A Mea Culpa on Age-Gap Relationships
If there was one topic I returned to again and again in my pre-fall days as a writer and public speaker, it was the toxic nature of older men/younger women romantic relationships. I wrote about it for the Good Men Project, for Jezebel, and for the Atlantic. The last of these posts went viral, and in radio and TV interviews, I doubled down on this claim:
As hyperbolic as it may sound, there are few more powerful actions that men can take to transform the culture than to date, mate, and stay with their approximate chronological peers. If aging guys would commit to doing this, everyone would benefit: older men and younger men, older women and younger women.
I pathologized men who wanted to date younger women:
It's not that women our own age are less attractive, it's that they lack the culturally-based power to reassure our fragile, aging egos that we are still hot and hip and filled with potential. Inspiring desire in women young enough to be our daughters becomes the most potent of all anti-aging remedies, particularly when we can show off our much younger dates to our peers.
I wrote (and preached) this even as I was having a series of extramarital affairs with women 15–25 years younger than myself, many but not all my current or former students. It was a grotesque hypocrisy, one that was revealed when my career and personal life blew up in the summer of 2013. (That blow-up began only two weeks after Sex at Dawn author Chris Ryan attacked my “moralistic claptrap” in Psychology Today.)
Years later, when I returned to writing, at least on more humble platforms, I avoided commenting on my old posts. “I said what I said,” I would repeat, “if anyone got any benefit out of those old articles, so much the better.”
I was dodging the question.
Over the past several years, I’ve heard from many people who weren’t just angry at my hypocrisy — but who were genuinely hurt by my original stance. Men dating younger women, women who had happily married men decades older — they felt judged, erased, and ignored by what I’d repeatedly said about their relationships. Even if they hadn’t been infuriated that I hadn’t practiced what I’d preached, they were frustrated by the cavalier way I condemned romances I pretended not to understand.
I still believe our culture erases the sexual desirability of women over a certain age. I still believe anyone who thinks they’re making romantic choices in a vacuum is kidding themselves. But I’m no longer interested in judging every age-disparate relationship as a capitulation to the culture.
I was celibate for two and a half years after my breakdown. When I started dating again in the fall of 2015, I made an effort to date women closer to my own age. What I found was that the realities of my parlous financial circumstances -- and my troubling, easily Googlable backstory -- proved to be consistent dealbreakers to women over 35. Younger women were willing to take a risk their older sisters weren’t. Perhaps in some instances I was taking advantage of naïveté on their part, but it certainly was dispiriting to feel as if I were a veritable field of red flags to older women. From October 2015 to February 2017, when I met Vic, every relationship that got past a second date was with a substantially younger woman. My age parameters on the dating apps were set at 25-55, but only those in the lowest third of that criterion seemed to be willing to look past all that I had been and done.
I was smart enough to know it would be both arrogant and a thorough waste of time to argue with a woman’s caution born of her life experience. When a woman told me my baggage was too much for her, I didn’t plead to be given a chance. Tinder and Bumble are not courtrooms where one can plead one’s case. It’s humiliating to feel one needs to go through an indefinite probationary status in order to be loved. Folks have a right to be skeptical — that doesn’t obligate me to stick around long enough to overcome years and years of hard-earned suspicion.
Look, I do not need to justify that this fall, I am going to marry Victoria, 20 years my junior. I don’t need anyone’s approval, save hers and my children’s. And of course, 54 and 34 doesn’t seem quite as significant an age gap as, say, 48 and 20 — which was the age of the youngest woman I dated in 2016.
I could just drop this and say no more about it. On the other hand, those old articles at Jezebel and the Atlantic articles are still online, still often cited as reasons to critique age-disparate relationships. It’s well known that I was a hypocrite. What isn’t known is how much I regret that I hurt people, made them feel judged or broken or small.
I cannot make amends adequately to everyone, but I can say, I was wrong. It is important to repudiate what you barely believed at the time, but certainly no longer believe. There may be valid reasons to critique age-disparate relationships, but I wasn’t the man to make that critique. And even if my private life had always been above reproach, I still would have been wrong to shame love.
I am sorry.
The best song I know on the subject of older men and younger women is Jerry Lee Lewis’ delicious “self-own,” written by the great Bill Rice.
He's out there somewhere every night
Where the music's playing loud
Doing all the 50's steps, in a 1980 crowd
The dim lights hide his millage lines
The Clairol hides the gray
And he won't mention anything
That gives his age away
Lord, he's thirty-nine and holding
Holding everything he can
From seventeen to twenty-five
He'll prove he's still a man
He's holding to a candle
And it's burning at both ends
He's thirty-nine and holding
Holding everything he can
Great job on this Hugo. You’ve come a really long way.