The Hefner Effect

In the third of a five-part series on love and relationships, Tom Matlack and author Laura Munson debate the question: Why do young women and older men get along so well?

MUNSON: I was raised by an “old man.” My father was 50 and gray when I was born. He used words like “davenport,” “filling station,” and “ice box.” His mother was born in the 1800s and she lived in a nursing home in her last years, where we visited her every night. My father would pass by the rooms and look in and say, “That man used to be the CEO of Sears and Roebuck. It’s hell to get old.” But I noticed that those old men loved me. In fact, as my father aged, his friends would occupy my dance card, as it were, at a multi-generational gathering. And I obliged. I wasn’t scared of their liver spots, canes, and quivering voices. I knew that it was hell to get old, and I was happy to walk arm-in-arm with them through the door, or to get them a plate of food so they wouldn’t have to get up off the “davenport.”

And let’s be honest—I knew that I was “giving an old guy a thrill.” I’d heard it in those exact words from plenty of them. They thanked me for things boys my age often missed: simple things like my smile, my thin ankles—and they meant it. As an adult, I wonder why that is. Is it that men never outgrow their need to feel important to a woman, and their own wives and contemporary lady friends have long soured on stoking their egos? Maybe so.

But why would a young girl oblige? What’s in it for her? I think it’s because I knew there was no threat of sex. No threat for a jealous episode with a girlfriend. I knew I didn’t have to prove myself. They liked my ankles and my smile and that was enough. It was a win-win. I watched that win-win all the way to my father’s deathbed, where he flirted with the nurses. I forgave him for it and so did they. Maybe it’s one of life’s secret agreements.

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MATLACK: I concede that true love is ageless, and that an outsider can never know what happens behind closed doors in a marriage. I would never comment on the success or failure of any particular couple, but the societal phenomenon of old guys and young women is worth talking about.

I sometimes think that marriage is like a boxing match. When the sparring partners are well matched, it goes on and on, with blood and guts on the canvas and beauty emerging from the violence of the engagement. When older men marry younger women, the partners have given up on the idea of going head-to-head with their peer in age and in power. The male and female roles are exaggerated into some kind of daddy-daughter dynamic that is somehow more comfortable than trying to slug it out with someone your own age.

When they give in to the Woody Allen “the-heart-wants-what-the-heart-wants” gravitational pull, both parties make a concession.

A younger woman embodies vitality and beauty—and the guy’s power, defined in its rawest form, becomes the central aphrodisiac. Everyone knows where they stand.

I can’t help but be saddened when I see this pattern over and over again among my friends and in the newspapers, because at bottom it points to our collective obsession with superficialities. We worship material wealth and youth. And boobs.

Money and power or teenage-model good looks don’t make anyone happy in the long term—contrary to the consistent message of popular culture.

At the extreme, both the old man and the young woman are stooping to a commercial transaction—prostituting themselves. She’s selling youth, beauty, and sex, and he’s buying it. Whether you’re sleeping with a guy for $100 or $100 million, it’s all the same. Both sides of the trade miss out on something more genuine than sex, and the kids miss out on having a dad—since most of these guys will be in retirement homes (or dead) by the time their children make it to college.

But maybe I am just being a prude. New research shows that this whole thing is about the survival of the race. The practice of older men chasing younger women may contribute to human longevity and the survival of the species.

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MUNSON: I find it interesting that when I read the question, I didn’t read the phrase “get along so well” as having to do with sex or marriage. I thought about it in terms of dynamic. I don’t have any friends who have fit into that societal stereotype, wherein the old man marries the young hot girl with the “boobs.” I think of that scenario as a myth some people might give in to, and I’m not that interested in it. I think we would do better as a society to start shifting away from these myths. I don’t even believe in the male “midlife crisis.” But I do believe that it’s sold to men, from the time they’re kids, that the prize is youth in women and wealth in men. And I do believe in the power of that lie. Let’s tell ourselves a different story, shall we?

Matlack:  Natasha Vargas-Cooper writes in her recent Atlantic article “Hard Core”:  “One of the most punishing realities women face when they reach sexual maturity is that their maturity is (at least to many men) unsexy.”

Yes, I think old men asking young women to dance is one thing– it’s cute and harmless– but that isn’t what’s really going on most of the time.  There is a sexual component.  There are countless old guys married to young women, and many more older men masturbating to images of young women on the web.  I don’t pretend to completely understand it, but I viscerally believe it is a sell out to true love and goodness on both sides.

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Read others in this series: “Great Sex or Fighting Fair?“ and “Looks and Longterm Fidelity.”

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Tom Matlack is the founder of the Good Men Project and one amazingly inspiring guy.  Check out what he has created!

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—Photo by Gizmo2469/photobucket

10 Comments

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10 Responses to The Hefner Effect

  1. Basic atavistic tendencies do promote male-female attractions. We’ve all read the research (haven’t you???) of the international studies done that men notice hip to waist ratios (even if not consciously “measuring”) nice skin, shiny hair, good looks–all indications of youth, health and therefore, at the most genetic level, desire for a woman who can “bear children” so the guys can distribute their genes. Also the reason given why men like to mess around so much — impregnate as many as possible — more of your genes out there.
    Those studies show women look for men with “resources.” Why. Let’s imagine being a woman 10,000 years ago. Not much you can do when you’re pregnant, giving birth, lactating, and taking care of a baby and young child for several years. Need a guy who steps up to the plate. She has less kids than he can, so each one (& she) needs protection and food while she’s “out of commission” so to speak. An older man could have more resources (though a young, healthy, muscular, tough guy is a good bet too).

    Now we can talk about a lot of these “innate” reasons for attractions, and we can’t discount them, but we do live in a different world. Women can control child-bearing. We have a civilized society (sometimes I question that) and women’s rights (unheard of just 40 years ago) that allow women to be more independent in their choosing. Today “resources” doesn’t require brawn as much as brains — negotiating society, making a good living. Then what about the old guy who dumps his loyal wife of 30 years to follow his desires to seem/feel powerful and young (with that nubile 22-year old)? We’ll never completely overcome these millennium old impulses, but we have the means, information, and hopefully decency to make choices that reflect wisdom, loyalty, self-awareness, and kindness — not just gene distribution.

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  3. Thomas Matlack

    Thanks again Laura for engaging in this great conversation. In the end understanding is all we have to bridge the gender gap.
    @tmatlack

  4. Tom Matlack

    PS. This piece in this week’s New Yorker made me rethink some of what I wrote, about a 48 year old man and his 20 something wife. One of the best pieces I have read in a long time (even if it made me cry). Check it out. They don’t allow links so you will need to track it down. But worth the effort.
    ***
    THE WAVE:A tragedy in Mexico.
    by Francisco Goldman is about the writer’s marriage to Aura Estrada and Estrada’s death from injuries suffered in a swimming accident at Mazunte, Mexico, in 2007.

  5. Alison Bolshoi

    I found your two points of view to be particularly polarized in this discussion, and I did not relate in any way to Mr. Matlack’s view this time. One of my best friends married one of our college professors when he was in his 50′s and she in her 20′s. They are still married twenty five years later, and it’s one of the most stable marriages I’ve ever seen, with certainly the most mutual respect I have ever seen. My friend didn’t have big boobs and blond hair, and her husband wasn’t rich. They just loved each other, and are as in love today as when they first started dating. I hope I can say that about my husband when we’ve been married another 14 years. For some reason, I myself have always attracted older men, from when I was 16 through the present, at 45. I have never been as attractive to men my own age as I have to men between the ages of 60-80. And I have always found this to be a very special, dear enigma. I like to think that when men reach a certain age they appreciate women differently, they see us more, somehow. I’ve never found this admiration to be cheap or disgusting. It’s always been something I treasured.

  6. lauramunson

    Thanks for your comments, Alison. My mother and father were 14 years a part and it seemed neither here nor there. As you said, they loved each other and they never really looked back. In fact, when he died, I figured they’d both sort of prepared for it given their age difference, but it was a shock to my mom just the same. Love is love is love. Loss is loss is loss. And age to me is really a non-issue. I happen to be married to a man my exact same age and the cultural references are the same which can be refreshing and make things easy and natural. But the human heart runs far deeper than the amount of time someone has lived on this earth. I think it was the social stereotype that made that question interesting to me. I’m so interested in busting through them and getting down to what matters. Thank you so much for your words both here and on Facebook. You always inspire me. yrs. Laura

  7. You actually make it seem so easy with your presentation but I find this matter to be really something which I think I would never understand. It seems too complicated and very broad for me. I’m looking forward for your next post, I will try to get the hang of it!

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