Romance through the ages

WHAT is it about older men that makes them irresistible — their wrinkles, their baldness, their slack muscle tone?

Their creaky joints, entrenched attitudes, their pipe and slippers?

It works for Soon Yi Previn, who, at 31, is 34 years younger than her kids’ dad, Woody Allen. Calista Flockhart, 45, married Harrison Ford, 68, last year, after dating him for eight years. Rod Stewart, 66, has had another baby with Penny Lancaster, 40. The BBC journalists John Simpson, 66, and John Humphreys, 67, both have young children — Simpon’s son was born in 2006, to a partner 19 years his junior, and Humphreys had a son in 2000, before splitting with the child’s mother. He is now dating journalist Catherine Bennett, 51. Lisa Murphy, the 38-year-old former partner of Michael Flatley, is now in a relationship with solicitor Gerald Kean, 54. Pint-sized President Sarkozy, 53, is married to younger, taller Carla Bruni, 43.

These older men are either rich, powerful, talented or all three. Harrison Ford is still reasonably handsome, although the rest of them have long past it. Traditionally, it was this rich-powerful-talented mix that allowed older men to bag younger women — she got the prize, he got the trophy. Everyone was happy. Extremes of this dynamic are Anna Nicole Smith and anyone who has dated Ronnie Wood since his marriage ended. When Caroline Aherne’s comic character Mrs Merton interviewed magician Paul Daniels’s wife Debbie McGee, who is 20 years younger than her diminutive husband, she summed up the older man/younger woman trade-off: “So what was it that attracted you to millionaire Paul Daniels?”

But what if you are dating an older man who is not a millionaire, a movie star, a business tycoon or state president? What is the attraction? My sister and I are both dating men 10 years our senior. Both men lied about their ages on their internet dating profiles; my boyfriend knocked off four years, hers an entire cheeky decade. Neither are millionaires, and both my sister and I are financially independent. So why are we with oldies?

“Sometimes people are attracted to each other because they are at the same stage of their emotional maturity,” says relationship counsellor Lisa O’Hara. “Men’s testosterone levels drop as they get older — testosterone is what gives them drive and keeps them focused. As it drops, many men discover that they become more in touch with their emotional sides in their 40s and 50s and this can be very attractive to women.”

Conversely, the Men Are From Mars author John Gray said in the Observer that ‘alpha males’ like Arnold Schwarzenegger or Dominique Strauss-Kahn engage in risky (or in Strauss Kahn’s case, allegedly criminal) sexual behaviour to boost testosterone levels. So are women attracted to older men because they are perceived as less likely to stray? That they are safer and will provide greater emotional security? Or is it more Freudian, involving unresolved Electra complexes?

“It really depends on the woman’s character,” says Julia Macmillan, 50, founder of the Toyboy Warehouse dating site. Macmillan is in a relationship with a 27-year-old man (they are together two years). “This is all about individual personality. I have a friend who is 25 years younger than her partner, and who had a very strong connection with her own father. She is not a very sexual person, and their relationship is more about comfort and support. Another friend in her late 30s married a man in his late 50s — she was desperate for a baby and he was in love with her. He has aged considerably since the baby was born.

“It’s an over-simplification to say that women who date older men want cosiness, comfort and security, although in my experience women who date younger men don’t want to slip into boring domesticity and instead seek danger, fun and excitement. Personally, a man can’t give me comfort — I get that from myself. Also, while men in power can and do stray — like Strauss Kahn or Schwarzenegger — it is an unfair stereotype to suggest that younger men will invariably stray. Many are very devoted,” she says.

Macmillan founded Toyboy Warehouse, which plans to extend to Ireland later this year, in 2006, when she began internet dating and discovered that as a woman in her 40s she was expected to pair off with old guys in golfing sweaters. She says older men are stuck in their ways: “Maybe it’s their reduced sexual energy, but they often won’t shift their thinking, or admit that they are wrong. It’s like going out with a brick wall. When men reach around 45, it seems to be the watermark for their flexible selves to start deteriorating, whereas this does not tend to happen to women — once we have satisfied our biological imperative, we have a lot more freedom, and remain flexible in our thinking.”

While much of the above is true, older men can be more interesting than their younger counterparts. My boyfriend and I have much in common culturally and politically, and have similarly-aged kids. We click. We joke about the age gap, but given that I no longer feel the need to go white water rafting, back packing through jungles or partying for three-day stretches, it works. We have separate households, and independent lives, and I enjoy sharing the good bits with a sane, sorted, interesting man rather than someone who is floundering around finding himself. It’s not about material stuff, although I have had my fill of penniless musicians starving in bedsits — it’s about the whole emotional package. I like men who are grown-up.

But what if it is about the material stuff? This may apply if women haven’t yet had children. If you are happy with the prize/trophy model, the website promises to connect “wealthy men and gorgeous women” and “where the classy, attractive and affluent can meet.” No skint men and no ugly women — bringing us back to the ancient dynamic of women trading their youth and looks for material security. The site is open to both “sugar daddies” and “sugar babes”, with “sugar” sharing the meanings of ‘cash having’ and ‘cash wanting’., which includes an Irish site, promises “mutually-beneficial relationships” and has a photo of a grey-haired man handing a gift-wrapped box to a young woman, although its blurb is gender non-specific: “Such a relationship is usually between an older and wealthy individual who gives a young person expensive gifts or financial assistance in return for friendship, or intimacy.” Financial assistance in return for intimacy? Isn’t that usually called prostitution? Whatever. So long as everyone involved is happy, who cares?

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