What big urges you have, granny

By India Knight (THE TIMES, 22/10/06):

Gina Lollobrigida, who is 79, has announced her forthcoming nuptials to 45-year-old Javier Rigau Rafols, an estate agent from Barcelona. Nobody much likes to imagine armies of frisky geriatrics with a gleam in their eye and a twitch in their tail: it’s just not very nice, and we’d much rather they were going for brisk walks, or knitting, or doing the flowers in church, and thus sufficing. It’s odd, nonetheless, that in this age of Botox, cosmetic surgery and men fathering children well into their dotage — which nobody much loves, but which people do quite admire on the sly — the last sexual taboo should concern old people getting it on.

It doesn’t take a Freudian analyst to work out why we find the idea of grandparents frolicking in the buff — or, worse, going out on the pull — slightly troubling, but we should perhaps stop being so weedy about the subject, since it clearly preoccupies a great many people.

But back to Lollobrigida. Before you start tittering, or wondering what might attract a presentable youngish man to someone who could comfortably be his granny, you might want to know that La Lollo has only been married once before, and claims to have been dating Rigau Rafols for the past 22 years. She says they fell for each other when she was 57 and he 23.

“We first met at a party in Monte Carlo in 1984 with his family,” she told Hola! magazine last week. “Gina was dazzling,” Rigau Rafols added. “Don’t forget, this was 22 years ago and she was an irresistible woman.”

She’s still pretty amazing: she certainly doesn’t look like any other 79-year-old I can think of, but neither does she look obviously tightened, bewigged or butchered by too much cosmetic surgery. She told Hola: “I have always had a weakness for younger men, because they are generous and don’t have complexes. Javier is intelligent and has a great sense of humour, which for me is very important. We laugh a lot.”

There was a time, not long ago, when older women with young men on their arm were considered peculiar enough to merit discussion — scandalous Mrs Robinsons all. These days, though they are still the exception rather than the norm, the discussion is breezier, and its conclusion isn’t necessarily pejorative, which is progress of sorts. The term “cradle snatcher” has practically gone out of existence, and we have become so used to older men squiring younger women that the reverse situation has a pleasing, and not unwelcome, symmetry.

There’s even a dedicated nightclub in Los Angeles — the Cougar Club (easy, tiger!) — that exists solely for the purpose of introducing older women to younger men, and very glamorous and unseedy it is too, apparently.

The older woman/younger man combo is, to my mind, much more understandable than the babe/grandpa pairing. It is an unfortunate fact that older men seem much duller, sleepier sorts than older women: they are more timorous, hypochondriacal and, depending on your viewpoint, either less in denial about growing old than women, or just, well, grandadishly stuck in their ways, with little curiosity about things they don’t already know.

Conversely, I constantly come across women in their sixties or over who are better dressed than me, better coiffed, better read, more on the ball culturally, and rather more fun than me or my contemporaries in social situations. I can’t say I entirely blame those of them who hanker after a little fresh male blood.

This is partly to do with women’s financial emancipation and with female economic empowerment; the great advantage of having children young is that you’re still far from doddery by the time they leave home and free up your finances as well as your time. But it also owes a great deal to the blurring between ages that has taken place in the past 20 years or so.

It is entirely possible these days for an elderly woman to look like a youthfully middle-aged one. The matronly uniform of tweeds and blouses that was a staple of late middle age has all but vanished: if you want tweed, pearls and a twinset, you’re more likely to find it “ironically” worn by a woman in her twenties. Grey hair is a rarity where it was once ubiquitous: all sorts of dazzling blondes mill around London, slightly freaking you out when they turn around.

Even gravity has been tamed: I know we all joke about appalling plastic surgery, but there exist some genius practitioners whose touch is both discreet and super-efficient. Lines are Botoxed, teeth are veneered, sagging bits are hoiked up by a marvellous man at The Lister, and Bob’s your uncle — or rather, your “nephew”.

Whereas it’s hard, though not impossible, to envisage old men with young girlfriends as being about anything but a drastic anti-decrepitude method, or the macho desire to project magnificent sexual potency, this isn’t true of older women with young men. You may in passing ask yourself if the young man in question has Oedipal issues, or whether he is a bona fide gerontophile, or just someone in love, and you will, obviously, wonder if the couple in question have sex with the lights out.

In both cases, you will ask yourself whether there is a financial motive for this unlikely pairing (not, apparently, in Lollobrigida’s case: she’s not that well off and her estate agent fiancé owns masses of property). Even if there is, so what, really?

Nobody ever speaks honestly of the power finances have over relationships: I know plenty of mothers who only stay at home because their husbands’ bonuses mean they can; and I know plenty of women who only stay married, to tremendous bores, because life is made financially comfortable by their spouses. It’s therefore hard to see why this shouldn’t cut both ways: if an older woman likes spending her own money on a younger man, why not?

I have made a bit of a U-turn on this subject recently; it used slightly to repulse me. I remember being unbelievably shocked years ago reading an Elizabeth Jane Howard novel, Falling, about an elderly woman who became sexually captivated by a con artist because she’d been lonely and sexually repressed, or dormant, for so long. But why should we bat an eyelid at sexually active women who are 50 years over the age of consent — especially if you believe, as most people do, that sex gets better the longer you’ve been at it?

Possibly, old people are sex gods. It seems a bit of a shame for the rest of us to be quite so puritanical when it comes to letting them share their expertise.