The Jungle is a column that uses connections through social media to explore the fault lines in adult relationships.
It’s weird, seeing pictures of Mary-Kate Olsen, the 26-year-old fashiony sprite, and her boyfriend Olivier Sarkozy (half-brother of Nicolas), 42, awkwardly kissing at a Knicks game. The sometimes overtly transactional nature of relationships, wherein youth, beauty, money, status and access are sexual currency, explains a couple like that easily enough – but it just feels gross.
May-December romances continue to carry a stigma, particularly when there’s a decade or more of age difference and when they include a woman under 30. Often a collective instinct to protect young, presumably vulnerable women (from their boyfriend? from themselves?) and to punish or sex-shame men for transgressing some moral boundary makes these pairings an easy, visible and socially acceptable target. And yet, inside of a relationship, an age difference is just one aspect of many, and doesn’t define it.
Andrew, whose three-year relationship with a 21-year-old started when he was 36, tweeted that, “It was uncomfortable for her when we went to restaurants … even in Montreal.” But 34-year-old Jessica said in an e-mail that the age gap between her and her 23-year-old Parisian boyfriend “became more of a silly/teasing in-joke.” That her younger boyfriend was “insatiable in bed” seems like a cliché, but following Jessica’s “miserable marriage to an asexual man,” it meant something more. “How much I missed in my 20s kills me now,” she wrote.
There is experience and education available from a much older or younger partner (like, it’s not all about sex). Jessica wrote that she got comfortable with not knowing what was next in a relationship, or what was even likely. “We talked about how this was not long term, and just got on with it … Not mooning over everything, like most men my age, is the most attractive thing ever.” This can also, of course, skew sleazy. Andrew tweeted that he liked “explaining things” to his young girlfriend – a comment that even made innocently can be taken as creepy paternalism.
The inherent incompatibility of such age differences can of course result in rough spots. My friend Alison, who was 15 years younger than her ex-boyfriend, Gchatted “I really wanted to go to Berlin, and he was like, ‘Berlin is over, you should have gone in 1998.’ I said ‘When I was 13?’ ” Jessica admitted her 23-year-old’s age showed “when he talked about mapping out his life … ‘millionaire at age 30,’ and all that. I just smiled and wished him the best, sarcastically.”
More than anything, age, especially as it relates to sex, potency and possibility, is charged with its own emblematic value; a much younger or older partner might invoke youth or maturity in a way otherwise unavailable. Alison says of her ex, “He did not want, I think, to be his own age.” Does anyone?