By Sandy Burgham
As a feminist I have always subscribed to the assertion popularised by my heroine, Gloria Steinem, that “a woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle”. That was until I was in Britomart the other day, and was unexpectedly propositioned by a handsome young man on a bicycle. Youth is relative of course, and he would have been 31 to my 51. He wheeled up alongside me and started a conversation. I assumed he wanted directions, but in fact he complimented me on my dress. It is indeed my favourite dress, so this I was quite pleased about. Then he went one step further, and told me that I “looked great in it”. I thanked him before we started a very brief conversation in which I ascertained that he was from Brazil.
Thinking that this is the sort of boy who would be nice for my newly-single niece or even my student daughter, imagine my surprise when he asked me out for a coffee. “You … are … joking?” I ventured, as I scanned Britomart for television cameras or sniggering friends pointing their phones at me. He looked puzzled, and suggested tea instead. When I declined this invitation, feeling like a repressed Westerner against his laissez faire Latin-ness, he seemed curious as to “why not?”
It is revealing that the immediate answer that popped into my head was, “I have no time to waste on chatting to a young handsome stranger when I am trying to close the gender gap in New Zealand leadership and other worthwhile pursuits”. But I chose to speak a language I thought he might understand. Conscious that I was wrongly portraying my husband as a possessive alpha male, and me as a submissive dependent, I said, somewhat pathetically, “I don’t think my husband would like it.” To this he offered, “But we can do it as friends”. “Haha, not today thanks,” I said nervously, pulling out my blanket response to telemarketers. To which he shot back, “Tomorrow?” At this I hurried away, blushing hotly like a Victorian spinster (or maybe it was menopause).
When I shared the story with my girlfriends the response ranged from the insulting — “Was he trying to sell you something?” — to the hilarious: “Maybe it’s a new experiential marketing concept from Britomart to attract the older wealthier shopper” (that’s actually not a bad idea!). Days later, I’m still getting texts like this one: “Hola lady in the dress, now let me put the little pill in your coffee. Sleepy?”
My own husband annoyingly put forward two possible theories. First, that the Brazilian was simply playing a numbers game, and secondly, that it might be promotion for a new bike shop in the area. I deeply regret not going for that coffee.
In a western culture that is youth obsessed, many women in their second act complain about becoming invisible. Admittedly I haven’t noticed this myself, given my earnest focus on the aforementioned worthwhile pursuits. It’s been a long time that I ever considered myself — or cared — whether I was attractive to a man other than my husband (and even then I can’t say it’s top of my to-do list). But that might be about to change, given the impact of that little bit of unsolicited attention from the opposite sex in an inappropriate age group.
The incident has me reflecting on the double standards we have when it comes to age and gender behaviours. Admittedly, if the Brazilian was 51 like me, I would have written him off as a recently divorced sleazebag. If he was 71 I would have let him down gently, assuming his Viagra prescription was nearing its use-by date. But because this was clearly a Mrs Robinson affair, I considered it simply flattering and can’t stop going on about it. So for any younger male readers out there, be generous with the compliments to the over-50 woman. A little love goes a long way. Go on, make my day.
— Sandy Burgham
This post first appeared in The Hobson April, 2015