It is a truth universally acknowledged that a single man over 30 must be in want of a significantly younger woman.
Just because we acknowledge this fact, though, does not mean we do so without a certain amount of derision and judgment.
From the Instagram commenter who felt the need to remind Zach Braff that he is 44 after the actor dropped a cutesy emoji under a post from 24-year-old girlfriend Florence Pugh to the collective eye-roll aimed at Leonardo DiCaprio every time the actor steps out with a new sub-25-year-old girlfriend, the internet loves to hate an eyebrow-raising age gap.
Some of this age-gap shaming takes the form of derisive jest, like when writer Brandy Jensen joked that Eminem’s performance of the nearly two-decade-old “Lose Yourself” at the Oscars could be attributed to the fact that “Hollywood guys just fucking love to celebrate something turning 18.” Others make more pointed criticisms, such as Liz Maupin’s suggestion that “if you don’t date reasonably and responsibly within your age range, you should turn to dust” in response to Pete Davidson’s romance with 18-year-old Kaia Gerber.
The problem with this narrative, as comedian and writer Anya Volz pointed out in a Twitter thread last weekend, is that it tends to paint men at the northern ends of these age gaps as inherently predatory, rendering the younger women on the opposite sides helplessly preyed-upon victims of male exploitation instead of conscious, self-determined agents who are more than capable of pursuing older men as willfully and actively as older men pursue them.
This is not to say that such dynamics are never predatory and older men should feel free to relentlessly pursue younger women because all young women are actively seeking such attention. The first rule of not being the worst is to stop assuming that literally anything is ever true of all women (or, for that matter, all people of any gender, race, age, sexuality, etc.).
It is to say, however, as Volz expressed in her thread, that while these conversations ostensibly intend to protect young women, they have a tendency to instead strip such women of their autonomy, relegating all women in relationships with older men to a state of presumed vulnerability.
The heterosexuality crisis
Also complicating this already nuanced matter? The fact that while the internet loves to shade older men for dating younger women, it also enjoys mocking young men for … being young men. An oft-recycled tweet compares dating men in their twenties to an “unpaid internship,” while back in 2018 the internet rallied around Jennifer Lopez after she infamously declared men under 33 “useless.”
Meanwhile, both of these seemingly contradictory views appear to be thriving in overlapping circles of the internet. Just ask me, a 22-year-old who has almost exclusively dated men over the age of 35 for the past three years yet routinely ridicules the same set of men for marrying 26-year-olds, or Volz, a self-professed “23 y/o who has loved having sex with people 30+” since the age of 18, who prefaced her entire thread with the qualifcation that while she disputes “the popular opinion on Twitter that ‘age appropriate’ is something culture can decide rather than the individuals involved,” she is also “someone who loves criticizing men,” and thus encourages female May-December shamers to “GO GET EM GIRLS!!”
Related: Why Women Don’t Date Younger Men
This idea that women are obviously drawn to older men over their useless 20-something counterparts while the older men who date these women are creepy quasi-pedophiles preying upon a vulnerable population is what we might call a double standard. It is also, as comedian Dana Donnelly recently joked, the crux of a crisis at the center of the heterosexual community in which “28 year old guys want a girl who’s 24, but 24 year old girls want a guy who’s 35, but 35 year old guys want a girl who’s 19.”
To be quite clear, I am not here to rail on behalf of aspiring Leo Dicaprios against the great injustice that is men having to face a tiny bit of criticism for reaping the rewards of a societal dynamic that routinely puts them in bed with young, beautiful women. I am here, however, to suggest that liking and pursuing younger women as an older man is not inherently predatory or exploitative. There is a certain power dynamic involved, to be sure, but it is one that consenting young women are equally capable of leveraging to our own advantage.
Gentlemen prefer blondes (and 20-year-olds)
When it comes to selecting romantic and sexual partners, we all have preferences, and in the age of dating apps, it’s become increasingly easy to filter our prospective partners based on those preferences. In an ideal world, would we all select our lifelong mates based on some kind of ethereal attraction between core selfhood entirely divorced from any physical qualities or other earthly trappings? Sure, maybe. But dating apps haven’t figured out how to do that yet, and in the meantime, we have to start narrowing down our options somewhere.
For many of us, that somewhere is age. After gender identity, your prospective partners’ ideal age range is one of the first preferences dating apps have you outline when setting up a new profile. Why? Because it’s an easy way to filter out large portions of an otherwise massive dating pool, and because age, far from being “just a number,” tends to have a fairly pronounced influence on a lot of other factors that may affect whether or not we’re attracted to someone.
There’s no real reason we should read a preference for older men or younger women as fundamentally different than a preference for redheads over blondes or bearded men over clean shaven.
Age tends to factor heavily into our romantic decisions because it is often a useful indicator of where a person may be in their career, how they might feel about future family planning, their taste in music, etc., etc. Many people choose to date people close in age because they assume that means they will have more in common. Other people may prefer to seek partners in other age ranges for various other reasons, or perhaps even for no real reason beyond the often uncontrollable forces of personal preference. Ultimately, there’s no real reason we should read a preference for older men or younger women as fundamentally different than a preference for redheads over blondes or bearded men over clean shaven. That, as they say, is why they make chocolate and vanilla.
That said, there are currently many valid, important conversations taking place about when a harmless matter of sexual preference becomes a more problematic one of fetishization. I think it is absolutely possible to fetishize younger women. I think it is also possible to genuinely and respectfully appreciate a younger woman without exploiting or fetishizing her youth.
I cannot pretend to be the moral authority on the “right” and “wrong” reasons to be attracted to someone. I enjoy dating older men because I tend to have better conversations and experience deeper emotional and mental compatibility with them than with men my own age. I also enjoy dating older men because they tend to have better jobs, better apartments with fewer roommates and better taste in cocktail bars. Is this opportunistic? Probably. Is it inherently wrong or bad? I don’t know.
What I do know is I have experienced profound romantic connections with 37-year-olds, the best sex of my life with 45-year-olds and lasting friendship (with benefits) with 50-year-olds. I have also experienced bad dates, bad sex and life-changing heartbreak with men in the same age range, all without feeling exploited, preyed-upon or fetishized.
With that, then, I offer older men interested in dating younger women the following non-expert, unofficial tips on how to do it without being the worst.
There is a difference between liking younger women and counting down the days until they turn 18.
As Volz noted in all caps in her Twitter thread, “PREDATORY PATTERNS ARE RECOGNIZABLE & THERE IS A HUGE DIFF BETWEEN MEN WHO HAVE AGE OF CONSENT LAWS MEMORIZED & TWO PEOPLE WHO HAPPEN TO DEEPLY CONNECT OR HAVE A FUN NIGHT TOGETHER *DESPITE* BEING TEN YRS APART.” If you are that guy who makes gross, eyebrow-waggly comments about celebrities turning 18, you are the worst.
Think about why you like younger women.
Again, I cannot claim to be the moral authority on the right and wrong reasons to like someone. I think it is okay (and, yes, possible) to simply prefer younger women the way some people prefer strawberry ice cream and not have it be any more complicated than that. I also think (perhaps more controversially) it is okay to prefer younger women because you find them more physically attractive or more charming or more engaging or better in bed. These things rarely exist entirely independently of each other. Often the things we are drawn to in our sexual and romantic partners overlap with other qualities we like. This is just how attraction works.
I do not, however, think it is okay to like younger women because you assume they are “easy” or vulnerable or naive. If you think this, you are the worst. If you think this and act on it, you are a predator.
You can’t tell her she’s “too young” when/if she wants a relationship.
It is completely okay to not want to be in a relationship with someone you’ve been dating casually, but you cannot use her age as an excuse. If she is old enough to fuck, she’s old enough to do everything else you might do with other people you sleep with. It’s okay to not want to be in a relationship with someone, but you can’t turn the thing that attracted you to this person sexually into the very thing that disqualifies them from something serious. If you genuinely wouldn’t consider being in a relationship with a younger woman because of her age, then you are not someone who should be dating (or fucking) younger women, because you don’t see them as equals. Plain and simple.
Don’t infantilize her for your convenience.
When I was 21, I fell in love with a 37-year-old I had been dating for a few months. When I decided to tell him, I was prepared for rejection. I was not prepared for him to try to talk me out of it on the grounds that I was too young to know what love was. It is understandably uncomfortable when someone you like and respect develops romantic feelings you cannot reciprocate. It is not okay to try to talk someone out of those feelings by arguing that they are too young to be able to properly identify them.
Months earlier, I remember strolling out of a West Village bar hand-in-hand with that same man on our first date, telling him that I date 37-year-olds because someday when I am 37 and my 37-year-old husband wants to date 21-year-olds, I want to at least know that I made the most of what I had when I had it.
Young women dating older men are aware of the power dynamics at play. We are also aware that the power we exercise within them — the privilege that briefly accompanies female youth and beauty (the few such scraps of privilege and power society is generally inclined to throw women’s way) — is inherently fleeting.
I tell myself that if I date older men now, I won’t one day find myself pretending to question the appropriateness of men my age dating women a decade or more my junior in an attempt to mask my own terror of watching my value as a woman rapidly deteriorate with age.
Both younger women and older men, I think, are complicit in perpetuating this dynamic. If you forgive us for taking advantage of it while we can, we’ll forgive you for making us feel like we have to.