When asked if he was the anonymous sender of a valentine’s card by its young travel-tavern receptionist recipient, Alan Partridge replied, aghast, ‘No, I’m old enough to be your father – or your older brother; either way, it’s incest!’ Yes, older man/younger woman – it can be problematic, if not for the couple themselves, then certainly for the wider society. An age difference between two people intimately involved is evidently irrelevant to the intimate parties or else they wouldn’t be together in the first place; and there’s no reason why the difference should really figure at all if the relationship works. I suppose I’d anticipate many cultural spheres of reference being baffling to both sides in conversation, something that wouldn’t be the case were their respective ages close or the same; but that’s a minor moot point I would imagine.
It’s a curious game, this generation one. A couple can fall in love or lust when there’s upwards of forty or even just four years separating them; but if the girl is, say, a fortnight from her sixteenth birthday and the man is twenty, he’s a predatory paedophile and she’s a vulnerable child. The slight age difference may as well be a vast chasm in such a case, yet move the man on a decade or two and society (not to mention the law) is largely accepting of the arrangement. So, it’s okay for a man to get involved with a younger woman as long as he’s old enough to be her father, even more so if he’s virtually decrepit. Strange moral values we live by.
Billy Joel will be 66-years-old in less than a month. Alexis Roderick, his current girlfriend, is 33. The gap between them is as long as her lifetime. When Joel was the same age she is now, she was…being born. When he reached 40, she was just seven. At 45, she was twelve. When she became ‘legal’, he’d already lived for almost half-a-century. Had he become attracted to her during these phases of her life, the attraction would have been viewed in an altogether different light. Incidentally, Joel’s daughter is four years younger than the woman now expecting his child. Mind you, I’m not singling out the Piano Man for special treatment; he’s hardly unique in the wonderful business we call show. Rod Stewart has a habit of upgrading his girlfriend on average about once a decade; Mick Jagger isn’t far behind either. Ageing rockers tend not to become involved with women their own age, this is true. I don’t know whether it’s mere vanity, emotional immaturity or the nostalgia factor – perpetuating the illusion of eternal youth (despite what the mirror says) by continuing to pursue pretty young girls, as they did when they were pretty young men. But old rock stars don’t have a monopoly on the male menopause.
The freshly divorced man approaching middle-age often tries to turn back the clock to where he was before tying the knot he has just become entangled from. He starts to dress with a little more flamboyance, having shed the sensible sartorial shackles of the husband; everything his wife told him he looked stupid in he is now free to don. He also usually trades in his dull family car for the kind of flashy motor marriage made redundant. In his head, he’s eighteen again, and his biological makeup means he can resume the procreation game, something his female equivalent, on the whole, cannot. Older women do get involved with younger men, of course; but it tends to be more of a rare sight.
Writers as varied as Vladimir Nabokov and Melvyn Bragg have tackled the tricky subject of older men falling for young girls; in the case of the former, his particular prick-teaser is especially difficult for modern sensibilities to deal with on account of her age. And while sitcoms or dramas from the 70s are retrospectively condemned when a male character expresses a yearning for schoolgirls, we are – lest we forget – living through an era that has revived the St Trinian’s series; the fact that Gemma Arterton and Girls Aloud are clearly fully grown women dressed in sexy school uniforms shouldn’t detract from the double-standards on display. Indeed, it’s only a decade or so since the ‘School Disco’ club nights specialised in patrons dressed as schoolboys and girls whilst dancing to crap hits from the 80s.
The schoolgirl has long been a staple diet of pop culture mythology, from the lascivious – The Rolling Stones’ ‘Stray Cat Blues’ – to the lushly romantic – Serge Gainsbourg’s ‘Historie de Melody Nelson’; and it’s only fifteen years or so since ‘American Beauty’ swept the board at the Oscars. Sometimes, the shoe is on the other foot; think of Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Summer (The First Time)’ or even ‘Maggie May’ (‘It’s late September/and I should be really back at school’). Indeed, the enduring allure of the older woman who makes the boy a man is as perennial as the older man doing likewise to the female ingénue. As an easily aroused adolescent, I showed little interest in girls my own age; most of my fantasies featured their mothers, and I’m pretty damn sure their daughters had similar longings for the fathers of their male contemporaries. Beryl Bainbridge’s early novel, ‘Harriet Said’, features two underage girls who have sex with older men; and then there’s Lynn Barber’s ‘An Education’, of course. It’s a perfectly natural phase of adolescence, whether or not one takes the giant step from fantasy to reality – and let’s face it, most don’t.
Try telling that to our old friend, the Paedo-finder General. He was unswerving in his opinion that Kelly Burgess, a teacher a mere decade older than the sixteen-year-old male pupil she had an affair with, was a practitioner of sexual abuse. Burgess received a ten-month suspended prison sentence last year, found guilty of having sexual activity with a boy aged 13-17. She was also banned from teaching and had to sign the sex-offenders register; yes, that’s right – placing her on the same legal footing as actual abusers of pre-pubescent children, her punishment for engaging in a consensual sexual relationship with someone old enough to have married her if his parents had agreed to it. And was the tender innocent she ‘abused’ traumatised by the affair or had he simply had the best bloody time of his life up to that point? No doubt to the annoyance of Mark Williams-Thomas, the ‘victim’ publicly stated he disagreed with the verdict and declared his relationship with Burgess had indeed been consensual. But what would he know? After all, he was of an age to join the army and learn how to kill, but apparently not of an age to fall in love and learn how to f**k.
Before Kelly Burgess, there was the case of the male teacher who ran away to France with his female pupil until he was tracked down and dragged home to face Great British Justice. The age difference between him and her was hardly as great as the one between Billy Joel and his latest, but he was painted as no better than Ian Brady or Ian Huntley. Yes, the law is the law, even if some of us might be surprised to find being sixteen appears to be legally no different to being fifteen when it comes to getting your leg over; but surely it is in dire need of revision if post-pubescent teenagers between 16 and 18 are regarded as being on the same playing field as children between six and eight, which is clearly ridiculous.
For centuries, a girl was regarded as a woman as soon as she started menstruating; in the days when life was considerably shorter than it is today and anyone not married by their mid-twenties was sentenced to the shelf, dynastic betrothals were arranged during childhood and marriage could follow not long after. It took hundreds of years before the current ages of consent were established, and I for one think sixteen is about right; but then, I personally have no interest at all in women younger than me, let alone schoolgirls, so I should be safe. Perhaps the schoolgirl could be superseded as a time-honoured erotic icon by the granny? After all, they can always remove their teeth if they feel like a quick…