Older Men and Younger Women

This essay from the Atlantic Magazine website on why older men should not pair with younger women is a highly objectionable one that combines anti-male bias with ignorance. It is not that I think that such pairings are necessarily good – it is a complicated subject – but the analysis in this piece is so weak, and the mistakes it commits are exhibited so frequently these days, that I thought I would point out some of the difficulties.  (Hat tip: Glenn Reynolds who has a similar take on it.)

In criticizing pairings between older men and younger women, the piece focuses on the case of 50 year old Johnny Depp and his new girlfriend, 27 year old actress Amber Heard.

I summarize the major arguments of the piece in the numbered paragraphs, and then provide my critique in italics.

1. The pairing of older men and younger women is the fault of men. (This is not explicitly stated, but it is premise of large swaths of the essay.)

This is a common distortion. Older men are not coercing these younger women. Amber Heard wants to be with Johnny Depp. Many people may not like it, but it seems obviously true.

What is missing in this analysis is that not only do men desire young beautiful women, but that women exhibit hypergamy – the desire to pair with high status males (particularly those who are higher status than the women). This desire conflicts with the feminist vision, but it is obviously true in general (if not in every single case).

In fact, the essay shows some evidence for this by noting that when the author has written about this subject in the past, he is “invariably challenged by young women with boyfriends their fathers’ age, demanding that I stop judging their love.”

2. If older men refrained from such relationships, this would benefit the younger women, because “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.”

If women are most desirable at this age, it is not clear we should deprive them of this knowledge. Moreover, if they desire high status men, then depriving these women of these relationships would not help them, but harm them (by their own lights at least).

3. Having older men refrain from these relationships would also benefit men, because it deprives young men of relationships with women their age (and therefore causes the men to grow up too slowly). If older men would leave younger women alone, “more young men might prove excellent partners to their female peers.”

Notice here the harm to the men is not the obvious one that they are deprived of relationships with women their age (who are the most desirable to men). Instead, the harm to men turns out to be a harm because it deprives women of benefits – having younger men be “excellent partners to their female peers.”

4. While many people believe that “older men’s obsession with younger women” is “driven by natural imperatives” of reproducing, that is not true. A 2007 study of 11,000 Swedes shows that the “most fecund men were those with partners six years younger than themselves,” not the 25 year differences the essay is criticizing.

This is likely to be an error. Evolutionary psychology does not claim that men today have a desire for women who will produce the most children for them today. Instead, it explains men’s desires for women today based on what would have produced the most children back when humans lived on the savanna of Africa. We desire sweet foods today, because it helped us back then, even though it harms us today. Similarly, evolutionary psychology would claim that women who looked considerably younger at that time would produce the most children.

5. The reason older men pursue younger women is that such women are less demanding. Such women provide the “fantasy of a partner who is endlessly starry-eyed and appreciative.”

Since men a have taste for younger looking women (and that taste is probably supported by natural selection), the claim that the desire to have a non challenging partner is the real reason for men’s preference is clearly mistaken. It may or may not be true that men also prefer women who are more easily dominated. (That men desire smart women suggests that it may not be true.) But even if that is one reason that older men desire younger women, it is certainly not the only or primary one.

6. This desire actually hurts older men, because men “in their mid-to-late 40s” are at their peak for depression and need an experienced women to “provide the right kind of challenge.”

Well, it may be true that older men who pair with younger women are hurting themselves. But those men who choose to pair with younger women obviously don’t think so. And whether an older women or a younger one will help men through the increased risk of depression (how big a risk is this?) is hard to know.

In the end, I don’t want to argue that it is good for older men and younger women to pair with one another, or that this pairing does not cause harm to other men and women in society. There is certainly much to dislike about this arrangement (although it does satisfy the preferences, if not the interests, of the people involved). But an analysis of the issue requires better than this essay provides. One should start from the actual preferences of the two sexes and the people involved. One should also dispense with the male bashing. This anti-male, unrealistic approach is both insulting and misleading.

Reader Discussion

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on May 29, 2013 at 21:02:12 pm

From the original Atlantic posting: "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."
"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."
"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."
In other words, such relationships lack a similarity in character (Aristotle's virtue or religious faith). When Aristotle said young men should not study politics, he was warning about emotional immaturity, not mere biological age.
Short answer is see more Shakespeare comedies, or at least read Jane Austen. See my piece below: http://www.libertylawsite.org/2013/05/29/shakespeares-women-and-the-rule-of-law/

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Ken Masugi
on May 29, 2013 at 21:25:38 pm

So I guess my criticism of marriages of differing ages would be that they reflect oligarchic objectives that undermine healthy democratic culture. They reflect a selfishness of purpose that marriages ought to curb. What kind of children will result from such a union?

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Ken Masugi
on July 07, 2013 at 04:09:44 am

I'd expect greater insight from someone who went to Yale Law School. In fact, the issues addressed in this article are such well-studied social phenomena, that I have to question this person's motive for claiming a primarily evolutionary basis for them (when even real (versus pop) evolutionary biologists are not sure that such links exist). The perspective from which to address the older man/younger woman pairing, is not evolution, a term thrown around much too often to explain away social hierarchy. It could easily be explained from the confines of a sexist structure, where women have been deprived economic opportunity, agency, and valued for their object status for the entirety of history. What I am going to say here is obvious to the majority of people educated in the west, and if the author questions the truth of this, he need only open any newspaper or media outlet. FACT: for the greater part of history, women have been stripped of economic opportunity, which continues to this day despite very recent advances. FACT: in the US, men still own >90% of the wealth; this number is 99% in the world at large. Thus older male/younger woman pairings are less likely to reflect innate biological attraction, and more likely to be a requirement for basic survival on the part of the woman, who is forced to operate within the constraints of a hierarchy in which she is devalued and economically disenfranchised. Interestingly, it is also within the confines of this same sexist hierarchy, that men would use evolutionary psychology as a basis to convince themselves that young women are "biologically" attracted to advanced age/ aka, high-status by using pseudo-evolultionary arguments that would make Darwin cringe (and which is simply an empirically absurd conjecture for the majority of women) . It is much more likely that they have been historically forced into such pairings by a boring laundry list social constraints that have been in place to ensure that high-status males maintain said monopoly over women. Also, that the largest age differences among men/women are seen in societies where women are the most socially/economically powerless versus those that are more egalitarian, is further testimony to the unlikeliness of biology versus necessity in the rules of attraction. If you walk down any American street you will see the vast majority of pairings are actually similar-aged. Finally, since for the entirety of human evolution, the median age of survival was about 30-35; thus it is unlikely that women would have "evolved" to be attracted to 50 year old like Johnny Depp, who serves as the basis for the above article. It seems that evolutionary psychology is just a used and abused tool that attempts to maintain the status quo, which is rapidly changing since equality allows women to exercise their true biological interests (which are, by and large, young men).

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Wishful Thinking
on July 23, 2013 at 20:08:18 pm


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Image of ASHLEY
on December 26, 2013 at 22:49:46 pm

I am a 31 year old female who recently celebrate her 11th wedding anniversary. My husband is now 58 years old. He was he most romantic man I had ever known when I met him, and he still is. We have two children now, and I am supremely happy. People look at us and criticize us sometimes. But look at them--mostly bitter old single feminist types. Others are married to people their own age but are extremely unhappy, divorced, or in abusive relationships. Don't think for a moent that people like us haven't counted the cost. We know what you think of us.
But we also notice that almost every last one of our critics has something in common--they are very, very unhappy people in their own lives and relationships. I have a couple of bits of advice for them: #1 for crying out loud, GET A LIFE. Why on earth would you think I would care what you think or value your advice. You are miserable human beings--haters. I do not want to be like you. Who would? #2, please step back and think--what would make you most happy if you dared to do it? Now go do it. Don't worry about what your critics think. You only get one life. Don't waste it listening to the criticism of people who have obviously failed at what you are trying to do (which is to be happy). I know our cirtics hate to hear it, but its true. Happy is what I am. I have been angry at the people who put my husband down for loving me, and I have been mad at those who accuse me of "golddigging and all that nonsense. But I have never regretted marrying my Steven, and I seriously doubt I ever will. That is more than most of my critics can say. So there!!!

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on September 27, 2014 at 09:43:10 am

What about the more obvious reasons for women to date older men? A woman will see an older man as more likely to keep her aroubd as he might have less options to choose from. It feeds into the natural attention seeking and low self-esteem of women. Older men with less options give them the feeling of being a princess, next to social setups and financial stability.

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Image of Andreas
on March 12, 2017 at 09:36:39 am

Hello Michelle,

I wanted to reply after reading your response. To thank you for your response.

I read the previous poster's very intellectualized and specific commentary and was drawn in at first as we share many of the same values. But his commentary became sharp and attacking. Ouch! This was not needed and diminished the integrity of the writer. A person who is flaming and angry. I was troubled by the bitterness it became. The argument became a thinking-man's argument. This bitter pattern I've observed in educated people who I might respect as brilliant thinkers, but bad at focusing on the value of being, of living as happy loving people. This kind of madness I am glad you point out. There are many people I have admired for their minds because they had achieved a higher way of thinking or art, but there is no higher way of thinking than love and understanding. Learning what it means to live daily in a happy state of being is of primary importance to a persons own happiness. Many intellectuals lead them to believing life is miserable, that the only logical reality is getting use to being miserable.

So I applaud your sanity to reject the status quo of noise that interferes with what matters and encourage each person to find their passion and share it with others. Help them. Love them. Pity those poor ignorant lonely intellectuals, don't yell at them. Don't become as bad as them. Love them too. Tuning out their noise is perfectly reasonable, advisable, and encouraged.

Of course, all of this is my opinion. It's all any of us have. I do believe that if each of us gravitates towards circles of others to live without hate, abuse, oppression, and neglect, we'll find ourselves living more happily together.

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Image of Mark
on May 16, 2018 at 04:05:19 am

I have been reading out a few of your posts and i must say clever stuff. I will make sure to bookmark your blog.

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What Men Want In A Woman

Law & Liberty welcomes civil and lively discussion of its articles. Abusive comments will not be tolerated. We reserve the right to delete comments - or ban users - without notification or explanation.