Cradle Robbing

and the Failure of Binary Ethics

Some years ago, I fell in love with a woman twenty years younger than me. We lived together for two years, and she left me for reasons no one, including her, could explain. During the time we were together, and ever since, I have been patient about the disapproval of friends, acquaintances, and even lovers for my "cradle robbing." Now I am retired from personal relationships, and I can speak reflectively on the binary ethics that underlay that disapproval. I mean, when I refer to "binary ethics," the reductive reasoning that attempts to judge human behavior in simple good/bad, yes/no terms.

The woman in question was twenty-eight when we began to live together. We had known each other nine years earlier, when she was a student in a series of classes I taught. What drove our relationship was the discovery, nine years later, that we had both spent the year secretly obsessed with the other. In the meantime, I was getting out of a failed marriage and she had married badly but borne a child. I divorced, she divorced. We lasted two years together, whether because I am impossible to love long-term or because I have appallingly bad taste in women, is not germane.

The notion that a difference of twenty years in our ages should be a sensible barrier to loving each other is merely stupid. It is grounded in prejudice, not logic or sense. I found myself thinking recently of wolfpacks, which I regard as the closest natural thing to human communities. In the pack, the alpha male doesn't mate with the younger females because they are young, but because they are healthy, fertile, and receptive. Their age is irrelevant. The alpha female is as attractive as her younger neighbors for those reasons, not in spite of her age. The 'love' among the members of the pack is driven by the mutual appeal, not by power or youth, and when the elderly are 'unattractive,' it is not because of their age but because of the effects or age. And the appeal of the alpha male is not his age, either. It would be argued that a woman who is attracted to older men is compensating for a bad relationship, probably with her father. In fact, every woman I have loved passionately has had a documented "bad relationship with her father." Two were my age, two were younger. I had a 'bad relationship' with my mother. Does that explain the younger women in my life? The nice thing about psychology is that you get to prove anything with any evidence.

It is argued that a man who pursues younger women is foolishly trying to recapture his youth. Is it also the case that a woman who pursues younger men is doing that? I have a dear friend whose taste in men is "eclectic." She understands the appeal of the young, and I don't think less of her for it. Our culture has built a consensus around the notion that marriage within one's generation is "the right thing to do." When we were still arguing reasonably, Madeleine told me one night that she didn't want the advantages of my experience; she wanted to raise her child with someone her age so they could "make mistakes together." I find the concept bizarre. It repulses me in that it puts personal gratification ahead of the welfare of the child.

Other cultures treat marriage differently. They marry the young to the old. Generally it is young women to old men, but that fact is a historical accident, a function of male power, not a proof that it is a bad idea. A culture in which one's beloved aunt or uncle provides sexual initiation strikes me as a sensible culture. A culture that approves of two adolescent virgins groping each other clumsily and causing pain that may be imprinted forever is, I think, a stupid culture, no smarter in that regard than one that excises clitorises or forces homosexual acts on new members of hunting fraternities. Many years ago, I had a thirty-two-year-old woman, the mother of a friend, make a vague pass at me one night. I was sixteen and pretty, in the way that Elvis Presley, Troy Donahue, and the Everly Brothers were pretty. That I didn't "get it" was my loss, not my good fortune. Who is to say that getting my sexual initiation from this experienced, attractive woman would have harmed me? Mrs. Robinson's crime is not that she seduces Benjamin, but that she won't let him marry her daughter.

Sex can be about power, of course, and it can be a way of working out ugly hidden agendas. Madeleine once told me that her ideal husband would have been a homosexual. She was too absorbed in her own fantasies at that time to consider, I think, what a terrible thing that was to say to the heterosexual man who loved her. And, knowing her libido, how peculiar a notion it was. So yes, old men sniffing around the nubile girls on the volleyball team may be dealing with insecurity for which sex is a palliative. My Mrs. Robinson might have had unconscious plans to use me in ways that were sick and damaging, as an implement of her fantasies. But, as Melville would have said to the Freudians, sometimes a whale is just a whale. It is context that gives meaning to sex.

A person who uses another as a receptacle of sexual excretion is not making love, even if the recipient is wild with love and believes in the feigned love of the partner. A man who kisses the palm of the woman he loves, who cannot feel him inside her because her spine is broken, is commiting a sex act, and if she fellates him imagining that he is between her legs, who is to judge either of them? We are swift to judge, swift to separate sheep and goats. We want things to be black and white, not colored or shades of gray.

If a seventy-year-old man falls in love with a fifty-year-old woman, is he trying to recapture his youth? How about an eighty-year-old woman and a sixty-year-old man? It seems to me that the real issue is not disparity of biological age but two other factors: biological and intellectual maturity. In some cultures, children mature biologically and intellectually at between fifteen and twenty. In ours, just in the last twenty years, the likely shift point has moved from twenty to thirty. Most of my acquaintances are in their twenties; more than half of them lack the maturity, the finished quality, that I and my generation had at twenty-five. We had children, jobs, independence. If we lived with our parents, it was for mutual benefit, not as a form of welfare loafing. We have become a nation of middle-aged children, whining about whatever "made" us do whatever we get in trouble for.

When I say "biological and intellectual maturity," I am referring to the physical and psychological differences between children and adults. It isn't merely a biological difference, governed by the duration of a life. Is it so hard to imagine a 25-year-old woman so psycholigically immature that seduction by a 16-year-old boy might consistute statutory rape? Do we really believe there are no 12-year-old sexual sociopaths, of either sex, preying on the weaknesses of sexually vulnerable adults?

Adolescent and pre-pubescent children are off-limits to adults not because of their age but because of their immaturity and, more importantly, because of the milieu of our sexual culture. A man who takes advantage of a forty-year-old woman who is "immature" is no different, really, from the traditional "cradle robber." The older woman may never outgrow her immaturity; the adolescent probably will. An American woman who seduces a child is very likely to communicate either her self-loathing and guilt for breaking a taboo or, even worse, that the sex act is appealling precisely because it is offensive. And the child, led by the example of elder, learns either lesson more easily than an emotionally adult, self-actualized, 'finished' person might.

At what point is the child "finished"? There's the rub. The older, the more likely, but don't count on it. I have refused to see the new Lolita because it violates an essential truth of the novel, making Lolita the aggressor in the initial seduction. Lolita did not seduce Humbert. He raped her. If she had been seventeen, and she had seduced him, it would be called statutory rape; and I would defend his innocence vehemently. When I was seventeen, at least half the girls I knew in high school, my age or older, were sexually active of their own choice. Why should it matter whether they lay with teenaged boys or middle-aged men? Had I known that older woman wanted to fuck me, I would have been willing. How demeaning, to think that I would have been considered a raped child afterward. And by a culture where I could fuck my classmates to my heart's content, as long as we didn't get caught or pregnant.

Intellectual maturity: Even harder to measure than biology. When Madeleine was eighteen, I wanted her so badly it haunted me. It was not merely a sexual hunger, but the consuming passion of love as its most obsessive. Of all the young women I had in my classes, over the course of ten years, there were many I liked, some who offered themselves to me, a few I lusted after, but none who obsessed me like this. I never allowed myself to indulge the opportunities or the desire, not even with Madeleine. Not merely because she was younger (unfinished), and not because I couldn't "get away with it," but of my personal principles, a commitment to the idea that the teacher/student relationship, like the boss/employee relationship, is not compatible with a sexual liaison. A boss, a teacher, a person who is definitively empowered over the other, cannot reasonably separate requests from demands. Students and employees (not colleagues) are off-limits.

And yes, she was unfinished. She was too young intellectually to consider her choices in a mature fashion. And that, quite simply, is why, when we found each other again, nearly ten years later, I almost wept for joy. She was twenty-eight, ten years on her own, a mother, someone who seemed, to my blindered love, matured. She spoke wistfully, the first time we talked, about the crush she had had on me. I was still, ten years past that adolescent crush, in love with her, and six months after we met again, she thought she loved me. Looking back, I misjudged her intellectual maturity, as I had her literary talent, with the distorting lens of my fondness. Perhaps I misjudged my own motives as well. I see no reason to think so, here now, reflecting on five years ago, with nothing to prove and no one to prove it to.

The two women who followed Madeleine in my life were younger than her. That, I think, reflected the pathology of my grief, my desire to somehow recreate what I had lost. With them, age was a factor, not because I was trying to recapture my youth, but because I was trying to recreate Madeleine. They stood for her; they caught my eye for resemblances. Looking back, I also loved one of them, incidentally and as deeply as I did Madeleine, and probably not the other. I have my own definition of love, and by that definition, I loved one of two wives, three of nine women I slept with, and perhaps a half dozen of those that I said it, sincerely, to. But that is another essay, for another time.

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