Let­ter from Amer­ica

In New York, older men and their young girl­friends are un­der at­tack

The Oldie - - CONTENTS - me­lik kay­lan Me­lik Kay­lan writes for the Wall Street Jour­nal

‘She whis­pered, “Too young,” nod­ding her head to­wards the blonde’

At a bibu­lous house party of jour­nal­ists, not a few of them Brits, in a fash­ion­able Brook­lyn brown­stone, I found my­self chat­ting re­cently with a woman who, it turned out, had run a now-de­funct on­line fash­ion business.

Ms X seemed sur­prised that I didn’t know her, but pleas­ant withal. Some two-thirds of the guests were fe­male, chiefly mid­dle-aged, lively, con­se­quen­tial, boozy.

Nat­ter­ing away, I no­ticed an odd lit­tle tableau in the next room: a cou­ple stand­ing iso­lated, look­ing a mite sheep­ish. More pre­cisely, the man looked sheep­ish, be­ing in his for­ties and dis­tinctly se­nior to his date.

She was by far the loveli­est crea­ture in the place, pos­si­bly the youngest, too – a twen­tysome­thing pony-tailed blonde with a lu­mi­nous com­plex­ion; the Olivia New­ton-john de nos jours. De­spite that, or be­cause of it, no­body spoke to them. Some­thing was off.

The man came over to us – quite good-look­ing with a fash­ion­able three­day-stub­ble. The ex-gos­sip­ista and he locked eyes and smiled warmly. Ev­i­dently, they knew each other, quite well.

She leaned over and whis­pered, ‘Too young,’ nod­ding her head to­wards the blonde. He shrugged his shoul­ders af­fa­bly, chuck­led in a tipsy way, but she in­sisted, ‘No, no, too young.’

I looked at the girl in the other room, man­i­festly in her mid-twen­ties. So what was go­ing on here? I de­cided to back him up.

‘Don’t pay any at­ten­tion, old lad. In fact, I hon­our you. She’s smashing. You’re a Re­nais­sance man,’ I said and shook him by the hand, ex­trav­a­gantly.

Ms X gave me a dart­ing, ex­as­per­ated look and bore him away to a cor­ner.

One could eas­ily car­i­ca­ture her con­duct as bul­ly­ing and en­vi­ous to­wards – per­haps – a for­mer lover sport­ing a new and fab­u­lous girl­friend.

But it wasn’t as sim­ple as that. I eaves­dropped and re­alised that Ms X was, in fact, rather con­cerned for him in a sen­si­ble, prac­ti­cal even af­fec­tion­ate way. That is, con­cerned for his rep­u­ta­tion. The ef­fect on his pro­fes­sional life. Con­cerned that he shouldn’t be seen as one of those older guys.

If it sounds a bit far-fetched, and even rather de­vi­ous on her part, con­sider that the in­ci­dent took place soon af­ter the wide­spread Metoo firestorm.

The party teemed with ex­actly the kind of pow­er­ful, fe­male me­dia types who were in the thick of the con­tro­versy. What’s more, they were her friends. She knew them and shared their views, and was sin­cerely ad­vis­ing him to be care­ful be­cause it didn’t look good.

The fact is, she un­der­stood bet­ter than ei­ther of us two guys ex­actly the way that things had rad­i­cally changed in our world in re­cent years and months. I heard him say, ‘I’m not her boss or any­thing – I don’t work with her. In fact, we scarcely know each other.’

Ms X shook her head force­fully: ‘It doesn’t mat­ter.’

The rest was in­de­ci­pher­able but I un­der­stood this much. These days, you can’t even look like you’re in an un­equal re­la­tion­ship. Watch­ing eyes might con­clude that you’re too im­per­vi­ous to know how to nu­ance your­self in to­day’s of­fices or con­fer­ences; that you tell off-colour jokes, give too many hugs.

I’ve had oc­ca­sion to wax avun­cu­lar quite of­ten of late to younger male friends on how the pat­tern of so­cial odium has pre­cisely re­versed from our par­ents’ time.

These days, men’s rep­u­ta­tions are frag­ile in the way that women’s were. Peo­ple talk. They gos­sip about so-andso’s sex life and cause ruin – in­vari­ably to men.

It would take a book – too many al­ready ex­ist – to ex­am­ine the gen­der wars in all their cur­rent fraugh­t­ness. But there’s sur­pris­ingly lit­tle cov­er­age of the war front in non-in­sti­tu­tional set­tings, in the so­cial sphere or in the real world, where con­sen­sual re­la­tion­ships should bud or­gan­i­cally in un­reg­u­lated con­di­tions.

Not any­more. The self-ap­pointed be­hav­iour-en­forcers con­duct their se­cret min­istry through whis­pers and ru­mour, even at par­ties.

I know a girl who per­se­cutes exboyfriends and play-boy­ish types by smear­ing them be­hind their backs as preda­tory, abu­sive or ex­ploita­tive – a trendy calumny borne out of asym­met­ri­cal power re­la­tions.

This chat­ter does af­fect men’s rep­u­ta­tions. In that neb­u­lously nasty phrase that was for­merly used against women, they be­come dam­aged goods. Ra­dioac­tive.

And if you think I am special plead­ing for the priv­i­leged male side, con­sider the ef­fect on women’s free­dom of choice.

A twen­tysome­thing girl I know who’s been through the mill of af­fairs with boys her age, chose to set­tle down with a sta­ble, older man, a di­vorced restau­rant owner.

She’s ter­ri­fied peo­ple will find out. Not other men, but women who dis­ap­prove of her for de­riv­ing fi­nan­cial ad­van­tage and hap­pi­ness from be­ing ex­ploited.

She won’t even let him com­ment on her Face­book posts.

The land of the free has turned into the home of the witch hunt.

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