Editor's note: Pepper Schwartz is a sociologist at the University of Washington, the author of Prime: Adventures and Advice on Sex, Love, and the Sensual Years, and 15 other books on sexuality and relationships. She writes the Naked Truth column for AARP.
(CNN) -- In some ways, the latest Hugh Hefner engagement is a humorist's dream. An elderly man, a 24-year-old ex-Playmate -- what do we think each person is getting out of this alliance? I don't think you need a Ph.D. to assess the exchange of resources that has brought them together.
He has money, fame, a lifetime of good stories and useful networks. She gives him the prestige that a glamorous woman bestows upon her beau, a few virility points (if we believe that's part of the bargain) and the daily flattery of having a beautiful, and we hope nice, woman fussing over him, holding his hand and making sure he gets his vitamins. Not a bad deal for either of them actually.
But the May-December couple also offers a bit more to chew on when we think of large age gaps between partners in general and the urge to marry versus cohabit. In order to think about this kind of relationship more seriously, we have to use the much-mated, just-twice-married Hugh Hefner as a jumping off point, rather than wrestle with his particular motives -- not the least of which might be the fact that his marriages are not a bad advertisement for the Playboy brand.
As a sociologist who specializes in studying sexuality, love and relationships and as a consultant to AARP, I do not find late-in-life love or marriage ridiculous, nor do I think age gaps between partners are always a mistake. Hefner brings up these issues, but he certainly shouldn't define them for us.
Passion does not necessarily dim over the life cycle. I have a widowed friend who has just turned 83 and has fallen in love again. She had been dating online and asking friends to introduce her to potential partners, because after two years or so of grieving for her husband of many years, she wanted the comfort and thrill of another romantic partner.
She found a lovely man, 86, and they have fallen in love and are enjoying life together. They recently returned from a trip to Italy. They live in different urban communities designed for older men and women and spend a lot of time in each other's place. They are a wonderful couple.
OK, so they are "age appropriate," but that they are in the market for romance at their age is part of the point.
I know other successful couples with large age gaps whose marriages would strike envy in the hearts of anyone who met them. My friends Ray and Gail have a 25-year-plus spread and have been married for over 15 years. He is in his early 80s, she in her 50s. They are spectacularly well-suited for one another and have an active life in the state of Washington and doing charitable dental work in the African bush.
Love, when it truly happens, is precious at any age. It is possible at any age. And even if it is not passionate love, even if it is just the comfort of companionship and spending time with someone you respect, it is a boon to the heart, health and happiness of both partners.
And it can run both ways: A study released in 2003 by the United Kingdom's Office for National Statistics concluded that the proportion of women in England and Wales marrying younger men rose from 15% to 26% between 1963 and 1998.
I hesitate to congratulate Hefner, not because of his age (he's 84), or even because of his partner's age --but rather because it is hard to know the motives of the rich and famous and the people who marry them. Whether these motives will bring either person in the relationship the support and love that late-life marriage can bring is not known.
One final thought: You might be saying, "But why should they marry? If it's love, can't they just live together? They are probably not going to have children..."
I agree that living together is a good answer for many older people. It is less complicated financially and legally, and it doesn't arouse as much fear in adult children that possible inheritances will be compromised.
But there is nothing in our society that certifies the intent of two partners in the same way marriage does.
Only marriage presents a clear definition of how a couple wants to be seen and treated by the world, their families, their friends and community.
Only marriage brings with it a complete body of law, with traditional privileges and obligations. So yes, if that's what someone wants to say to the world at 84, the same way they would have said at 34, why not?
They have the right as adults and citizens. Whether they are making a wise choice of partner is another issue entirely.
The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Pepper Schwartz.