Hugo Schwyzer wrote an article titled What If Men Stopped Chasing Much-Younger Women?. But before I begin to cite and criticize it, I want to warn you that the article is as onesided as the title. Because of that, I chose to add a genderswapped version after some sentences, so that we may focus on the topic at hand, namely relationships between people with big age differences, and not on Schwyzer’s lopsidedness.
If there’s one tangible thing that men can do to help end sexism—and create a healthier culture in which young people come of age—it’s to stop chasing after women young enough to be their biological daughters.1
If there’s one tangible thing that women can do to help end sexism—and create a healthier culture in which young people come of age—it’s to stop chasing after men old enough to be their biological fathers.
I don’t see how this would help in any way against sexism. I do not even see which specific form of sexism could be combated by that.
As hyperbolic as it may sound, there are few more powerful actions that men can take to transform the culture than to date, mate, and stay with their approximate chronological peers.1
As hyperbolic as it may sound, there are few more powerful actions that women can take to transform the culture than to date, mate, and stay with their approximate chronological peers.
Since dating and mating are a very big part of our culture, changing those two things would naturally transform the culture.
If aging guys would commit to doing this, everyone would benefit: older men and younger men, older women and younger women.1
If young gals would commit to doing this, everyone would benefit: older men and younger men, older women and younger women.
We’ll see about that.
[Here I'm skipping two paragraphs where Schwyzer just gives some real life examples of older men that date younger women. But if you must know the names he drops: Johnny Depp, Amber Heard, Vanessa Paradis, Kyle Buchanan, Liam Neeson, Tom Cruise.]
It’s certainly not just graying celebrities like Depp who rob the cradle.1
It’s certainly not just juvenescent celebrities like Heard who rob the grave.
There seems to be a certain lack of neutrality.
Research on the preferences of users of OK Cupid, one of America’s most popular dating sites, indicates that “men show a decided preference for younger women, especially as the men get older… so, even though men and women are more-or-less proportionately represented on the site, men’s decided preference for younger women makes for many fewer potential dates for women.”1
That’s a rather extreme generalization. The informed reader knows of course, that this implies that younger women have far more potential dates while young men have fewer potential dates. It’s not that one gender loses and the other one wins. There are certain groups with specific characteristics in both genders that win or lose, while many are basically in the middle and neither win nor lose.
The culturally prescribed response to stories like Depp’s or that of the OK Cupid data is a knowing nod: Older men chasing young women is a tale as old as time. According to that tale, heterosexual men who have the sexual or financial cachet to do so almost invariably leave the partners who aren’t young enough to be their daughters for the women who are. In the popular imagination, men do this because they can—and because they’re presumably answering the call of evolutionary and biological imperatives that push them irresistibly towards younger women.1
But why are women doing it in the popular imagination?
By contrast, the contemporary hype about cougars and pumas revolves around smaller age-disparities. (A recent CNN story focused on the supposedly outrageous novelty of women in their 20s and 30s dating men an average of three years younger than themselves.) When it comes to inter-generational romances with age gaps sufficiently large that one partner could be the biological parent of the other, the course of true love remains maddeningly unidirectional.1
Does one think of love as a biological drive, a social construct or a platonic ideal? How one answers this question will be of prime importance.
A nihilist such as myself may of course deny altogether that there is such a thing as true love. He may even deny that there is a self that can love another self, and he may state that there are several subagents active in every mind that do not necessarily have the same goals or preferences.
What seems harmless and natural, however, is neither.1
I strongly suspect that it is indeed natural. Modern mate selection in humans does not seem to be much different than mate selection in other animals, for example chimpanzees.
A culture in which older men value younger women more than their own female peers does damage to everyone.1
A culture in which younger men value older women more than their own male peers does damage to everyone.
I disagree with the ‘everyone’, but as I said above, there are indeed losers in the game of love. It’s an altogether different question whether this unfortunate and thoroughly inegalitarian situation may be changed for the better. That it could be changed for the worse is hopefully clear for every reader.
I’m not talking about the harm inflicted by pedophiles on pre-teen girls, which is both monstrous and a given. I’m not talking about the vile street harassment of adolescents by older men, which is also as toxic as it is infuriatingly ubiquitous. This is about the way in which young women come of age surrounded by reminders that they are at their most desirable when they are still at their most uncertain and insecure. Some young women are attracted to older men (for a host of possible reasons), but even these find too many men who are, in the end, deeply unsafe.1
Is it also about the way in which young men come of age surrounded by reminders that they are at their most desirable when they get rich and famous, or at least of high status in a certain subculture? And don’t they also find too many women who are, in the end, deeply unsafe?
Isn’t this rather the unfortunate reality of life and love, with which everyone has to struggle, than a gender problem?
It’s not just women who lose out as a consequence of this fixation on the older man, younger woman ideal. Ask women in their teens and 20s who are in relationships with older men about guys their own age, and you’ll invariably hear laments about young men’s immaturity. That callowness is often oversold by too many aging Lotharios wanting to emphasize the difference between their own supposed expertise and young men’s clumsiness. The reality is that just as many young women “grow up too quickly” as a result of older men’s attention, many young men grow up too slowly because of a lack of it. If men over 40 spent half as much time mentoring guys under 30 as they do chasing women in that age bracket, more young men might prove excellent partners to their female peers.1
There is too much conjecture in this paragraph. It is not clear to me that the faster maturation of young women is due to older men’s attention and not due to some other cultural factor or due to biology. The last possibility should be acceptable for all, since maturation is strongly influenced by hormones and there are clear hormonal differences between the sexes. Even the onset of puberty comes at a different age for boys than for girls. And women reach physical maturation earlier than men do.2 During maturation the brain undergoes a lot of changes.3 And according to some studies, male and female brains mature in different ways.4 5
So it may be the case that young women find young men immature because they mature differently due to biological sex differences. Whether it is mainly a cultural or a biological phenomenon that they’d rather date more mature men, which at that age may tend to be older than them, is a different question of course.
That does not mean that Schwyzer is completely wrong. Our modern culture has indeed contributed to retarding the maturation of males. I see two main reasons for this:
First, the lack of mentoring of younger men by older men, as Schwyzer is pointing out correctly. This is due to the ubiquitous age segregation that begins in early childhood when the children are separated in school according to their age group, but never really ends. This means the peer group of any given child consists mainly of children of about the same age. The peers and role models are therefore not more mature than they themselves. It also means that the intergenerational transfer of culture and knowledge does not happen. This applies to people of all ages, but especially to young people.
Second, the monopolization of the minds and bodies of young people by the schools and the exclusion of young people from work. This means that they spend most of their days in artificial worlds that have not much of a connection to the real world. They therefore cannot gain maturity by practicing maturity, because they are excluded from the main mature activity, that is to say from productive, gainful work.
But neither reason has anything to do with older men’s preference for younger women. Older men could very well mentor young men more while not chasing younger women any less. It is mainly a question of institutions and traditions and not a trade-off between two activities that compete for time.
Many people who concede that older men’s obsession with younger women is disillusioning and destabilizing insist that the sexual choices of men like Johnny Depp are driven by natural imperatives.1
Many people who concede that younger women’s obsession with older men is disillusioning and destabilizing insist that the sexual choices of women like Amber Heard are driven by natural imperatives.
I cannot concede this yet. Maybe later, but right now I do not see any reason to concede.
That’s not quite what the science shows. Research on age disparate relationships does find a biological case for older men choosing slightly younger women; a 2007 study of 11,000 Swedes found that the most fecund men were those with partners six years younger than themselves. The strategic reproductive benefit of choosing a younger woman diminished as the age gap widened. According to the science, Depp was better matched with Paradis (nine years his junior) than with the new girlfriend.1
No, this study does not allow this conclusion.6 The study shows the characteristics of those pairs that have the most offspring. This does not mean that women’s fertility does not peak in their early 20s and does not drop considerably after 35.7 For any given male the biological chances of producing offspring with a female in this age range is generally higher than with a female in a different age category. So there is still a big natural imperative for men to find women in their early twenties to be the most attractive and to choose them over older and younger women. So maybe Depp was better matched with Paradis, but the 27 year old Amber Heard is very likely much more fertile than the 40 year old Vanessa Paradis.
So if older men aren’t pursuing much younger women because of evolutionary hardwiring, why do they?1
But they are doing it because of that. A coitus between a given man with a 25 year old woman is statistically more likely to result in offspring than a coitus with a 35 year old woman. Attraction to 25 years olds could thus have spread more easily in evolution than attraction to 35 year olds or 45 year olds.
Why would humans be different than other animals in this aspect? Or are the other animals not attracted to fertility signals either?
It’s hard not to conclude that much of the appeal is about the hope of finding someone less demanding.1
No, it is very easy. Even if there were no biological imperative, there could still be many other cultural explanations.
A man in his 40s who wants to date women in their 20s is making the same calculation as the man who pursues a “mail-order bride” from a country with less egalitarian values. It’s about the mistaken assumption that younger women will be more malleable. Men who chase younger women aren’t eroticizing firmer flesh as much as they are a pre-feminist fantasy of a partner who is endlessly starry-eyed and appreciative.1
Is not the starry-eyed and appreciative lover an ideal of both men and women? And if this ideal is a pre-feminist fantasy, is the feminist fantasy then the jaded and unappreciative partner?
The dead giveaway comes when you ask middle-aged men why they prefer to date younger; almost invariably, you’ll hear complaints that their female peers are too entitled, too embittered, too feminist.1
While I’d be happier with a study or a survey than with an anecdote, even a study with those results would not mean that those middle-aged men were honest with themselves or with the interviewer. It might simply be more socially acceptable to say that one is unhappy with the behaviour or ideology of one’s peers than to say one is unhappy with their fleshly appearance.
There is also the possibility that middle-aged women are more entitled, embittered and feminist than younger women.
One of the basic rules of tennis applies here: If you want to improve your skills, you need to play someone who is (at a minimum) at your own level. As sophisticated as a 20-something may be, she will be more so—with a more exquisite bullshit detector—in her 40s.1
No. Even assuming the former sentence is true, the latter does not follow. People don’t just automatically get better through practice. A 40 year old lover may have more practice than a 20 year old, but that does not mean she has gotten any better. Just as a 40 year old cook may have more practice because she has cooked many times more than the 20 year old, but that does not mean that her food has gotten any better.
Additionally, I don’t believe that it is generally or often true that you need to play someone who is (at a minimum) at your own level to get better. You may get better faster that way, but you can also learn a lot and have fun, when you play with someone who is below your level. Teaching is an example for that. (Though in that case learning often happens on neither side.)
When older men date much younger women, they cheat themselves out of an opportunity to be matched with a partner with the maturity to see them as they really are.1
Do you need maturity to do that? Do you even want your partner to do that?
As a nihilist, though, I do not believe that the phrase ‘see them as they really are’ makes any sense. As I said above, minds are not monoliths, they are conglomerates of subagents and subprocesses and subthoughts. So there is no self to see as it really is. There is only a bundle of conflicting and contradictory algorithms. One partner may see more of those algorithms or see them more clearly than the other, but it is doubtful that this has much to do with maturity or experience. It seems to be more of a knowledge problem.
In any case, Schwyzer is propagating here his own (quite narrow) partnership ideal and seems to want to change the general culture to push his own ideal and marginalize the ideals of other people who have different preferences. This is not nice at all.
Depression, the research shows, peaks for men in their mid-to-late 40s. In the face of statistics like those, middle-aged men can’t afford to choose partners who lack the life experience to provide the right kind of challenge.1
What does one thing have to do with the other? Does having a partner that provides the right kind of challenge help against depression? What would the right kind of challenge even be? And why do you need life experience to provide it?
If the older man/younger woman dynamic is less “natural” and more destructive than we imagined, how then to respond to couples that make that dynamic work?1
I haven’t seen the destructiveness of this kind of pairing. Schwyzer has failed to provide evidence for it.
When I’ve written about this subject in the past, I’m invariably challenged by young women with boyfriends their fathers’ age, demanding that I stop judging their love. I always reply that it’s possible to wish individuals well while still critiquing the context in which those individuals made their choices. It’s like attending the wedding of a couple that gets together as the result of an affair: One can wish them every happiness without endorsing what led them there.1
But in this article Schwyzer does not wish them every happiness, he denigrates and criticizes them. And he completely ignores women’s choices and actions. He portrays the men as lecherous irrational creeps and the women as passive tools and fools.
I’m not proposing that we shame every age-disparate couple. I am proposing that we challenge heterosexual middle-aged men to direct their sexual and romantic energies to their female peers. Everyone—older men, younger men, older women, younger women—will reap the paradigm-shifting benefits.1
I’m not convinced at all. I have not yet seen a good argument why the coupling of age-disparate people should be discouraged and, quite frankly, I could not come up with a good argument myself. Though, admittedly, I did not search long. But I believe my readers and commenters to be more intelligent and creative than Schwyzer and I encourage them to come forward with their own arguments.
- Hugo Schwyzer – What If Men Stopped Chasing Much-Younger Women? [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩] [↩]
- Wikipedia – Adolescence – Puberty in general [↩]
- Wikipedia – Adolescence – Changes in the brain [↩]
- The Wall Street Journal – As Little Girls and Boys Grow, They Think Alike [↩]
- Sex Differences in Brain Maturation during Childhood and Adolescence [↩]
- Martin Fieder, Susanne Huber – Parental age difference and offspring count in humans [↩]
- Wikipedia – Female fertility [↩]