In 2015, the matchmaking website OKCupid released the eye-roll-inducing results of a massive data analysis: As men get older, they increasingly claim they want to date younger women. In contrast, women of varying ages said they wouldn’t mind dating a man a bit older or a bit younger. At the time, nobody was really surprised: The data pretty much confirmed what we all knew from The First Wives Club. But the results of a new study suggest those results need to be revisited.
New research published in the journal Evolutionary Psychology adds a bit of nuance to the old stereotype that men prefer younger women. According to Åbo Akademi University psychologist Jan Antfolk, Ph.D., as men age, they do maintain an interest in younger women — but they maintain sexually interested in women in their own age group as well. Antfolk writes that his observations conflict with earlier studies suggesting that heterosexual men are only “attracted to women in their twenties and that very few men are exclusively interested in very young or very old women.” Hollywood’s stereotypes of young men paired up with cougars or Hugh Hefner types hooking up with youthful models simply don’t represent real life. As it turns out, plenty of older men find it hot to be with women their own age.
In his study, Antfolk surveyed 2,655 Finnish adults who identified as heterosexual, homosexual, or bisexual. Within this sample, 878 were male, 1,798 were female, and their ages ranged from 50 to 80. The participants were asked about the ages of their preferred sex partners and the ages of their actual sex partners.
He found that the ages of the youngest and oldest sex partners of all the women surveyed were “strongly and positively associated with their own age.” Heterosexual women showed a mild preference for slightly older men. For heterosexual men, their oldest ideal sex partners were also around the same age as them, and they were sexually interested in women their own age throughout their lives. Homosexual men were more likely than the other groups to want a sexual partner younger than themselves.
While this study shows that not all older men would sleep with younger women if they could, it still supports the theory that more men than women have a sexual interest in younger partners. When Antfolk broke down the numbers, he found that for every year a female participant aged, “the youngest considered sex partner aged with an average of 4.5 months.” For men, “the youngest considered sex partner aged with only two months each year.”
While a Finnish sample may not be indicative of the male psyche at large, this study does raise the question of why movies perpetuate the older man-younger woman relationship despite the fact that there are plenty of old men that are down to hook up with women their own age. Classic film romances, for example, often feature a massive age gap: just look at Debbie Reynolds (then 19) and Gene Kelly (then 40) in Singing In the Rain, or Julia Roberts (then 23) and Richard Gere (then 41) in Pretty Woman.
When IndieWire decided to crunch the age gaps in 422 romantic movies filmed between 1984 and 2014, he found that, on average, male actors are 4.5 years older than their female co-stars. This transfers to a problem with screen time — a 2016 study found that male actors get more lines as they age, while older female actors get less.
Perpetuating the myth that older men not only prefer, but should be with, younger women isn’t only an ageist and sexist roadblock to the happiness of older women; it sets older men back, too. Studies demonstrate that women in their forties have a higher sex drive than women in their twenties, meaning that anyone lucky enough to hook up with them is bound to have a good time.