How’s this for kismet: One fateful day in 1966, singer Tony Bennett met and took a photo with a couple after one of his shows. Little did Bennett know at the time, his future wife was there, too: She was the baby growing inside the belly of the female fan.
Bennett, 90, recounts this meet-ick between him and his third wife, Susan Benedetto, 50, in his new book, as the all-seeing, no-casting-shade-here eye of People magazine recently reported. It’s hard to be rational about how skin-crawly this is: Fine, maybe they love each other, but he was 40 and she was negative several weeks when they met. It’s the punchline to a Saturday Night Live skit come to life, as the Cut was quick to note; it’s Twilight’s Jacob imprinting on Bella’s vampire baby; it’s that guy on Game of Thrones who marries his daughters. It captures everything that’s wrong with our sexist, youth-worshipping, male-privilege-run-amok society.
Bennett and Benedetto may make for a particularly striking example (“Lovely fetus you’ve got there, ma’am, here’s my number, have it call it me in 18 years or so”), but older men getting romantically involved with younger women is hardly a rare phenomenon. Every day, there seems to be another outrageous new celebrity coupling announced via pictures of some May-December frolicking: Jennifer Lawrence sharing a lollipop with Darren Aronofsky; Sean Penn dating Vincent D’Onofrio’s daughter; Mel Gibson having his ninth child with his 26-year-old girlfriend; Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen double-dating with their 47-year-old and 58-year-old respective beaus; Leonardo DiCaprio’s sending another lady-love packing upon her reaching the ripe old age of 25. Online dating stats bare out that average joes are just as enamored with younger women as their famous counterparts.
Each example disgusts me anew in a way that’s probably not entirely defensible: I think I might be angrier about these couples than I am about a good many important political issues. I know, I know: Why care that two consenting adults are canoodling when a demagogue is about to take the White House? (Donald Trump, for the record, is 24 years older than his wife Melania, and each time he’s gotten married, it’s been to a younger woman. But anyway.) It’s just so transparent, watching one of these paragons of fragile masculinity take his male privilege out for a spin and realize he can date someone so young she won’t know how inappropriate it is. High five! Why not father a child you’ll be too old to raise properly while you’re at it? The exact ages and differentials vary, but each one reinforces one important point: Women get less valuable as they age, while men just get to enjoy the ride.
Older men who date much younger women make the transactional, hierarchical nature of romance explicit and reveal the extent to which men and women are still playing by very different rulebooks. In other areas of life, we gesture toward valuing things beyond the superficial. For most of us, in dating those things kind of go out the window, but then people tend to pair off with partners at about the same attractiveness level that they occupy. It all evens out. Except! Some older men have this secret other option, whereby they get to opt out of the system: When they acquire enough money or power, they can basically trade that capital for the thing women have that’s valued by society: youth and beauty. The pretense of finding someone who can be a partner and equal disappears; women both young and old get to see that all that really matters is how you look in a bikini. Meanwhile, women also watch their romantic options shrink as they age—a similar amount of money or power on their part usually doesn’t bring all the boys to the yard in quite the same way.
A caveat is necessary: You can’t help who you love. Maybe Tony Bennett and Susan Benedetto are genuinely the greatest love story of our time. Still, more often than not, these pairings feel icky because they are icky: The parties aren’t on equal footing; different experiences and life stages are inevitably going to make it harder to relate. Attention from an older man might feel flattering, but do your future self a solid and ask: Why isn’t this guy interested in people his own age?
The personal is political. John Waters has said, “If you go home with somebody, and they don’t have books, don’t fuck ‘em!” Let’s revise that to add that if someone wants you to be the May to their December or vice versa, don’t let ‘em. In the end, this is no time to be a traitor to your generation. Instead, find someone your own age who’s even hotter. Get you a man you can talk about Pokémon Go with—or get you a woman you can talk about the Carter administration with.