indeed, the idea of a “sugar daddy” has become so deeply intriguing to our culture that there are organizations boasting women who have paid for world travel and college education by setting them up with rich older men looking simply for “companionship.” As anyone who has ever been on Craigslist can tell you, we all know what exactly “companionship” means. Certainly, there can be cases where companionship is just that, but by endorsing such organizations and concepts, we tell women that glorified prostitution is the only way to gain power, success, stability, and prestige. We paint the men in these scenarios as “paternal” figures, merely looking out for the welfare of their charges. But the so called “paternalistic” relationships are often anything but. While the woman in question may in fact receive financial restitution and aid for education, travel, and the like, the idea that their youth and beauty are their only assets is troublesome.
The women who find themselves in famous age gap relationships are the stuff of lore in pop culture; we are simultaneously intrigued and disturbed by this phenomenon, and rarely ask why it is a rather common occurrence in the lives of normal individuals, not just those in the Playboy mansion or Trump Towers. We don’t wonder about the reasons why average women convince themselves that seeking a wealthy husband is the primary goal in their lives; we say that they have “daddy issues” and write it off to a childhood without a father figure. But unfortunately, this doesn’t offer a suitable explanation. Indeed, as in far too many cases in modern society, the cause is nameable and well known: