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.
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.
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 bulls**t.
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.
Every afternoon for weeks, Sean would order his latté and chat up the gal behind the counter. He was slowly working up his courage to ask for her number—until she made the first move one day when he was the only customer in line.
“Uh, can I ask you something?” Her embarrassed grin seemed full of promise.
“Sure,” Sean said, his heart starting to race.
“Are you single?”
Wow, Sean thought to himself, this is easier than I thought. “Sure am!”
“Well, I know this is weird,” the barista said, “but you seem really great and I really want to introduce you to my mother. She’s really awesome, and I think you two would have a lot in common.”
Sean was crestfallen. He took the mother’s number, but never called. And he never went back to that Starbucks. “How can I date a woman my age when I’m already so attracted to her daughter?”
Too many of us are like Sean, flattering ourselves that we’re still desirable to women young enough to be our daughters. Young women may want something from us that doesn’t involve dating their single mothers, but it’s usually not what we imagine that they want. Even if they seem flirtatious, remember how much of that is just a pretense. No matter how sexually forward they may seem, teen girls usually don’t want what they claim to want, at least not from a guy your age—and if you give it to them, chances are good they’ll resent you for it later.
So many kids grow up like Amber, my student. So many grow up disappointed in—and betrayed by—older men. Part of being a good man is matching your language to your life, matching your desires and your values. Teen girls, and teen boys, need to see the older men in their lives as trustworthy and reliable. Like it or not, in the eyes of a young woman, you’ll never be trustworthy if you’re hitting on girls her age. You’ll be a “creep” and a “perv.” And you’ll have earned those names.
This isn’t about shaming adult men for doing a double-take at a cute high school cheerleader. It’s about gently reminding all of us that what looks so grown up isn’t. It’s about remembering that our libidos should be growing along with the rest of us. Most of us who are over 30 don’t have the same haircut or listen to the same music that we did when we were teens. Unless we’re the unfortunate John Derbyshire, shouldn’t we be attracted to a completely different age group than we were when we were too young to drive?
If we’re not fathers, we can still be role models. As I see in my own work every day, young people are so hungry for that comforting, steady male energy that only guys who won’t see 30 (or 40, or 50) again can provide. This isn’t about infantilizing young adults. It’s about building a culture where good, kind, and responsible men serve as guides and mentors to young people, boys and girls alike, who need our safety and our strength.
This piece was originally published at The Good Men Project Magazine, an online publication which claims: “Unlike so many other men’s magazines, we don’t patronize or caricaturize our audience. We try to bring out the best in men, and we do that by producing content that challenges men to think deeply—and to talk about the things they don’t usually talk about.”
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