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Significant age disparity in sexual relationships has been a feature of both heterosexual and same-sex couples in many cultures and societies. The most common pattern in heterosexual couples is an older man with a younger woman. This may be brought about as an arranged marriage, or either member may pursue and initiate the relationship in those societies that favor freer association. Situations involving a younger male with an older female also exist, but are not as common. Age disparity in extreme cases may be seen as dysfunctional (a paraphilia) if such relationships are pursued to the exclusion of all others and to the detriment of the partners. The term alphamegamia can be used when a person is sexually aroused by partners of a different age group, and "chronophilia" can describe a sexual fixation on members of a different age group.
Historically, unequal pairings are quite common, if not the rule. In Classical Greece, men would typically marry around the age of thirty, and would take wives in their mid-teens, around half their age. Men in positions of prestige or power have often taken young women as lovers or wives. Similarly, women of influence have also initiated relationships with younger men.
Many arranged marriages have been age-disparate, with the husband being much older than the wife. Mail-order brides have been frequently younger than their husbands.
Age disparity in same-sex male relationships was even more historically common than age similarity in such relationships. (Such relationships were practised in Ancient Greece, pre-Modern Japan, Melanesia, Islamic lands and Renaissance Italy.)
Monarchs have traditionally exercised the freedom to choose younger spouses; Henry VIII, for instance, chose women far younger than himself as some of his wives, and a number of female monarchs have chosen younger consorts. Sultans from the Middle-East maintained entire harems of much younger women.
Other historical examples include John Rolfe and Pocahontas, and Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder (both ten-year differences) in America; William Shakespeare and Anne Hathaway (eight-year difference) in England; and Mohammed, the prophet of Islam, was 15 years younger than his first wife Khadija.
In keeping with modern American mores, a folk formula (sometimes referred to as the Trophy Rule) seems to have evolved so as to compute correct disparities of age between older and younger partners, this being "divide by two and add seven", that is, the younger partner in a relationship should be at least seven years older than half the older partner's age, else the relationship is liable to be subject to moral disapprobation.
The United States Census Bureau's March 2000 statistics show that only 800,000 unmarried American couples are more than five years divergent in age, and 7 in 100 of women who have married more than once have a husband six or more years younger than they.
Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz were only seven years different in their ages but apparently believed that it was less socially acceptable for an older woman to marry a younger man, and hence split the difference in their ages and both claimed to have been born in 1914.
There are many factors which draw both young and old into such age-disparate relationships.
Fertility and evolutionary psychology
Women generally begin to lose fertility as they enter their late twenties, and lose it completely after menopause, while men remain almost fully fertile until much later in life. Evolutionary psychology suggests that people are more likely to be attracted to people who look like they might be fertile. Certainly, anyone deliberately looking for a mate to breed with must pick someone of an age of likely fertility. Moreover, senior men, even during prehistoric times, often had access to relationships and resources which would allow for them to foster the growth of their offspring.
Some older partners may seek the connection with the culture of youth, maintaining a connection with the fashion, the music, the media which their age group has ostensibly outgrown. They view the generation gap as an obstacle to overcome, especially if they feel they have "missed out".
Younger partners may be searching for someone who is their superior, either socially or financially more secure, or to provide critical life guidance.
Finally, younger partners may see their relationship with an older person as a way of increasing their status within their society. This phenomenon is colloquially called "gold digging" when it involves a strictly mercenary attitude about money.
Older partners may seek the youth which has escaped them. They may seek the sexual vigor of the young, which partners of their own age group may no longer possess. Younger partners, on the other hand, may be seeking a parent figure, or just somebody to provide life guidance.
Many psychologists study the phenomenon of age disparity, and have observed certain extremes of the above referenced behavior. They have coined a number of terms to describe various types of psychological preferences :
- Chronophilia is a fairly obscure general term, applied to any age-related preference.
- Ephebophilia is the attraction of older individuals to adolescents, a phenomenon generally not assigned a separate term in most cultures unless it is between adult males and adolescent boys.
- Infantophilia is the attraction of older individuals to small children (ages ranging from 0 to 5).
- Pedophilia is the attraction of older individuals to pre-adolescents.
- Teleiophilia, a generally unused term, is the attraction of younger individuals to older individuals.
- Gerontophilia is the rarely seen attraction of non-elderly individuals to the elderly.
Of these, pedophilia has attracted a great deal of attention in the western media, especially since popular use has merged the concept of ephebophilia with that of pedophilia, which has become known as attraction to any individual considered too young to consent to sexual relations. Widely-varying age of consent laws have been passed to deter adults from entering sexual relationships with underage minors.
Age disparity as paraphilia
There is also the issue of whether all age-disparate relationships fall under the definition of paraphilia. Individuals who exclusively pursue age-disparate relationships are generally classified by psychologists as parasexual, that is, their behavior is qualitatively different from the norm. Individuals who occasionally pursue age-disparate relationships are not included in this category, except in the popular press. As is speculated with other practices considered paraphilia, sexual imprinting may play a role in age-disparate relationships.
In some societies age-disparate relationships are seen as aberrant or even perverse. Historically, the "gold digger" mentality has been frowned upon as being akin to prostitution. The age difference that is generally accepted by modern society varies directly with the age of the individuals involved in the relationship; larger differences are more acceptable with older individuals. For example, while a seven-year difference might be considered unacceptable (even illegal in some places) between a 22-year-old and a 15-year-old, it is less remarkable between a 30-year-old and a 23-year-old, and unnoticed completely between a 78-year-old and a 71-year-old.
Response to criticism
Few people are willing to defend cases of age disparity such as between a pre-adolescent and an adult (See pedophilia). In cases where both partners are above the local age of consent, however, age-disparate couples are quick to defend the legitimacy of their relationships. See Gerry Studds
While it is true that some relationships have been labelled as "gold digging" (that is to say, the younger partner's primary interest in the older partner is his/her financial circumstance), a popular adage is "love is blind". For those who feel they are in love, it doesn't matter if their partner is several years older than they are. And as factors such as the divorce rate, changing patterns in dating, and basic incompatibilities affecting personal relationships, the average age difference between prospective partners has also changed.
Many find that the younger partner is appreciative of the life experience and wisdom the older partner brings, and the older partner appreciates the vigor, enthusiasm, and new political, social, and cultural perspectives their young partner has to offer.
A number of slang terms exist to describe pairings in which one individual is much older than the other:
- Gold digging refers to a relationship in which a young person pursues an older person for monetary gain, and is discussed in greater detail in other sections of this article.
- May-December romance is a general and non-prejudicial expression for an age-disparate relationship. The expression draws an implicit analogy between one's lifetime and the time of year. Thus "May" refers to the younger partner, who is in the spring of his or her life. "December" is the elder partner, in the winter of his or her life.
- Robbing the cradle may refer to a situation in which an older individual seduces a much younger one, and stigmatizes the act through its use of the word "robbing". The tone of this phrase is highly situational—in some cases, where consensuality in a relationship is clear, it is often used in a jesting manner, but where consensuality may not be evident, it can be intended in a very pejorative sense. See the section in this article on social criticism. People who 'rob the cradle' are commonly called cradle snatchers or cradle robbers.
- Grave robbing refers to the exact opposite situation to "Cradle snatching/robbing" (above), and the same references to jest and/or social criticism apply here also.
- Sugar daddy refers to an older man who offers money or gifts to a younger person in return for companionship or sexual favours. The term is now sometimes used for rich men that are not necessarily much older than the partner. This term is also slang for a pimp.
- Jailbait refers to a particularly sexually attractive person, often female, below the legal age of consent. This designation connotes enticement to endanger oneself of being prosecuted for statutory rape.
- Cougars are older women who are attracted to young men; use of this terminology is considered by some to be impolite. There are also lesbian cougars.
- Mrs. Robinson refers to an older woman, often of anywhere up to middle age, who has a relationship with a much younger man. The term is taken from the film The Graduate.
- Toyboy or Boytoy refers to the youth in a relationship with an older woman or man. Use of this terminology is considered by some to be impolite.
- Tadpoling refers to a relationship between a younger man and an older woman. A notable example is Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore whose public relationship seems to have started the use of this slang term. See also the movie Tadpole.
- MILF (Mother/Mom I'd Like to Fuck) refers to mothers who attract the sexual attention of high-school boys. This acronym was popularized by the movie American Pie. Compare GILF (Grandmother/Grandma I'd Like to Fuck) and FILF (Father I'd Like to Fuck) or DILF (Dad I'd Like to Fuck).
- Lolita refers to a sexually precocious young girl who is the object of desire of a significantly older man. The term refers to the title character of Vladimir Nabokov's novel Lolita, who is referred to by the book's narrator, Humbert Humbert, as a nymphet. While Nabokov's plot may derive from the 11-year-old Florence Horner, kidnapped by 50-year-old Frank La Salle, the name most likely derived from Charlie Chaplin's teenaged bride Lita Grey.
- Daddy-Daughter Dating refers to younger women going out with older men.
- Age of consent
- Generation gap
- Enjo kōsai
- List of relationships with age disparity
- Historical pederastic couples
- List of films featuring May-December romances
- List of sexology topics
- Male prostitute
- Marriageable age
- Pedophilia and child sexual abuse in fiction
- Pedophilia and child sexual abuse in films
- Pedophile activism
- Transactional sex
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