I got a cheeky anonymous email recently: "I'd like to commission an article on the plight of sexually invisible middle aged men. I thought you'd be the perfect person to do it." As an insult, it was a mildly clever thing to say to a 44-year-old writer. But it reminded me of the reality that aging men do experience anxiety about our own diminishing attractiveness. It's hardly news to point out that men are more concerned about their bodies than ever before, but the fear of visibly aging is no longer limited to women, if it ever was.
The truth is, however, that the "sexual invisibility" felt by many older men is really about becoming less attractive to young women. It's a lament I've heard from many of my male peers, who complain that they don't get "checked out" as often as they claim they once did. "Young women look at me and they see someone who looks like their Dad," my friend Sean said. "They may still smile, but there's no flirtation or desire behind it."
Women over 35 often report the same thing. The difference is that most 40-something women aren't lamenting the fact that they don't turn the heads of college boys. Many of them would just like to turn the heads of guys their own age. Not so for their male peers, many of whom are busy chasing substantially younger women. Middle-aged men don't seem to value validation from women their own age as much as they value it from women 10 to 25 years younger.
This isn't just opinion. It was borne out in the now-infamous results of the 2010 OK Cupid survey, which found that in the world of online dating, men seemed almost universally interested in pursuing substantially younger women. Men's desired age range for potential matches was dramatically skewed against their chronological peers. A typical 42 year-old-man, for example, would be willing to date a woman as young as 27 (15 years younger than himself) but no older than 45 (just three years older.) And as OkCupid discovered, men regularly devoted most of their attention to women at the very youngest end of their stated range — and frequently messaged female members who were well beneath that.
When I sent out a request for stories about this phenomenon, I heard many like this, from Veronica, age 37: "When I was first dating online in my late 20s, I got hundreds of emails a week. Eight years later, even though my pictures are better and my accomplishments more substantial, I get only a quarter as many. Most of the guys I hear from are over 50."
Women in their 20s, including those who set firm upper-age limits, report being inundated by messages from men who are far older than that stated preference. Sarah, 25, noted that these guys invariably claimed to be atypical 35 (or 45) year-olds: "They ask me to disregard my upper age limit, just for them - make an exception, they're different, really. They offer me their security and stability (financial and otherwise) in exchange for sharing my own passion and energy. Like they've 'checked-out' and want me to bring them back in."
Amelia, 28, wrote: "I see lots of men online over 35 who are looking for women 18-30. I wish they knew how big a turn-off that is. If you can't handle your peers, then you can't handle me." But she also pointed out that the transparency of older men's insecurity has a side benefit: "Maybe it's a public service (that these men so obviously pursue inappropriately younger women). If they lied and said they were interested in women their own age too, I might actually respond."
The obvious question is why so few men are interested in dating women their own age. It's not as if middle-aged women are equally obsessed with younger men. Though many women in their 30s and 40s report occasional contacts from much-younger guys ("cougar-trolling," as one friend calls it), the OKCupid data indicates that women are much more interested in dating guys their own age. In the effort to prove that they can still attract younger women, middle-aged men are the ones who are rendering their peers "sexually invisible."
Media critic Jennifer Pozner points out that part of the problem is the premature aging of older women in Hollywood. Take Fireflies in the Garden, the 2008 film in which 43-year-old Julia Roberts plays the mother of 34 year-old Ryan Reynolds. Or look at the late lamentable reality show Age of Love, which featured a grotesque competition between "kittens" in their 20s and "cougars" in their 40s. As Pozner wrote in her book Reality Bites Back, "The kittens hang out in their apartment hula-hooping in bikinis, while the cougars sew needlepoint, read, and do the laundry (because that's what worn-out old crones do.)" Combine the media's de-sexualization of women over 40 with the never-ending celebration of May-December celebrity couplings, and the signal to men is that the validation they crave can only come from younger women.
The reasons older men chase younger women have less to do with sex and everything to do with a profound desire to reassure ourselves that we've still got "it." "It" isn't just physical attractiveness; "it" is the whole masculine package of youth, vitality, and, above all else, possibility. It's not that women our own age are less attractive, it's that they lack the culturally-based power to reassure our fragile, aging egos that we are still hot and hip and filled with potential. Inspiring desire in women young enough to be our daughters becomes the most potent of all anti-aging remedies, particularly when we can show off our much younger dates to our peers. The famous little red sports car reveals only the size of our bank account; attracting a girl barely out of her teens (or, if we're in our fifties, barely out of her twenties) validates the enduring power of our youthful appeal.
Older women are encouraged to fight what one called "the slow slide into sexual invisibility" not only with cosmetics, but with the realistic acceptance of their own aging. For many women, what ages right along with them is the type of man to whom they're attracted. As Amy, 43, put it, "I don't mind that most guys in their 20s or 30s don't flirt with me anymore. They aren't what I'm looking for anyway." Her sentiments jive with the OK Cupid data that shows that most women over 35 want to date men who are their same age. But that same data shows that men fight the same "slow slide" with frantic denial, a denial that manifests itself in a compulsive need to pursue women substantially younger than themselves, all the while pleading to be seen as atypical for their age.
We may all want to still be hot when we're on the high side of 40. The question is, to whom do we want to be sexually "visible?" For too many straight men, it seems, the sexual validation of their female peers is less ego-soothing than the kind that they believe can only come from much younger women.
Hugo Schwyzer is a professor of gender studies and history at Pasadena City College and a nationally-known speaker on sex, relationships, and masculinity. He blogs at his eponymous site and co-authored the autobiography of Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.