Older men’s fixation with younger women really boils my kidneys
Tanya Sweeney: My experience of a relationship with an age difference was a disaster
Research shows men’s sexual desirability peaks at age 50, while women hit their prime at 18. Photograph: Nathan Congleton/NBCU Photo Bank/Getty Images
It’s such a regular, clichéd occurrence that it barely deserves to be remarked on, nonetheless, it still boils my kidneys. Hardly a week goes by without a middle-aged celebrity being photographed with a new and much younger girlfriend.
Last week, it was the turn of 56-year-old Russell Crowe who was photographed kissing his alleged “new girlfriend” Britney Theriot, aged 30.Theriot is closer in age to Crowe’s 16-year-old son Charles, but sure what of it? Like I say, an everyday and unremarkable occurrence through a celebrity’s looking glass.
The new couple join a pantheon of Dad-bodded, middle-aged men and their lissom, millennial or Gen-Z lovers: there’s Leo DiCaprio (46) and his girlfriend Camila Morrone (23); Dennis Quaid (66) and his wife Laura Savoie (27); and Sean Penn and Leila George, 32 years his junior.
Earlier this year, Brad Pitt (56) was said to be dating 27-year-old model Nicole Poturalski. Pitt has rarely been without a beauty on his arm for decades but, even so, that he has fallen so readily into this time-honoured cliché seems disappointing. Disappointing, but not surprising.
When Keanu Reeves was photographed with his girlfriend Alexandra Grant, who had grey hair and looked her age (47), he was inundated with congratulations and back-claps, as though he deserved praise for dating a woman his age. The thing is: he is still nine years older than her.
In the business where Hollywood is strangely obsessed with youth and where optics are everything, I can understand why a leading man (or indeed, woman) would get involved with someone much younger. It telegraphs “I’m still young and relevant”, which is probably handy when it comes to career longevity.
Looks and beauty aside, a younger person brings new energy and refreshed perspective on life to a relationship. And sometimes, age doesn’t come into the equation. Numbers don’t mean anything if two people have similar values and find themselves roughly at the same stage in life.
This phenomenon is not restricted to the rarefied world of celebrity. In 2018, the Science Advances journal publisheda study about the “aspirational pursuit of mates” within online dating. Researchers looked at nearly 200,000 heterosexual users and found that while men’s sexual desirability peaks at age 50, women hit their prime at 18.Another study undertaken by dating website OkCupid found that “the median 30-year-old man spends as much time messaging teenage girls as he does women his own age”.
But why does this supposed fixation that older men appear to have on young women bother me so much? Is it because, as a 40-something woman, it reminds me that in the world of dating, women of my vintage have depreciated in value? That the idea suggests physical appearance still matters more for women than men and we are thought to diminish in attractiveness more precipitously? Is it because research like this confirms what I’ve long suspected: some men (hashtag not all men) find girls more attractive than grown women – women with possibly more opinions and agency?
Why am I rolling my eyes at the mere thought of Russell Crowe having to speed-learn the basics of TikTok to get hooked up with younger women? Or, for that matter, Brad Pitt saying something like, “the nineties . . . well, you had to be there”? For all we know, these pairings could be wondrous, intellectual matches, compatible in ways that numbers can’t attest to.
But I know from experience that this isn’t always the case and maybe this is why the dynamic leaves a metallic taste in my mouth. At 20, working in a Dublin hotel bar to pay my way through college, I met an American man, then in his mid-30s. He was charmingly boyish but had his own apartment in LA, wore aftershave and worked as a record producer (I could barely spell career). It was a sizeable step up from the Snakebite-guzzling lads I was more used to. Suitably smitten, I moved to Los Angeles after college so we could make a go of things.
Well, it was a disaster. With no career or money of my own to speak of and me living in his apartment, the balance of power was already on a perilously unhealthy tilt. Sure, we made each other laugh but I was under no illusion that for him, this was a predominantly sexual relationship. He had little interest in a meeting of minds. He had his buddies for that.
Added to which, I was hopelessly immature and romantically inexperienced at 20. I would pick fights with him at parties and crow for attention and affection all day long. We weren’t compatible in terms of emotional intelligence. Common life goals? Pffft. When it finally ground to a halt, I suspect both of us were relieved.
The record producer wasn’t a bad guy or even a man undergoing a crisis of masculinity. We were both attracted to each other, so what was the harm in seeing where things went?
Men choosing to date younger women at their gravitational/aesthetic apex is understandable, as is the reverse. What ultimately bothers me is a man who believes that a woman his own age is too old to love. The French novelist Yann Moix intoned last year: “The body of a 25-year-old woman is extraordinary. The body of a woman of 50 is not extraordinary at all.”
I suspect that something other than beauty is at play here. Think of the reflected glory and admiration that an older person might see in a young lover’s eyes. I know I thought my ex was a legend, simply because he knew how to order wine and paid a gas bill. That sort of devotion and admiration is probably too good to resist. I’d say having to mansplain OJ Simpson, Thin Lizzy or Italia 1990 seems a small enough price to pay.