Junior Partners

Freed by economic success and buoyed by changing social mores, mature women are finding younger men a more attractive choice.

July 27, 2002|By SUN STAFF

Somewhere amid the muffled rustling of popcorn and surreptitious slurps of soda, a revolution is under way.

In the new movie Tadpole, a 15-year-old boy falls for his 40-something stepmother. In the forthcoming The Good Girl, Jennifer Aniston is 30 and hooks up with a 22-year-old. The recent flush of films that explore the same theme have included Lovely and Amazing (36-year-old woman and 17-year-old boy) and Crush (40-something woman and 25-year-old former student).

Offscreen, Sandra Bullock (37) has been spotted canoodling with Ryan Gosling (21), her co-star in Murder by Numbers. Tobey Maguire (26) was photographed intimately strolling with Nicole Kidman (34) and pinching her behind. A few weeks ago, Sex and the City author Candace Bushnell (43) married a 33-year-old ballet dancer. And Madonna (43) remains happily married to director Guy Ritchie, who's also a good 10 years her junior.

From darkened movie theaters across the country to the glossy pages of Us Weekly, it appears a movement has been growing to give women an essential entitlement that men have enjoyed for centuries - the right to date a much younger person and not get any grief for it.

"These couples are on the front lines of the battle," said Susan Winter, co-author of Older Women/Younger Men: New Options for Love and Romance. "The suffragists had to fight for our right to vote; women of the '80s had to fight to break the glass ceiling and become CEOs. You may never want to vote; you may never want to be a CEO, and you may never want to date a younger man. But you should have the right to do it without criticism, without discrimination, without social censure."

Ahh, this is what bra-burners of the '70s must have envisioned as a necessary victory in the battle for equity.

No one is advocating that women start trolling schoolyards for beaus - the celebrity couples that began dominating gossip pages in the early summer have involved young, adult men. The sudden prevalence of these relationships has a direct link to the women's movement.

Women have always tended to date older men for one main reason - money. Or, to put it more nicely, economic security.

"You almost never saw [older women with younger men] in society in the 1950s or the early '60s because there weren't enough opportunities out there for women to be economically secure on their own," said Warren Farrell, author of a series of relationship books, including Why Men Are the Way They Are: The Male-Female Dynamic. "Except for women who were widowed and their husbands had died and left inheritances to them."

Once women began entering the workforce, however, the need for a provider gradually began disappearing. Today, we have women like Avon chairman Andrea Jung in the upper echelons of corporate America and stars from Oprah Winfrey to Jennifer Lopez raking in mounds of cash. And a good many more non-famous women can well afford their own Manolo Blahniks and Chanel suits - much less food and electricity - without needing a man to pick up the tab.

It's a development that's slowly nudged the evolution of women's mating habits.

Not only has it become OK to pick men far less accomplished - witness Julia Roberts, who recently married a lowly cameraman - it's also become more acceptable to rob the (proverbial) cradle.

"If she doesn't stay single, [the successful woman] is more likely to behave a lot like a man in looking for a good body," said Farrell, who holds relationship seminars across the country and reports seeing more older woman-younger man relationships in recent years. "This is especially true if she was not attractive when she was younger and she sort of missed dating all the football players and she was considered very bright but wasn't in the `In' crowd."

And there are many perks to dating much younger men.

Winter - who is 47 and dating a 31-year-old - said much younger men are often less set in their ways. And, if they're in their 20s and grew up in the wake of the women's movement, they tend to be more accepting of powerful mates.

"We've come a long way from the little woman who walks behind her all-knowing husband," she said. "It's about as opposite from that as you can get."

But just as characters in Crush and Tadpole discovered, society largely isn't ready to accept such relationships yet.

Even though men with much younger women hardly register any shock, Winter said she's encountered disapproval from neighbors, acquaintances and strangers on the street. After being treated like a menacing Mrs. Robinson through two relationships with men 16 years younger, she finally decided to write a book and interviewed 200 people involved in similar relationships.

"There's a double standard in this world," Winter said. "I had lies told about me, stories told about me. You will be attacked. You will be the butt of jokes. ... I interviewed one couple who had to move from where they lived because of social pressure. They moved to the hills of Portugal."

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