It’s an accepted idea that men are evolutionarily predisposed to want to fuck women at the peak of their fertility — that is, in the first half of their twenties. Women simply can’t help it that, in the words of OkCupid founder Christian Rudder, “From the time you’re twenty-two, you’ll be less hot than a twenty-year-old, based on [OKCupid’s] data. So that’s just a thing."
But is it “just a thing?” Should every woman over 22 resign herself to her supposedly natural place on a steep downhill slide? Turns out, it’s complicated. Since it’s an idea that reinforces misogyny in both the romantic and professional lives of women, plenty of people would like to believe it. So it’s worth asking what exactly we actually know about May-December romances, and whether we want to continue to grant this widely-accepted “wisdom” the power it has now.
According to U.S. Census data, men are, on average, 1.84 years older than their wives at marriage. Men who remarry are especially likely to seek out younger partners. What we don’t know is whether this pattern of age differences between partners is “natural,” as in evolutionarily determined and largely immutable, or the product of social, cultural, and economic structures — what the legal scholar Catharine MacKinnon called the “eroticization of female subordination.” Scientists have been debating the question for decades, with no conclusive answer yet.
Those on Team Evolution point to the prevalence of the pattern as evidence that it’s universal, or nearly so. In a major study of human mating done in 1989, evolutionary psychologist David Buss found that in each of the 37 cultures he surveyed, men preferred to marry younger women, by an average of 2.66 years, and women preferred older men, by an average of 3.42 years. This data, he argues, shows that age preferences for a partner are most likely the product of evolutionary pressures.
But because detailed birth, death, and marriage records from the Pleistocene don’t exist, we don’t have direct evidence for any evolutionary advantages tied to age differences. We also don’t know what string of DNA, if one exists, would keep this predisposition alive in humans today — nor how powerful it would be compared to social structural influences. The evolutionary biologist’s perspective is usually more nuanced than a random dude’s assertion that men “just prefer” younger women. Scientists at least acknowledge the fact of female choice. Since women invest heavily in reproduction through pregnancy and nursing, scientists argue, they’re choosy about who they mate with –– and men respond to their preferences. And researchers suggest that the drive to seek younger, peak-fertility women is balanced by an evolutionary drive toward seeking a partner similar in age, which makes co-parenting easier.
On the other side of the debate are the social structural theorists, who hypothesize that the difference in preferred age for a partner is the product of societally determined gender roles. In a society based on the model of male breadwinner, female homemaker, women will seek out a man whose economic resources make him a good provider, and men will seek out a woman whose pliability and readiness for reproduction makes her a good housewife. According to this theory, in societies where there’s more gender equality, the age gap between partners will shrink.
That’s exactly what the data shows. Analyzing Buss’s data on age differences between spouses in 37 countries in light of those countries’ scores on the UN gender equality index, scientists Alice Early and Wendy Wood discovered, “As gender equality increased, women expressed less preference for older men, men expressed less preference for younger women, and consequently the sex difference in the preferred age of mates became smaller.”
We’ve seen this in the U.S.: As women entered the workforce, pursued higher education at rates equal to, and eventually exceeding men’s, and fought for equal status, marriages between much older men and young women became less common. Between 1910 and the years 2010 to 2014, Temple University graduate student Kelly Feighan found, the proportion of men who married a woman 11 or more years younger than himself declined from 18.9 percent (in first marriages) and 60.5 percent (in remarriages) to 2.3 percent and 22 percent. In that same time period, the mean difference in age between spouses declined: according to Feighan, it shrank from 4.07 years in 1910 to 1.86 years in the 2010 to 2014 range.
The claim that men “naturally” prefer younger women is an assertion of power cloaked in the language of evolutionary psychology. It implies that a woman’s accomplishments, power, money, intelligence, and ambition are, at best, secondary commodities on the marriage market. Men, in this formulation, only get better with age. (Which isn’t true: their fertility declines every year after age 20, as with women. It takes a 40-year-old man nearly two years to achieve a pregnancy with a woman at peak fertility.)
The claim that men “naturally” prefer younger women is an assertion of power cloaked in the language of evolutionary psychology.
It’s an idea that serves to frighten women, to make us grateful for the male attention we receive and warn us that it could all evaporate within a few short years. It orients us toward what men “want,” instead of leading us to ask what we value in a partner — or whether we would even want one, especially one who prizes us mostly for our youth. Susan Sontag says it best in her 1975 essay, “The Double Standard of Aging”: “Taste is not free, and its judgments are never merely ‘natural.’ Rules of taste enforce structures of power.”
At the root of my hatred for the idea that men are hard-wired to prefer younger women is the profound imbalance it suggests in love. You might invest in a decades-long relationship, believing you were loved for your ineffable self, only to find that it didn’t matter anymore once you became a woman of “a certain age.” Men would “naturally” stray to someone else’s ineffable essence accompanied by firmer breasts and shinier hair. And, conveniently, it’s not their fault — it’s just their biology.
And this is to speak only of its detriment to women’s romantic lives. We rarely consider the ways this thinking shapes women’s labor in and out of the workplace as they age, and how it can even harm their health. The most attractive women earn 8 percent more than their average-looking counterparts, Daniel S. Hamermesh wrote in his book Beauty Pays. For men, the premium is only 4 percent. Bosses and mentors pay more attention to them. They’re “exponentially” more likely to get interviews than women deemed less attractive, writes Rudder in his book Dataclysm. “These women are treated as if they’re on OkCupid, even though they’re looking for employment,” he writes.
Because a woman’s age is strongly tied to her perceived attractiveness, her financial prospects are likely to suffer as she ages. For women over 50, the gender wage gap is 55 cents on a man’s dollar. This is especially striking because they’re unlikely to be taking on less responsibility at work to care for young children — a commonly cited explanation for the persistence of the wage gap. Researchers from the Federal Reserve Bank of San Francisco found “compelling evidence” that women experience age discrimination in hiring. Measuring responses to fictitious job applications, they found that women between 64 and 66 needed to apply to nearly twice as many jobs to get the same number of interviews as a woman between 29 and 31. One explanation for these results? Women are especially likely to suffer from age discrimination because “physical appearance matters more for women” and “age detracts more from physical appearance for women than for men.” (I’d argue that the second claim is a reflection of the author’s experiences in a sexist society).
Younger women married to older men may end up spending more of their golden years engaged in care labor. Women are more likely than men to act as caregivers to a spouse; a 2006 study found that 69 percent of caregivers in the U.S. were women with an average age of 60 years old. Women married to older men may find themselves taking care of him for years — and left without anyone to care for them as they age. (This is only compounded by the fact that women live, on average, five years longer than men.) Living alone in old age can cause women’s mental and physical health to deteriorate. Troublingly, a woman being married to an older man is correlated to living fewer years. While marrying a younger woman extends a man’s lifespan, it does the opposite for his spouse, according to Stockholm University demographer Sven Drefahl.
There may or may not be a seed of evolutionary truth to the idea that men “naturally” prefer younger women. But it’s trumpeted in unscientific terms — wildly overstating the claims made by practicing scientists — and disseminated with the aim of shoring up a system that benefits men rather than rigorously establishing what’s true. It’s myopic to delve into this research without also examining the society that brought it about. Which is why I never fucking want to hear that it’s “just a thing” again.