Is This the End of "Daddy" Culture?
Amid an epidemic of predatory fetishization targeting young girls, it's hard to ignore something more insidious beneath one of the 2010s' sexiest schticks
If there’s one thing women who have sex with older men love more than having sex with older men, it’s tweeting about it.
I know this because I am one of them.
When I first began having sex with men old enough to be my father — like, old enough to have intentionally fathered me, not just old enough to have been a teen baby daddy — I was a senior in college. The man I was seeing at the time had a daughter a few years younger than me, and I remember looking at all the 18-year-olds in my advisor’s freshman seminar and thinking, “I could literally be fucking any of your dads right now.” No sooner had this thought crossed my mind than I felt compelled to tweet it. It made me feel powerful, smart and a little smug, not just because I had a dirty secret, but because it felt like I was somehow cheating a system.
I’m not alone in this. While women dating significantly older men is obviously nothing new, in recent years, dating older men seems to have become a distinct online brand that’s part self-satire, part earnest feminist revision of a long-running patriarchal dynamic in which much older men have historically held the power over the younger women they date.
This ironic “I date older men” internet persona can be read as a product of a broader societal moment I’ve taken to calling “Daddy culture.” Last year, I described this culture as “a pouty-lipped Lolita fantasy rebranded for the 21st century” driven by “a pervasive Lana del Rey-esque energy.” Daddy culture took many forms: It was the appropriation of the word “Daddy” — or at least this usage of it — from the kink community by vanilla bedrooms near you. It was the early-2010s boom in sugar dating after Seeking Arrangement and other dating-with-benefits apps went mainstream. It was Lana, yes, and it was, as I’ve suggested, at the heart of Dating Older Men Twitter.
But in the aftermath of the Chris D’Elia sexual misconduct scandal last week, which saw the comedian accused of harassing and grooming multiple women when they were underage, the tone surrounding relationships between young women and older men has shifted dramatically. D’Elia is just the latest in a string of high-profile sexual misconduct cases involving older men and underage girls (see also: R. Kelly, Jeffrey Epstein), and as more survivors come forward, it’s becoming harder to ignore that this kind of predatory fetishization of young girls isn’t just a series of individual tragedies, but an epidemic. While Dating Older Men Twitter has always involved women who, while considerably younger than the men they date, are of legal age, conversations have increasingly begun to consider whether this culture, however ironic or tongue-in-cheek, might be a symptom of something more insidious.
How dating older men became an internet personality
The hallmark of Dating Older Men Twitter, which tends to find its most notable figures in twenty-something female comedians like Dana Donnelly and Anya Volz, is a dry, sometimes self-deprecating humor. “Guys really like it when u constantly bring up that you were 12 when they were in grad school,” tweeted Cosmopolitan editor Carina Hsieh in 2018, while earlier this year Donnelly tweeted that her exes should be more concerned about her well-being amid the pandemic because “at age 24 i am the oldest girlfriend many of them have ever had.”
These are women who know they are performing a schtick. They are aware, as the internet is often fond of reminding anyone who’s taken to aligning themselves with a particular interest, that dating older men is not, in fact, “a personality.” The humor in this particular brand of internet identity comes from its self-awareness. It is a willful self-caricature.
And if these women aren’t above satirizing themselves, they certainly aren’t afraid of poking fun at the older men involved in these dynamics. As a recent tweet from Philadelphia-based stripper who goes by the name Marla on Twitter reads, “Girls in their 20s love dating stupid older men please don’t try to take that away from us.”
Indeed, these women are often criticized — or at least the relationships they’re in are. Look no further than the backlash surrounding every relationship Leonardo DiCaprio has been in for the past decade or so. In general, this criticism holds that the men involved, even when the women they pursue are technically of legal age, are exploiting a sexist, ageist and ultimately predatory culture that values very young women solely because they are very young. The women involved, if not victims, are then also complicit in fueling this toxic dynamic.
But the women of Dating Older Men Twitter are not doe-eyed Lana del Rey types helplessly romanticizing a regressive culture of patriarchal romance. These women openly mock the men they date for the very preferences which attracted those men in the first place. This ironic approach ridicules men for their role in perpetuating a sexist culture in which very young women are disproportionately valued over their arguably more “age-appropriate” counterparts, and in doing so redistributes the presumptive power dynamics. It’s a modern revision of one of many age-old patriarchal dynamics in which men leverage power over women. Except this time, women are the ones doing the leveraging.
Not only does this ironic subversion of the traditional hetero May-December dynamic find men mocked for dating young women by the very young women they date — it also finds them mocked for apparently not even being aware of it. “Dating older professional men who aren’t interested in social media so you can continue your 9-5 of shit talking men in peace while being wined & dined after hours>,” reads a viral tweet from 2018, by a user who goes by Michelle Amoree.
Older men dating younger women isn’t anything new, of course. But with social media, the young women in these relationships finally have a platform generations of young women before them didn’t, and one from which, to a certain extent, older generations are excluded.
You do not do any more, black shoe
But however subversive or tongue-in-cheek this schtick may be, many of its most prominent voices have recently spoken out about the larger culture of predatory fetishization that such dynamics foster, even when both parties are technically of legal age.
While I still contend that there is a spirit of feminist revision underlying much of the great 2010s “Daddy” renaissance, 2020 is not 2019. Lana del Rey and her regressive romanticizing have been quasi-canceled, and as mass unrest continues amid America’s great racial reckoning, society is increasingly reconsidering other patriarchal power structures and institutions as well, including the one that routinely puts older men in bed with much younger women.
“We can laugh all day about the ‘hack’ jokes made on here by women about older men being shitty, but IT IS HACK FOR A FUCKING REASON,” tweeted comedian and writer Anya Volz, who just a few months ago questioned the pervasive criticism often hurled at men dating younger women, arguing that such criticism, while well-intentioned, has a tendency to strip the women involved of their agency.
In a recent Twitter thread, however, Volz points to the predatory fetishization of young girls as the result of a cancer in our society that does not begin or end with underage victims. “It’s insidious as fuck and seeps into our culture from all angles. It’s in movies with all leading men being 50 and their girlfriends being 22. It’s in porn with the #1 search result being ‘teen’ or ‘young,’” she wrote. “It’s in every single beauty standard that women are held to: bouncy, clear skin; perky tits; no gray hair; thin in a way that is normally only found naturally in…..prepubescent children!!!”
While I have previously argued that relationships between young women and much older men are not inherently predatory (and that common criticism painting them as such tends to unnecessarily victimize adult women who are “more than capable of pursuing older men as willfully and actively as older men pursue them”), it seems that I, and other women like me, have recently begun to reconsider the role we play in perpetuating a culture that preys upon underage girls.
Donnelly, a prominent voice of Dating Older Men Twitter who had initially agreed to speak with me for an article about the internet schtick, ultimately pulled her commentary after the D’Elia allegations broke, explaining that she, like many women, felt extremely triggered.
“Stop sexualizing ‘barely legal’ start sexualizing ‘definitely legal beyond a shadow of a doubt,’” reads one of her recent tweets.
Perhaps what I have long read, in myself and in women like me, as the willful, empowered, self-aware pursuit of older men has always been little more than a defense mechanism. If, as many, many women have recently attested, all women encounter this kind of predatory fetishization of their youth in some form or other, then this kind of self-fetishization veiled in satire functions as an attempt to reclaim that narrative. You can’t hunt us if we willfully hand ourselves over. You can’t hunt us if we convince you — and ourselves — that we’re the ones hunting you.
Daddy, I have had to kill you
In taking a pronounced interest in much older men, however sardonically, I recognize that I am complicit not only in fostering a culture that puts young women and underage girls in danger, but also in perpetuating a system that will one day be my own undoing. In a dynamic where youth is the currency of power, you are only on one side until you are on the other. As 20-something women having sex with 40-something men, we know that in 20 years, those 60-somethings will probably still be having sex with women half their age or younger, and we … won’t be.
What will we be doing? We have no way of knowing, because society doesn’t seem particularly interested in letting us or anyone know what women over 40 are up to, unless it happens to involve being a celebrity who looks good “for her age,” in a bathing suit, in which case they might throw her a People magazine spread or a Page Six headline that refers specifically to her age.
This too, as Volz noted in her thread, is a symptom of the sexist and ageist culture that makes underage women the prey of older men. This insidious culture, she writes, is embedded “in the way that women are not valued in a mainstream way after showing any sign of aging whatsoever. Not even just sexually, which is fucked up in itself, but in ANY WAY,” she wrote. “I remember my mom telling me she felt herself becoming invisible when she started getting gray hair.”
As a 21-year-old college student looking at my fellow students and realizing I could be fucking any of their dads, I felt like I was cheating a system because I was — for a little while, anyway. I felt like I had figured out something most other women my age hadn’t: that youth was our most valuable asset and if we didn’t exploit it — or let others exploit it — while we had the chance, we’d be sorry.
The problem is we’ll be sorry either way. As women born into a sexist, ageist society, we are playing a losing game from day one. Even if we play it perfectly, even if we think we’re winning at 21, age will catch up with us. We will watch our returns diminish year by year.
“A dude replied to my thread about our culture’s obsession with young girls & womens bodies that I was just complaining about being old,” Volz tweeted shortly after completing her thread. “I’m 24. I rest my fucking case.”
I realize that in trying to leverage this bullshit dynamic to my advantage for the very brief window of time I can, I am complicit in perpetuating it. In being a willful participant in “Daddy” culture, in dating older men and tweeting about it, however self-deprecatingly, I am complicit in fueling the very system that will one day, not so very long from now at all, render me invisible.