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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019) and AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021).

Friday, July 15, 2011

What's so creepy about an age gap? Trying to understand...

The Rogneto controversy has settled down a little bit, but someone commented overnight on an earlier thread here, basically complaining that they found the relationship repugnant.

Not they say because of the large age gap between the two characters. But that's clearly a large part of what's bugging people.

I want to focus on this in a minute, but let me talk about a couple of other things first. Some people absolutely love the relationship that Marvel Comics presents between superheroine Rogue and semi-reformed archvillain Magneto. I expect that Dragon*Con this year will have some Rogneto cosplay going on, and there's plenty of Rogneto shipping on the internet.

Others express dislike for it based on the history of the characters - in villain mode, when they've been enemies, Magneto has done some pretty bad things to Rogue. We could have long debates about the rights and wrongs of that. I just want to say that I'm not really interested in yet another debate about how realistic the relationship is, or how much Rogue is being written out of character when she goes back to him after their failed romance in the Savage Land which was shown in the early 1990s and must have been about five years ago, in-world. That's all interesting but there are places to debate it other than this thread.

I'm actually more interested in the fact that some people go, "Eww, he's so much older!" Why do people do that? What's the problem about relationships with a big age gap?

The photo above on the left, of course, is not of a Rogneto scene, but of Rupert Murdoch and Wendi Deng. I'm willing to bet that many of my readers have an unfavourable visceral response to this couple, and that it's partly to do with the very apparent age difference that we can all see ... and not just because of a dislike for Murdoch's approach to journalism or politics.

But what, exactly, is the problem? Is it the sheer incongruity of an unattractive old man appearing with a beautiful young woman? Is it the thought that Murdoch has treated his previous wives badly? Is it the thought that what has attracted Deng to him is his money - and that this is somehow an unfair thing for a man to use in the social competition to attract desirable women? But if the latter, how is it more fair to use, say, your good looks, which are largely the result of the genetic lottery and your early upbringing ... neither of which you've earned or deserved in any way?

Part of the problem is that none of these things seem to apply to the Rogneto relationship, yet at least some people have the same response. Magneto doesn't look like Rupert Murdoch. He's been around in the world for a long time (in the comics, he was born in the 1920s), but he's usually portrayed as a handsome man of some indeterminate age betwen his late 30s and early 50s with the body of an Olympic athlete.

If we follow the continuity, he is about 40, physically speaking, as a result of a rejuvenation as part of his back story. His hair is naturally silver (much as the hair of his daughter, Polaris, is naturally green, and Rogue's own hair has that natural silver streak). Unlike my hair, for example, Erik's hasn't gone white with age. Even artists who depict his face on the older side, to convey his authority and experience, make him handsome and athletic.

In short, the couple just above on the right don't much resemble Murdoch and Deng ... yet some folks have the same response to them. It can't be something as simple as the incongruity of an ugly man and a beautiful woman: this is a very fine-looking, if exotic, couple. Nor is it that Rogue is attracted to Erik by his money (even if he does still have large amounts of gold robbed from the Nazis hidden away somewhere). She seems to be attracted to him in a raw sexual way, and by his fanatical devotion to a noble cause - or perhaps, in part, she gets off on his power (surely that can't be the problem!).

Is it thought wrong that people with formative experiences in different decades should be mutually attracted? If so, why? And anyway, wouldn't it be a trivial issue here, where both have had extraordinary experiences that are very different from normal people their own respective ages? The kinds of things they've experienced in their various supervillaining and superheroing missions should give them plenty to talk about.

I can't immediately see how any of the things that we might normally find distasteful about relationships with large age gaps apply here, but the age-gap thing still bugs some people.

It can't be that there is something pedophilic involved. When they first fell for each other in the classic Savage Land story, Rogue was being presented as about 19 or 20 (and Magneto as physically in his early 30s), and on that occasion the relationship wasn't even consummated. Magneto backed out of it when he chose to kill Zaladane and physically leave Rogue by flying away to one of his other bases. Rogue is now being presented, I'd guess, as in her mid-20s. So she's quite old enough to understand the character of the sexual act, thank you very much - as she was even in the Savage Land story - and to have made an informed decision when she took Erik to bed back in X-Men Legacy #249.

So, I'm getting the feeling that there is something going on here whereby the age gap itself is considered a problem by some people. My question is about what the problem actually is when you strip away the particular things that might apply to Murdoch and Deng but don't seem relevant to the fantasy story of Magneto and Rogue. Or is this a case of rule utilitarianism in action? Do we come up with a rule that works in many real-life situations, and then we apply it to the full range of situations even where the utility-harming factors justifying the rule are not actually present, as in the fantasy example of two comic-book characters?

Don't get me wrong. I'm not about to chase after your daughter. And although I don't find Magneto and Rogue creepy, I do (I admit) find Murdoch and Deng a bit creepy. So perhaps for me it's mainly the ugly man/beautiful woman thing going on. I'm not trying to justify this response, just trying to work out what my problem is.

What do you think? Do Murdoch and Deng creep you out? Can you offer a good reason why they should? Would you extend your reason to a fantasy example like Magneto and Rogue - or to even more extreme fantasy examples such as Doctor Who and his various companions?

Does it matter whether the Doctor (who is over 900 years old) physically presents as an older man (Jon Pertwee, say) or, as has been the case with recent series, as a man who is physically in his twenties or thirties like David Tennant (who has actually just turned 40, but looks quite a bit younger)?

I'm confused about all this and would like to know how people (including me!) think about it.


Carol J said...

I personally find Murdoch quite repugnant just generally, but have absolutely no problem with him having a relationship with whoever - ability to consent being assumed!

I think the age gap thing is a reaction to an *assumed* power imbalance between the older, wiser, more experience man and the younger, woman who requires some kind of "looking after" in the big bad world.

While this description may not be the case in any "real world" age gap relationship that's the gut reaction it provokes in me, I am unhappy to say.

Russell Blackford said...

I edited the opening of the post slightly to be fair to the recent commenter on the other thread who said that it's not the age gap in his/her case. But a lot of the stuff on the net about the Rogneto controversy does rely on the age thing.

Hi Carol, yeah I guess there often is a power imbalance. Even in the Rogneto case ... Rogue could kill an ordinary human being with just a touch, but Magneto could do it with just a thought. But that's not the kind of power difference that worries us, I assume. It's hierarchical power that worries us, I guess?

Danette said...

There is the man/young woman "ewwww" factor and then there is the older woman with the younger man which if seen from the same angle would be completely creepy to most people. For instance if you put up a picture of say Joan Rivers and Shia LeBeouf as a couple, I think the reaction would be quite strong. So, you ask, why do people do that? I agree with Carol J that there is something about the power imbalance that it invokes- whether it is real or not.

But bigger then that, there is a father/daughter feel to it. (And same with older women and younger men.) It feels like they are engaging in a bit of (non)incestuous relations. And perhaps that is what people see and feel when they see an older man and a younger woman (or vice verse) whether it is true or not.

Catherine McDonald said...

I'm guessing you haven't read much Freud...even if you don't think much of him (and I don't really) I would have thought the incest association is prettttyy obvious. Of course there are power inbalances and so on as well but that would be consistent.

godsbelow said...

J. M. Coetzee deals with this subject in a couple of his novels, Waiting for the Barbarians and Disgrace. In both books, an older man (over the age of fifty) has a brief relationship with a much younger woman. While certainly sexual, the relationship, in both cases, is presented as primarily fulfilling an emotional need in the older man.

These relationships obviously serve a symbolic purpose in the novels, representing political/social abuse of power, because in both cases the man is in a position of power over the women. This kind of coercion obviously isn't applicable to Rogneto, not in the current context of at any rate.

But Coetzee also emphasises that there is something unfair about an aging man using a young woman to fulfill his emotional needs, whatever they may be. Coetzee suggests that such relationships, even in the absence of an imbalance of power, as impositions upon the young by the old. Perhaps something like this causes unease, consciously or not, when we see much older men with much younger women.

As to what Rogue sees in Magneto, I think it's fairly simple. She likes "bad boys", men who are dangerous and emotionally-scarred (hence her attraction to Gambit, too). Given that she has her own troubled past, and has a capacity for violence and a whole lot of guts, I suppose this could be interpreted as like attracting like. I think it's also in keeping with the depiction of her as a very caring, nurturing figure, which obviously draws her to damaged people, and not always in a sexual way (I've just re-read Uncanny #319, and her closeness to Bobby is clearly represented as born of a desire to support him at a time when he had lost his confidence). It's a bit of a cliche, but who cares.

Russell Blackford said...

Yeah, maybe it's unconsciously coding it as incestuous, but that doesn't really ring true for me when I see Murdoch and Deng.

And yeah, sure, one of the first thing that people think of even when the age gap isn't that great (like 15 years or something) is that there might be a bit of a father-figure/daughter-figure thing going on. But that's never actually seemed to me like something to worry about.

Still, yes, part of the yuck factor here might be seeing it as symbolic incest.

Anonymous said...

@Carol and Russel
WRT "Power imbalance"......

While this issue have real world merits, - especially where employment relations are involved, I think the "problem" all too often is incomplete and one-dimentionally descibed.

My main objection is the (usually)default disregard for the fact that also the younger part have power (and I might add, assymmetrically distributed power). The "nature" of the latter is not pecuniar or political, but atractiveness/sexual.

I would think the "common currency" for such apparently incongruent features is "status"/merit.

"Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way."
Kurt Vonnegut (Cat's Cradle)

Felix said...

I think the problem is twofold: sex and money.

Sex: I find it impossible to believe that a young woman would find the body of a much older man attractive (saggy bits and wrinkled skin). Thus, assuming that sex is part of the relationship she must be doing it for the money.

Marrying a much older (or indeed any) man for his money seems to be such a debasement of herself that I find it appalling.

However, this is tempered by the thought that he's rich, powerful, intelligent etc - he may in fact be a nice guy to be around. But hang on a minute! This is Murdoch were talking about ...

Anonymous said...

@Carol and Russel
WRT "Power imbalance"......

While this issue have real world merits, - especially where employment relations are involved, I think the "problem" all too often is incomplete and one-dimensionally descibed.

My main objection is the (usually)default negligence of the fact that also the younger part have power (and I might add, assymmetrically distributed power). The "nature" of the latter is not pecuniar or political, but relates to atractiveness/sexuality.

I would think the "common currency" for such apparently incongruent features is "status"/merit. (in the "extended family"/social group.

"Beware of the man who works hard to learn something, learns it, and finds himself no wiser than before. He is full of murderous resentment of people who are ignorant without having come by their ignorance the hard way."
Kurt Vonnegut (Cat's Cradle)

Miranda Celeste Hale said...

Great post. I tend to be attracted to considerably older men, and, of the four relationships that I've been in, two have been with older men (one with a larger age gap than the other). People's reactions to such relationships are indeed very interesting. In my experience, the assumptions seem to be that #1) I must have father issues and #2) there is an inherent power imbalance involved, and that I am suffering as a result of that imbalance. Both of these assumptions are really quite condescending. For some reason, such relationships bring out the amateur psychoanalyst in many people. These people most likely don't make assumptions about the motives of or psychological "issues" of individuals who are involved in more conventional (for lack of a better word) relationships, yet they feel that relationships with a considerable age gap must be analyzed and scrutinized. It's all very strange (and quite telling, really).

Cary Lenehan said...

My only problem is that it is Rupert Murdoch. As long as both of the people in the relationship are happy, what else does it matter or concern anyone else?

Svlad Cjelli said...

The power imbalances seem to be one of the worst factors in incest also. Beyond the effects on procreation, perhaps the biggest factor.

Seems plausible that familial imprinting could also raise yuck associations.

March Hare said...

Speaking as a man, and I don't presume to speak for all men - but let me know if you agree - I think the power thing is a complete and utter red herring. People of the same age often have much larger power differentials, would Rupert's first wife have had power in her own right any more than Wendi does? I think not. If anything I'd say less since Rupert trusts Wendi with part of his empire.

So what about the incest feeling? Well I think that may play a part for some people, but I think it might be covering the real reason.

Before that though, I think there is a massive difference in reaction (or at least cause for the reaction) when you say Joan Rivers and Shia LeBouf as opposed to Michael Douglas and Miley Cirus. Again, as a bloke I am thinking "why Shia, why?" Whereas I am thinking "Michael, you dirty old man."

So the reason is quite simple. Fairness*. It's not fair that an old guy gets a pretty young girl. I can't have her and I'm nearer her age why should you get her. (I'm aware of the chattel connotation in the language, but we're talking about visceral feelings here.) The wannabe alpha male in me wants to remove the older man and take the spoils. Which is why we have no problem when a handsome young guy gets the pretty girl, we think, fair enough. When Brad Pitt hooked up with Angelina Jolie the thought was "well, yeah, kinda fits."

That's this bloke's perspective.

* Fairness is not necessarily justice in this sense, it's more animalistic/base than our regular sense of fairness, maybe tending more towards jealousy. But the Brad Pitt thing shows that it's not just jealousy, it comes from the same place as our sense of justice, but it certainly isn't justice.

C. Tappancs said...

When I was younger (so much younger than today - let that be an indicator of the decade of my youth), I remember seeing an inherent unfairness in a large age gap: the time the couple has together, given that they spend the rest of their lives together, is obviously (to me at that age, at least) significantly less than it would or could be between couples of similar ages. Indeed, I considered that it would make the most sense for a man to marry a woman who was slightly older than himself, given that women on average tend to live longer.

Of course, as I grew up I realised that other, more short-term factors tend to matter more, and I am myself now very happily married to someone 17 years younger than myself. The somewhat naive reaction of my youthful self might, however, be another reason why people tend to react negatively to a large age gap.

It also seems that the degree of visibility of the age gap is also important: my wife and I don't seem that different in age, much like your Doctor Who example (no, I'm not a Time Lord). With Murdoch and Deng this is definitely not the case.

Veronique said...

You know - this reminds me of Lang Hancock and Rose.

It doesn't creep me out so much as make me feel that young women are lured by power and immense wealth and these power hungry and obscenely wealthy old men try so desperately to recapture the youth that is flowing so fast from them.

There maybe a power imbalance but the young women have a power that the old men don't have.

Much sadder was Elizabeth Taylor with her young husband. It didn't help her either.

Felix said...

Are there any good examples were the old, wrinkly, definitely-not-hot person is female and the young, hot partner is male?

Ossicle said...

I don't have any comment or interest on Rognito. As for Murdoch and his latest wife, I think we (or "we") are generally squicked by it almost entirely as a result of the relatively recent definition of marriage as being based on mutual love (sexual attraction being part of that love; soul-mateyness & friendship being the other main components). That's vastly different from how marriage was defined for most of human history, and indeed how it still is in many cultures. However, we ("we") now have it engrained in us -- and the fact is, these May/December (hot young woman/ugly old rich guy) relationships violate that ideal. Like good little acculturated boys and girls, that violation makes us squirm.

Ossicle said...

Concerning Murdoch and his latest wife, I think we ("we") are squicked by it almost entirely due to the relatively recent (but powerfully internalized) definition of marriage being based properly on mutual love, with sexual attraction being part of that love and soul-mateyness + friendship being the other main components.

That's vastly different from how marriage was defined for most of human history, and indeed how it still is defined in many cultures.

However, we ("we") now have that ideal engrained in us, and these hot young woman/ugly old rich guy relationships violate that ideal. And like good little acculturated boys and girls, that violation makes us squirm. I don't think it's anything more than that.

Damion said...

How about the studies suggesting much higher levels of potentially harmful mutations in older men's sperm as a contributor to the innate 'ickiness' factor? Just like the anti-incest 'ice factor' such an innate aversion leads to healthier offspring in the great natural selection contest.

Russell Blackford said...

If the person who simply said, "I think you are completely nuts," wants a comment published here, they had better say something with a bit more substance. I don't see the necessity to publish simple drive-by insults (even though I sort of have in this case by quoting it here).

Otherwise, good conversation.

Grania said...

I think a lot of the revulsion factor is is informed by biology. Pairing were once upon a time essentially about reproduction and therefore anyone displaying signs of being at an age where reproduction was unlikely was seen as not a viable mate. To this extent older men get away with it a bit more than older women.

However, now that a great many relationships are not about reproduction we really ought to have gotten over it by now, and some of us have. But old biologically engrained prejudices die hard, I guess.

SpeakerToAnimals said...

I have a leather jacket approximately the same age as my last girlfriend so have no problem with intergenerational relationships in principle.

The Tennant thing's a bit worrying though as in real life he is engaged to Georgia Moffatt, who played his daughter onscreen and is the real-life daughter of Peter Davison, who played an earlier incarnation of the Doctor.

That makes her his daughter twice over. Only a Time Lord can commit incest twice simultaneously.

Dave Ricks said...

Wikipedia suggests the half-age-plus-seven rule, but that doesn't describe how I feel.

About the photo of Murdoch and Deng: This thread reminds me, AC Grayling wrote, "If you really want a mind-altering experience, look at a tree." That clears my head, then I see the photo as a meeting of the minds. They look like they get along, like they can talk about whatever happened during their day with each other. Maybe they found an oasis to focus on that, while the rest of us trip over their age and money and power.

About power imbalance: I told a friend Kathryn I read an observation that some social liberals judge sex to be moral only between partners of equal age and power, and she quipped, "And when does that happen?" So now I'm definitely not that kind of social liberal anymore. And a friend Ali told me compatibility is more important than equality -- not to promote inequality, but to put equality in perspective. Should I break up with a girlfriend because I make more than twice the money she does? Or should she break up with me because of that? Then nobody gets anything.

About the ugly man / beautiful woman thing: Years ago I walked past Jerry and Maggie Lettvin walking together on their way to a party at my old dorm. Jerry had really put on weight, his hair was a mess, and he was wearing horn-rimmed glasses with clip-on shades flipped up, like he didn't give a Randall's-honey-badger how he looked. Neither of them knew me, but Maggie gave me a second or two of amazing eye contact with a beatific smile. Since then, I see the ugly man / beautiful woman as wonderful as they were together -- I can't imagine anything that could undo those wonderful images in my mind. And if anyone doubts a vibrant woman's physical attraction to such a physically "unattractive" man, the last chapter of Maggie's Back Book covers special topics including how to make love with a fat man with a bad back [spoiler alert: a chair].

Russell Blackford said...

The evolutionary explanation sounds interesting. I wonder how we'd test it.

It does seem to fit with the pattern that what bothers (some of) us is seeing an obviously young woman, clearly of child-bearing age, with a man who shows obvious signs of age. E.g. a woman who is conspicuously well under 40 and a man who is conspicuously well over 50. But presumably we want better evidence than that.

And I repeat that I'm not trying to justify these sorts of responses. I don't really have these responses intellectually, wouldn't support laws against relationships with large age gaps, and wouldn't even support social pressure against such relationships. Perhaps the responses can even be seen as a form of bigortry. I'm just interested in why we (or some of us) respond as we do, and whether anything actually can be offered to rationalise it, as opposed to explaining it psychologically.

March Hare said...

Any reaction (like this one) that hits us before our conscious idiocy rationalises it away is obviously evolutionary in its source.

Ever since I realised the number of things I rationalised away post hoc I have tried to become acutely aware of what the heck nature has set up in me. There are a couple of things that are deep ingrained through parents/friends/civilisation and those are hard to filter out but they are less quick to come to the fore, they are thought about but in a very perfunctory way before I eventually try to rationalise it.

To check this out we have to accept our limits as mammals, but also our massive superiority in cognition and subcontract the tests out to animals.

Get apes who are fully sated (sexually and nutritionally) and see if they are upset with another ape being with an appealing female. At this point I wish to apologise to all women and point out that this is our very old brain parts we're testing, like Russell I am very much for equality and all that, but this is a real natural reaction that we feel but, ideally, do not act upon.

We may actually have to go further back than apes to lizards as I hae no idea how deep ingrained in the brain this might be. Although lizards rarely, if ever, have empathy or jealousy so maybe we stick with animals. I guess that's what tests are for - we may learn more than expected from this! Can we trace this through the animal kingdom based on alpha male-ness, life expectancy, access to available females etc. etc.?

Sorry, just responding at random, no idea if you were actually addressing me or not.

Russell Blackford said...

Not you specifically, the point that a few people seemed to be suggesting: that maybe this is an evolutionarily programmed thing rather than a socialised rule ultimately based on ideas of unequal power or whatever.

Alex SL said...

What Felix said...


There might be a difference still between "being attracted to older men" and all these cases of flabby and often personally repugnant financiers, powerful politicians and publishers ending up with extremely beautiful women half their age. Greenspan and former German foreign minister Fischer spring to my mind, and that is not even mentioning Hugh Hefner et al. It strains credulity to explain this pattern with average women truly falling in innocent love with average men who just happen to be a few years older...

And it goes both ways, of course. In one direction, it is a form of prostitution. In the other, it is the acquisition of a status symbol. But can it be what a healthy relationship should be, i.e. the acquisition of a PARTNER? If (1) there is such a power asymmetry due to the riches and influence on the (usually) male side and (2) one of the partners could well be the other's third child from an earlier relationship?

Anonymous said...

Test your yuk-factor here.

The little story at the end of this post was suggested by Stephen Pinker in The Blank Slate, and apparently invokes a kind of 'yuk' response in most people of all cultures. It's not related to May-December relationships, but to sibling incest. The two have a lot in common, in that they are generally considered to be 'unnatural'; however, sibling incest (defined usually in terms of certain physical actions), which arguably is the one with the least degree of 'power' connotations, is a criminal offense in almost (actually possibly not even 'almost') every nation on the planet, while May-December relationships aren't, no matter how much they may be frowned upon.

My personal view is libertarian: that sexual issues, as long as they are not injurious to the people involved (speaking from a personal/relationship point of view) and as long as whatever takes place is between consenting people capable of making choices (for whatever reason they may consent, and who are we as outsiders to judge??) are nobody's damn business but that of the people involved, no matter how the rest of the world feels about it. Which makes me wonder how I'd feel about Murdoch-Deng thing if it weren't Murdoch (whom I find repulsive at too many levels to enumerate) but Clint Eastwood or some other public personality I happen to find... oh, 'likeable', I guess, no matter what their age?

I've dealt with these issues several times in my novels and screenplays—to the extent that the publisher of my first fantasy novel literally forced me to alter a significant element of the story because they found it to be...well, maybe they just a 'yuk' reaction. Who knows? Such things are usually wrapped up in several layers of rationalizations until at last they at least appear to be based on reason, which they're not.

Anyway, here's Pinker's little story. What does your gut tell you? Right or wrong? Yuk or cool? Leave them alone or string them up by their toes and whip them?

"Julie and Mark are brother and sister. They are traveling together in France on summer vacation from college. One night they are staying alone in a cabin near the beach. They decide that it would be interesting and fun if they tried making love. At the very least, it would be a new experience for each of them. Julie was already taking birth control pills, but Mark uses a condom too, just to be safe. They both enjoy making love, but they decide never to do it again. They keep that night as a special secret, which makes them feel even closer to each other."

ColinGavaghan said...

Alex, if both partners are entering a rel'ship without coercion, and both are gaining something they want from it, I'm not sure I'd want to be too prescriptive about the requirements for a 'healthy' relationship.

As to the more general question: the power imbalance issue may play a part in some cases, especially where one partner is very young. A teenager going out with a 30- or 40-something may be legal, but it may also raise legitimate questions about possible exploitation.

But none of that applies in the Murdoch case. Ms Deng may be half his age, but she is also a very successful 40-something businesswoman. It may be professionally or financially advantageous to her to be involved with Murdoch, but that's hardly the same as saying she is being exploited. (I'm assuming he didn't threaten to sack her if she refused to marry him!)

I also agree that there seems to be something going on below the level of rational thought, something that has little or nothing to do with concerns as to equality. Would it be fair to surmise that the prospect of, say, Series 1 Buffy Summers getting together with Angel would elicit, in most people, considerably less of a yuck response in most people than the prospect of her doing so with Giles? And yet, we know from early on that Angel is centuries older than Giles, and many times more powerful. It seems, then, that it's simply the appearance of age that triggers the unease.

(Personally, I suspect I just hate the prospect of that rancid old horror Murdoch getting anything good in life! Not very utilitarian of me, but there you go ...)

ColinGavaghan said...

Till, I must admit that - on the facts you/Pinker gives us - I can't see anything wrong at all with the Julie & Mark story. But I suspect maybe I've suppressed my yuck factor about such things long ago, probably because my work requires me to think about them quite a lot.

Even the eugenic rationale for the incest taboo is spurious; we don't typically prevent people affected by genetic illnesses or disabilities from having kids. A couple who have already have a kid with cystic fibrosis has a 1:4 chance that any subsequent kid would be similarly affected, but we wouldn't even think about banning them from having sex.

On the other hand, the incest ban even applies to same-sex couples, which can't possibly be justified on genetic grounds.

Svlad Cjelli said...

"I remember seeing an inherent unfairness in a large age gap: the time the couple has together, given that they spend the rest of their lives together, is obviously (to me at that age, at least) significantly less than it would or could be between couples of similar ages. Indeed, I considered that it would make the most sense for a man to marry a woman who was slightly older than himself, given that women on average tend to live longer."

This also. Except that this seems perfectly rational, rather than being a kneejerk yuck factor.

Grania said...

@ Alex SL

I think describing it as prostitution / status acquisition is not only a bit harsh but also misses the fact that a lot of (maybe even most) marriages and even non-formal relationships between people of similar ages happen for exactly the same reasons.

People shrug off those arrangements more easily than when it is accompanied by a large age difference.

Anonymous said...

A few months ago I found myself dating someone who is a hair under half my Brad Pitt-ish age.

We're both males, we had talked online for six months beforehand without more than a hint of flirtatiousness, because for me he was way below my cutoff age and we also live a thousand miles apart.

However he made the effort to travel to meet me in person, and then over the course of 3 more visits, the romance blossomed. I've got no gold for him to dig, except in the most intangible ways and he is completely unfazed by the age difference. Count me surprised.

Quite by coincidence I had started reading a new autobiography of the American pianist Earl Wild, who met his partner when they were 57/23 respectively and who stayed together for 38 years.

If I had known in my twenties that I needed to wait another twenty years to find myself another compatible person of that age, I don't know whether I would have been happy or suicidal.

Alex SL said...


I am not sure I can shrug off any severe power-imbalance easily. I think any healthy relationship must, by definition, have both partners on approximately the same level leverage- and maturity-wise. (And maturity does not necessarily mean same age plus minus two years, of course.)

Upon further reflection, it also seems to me as if this is why there would be much less yuck with these two superheroes. They would be equals as far as power and force of personality are concerned.


I never wrote I would personally favour outlawing, for example, prostitution - I think it is unavoidable, but would like to see good protections and safety nets in place so that nobody has to do it, to remove lack of alternatives as a motivation, and to keep exploitation to the minimum that cannot be avoided without having a complete police state.

But this was about what we find creepy, not what should be illegal; and I just happen to find it creepy when somebody apparently sells themselves out to a character-wise and bodily repugnant politician or magnate to bask in the reflected glory of influence, publicity and riches. Age-imbalance becomes much less creepy when you have the feeling that these things could not have played a major role.

Russell Blackford said...

I think that part of the trouble with Rogneto has been that Marvel is inconsistent with how old it actually makes Magneto look. Sometimes he looks about 40 - as in the panels in the original post above - which is his "true" physical age if we follow the continuity, sometimes quite a bit older (from artists who prefer him to look 50-something for whatever reason).

The Doctor Who case is interesting. No one ever seems to find the idea creepy of Doctor Who (as long as he's in a young-looking body) having erotically charged friendships with ordinary young women, even though there's a huge difference in power, knowledge, experience, etc. Same with Buffy - what seems to matter most is physical presentation.

And this brings me back to thinking that a lot of what we see is a deep and widely-experienced repugnance towards the idea of women of child-bearing age being with men who are old enough to be at high risk of delivering damaged sperm cells. That's not how we think of it, of course, but arguably that's the kind of thing that we're programmed to find yucky. I'm coming to be more attracted to the idea that the rest is mainly rationalisation, much as people try to rationalise their visceral responses to incest.

But let's keep the debate going. I certainly can't prove this, and I'm still open to all the perspective and arguments.

Mike Carey said...

@AlexSL - I think your phrase "innocent love" is really telling. I think I know what you mean - something like disinterested love, love that's not tainted by calculation, self-interest, material factors of any kind, if I'm reading you right. But it's not a yardstick you can hold up to anyone else, even if you wholeheartedly apply it to yourself. Love is just love. The factors that feed into it, conscious and unconscious, aren't easy to define even for the person that's feeling it. I'm not sure that the innocence you're referring to really exists, or if it exists that it has any real moral weight.

ColinGavaghan said...

@Alex: no no, I understood that. Sorry if my post implied otherwise.

ColinGavaghan said...

Yesterday's events maybe shed a little more light on the first example. Wendi Deng: trophy wife ... and bodyguard? http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/blog/video/2011/jul/19/rupert-murdoch-jamesmurdoch

latsot said...

I wonder if discomfort about relationships like this comes partly from the expectation that each person wants something different from that relationship and that those requirements are only superficially compatible.

This is true of a lot of relationships and people don't usually have too much of a problem with those. But in cases like Deng and Murdoch, it looks very *explicit* as though the relationship is more like a business relationship between the two, but *masquerading* as the sort of romantic relationship most of us are familiar with.

Perhaps another way of putting it is that we can understand Murdoch wanting a younger woman and Deng wanting a fabulous lifestyle and we assume that is at least partly what motivates the relationship. So it seems slightly odd or incongruous when they actually act like a normal couple, holding hands, going for a meal or whatever, because this doesn't contribute to our assumptions about their motivations.

I'm not explaining this well and I'm not totally convinced by my own explanation. Part of my own reaction to the picture posted was irritation that the relationship looks like such a cliche. I'm not sure at all why this should irritate me.

latsot said...

@March Hare:
"Any reaction (like this one) that hits us before our conscious idiocy rationalises it away is obviously evolutionary in its source."

Careful, that's by no means obvious.

We can talk a good evolutionary just-so story and still not be clear that the behaviour we observe is the result of any particular chain of adaptations or that all sorts of environmental influences aren't also in play.

Anonymous said...

To Colin Gavaghan: thanks for your notes on the incest issue. First sane comments I've heard on the topic for a long time.

About visceral reactions:
They don't actually say anything about their objects, but only about the psychological makeup, background, conditioning or whatever, of those having them. And people are different for a myriad reasons.

People also come together and form bonds of 'love', often with significant sexual components, for more reasons that you can throw a stick at. I find the notion that some reasons are more 'acceptable' than others quite ludicrous. Live and let live, mind your own biz and tidy up your own mind, is what I think of it all.

As for Deng and Murdoch: the woman was a veritable tigress in that hearing in London when she thought someone was about to attack her man. I suspect there's more here than mere status-seeking on the part of the woman, and more than the trophy-wife thing for the man.