It is an old yet thoroughly modern story: A young, attractive, single woman meets an older, successful, married man. They begin a clandestine affair, hoping to keep their liaison a secret.
From Capitol Hill to corporate offices to college campuses, amorous alliances between older men and young women have long provided a source of gossip, speculation and titillation.
Now, as Washington police continue their search for Chandra Levy, the missing intern romantically linked to Gary Condit, a congressman 29 years her senior, a question hangs in the summer air: Thirty years after the feminist movement first offered young women more options and a fuller sense of identity and self-respect, are they any less likely today to pin their dreams to the lapel of a charcoal-gray Armani suit?
Not everyone, of course, expects they would be. After all, the dawn of feminism coincided with the sexual revolution — a force that made it easier in many respects for women to take risks in matters of the heart, however ill-advised a relationship might be. Many of today's sophisticated, educated young women reject the idea that they are simply naive victims of predatory men — either in politics, in the business world or on college campuses.
It can make for a bewildering advent into womanhood. "It's very confusing to this generation," says Paula Kamen, author of "Her Way: Young Women Remake the Sexual Revolution." "Roles are not as clear-cut."
During the Kennedy administration, she explains, if a 20-something woman had an affair with a married man, "she would know from the beginning that she was playing with fire. She would know more obviously what the power imbalances were and what her place was."
Today, Kamen says, "we're raised to think that the women's movement did its job, and the playing field is equal and that we have control over relationships because of our greater power in society. But it's obviously not an equal playing field."
Daisy Hernandez, a recent college graduate who is co-editing a book on feminism by young women of color, also notes mixed signals. You're . . . dealing with messages that say you can do everything you want in your professional life, but you're not always sure how that plays out in your romantic life."
As young women sort through their rationales for making the choices they do, what they most need is better guidance from other women, says Danielle Crittenden, an author who writes on women's issues. When women "go out and lead the same promiscuous, emotionless sexual life as men," she says, the consequences can be heartbreak, sexual disease, pregnancy and "an overall coarsening of love and relationships with men."
She faults Levy's female confidantes for their tacit approval of her relationship with Rep. Condit. "If she had gone to her aunt and her friends and announced that she had taken up smoking, they would have urged her to stop."
Beyond Washington, relationships between older men and younger women remain common in the corporate world. Indeed, they seem not to have abated — despite laws governing sexual harassment in the workplace and codes of conduct outlined by employers.
"In the culture as a whole, there are these trophy mates," says Rosemary Agonito, a consultant on workplace gender issues and author of "Dirty Little Secrets: Sex in the Workplace." "It's a real ego booster for older men to have younger women interested in them. And younger women see these powerful men as an entree to better things. . . . It's still the case that too many women define themselves by the male they're attached to."
Agonito sees only scattered pockets of feminism among younger women, but that does not surprise her as she watches how girls are raised. "The most important thing is how you look and whether you have a boyfriend. That culture just carries on when they go into the workplace."
Although sex has always been a powerful force, Agonito says, the sexual revolution of the 1960s "legitimized sex with anybody. That makes it easier for this kind of stuff to go on."
On college campuses, too, sexual liaisons between older faculty men and young women persist just as they do in other areas of American society. The stereotype is that professors — usually men — initiate these affairs, but often students are the ones who seek out relationships with faculty members, says a former sexual-harassment officer at a college in upstate New York, who asked not to be identified.
Within academic circles, she continues, some people regard such relationships as abuse by the faculty member. Others say the liaisons should be the concern only of those involved. Those in the middle say it depends on the context.
Some schools prohibit intimate relationships between faculty members and students over whom they have professional authority.
"It's not just a power thing," says Vickie Clairmont, an orientation assistant at Ithaca College in Ithaca, N.Y. "It can also be a 'father figure' thing too, and many young women fall into that trap so easily. The bad thing for them is that they will end up taking the rap for the affair."
Clairmont would like to see all colleges take a stand on this, even making it a condition for tenure for professors. "It's time we made morality something to strive for, something to be proud of," she says.
But some signs are emerging that young women's attitudes are shifting. Crittenden, author of "What Our Mothers Didn't Tell Us," talked with many young women in the course of writing her book. What startled her, she says, is that "the big sexual question today . . . is not 'How do I get a man in my bed?' but 'How do I keep him out of my bed? How do I get to know someone without having to sleep with him right away?' They want to be able to say no without looking like a prude."
Adults owe it to the younger generation, she says, to teach them messages of self-respect and self-restraint.
"We're very afraid to connect morality to sex," she says. "That's sad, but it's true. You have to frame these messages in terms of personal empowerment. You're not a prude if you're abstaining. In fact, you're empowering yourself. Those are the messages young women need to hear."