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.