Hugo Schwyzer has been teaching 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 also writes an eponymous
blog. This article first appeared in The
Good Men Project.
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.
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
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?”
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.
2005, John Derbyshire, a much-admired right-wing pundit at the
National Review, opined:
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.
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.
too many men, the term ‘jailbait’ isn’t a
warning. It’s an enticement.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.