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The New Senior Partners : Relationships: As more older women and younger men pair off, there’s much scrutiny, speculation and even celebration.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are few things more gratifying than being in the company of someone younger . . . If you are lucky, it is a woman.

--James Salter, Esquire magazine If you’re really lucky, it’s a MAN.

For the record:

12:00 AM, Jul. 31, 1992 For the Record
Los Angeles Times Friday July 31, 1992 Home Edition View Part E Page 2 Column 4 View Desk 1 inches; 20 words Type of Material: Correction
Wrong reason--The DecMay Club, featured in a Wednesday View story, was founded to help nonsmoking older women meet nonsmoking younger men.

--Phyllis Sidney, DecemberMay Club

Younger lovers. They’re not just for men anymore.

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What once was considered the privilege of rich and famous males--and the occasional rich and outrageous female (Cher, Joan Collins, Martha Raye)--is now an equal opportunity pursuit.

Although the final analysis is not yet in from the 1990 census, estimates of sociologists and others suggest that more than a third of American women are marrying younger men. And there are probably at least that many who cohabit with them. If there is a shortage of recent statistics to measure the true depth of this latest social groove, there is no shortage of scrutiny, speculation and even celebration about what it all means for women--and for men.

When I was 48, I chanced into a relationship with a man of 30 . . .

So USC professor Lois Banner begins her new book, “In Full Flower: Aging, Women, Power and Sexuality.”

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A feminist scholar known for her best-selling academic assaults on such American icons as female beauty, Banner tells readers upfront that, at first, loving a younger man made her squeamish. “I found myself thinking that something was wrong about our being together. He was young enough to be my son, and that bothered me . . . “

Politically, Banner, now 53, viewed the social taboo against older woman-younger man relationships as “a penultimate example of sexism.” But personally, Banner found her attraction to a man 18 years younger “undignified.”

Still, the relationship flourished and opened Banner’s eyes to what she now believes is far more than a trend: “What we’re talking about here is social reality.

In yet another book on the subject, Victoria Huston’s “Loving Another Man,” the author cites a National Center for Health Statistics analysis of 2 million weddings that found more than 30% of women over 45 married younger men as did nearly 40% of women 35-44.

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A 1985 Census Bureau poll showed that of 255,000 women, ages 35-44, 32% were living with younger men, up from 18% in 1980.

Although statisticians use different standards to determine the age disparity, when trend-watchers speak of older women/younger men relationships, they generally refer to an age difference of five years.

The question, says Banner, is no longer whether older women are dating/loving/moving in with younger men. The question is whether that really changes anything between the sexes. Is patriarchy finally put down? Has gender equality been achieved?

Or does the new social etiquette simply grant women permission to exploit youth the way men have in the past?

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Banner’s book doesn’t settle such questions (nor does it settle nor even discuss why she and her younger man recently broke off after eight years). But the book, which recounts the history of older women-with-younger men back to the Greeks, does suggest that any damage to the taboo against such relationships is cause for celebration.

“At last,” says Banner, “we are all, men and women, being freed to enjoy a variety of relationships.”

Gloria Karns has seen any number of interesting couples in the 16 years she has been running Beverly Hills’ VIP Club for Jewish singles. Recently, she’s seen an increasing number of pairings where the woman is the senior partner.

“It’s gotten to be quite the fashion,” says Karns, 56, who views the trend as a natural result of women’s growing access to money and power. “This is the first time in our society a woman has been able to be self-supporting and build a life for herself.

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“Under those circumstances, is it that unusual to want a man whose body is firm and who looks good? . . . When you get to a certain point in your life and you have all the other toys--not to say a man is a toy--but, well, why not get what you want?”

Absolutely, says Phyllis Sidney, a 60ish businesswoman. In 1984, she founded the DecemberMay Club--or DecMay Club--to help nonsmoking older women meet nonsmoking younger men and older men meet younger women.

At first, it was a personal crusade.

“I have always been attracted to younger men,” Sidney says. “Older men seem so authoritarian, so patriarchal. I’m a woman who’s pulled herself up by her bootstraps and no one is going to tell me how to cross the road.

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“Younger men,” says Sidney, “are kind of like happy puppies. They haven’t had any devastations in their life yet and they are just pleasant to be around and, yeah, they do look good and if you like a sexual life, you’ll have a sexual life. . . .

“When I told my friends back then there should be some way to meet such men, my friends said, ‘Phyllis, you’re sick.’ But, you see, they don’t laugh anymore.”

So, what it is about younger lovers? What makes them so attractive for men, or women?

Author Tom McGuane says it’s not so much that their bodies are firmer or their faces smoother, it’s that “their stories are shorter.”

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Of course, McGuane was speaking of younger women, as so many men do. In the United States, men, unlike women, enjoy a history of social acceptance for their attractions to and relationships with younger partners.

The playboy’s playboy, Hugh Hefner, for example, suffered little stigma during the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s for his carryings-on with significantly younger women. Nor did he offer any apologies in this often-told story about Hefner.

When, many years ago, Hefner asked Barbi Benton for a date, she reportedly hesitated and said, “Well, uh, I’ve never dated anyone over 23 before.”

“That’s OK, " Hefner replied. “Neither have I.”

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(Hefner, 66, is nearly 38 years older than his wife, Kimberley.)

In “Jennifer Fever,” Barbara Gordon’s classic--or at least classically titled--book about older men’s interest in younger women, the author concludes that such pairings have less to do with sex than some of us might think.

While the initial attraction may be sexual, Gordon’s male subjects said what they really liked about younger women (the Jennifers) was their eagerness to worship and adore. This endearing capacity was painfully absent in the men’s wives (the Janets). And so they became ex-wives.

Yet, when older women talk about younger men, the words worship and adore don’t come up much. Frances Lear, publisher of Lear’s--the first magazine designed to spotlight mature women--believes such words don’t fit relationships for the ‘90s.

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“I don’t think chronological difference means very much anymore,” says Lear, 69. “What I see in intergenerational romances is two people who find themselves uncomfortable with their own generation.”

In her latest autobiography, “The Second Seduction,” Lear hints of an assignation with a younger man, but in interviews declines to elaborate.

But Lear makes no secret of the fact that she has dated men younger as well as older. And, she says, “I find in younger men a willingness to adapt which I’ve rarely found in men my own age. I believe younger men find in older women infinitely more interest (than in women their own age).”

While Esquire’s James Salter might swoon over the “intoxicating relationship between experience and inexperience,” women involved with younger men thank their lucky stars for a man who understands and appreciates their independence, and who doesn’t worry about the differences. According to essayist Salter, whose March cover story in praise of younger women outraged feminists of all ages, it is the disparity in power that makes asymmetrical relationships so thrilling. “Happiness,” wrote Salter, “is often at its most intense when it is based on inequality . . .” (As is un happiness, one might add.)

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But for women involved with younger men, the pairing is more of a step toward equality than away from it. Because men reach their sexual peak in their 20s and women in their 30s, there is a certain biological balance. And according to Lois Banner and other social scientists, there is social symmetry as well.

Today’s younger men might have grown up with working mothers, women who were assertive, who took control of their lives. As a result, they are likely to have fewer hang-ups about age, appearance, power, and personal competition with high-earning women.

Yet, as with so many social revolutions--especially the quiet ones--this one might already be endangered by its own backlash.

Like all the other rights women have fought so very hard to achieve, the right to attract, date, move in with, and/or marry a person 10, 15, 25, even 50 years younger is still a right to be defended every day, says Banner.

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“It is possible that the current mood in this nation will pull the rug out from under this and so many other social victories women have achieved,” worries Banner. “When you have men’s leaders like (‘Iron Man’ author) Robert Bly calling for the remasculinization of America and new attacks against feminists from all sides, we may be looking at a new generation of young men and women who are embrace those old gender stereotypes.”

Phyllis Sidney of the DecMay Club is also worried. “This great freedom we’ve been celebrating to be with men of any age may be on the line. My advice to ladies is: Enjoy it while you can.”


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