It’s a given that US culture is deeply sex-negative, filled with dysfunctional messages about sexuality and full of fear-inducing beliefs. It’s also true that while supposedly individualism is a key value, the reality is that mass conformity is strongly enforced.
One of the ways conformity with prevailing norms is enforced is through the use of everyday censorship by ordinary people.
The most commonly used strategy to censor other people is to deploy the word appropriate. This seemingly innocuous word is used to shut down any viewpoint that is not consonant with current Politically Correct nostrums. If you utter something “inappropriate” you must cease talking forthwith. You have committed the ultimate social solecism. “That’s not appropriate” is the way one person shuts another person down. And it all sounds so innocuous.
One of the many sexually dysfunctional ideas prevalent in the USA is “age appropriateness.” This is, as far as I can tell, merely the standard way of enforcing an arbitrary notion about who should be permitted to love whom based entirely on a single criterion: the number of years of age separating each party.
Yes folks, we can forget about emotional attraction, happiness, shared interests, intellectual compatibility, mutual kindness and regard, and everything else that goes into a romantic relationship. The only thing that matters is the age gap separating the people concerned.
Usually this censoriousness is directed against couples where the man is significantly older than the woman, simply because this is the more common example. When, however, a woman has the temerity to be with a much younger man then the scandal-factor is raised by an order of magnitude. We go from the gently mocking and disapproving Spring-Autumn relationship straight to the outright condemnation of cradle snatching. Disapproval is rampant and unrelenting. The older man must be exploiting the poor naïve young woman, using his status and wealth to trap her in an explicitly abusive relationship. As for the older woman, well, she must have psychological issues and clearly is compensating for something.
In other words, people dress up their jealousy and incomprehension in a politically expedient set of banal clichés that totally ignore the humanity of those towards whom the criticisms are being leveled.
One of the happiest relationships I know is between a woman in her fifties and a man in his seventies. They met when she was 25 and he was 50. She was tired of dating boorish ignorant young men, he was divorced and cautious about entering into another relationship. They ended up getting married and have been happy for nearly 30 years now. They’ve faced and resolved many issues together in a way I’ve not seen “age appropriate” couples doing.
Meanwhile a dear friend of mine is entering the third year of her casual relationship with a much younger man. They are very fond of each other, have lots of interests in common, and have a lot of fun together. She doesn’t want to settle down and he’s not ready for a big commitment. He’s twenty-three and she’s forty-six. They know what they have together is precious, and they know it won’t lead to a lifetime together. But they make each other happy, they enjoy each other’s company, and that’s all each of them really needs at this point.
Both of these situations are, apparently, “inappropriate” merely because of the age gaps involved. Meanwhile, miserable incompatible relationships escape censure because the age gap is small or non-existent.
We’re doing with age what we used to do with skin color and gender.
A mixed race couple? Scandalous! Two women in a romantic relationship? Sacrilege! But whereas we’ve outgrown these sad little follies we apparently haven’t outgrown the age gap mentality. It’s still acceptable, and indeed expected, that we automatically condemn as inappropriate every significant age gap we see.
In France it’s not uncommon for younger women to seek out older men because they are usually kinder, more interested in the woman for who she is, and better lovers than males of her own age. It’s not uncommon for older women to have mutually nurturing relationships with younger men. Of course these relationships often generate envy, but there’s not the blanket application of that hypocritical word inappropriate. Jealousy is seen for what it is, and social norms can’t be dragged in as support.
I think, therefore, we’d all be a little better off being inappropriate from time to time, and not being so ready to parrot repressive sound-bites whenever we feel ourselves jealous because someone else is enjoying what we aren’t permitting ourselves to have.
Being appropriate is, in fact, inappropriate.