On the red carpet at the British Academy of Film and Television Arts awards recently, one couple drew more attention than most. The subtle swell of her belly denoting early pregnancy, a middle-aged woman reached instinctively for the young man at her side.
He, placing a protective hand on her, stood silently as she gave interviews. They might have been mother and son but they were the 42-year-old film director Sam Taylor-Wood and 19-year-old actor Aaron Johnson.
Older women and their toyboys have a tendency to prompt voluble — even crude — reactions. As the film director worked her way down the red carpet, birch-haired male executives with 19-year-old models on their arms ambled past but the absurdity of those couplings passes unnoticed.
Only the Older Woman, it seems, is taboo in a world where precious few remain. Despite marrying actor Ashton Kutcher five years ago, Demi Moore still provokes headlines for the 15-year age gap.
In the celebrity world, a toyboy may be de rigueur but in reality the pairing remains as rare as it is controversial. Literature and film would have us believe otherwise. Bergman's Torment, Sunset Boulevard, The Roman Spring of Mrs Stone and, of course, The Graduate have kept young male cinemagoers titillated by the notion for years.
No written account goes into as much depth as Stephen Vizinczey's era-transcending In Praise of Older Women, re-released recently as a Penguin Classic. The best-selling book, which was published in 1965, must have provoked a veritable glut of misalliances after its narrator, Andras Vajda, described that the embraces of older women are infinitely preferable to those of younger girls.
"One of my chief irritations at the time was the blankness of the faces of my young girlfriends," says the young Vajda of one girlfriend, Maya. "But Maya's face, with the fine lines of her 40 some years, expressed all the shades of her emotions and thoughts."
Forty-five years after writing those lines, the Hungarian-born Vizinczey, 76, remains ardent: "To be a young man and have a grown woman as your partner is not just attractive, it is paradise. That's what my novel is about. Women start at 30 and just get better."
Putting any condemnation of the pairing down to "people hating to see other people happy", Vizinczey lambasts the idea that women with children should no longer be considered attractive.
"If anything, a woman who has had children can be even more attractive, because childbirth gives her a profound experience. The most attractive thing about a woman is her intelligence. The older women in the book were intelligent enough to learn from experience. An older woman who is an idiot is clearly inferior to an intelligent 20-year-old but the intelligent 20-year-old will be even more interesting and exciting when she's 40 or 60."
Vizinczey says our modern deification of youth may push an increasing number of young men into the arms of older women. "A woman's charisma has little to do with the kind of things magazines talk about. The most important part of her charisma is humanity, an affectionate nature and her intelligence."
According to psychologist Oliver James, author of Affluenza: "If you take the evolutionary argument, there is a great deal more sense in a younger man being with an older woman than the other way round, because a younger man can be more useful to the woman."
It is a theory Germaine Greer supported in her contentious book The Boy, a thesis on "why boys have always been the world's pin-ups".
Greer says "older men sit in judgment but boys don't do that. They are able to admire a woman for what she has achieved."
However, if the appeal from the younger man's perspective is obvious, so are the pitfalls. Oscar Humphries, the writer and son of Barry Humphries who enjoyed a liaison with Jimmy Choo founder Tamara Mellon when he was 22 and she 40 remembers assuming a submissive role in the relationship.
"The first time we had dinner together in London," he says, "I half-heartedly reached for my overburdened Switch card when the bill arrived. I feigned hurt when she brushed it aside with her corporate Amex. Could there be equality in our relationship?"
A mutually enjoyable game of dominance and submission is what drives the dynamic, says James. "But there will always be a large measure of desire on the part of the older person for the younger, which is where the ‘older woman' dynamic is not straightforward, because women, on the whole, are not attracted by nubility in younger members of the opposite sex, whereas men are." So are these older women liberated or damaged?
Where the celebrity contingent is concerned, James says narcissism and the search for eternal youth may play a big part, reducing the toyboy to a pick-me-up not unlike a new handbag. "There probably is something wrong with women who persist in going for very large age gaps," he says. "The real problem starts when the younger person grows up."
Women in the public eye, Vizinczey says, "are financially independent and can defy convention, but women who cannot afford to defy convention have to do it in secret or be labelled predators. Predatory relationships exist, but they can exist even between people of the same age."
So long as the relationships are fictional, it seems, we are able to enjoy them. We all regret Benjamin's decision not to elope with Mrs Robinson but how long would such a coupling have lasted? Not long, according to Theroux, which should mean no great sadness for either party.
"The classic situation is nothing long-term; indeed, she might not want to see you afterwards. The preliminaries, the half-truths, the confidences, the wooing: All these are dispensed with. She comes straight to the point and goes back to her life. She is doing what older men do to younger women."
Vizinczey disagrees. "Most relationships don't last. Enduring relationships depend not only on the ages of the couples but whether they are on the same wavelength, which is why I think mine will go on lasting."
His particular older woman ... ? She's Canadian, she's called Gloria — and he has been married to her for 45 years.