When Older Guys Lust After Young Women

Men’s sexual desire is driven by culture, not evolution, Hugo Schwyzer argues. Here’s what young women are really looking for, and why we’re fools to think otherwise.

In my office, Amber is telling me a familiar story. She’s come to talk about her autobiography paper for my women’s studies class, and she reads part of her rough draft aloud.

“I was 12, and this car pulled up alongside me as I was walking home from school … the driver looked a little older than my dad, at least 40. He leaned out, and I thought he was going to ask me for directions, but instead he asked me how old I was. When I told him, he laughed. ‘Damn, you got some big titties for such a little girl.’ He made this gross smacking sound with his lips, and sped away. I ran all the way home.”

Amber looks up at me. “I want to know,” she asks, “why do older men hit on younger women?” She’s 20 now, tall and graceful; she tells me that for the last eight years, older men have been approaching her. “It’s not just me,” she adds, “it happens to most of my friends, almost regardless of what they look like or what they’re wearing. It makes me feel like I can’t trust anyone, like all men want just one thing. Why can’t they chase women their own age?”

♦◊♦

I’ve been writing and researching about relationships between older men and younger women since 2005. While the media is hyping the “cougar” phenomenon, they ignore the reality that in most age-disparate affairs the man is the older (sometimes, as in the case of Hugh Hefner, astoundingly older) partner. We take it for granted that many men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s will be more sexually attracted to younger women than to their peers. While most men and women alike are appalled by stories of adult men hitting on 12-year-olds, we still assume that men will “naturally” lust after young women just a few years older.

In 2005, John Derbyshire, a much-admired right-wing pundit at the National Review, opined:

It is, in fact, a sad truth about human life that beyond our salad days, very few of us are interesting to look at in the buff. Added to that sadness is the very unfair truth that a woman’s salad days are shorter than a man’s—really, in this precise context, only from about 15 to 20.

Remarkably, the “family values” editors at America’s flagship conservative journal let this nonsense run, perhaps because they accepted what he was saying as gospel truth: 15- and 16-year-old girls are more sexually alluring to normal adult men than are women in their late 20s. But Derbyshire wasn’t telling us a truth about women’s beauty—he was telling us a truth about the way we’ve socialized male desire.

No one thinks babies were the first thing on the mind of Jason Statham when he started dating a 23-year-old Victoria’s Secret model, or that Sean Penn (50) is motivated by the desire to start a family with Scarlett Johansson, who’s barely half his age.

Ask any porn site operator: the “barely legal” or “teens” sections are among the most popular niches. That doesn’t sound so troubling when you imagine an army of teen boys masturbating to images and videos of their female peers. It’s considerably different to imagine men jerking off to pictures of girls young enough to be their daughters—or granddaughters. Since Hef published his first Playboy magazine in 1953, we’ve raised three generations of men to believe that women peak in desirability somewhere between 18 and 24. For many men, that peak starts much earlier. Ask a 17-year-old how often she’s been leered at (or worse) by a much older man.

For too many men, the term “jailbait” isn’t a warning. It’s an enticement.

♦◊♦

Spare me the arguments from biology or evolutionary psychology, the ones that excuse predatory old guys from staring at “young firm flesh” because that flesh belongs to a woman near the peak of her fertility. The great lengths to which countless men go to avoid fatherhood suggests that the continued evolutionary imperative to “spread one’s seed” is oversold to the point of being illusory. No one thinks babies were the first thing on the mind of Jason Statham when he started dating a 23-year-old Victoria’s Secret model, or that Sean Penn (50) is motivated by the desire to start a family with Scarlett Johansson, who’s barely half his age. This is about the cultural cachet of dating a much younger woman—and about the difficult-to-deny reality that younger women lack the experience and wisdom to call their older lovers on their bullshit.

Two recent books do a superb job of puncturing the argument that male sexuality is primarily a creature of evolutionary programming. University of North Carolina professor Martha McGaughey’s The Caveman Mystique: Pop-Darwinism and the Debates Over Sex, Violence and Science (Routledge, 2008) makes the convincing case that our beliefs about male sexuality form the science, and not the other way around. In other words, men who want a reason to chase younger women are desperate to claim that what is a culturally constructed choice is really an unavoidable biological reality.

Cordelia Fine’s Delusions of Gender: How Our Minds, Society, and Neurosexism Create Difference (Norton, 2010) offers a systematic debunking of the idea that men’s sexual decisions are driven largely by brain chemistry. Both Fine and McGaughey make a compelling case that the actual science doesn’t support the idea that men’s sexual desires are driven by evolutionary imperatives.

In other words, John Derbyshire (and a lot of other grown men) may be sexually attracted to underage girls—but they don’t get to blame that fetish on biology.

Even if it were “natural,” there’s nothing innocent or harmless or healthy about older men pursuing substantially younger women. The cost is high to everyone involved. While a few young women may be attracted to much older guys (often because they falsely imagine themselves to be “so much more mature” than “other girls” their age), most are like Amber—disheartened and disgusted by the endless parade of men 10, 20, or 40 years older who harass and hit on them. These young women aren’t flattered. And even if they seem flattered at the time, it doesn’t mean the attention from older men isn’t doing great harm.

♦◊♦

Lynn Phillips, a psychology professor at New York University, did a famous study of young women (mostly under legal age) who were in relationships with significantly older men. Most of the girls she interviewed described these affairs as mutual, exciting, and fulfilling. They pushed back against the suggestion that they were being exploited, claiming in many cases to have initiated or at least welcomed the sex with older men. Phillips then interviewed a similar number of older women. Each of these was over 30, and each had been in a relationship with a much older man while still in her teens. With the benefit of hindsight and experience, these older women acknowledged that they’d been used and hurt and exploited. They admitted that their claims of maturity and sexual adventurousness were all a pretense. In other words, what Phillips found is that while there are some teen girls who are “asking for it,” it’s not what they really want. Teen girls feign sexual sophistication; men need to be able to see through that.

Kerry Cohen, author of Loose Girl and the forthcoming Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity, argues that “when adult men sexualize teen girls, even just by ogling them, the girls are reminded that their worth in their world is dependent on how sexy they are.” “Girls who choose men so far out of their age ranges,” Cohen writes, “tend toward low self-esteem and depression.” These aren’t sweet coming-of-age stories. And they don’t fit the pornographic story line that young girls are eager for sexual initiation at the hands of an older, wiser mentor.

Here’s the brutal truth, guys. Teen and 20-something women aren’t nearly as interested in much older men as you may think. Sure, there are high school girls with Johnny Depp fantasies, but guess what? You’re not Johnny Depp. (If you were that 48-year-old actor, you’d be devoted to your 38-year-old French girlfriend.) Yes, some young women do flirt with older men. Some do it for validation, some do it for excitement, but a hell of a lot of them do it because guys like you have already taught them that’s the only thing that older men want.

♦◊♦

A true story about the way younger women really see “older men” (and if you’re attracted to 18- to 24-year-olds, you count as “older” if you’re on the high side of 30).

A few years ago, my friend Sean went through a rough divorce. Newly single and almost 40, he went back on the dating scene for the first time in over a decade. But the woman who caught his eye wasn’t someone he met online. She was his favorite barista at his local Starbucks. She was 19.

Next: The girl behind the counter

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About Hugo Schwyzer

Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college's first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. He serves as co-director of the Perfectly Unperfected Project, a campaign to transform young people's attitudes around body image and fashion. Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his website

Comments

  1. I just broke up with my 12 year relationship. He was younger then me, not allot, but younger. Now he has moved on, very quickly I might add, with a 19 year old from Ohio. she just recently graduated high school. We live in Ontario. He is 31, and he thinks he loves her, only a 2 weeks after texting this young girl in the states. They never even met, while saying they love each other. How can he possibly love her, being 19, after being with me, for 12 years. Our break up wasn’t bad, and we even talked about getting back together. There were only minor reasons I ended it. Otherwise our relationship was wonderful. He ever told me, the same. Please help me understand. He is totally oblivious to what we had, two weeks after break up.

  2. If the relationship was so wonderful why would you end it–and for minor reasons? I think he’s probably more aware of what you thought you had than you think. Why would he think you had something extra special when you ended it? Why would he think there was something to hold onto? Think a bit about your actions. Why should he be expected to wait for you when you ended it? If what you had was so great and wonderful, why would you end it?

    Yeah, some men will hang on until there is absolutely no hope for a relationship to be salvaged, but there are also men who aren’t going to wait around for someone else to decided what direction their life is going to take.

    I am sure it’s not a nice potion to be in, but you made your decision and now you have to live with the consequences of that decision.

  3. you broke it off? then why are you worried about what he is doing at all? Move on and dont worry what he is doing. He found someone that is better for him – right now…. Stop whining

  4. …he’s obviously a complete freak/psycho. i think you dodged a bullet there. i just feel sorry for the poor girl he’s predating on :S

  5. Maybe he realized that someone that would end a relationship over “minor reasons” is someone he doesn’t want to be with.

  6. Anonymous says:

    You broke up your 12 yr relationship over minor reasons, and now you wonder why he doesn’t want you back and claim HE doesn’t know what y’all had? Sounds like you were the one who F*cked up..

  7. Charlie says:

    Wow, sorry I pissed you off Emma. And you didn’t even reply to my messege, you just bashed me. No one asked for your rudeness.
    The reason I ended it, was because I needed to make a point. He could not give emotionally, but he could love. It is hard to explain, however I know what i am talking about. He loved me so much! Twelve wonderful years to be exact. i need to show him, (and I told him the same) that if he didn’t try and show any emotion, I was gone. That is all that was wrong. That was it. He couldn’t show emotions, because he has been very damaged through his childhood. And I accepted this for a long time. We shared everything, even his tears, that was very hard for him to do. So now I see he running away from all this, to someone he barely ever see’s. You know why? So he doesn’t have to commit, or to show any emotion yet again. And I don’t understand why he has done this.
    So Emma, instead of bashing people, and judging me, why not wait till you get a good description of the problem.

  8. Emma, it is possible your relationship had an issue of maturity and he wanting by then a younger person, a relationship more equal for him from an emotional point of view. Might have been a nurturing relationship for him and a self confidence giving one for you, which has had it”s seeds for both of you. I do not believe in endings that occur from minor conflicts, I believe that your road together in that form ended. The saddest part is if you put some hopes into it lasting for more and some energies. You will have to let him experience and you to experience something different, too. You might have the surprise to find a new, even more fulfilling relationship. I read once that a relationship lasts until two persons share a common road… best wishes to you!

  9. You ended it to prove a point? I’m sorry, I am not bashing anyone, I just asked a few questions.

    Actually, your description of the problem only baffles me more with why you are confused that when you ended it, he decided to try someone one new.

    Has he told you that he’s running away from you so that he doesn’t have to commit or show emotion or is this just something you assigned to him so that you can rationalize being right for your lack of commitment to him?

    I am in a wonderful relationship going on 18 glorious years. We’ve had our ups and we’ve had our downs, but ending it to prove a point never crossed my mind because to me ending it shows a lack of commitment. If you can’t weather a person as they are now and you end a relationship because of it you are not committed to that person.

    You may not see what you have done as a lack of commitment, but it is. If he is damaged from his childhood as you say, than ending the relationship after 12 years is you not being committed to him or the relationship you had with him.

    Would you go back to someone who told you that you had to be someone other than who you are or they were going to leave?

    Damaged people do not magically heal because someone wants them to behave in a different way. I am not bashing and I am sorry if you take it that way.

    Commitment works both ways. If you can end a 12 year relationship because of a problem you knew about he may not see you as committed to him as you think you are.

  10. Your comments are a bit strange to me. You said “he loved so much” and then that “he could not give emotionally”. This is contradictory. So are you sure you told the real reasons why you broke the relation ?

  11. I am sorry that your relationship went the way it did! It sounds like you had your heart set on him changing and getting back together. Unfortunately giving a man or a woman an ultimatum to change usually does not work out in the long run!

    I want to tell you about my ex-husband who was 9 years older than I. I was 22 and he was 31 when we married. He had an executive job for Ford Motors. He had been divorced but had no children. We were married for 22 year and had 2 children together. Life however was not all roses. He had a problem with alcohol as well as other women! I had become very depedent on his support. A few years before the divorce I started wroking as a flight attendant; a job I loved. However it took me away from home often. I had an accident and injured my cervical spine a few years later. Although I had nursed him back to health after an accident that had him out of work for over a year and a half , this man could not provide the support I needed to get me back on my feet. He told me he thought we would do better off getting a divorce after the first surgery to try and get me well. It was not what I wanted! I was now disabled and could not work and it seemed with no options. We had the worst divorce I have ever heard of! Finally a judge decided how our assets would be handled and awarded me half of his 401K and permenant spousal support as well as a portion of his pension! I found myself forever grateful to a judge when I realized that I would not have to depend on a man to support me ever again! He tried everything to get out of payng me what I had coming and would no longer even talk to me. I guess he thought I was just going to go away! It has been nine years now and I find myself to be much happier than I ever was and can tell you that although I cared for this man; my fears of caring for myself and my children kept me in place for a long time and would probably have kept me there indeffinately if he had not made the move to divorce me~ PS. He remarried 4 months after our divorce to a women he met in the bar while I was flying!

    Life is good, I own 3 properties without mortgages; one I live in and 2 that I rent. I recieve a good portion of his pension along with social security and alimony. My belief is that many young girls looking for older men are looking for security! We were both relatively young when we married and I will not say I married him for his money but I would agree to the fact that I looked for someone that could handle the obligations of a family!

  12. cindy age 25 says:

    Charlie, you are better off without him. He starts up a relationship with a 19 year old who he met through technology (no emotional or physical connection – just “electronic words”) two weeks after a 12 year relationship? Sweetie, please get into therapy to discover why you would be attracted to a man incapable of emotional connection and why you can’t answer your own question of why he would start a relationship with a younger woman whom he has never met (I’ll give you a hint: NO EMOTIONAL CONNECTION!!!) Please don’t get into another relationship until you sort this out with a professional. I hope the best for you, from one woman to another woman. Figure it out so you don’t follow the same destructive pattern.

  13. Charlie says:

    I was committed to him for 12 years, he did not. I gave all my soul into our relationship, more then I ever gave my ex. husband. Im ending this conversation. Only because no one knows what happened, what we went through, what I personally went through. And I guess it was wrong of me to post any comment. People are being very judgmental, without knowing the facts.

  14. stubenge says:

    Hell knows no greater fury than a woman that’s scorned. Sorry Charlie, I have to agree with Emma. I also believe from some of the things you said, it now hurts you to see him move on to a potentially better situation for him after you gave him an ultimatum. My advice, find an older gentleman that will appreciate you and will always see you as a younger woman.

  15. Charlie says:

    How do I stop receiving this?

  16. Brooke- he could simply be that hurt over what this girl did to him- you do not know what happened.

  17. 19 years old is too young really… She still need to gain some maturity.

    If she was 25 and him 37 (same age diff of 12 years) this would me more healthy

  18. Monica,

    Thank you for your concerns, but I have been happily married for over fourteen years and with the same wonderful man for almost twenty. I don’t believe the end of the road comes from a truly fulfilling relationship. It only grow stronger. Love grows stronger. That’s been my experience with marriage. There are no words to express the depth of love my husband and I have for each other. Yes, we both started out immature, but we consciously and purposely grew together instead of apart.

  19. Emma, I am sorry, I by mistake mentioned your name, but my comments were addressed to Charlie!
    Reading your reply, I can only say you have the luck and the fruits of a relationship that has indeed worked out. Something to remember for me, since I am after breaking up in a relationship which lacked consciousness and purpose.

  20. Need a reality check people. Biology is the number one reason for older men younger women. Nature is our model and humans are the same. Discussion over.

  21. Humans behavior is not dictated by biology only from a long time. You should know it !
    We have big differences with animals : human sexuality is not only geared at reproduction
    but has as an important emotional aspect : We do not make love only for reproduction.
    Our education, culture in which we were raised have fare more impact on us than simply biology.
    Have you ever hear about human psychology ? Humans don’t live only to eat & reproduce. Make
    your own researches !

    Discussion over you said… Oh please yes, no more of your immaturity and ignorance

  22. Biology may explain his attraction to her young ovaries but how does it explain why in a large age gap relationship she has selected someone with poorer sperm mobility, more genetic mutations (children of age 40+ men have increased incidence of schizophrenia, down syndrome & autism amongst others) and reduced chance of seeing the offspring to adulthood?

  23. Pat – Without commenting on my position with regards to Loren’s opinion, he has the right to say it. I’m actually willing to listen to him more than you because your personal attacks on him leave you little credibility with me.

    I’m virtually certain you are a woman…I’m just wondering how old you are? Are you one of those women that has been personally affected by this phenomena? Knowing the background of people that post makes a big difference in how the audience can (and should) react to your message.

    And I’d also be more willing to consider your point of view if you would write correctly. I can forgive one or two spelling / grammar mistakes, but more than that and I start to think that it’s difficult for you to properly express your thoughts.

  24. “And I’d also be more willing to consider your point of view if you would write correctly. I can forgive one or two spelling / grammar mistakes, but more than that and I start to think that it’s difficult for you to properly express your thoughts.”

    English is not my mother tongue. That’s reason why I make grammatical / errors. And you judge me only on this ? Can’t make just a reasoned comment ? And no i’m not a woman.

    The comments of Loren are just horrible… young women smell better ? This is insulting to women. Typical
    attitude of men considering women as objects. And yes his comments are immature.

  25. I apologoze for the comment about the spelling and grammar, and I am not judging you…I simply said that Loren has the right to tell us what he feels. Your responses to him are not reasoned. I’m fine with you expressing your opposition to his thoughts, but instead of calling him immature or ignorant, simply tell the audience about your opinion. Let them make up their own mind. For example – stating that younger women smell better is not insulting to all women: only to older women. And calling him immature is your opinion – not a fact.

  26. All the studies I’ve seen are inconclusive with respect to the incidence of birth defects except one – bipolar disorder. A Danish study – confirmed by the US Centers for Disease control – found an increase in the incidence of bipoliar disorder in the 2 to 3 percent range. This is a concern in many developing countries. However, the high quality prenatal care avalable in the United States largely cancels out the expected increase here, with bipolar increases among children of older fathers standing at less than one percent in the US. And I agree that older fathers have lower sperm motility and volume, but that effect only serves to reduce the chances of getting pregnant; it has no effect on birth defects. Contrast that with a woman who has passed menopasue; she has no chance AT ALL of ever having children again.

  27. There is lots of evidence regarding the increase of genetic mutations in older fathers (there is advice that men should have sperm frozen when they are in their 20s to avoid the risk) particularly linking to autism & schizophrenia (neurological conditions), it’s not a huge increase but it’s an increase none the less. My point is the young mother has not chosen the best genetic bet when she chooses a significantly older father for her child (studies show from age late 30s to 40s the mutations increase, for every year of a man life there will be more) which doesn’t fit in with the biology theory presented here at all.

    The biggest risk of all is the fact an older father has a higher chance of dying before his child reaches 18 years, between ages of 34-44 this doubles to 12%. Not good odds from the child’s (or mother’s) perspective.

    I agree with the need to avoid being an older mother and all the inherent risks involved but men are not immune to ageing, two under 35 year old parents give the best outcome to their kids.

  28. of course there is lots of evidence to support your assertions about birth defects. And there is lots of evidence to support my assertions – that’s why we call the issue inconclusive! You don’t cite any authority – you just say there’s lots of information – blah blah. And the article you mentioned in another post dealt with “intense mothers” – a coined phrase that comtemplates mothers that do too much mothering and bring stress on themselves. It has nothing to do with the basic genetic desire to nurture…it’s all about competition. Too many people living vicariously through their children….another reason to step back and stop worrying about age gap couples, if Billy can read Hamlet at age 2 – or anything else.

    E – you are becoming more and more personal with your responses to me and your head seems clouded with your personal issues. It’s no longer challenging to discuss a controversy with you…it’s getting annoying. I don’t think I’ll be responding to your posts again.

    I can’t wait to see how you answer this – I’m pretty sure you will – as you always have to get the last word in….

  29. Here you go, I never like to disappoint…. I didn’t give you the links to the study because I assumed that you would either already know it (it was highly publicised) or you would Google it yourself if you were interested. Here it is anyway:

    http://www.nature.com/news/fathers-bequeath-more-mutations-as-they-age-1.11247

    My original answer was in reply to ‘Loren’ not yourself, I questioned the biology argument because (as I have already said) it would not explain why a young woman has chosen a mate who is not the best biological option. It was not a personal judgement on you (I only replied to you because you answered my post!), sorry if you read it as such.

    You say I have to get the last word in but I’m replying to posts you have made in reply to mine. I posted the link to the stay-at-home moms depression study because it was relevant to the paradigm you asserted (with no studies whatsoever to back it up), these were women who by their own admission believed by nature of their sex they should be the primary care-givers as you yourself argue strongly yet they had higher incidents of depression. It doesn’t surprise me, I have personally come across many full-time mothers who have been depressed. I think the issues of depression and rising divorce rates are very complex indeed but to claim if women stayed at home with their children everything would be better is very simplistic and I have yet to see evidence it would help anyone.

    You claim that I am personal in my responses to you yet my last two replies mentioned nothing of your personal situation or mine, they were mostly regarding research studies. Read your own reply to me above with “blah, blah” and “you always have to get the last word in…” (Nice double bind that one) what is that if not personal?

  30. not have to depend on a man ever again? you are getting his alimony and 1/2 of his retirement. What do you call that ? I call it dependence. He is supporting you for the rest of your life!

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