As Amy noted earlier, Christian at OK Cupid’s blog recently found, using all sorts of lovely charts and graphs, that “the male fixation on youth distorts the dating pool.” Maybe so, but I have an observation — or maybe a confession — to make: The fixation on youth isn’t just male. While it may be represented as such online, there’s still a whole lot going on offline. Since moving to New York almost 5 years ago, I have, ahem…well, I have developed a habit of dating younger men. Before living here, I mostly dated older men. Why the shift? Is it something in the water?
At the ripe age of 31, while staring into space writing at a coffee shop, I noticed a guy looking at me rather intently. He caught my eye, smiled furtively and then took a swig of his grande. I smiled back and continued about my business. The next time I looked up, his eyes met mine and he executed a rather sheepish wave of his hand. Within seconds he was sitting in front of me and by the time I left, a date was planned. About four dates in, we met up with one of my friends for drinks. Somehow the subject of age came up.
I figured he was younger from conversation and just how he carried himself. I’d also dated a 22-year old the summer I was 29, so when coffee shop guy told me he was 26, it didn’t faze me. What I wasn’t expecting was his reaction to my age. At first it was incredulous disbelief. Had I no proof of identification and a friend to verify, he wouldn’t have believed it. He had guessed I was 24 or 25, but suddenly it clicked. I was confident and self-assured, had lived on my own in quite a few places, and pursued various interests. I wasn’t 25 or even close.
Suddenly he made assumptions about what I wanted: something serious, marriage, babies. Like, with him.By next week. It didn’t matter that we were on date number four or that I was just out of a tumultuous relationship. In his head my age screamed entrapment. Like I was ready to drag the first guy who smiled at me that morning to the altar. Needless to say, our date was cut short and the warm goodbye that ended our previous date was replaced with a very reticent hug.
While looks have something to do with attraction to the young and virile/fertile, maybe the reason per Christian’s data that “the median 30 year-old man spends as much time messaging 18 and 19 year-olds as he does women his own age” is not only about physical attraction. What might also be at play is what those men want at the moment and what they perceive rather than just cut and dry looks. People seem to think that once women hit a certain age, we’re on this warpath to the altar or the birthing center. Yes, we have a time limit with reproduction, but we already know that and a lot of us make peace with it one way or another. However, we don’t have an expiration date when it comes to love, lust, spontaneity or enjoying life. We also don’t want to marry and make babies with everyone we go out on a few dates with. While we are more likely to be looking for a real relationship, we also like to meet new people and explore our options. What we don’t want is a constant reminder of how old we are and questions like “shouldn’t we be finding that special someone soon?”
For me dating younger men has been an eye-opening experience. At first I found myself drawn to them because they are cute and fun, but that’s not all they are and that may be a common mistake when going younger – the seriousness factor. The men who are choosing younger women are potentially not doing so at a disservice to older women, but possibly as a disservice to younger women.
When I dated a 22-year-old at 29, I embraced the experience. Surprisingly, fitting into each other’s worlds wasn’t actually that much of a stretch. What I was surprised about was the reaction from my friends, particularly my female friends. A lot of them voiced some concern because 22-year-olds wouldn’t want to get married anytime soon. That was just it. At the time, I wasn’t ready to get married. I was running far away from commitment and wedding freak-outs. Dating a 22-year-old was safe.
In terms of OK Cupid’s data, I would like to see a chart comparing what exactly each person is looking for – like are the 30 year old men who are messaging 18-19 year olds looking for a relationship or a “playmate”? Odds are, they are not looking for a life partner. As such, young women as a whole may be getting the short end of the deal in terms of their interactions with much older men. They may not be taken seriously or seen as viable long-term partners. Maybe the disparity between men and women’s dating habits with regard to age in the OK Cupid data is just as much about emotional age as it is about physical attraction. Hell, if those men need convincing that older women can be as full of fun and energy as a younger woman, then maybe older women don’t want them anyway.
My point is we often date people we think we might not get serious about when we are not ready to be serious –- which is fine, but we should also be open to the possibility that someone will surprise us. What I’ve learned as I’ve returned to a place where I am ready for a relationship is that men of all ages can be both fun and serious, thoughtful or thoughtless. Internet dating eliminates nuances as it makes us all check a box, but it’s only reflective of what we as a society already perceive. It’s time older women and younger women alike get as much credit for their whole person and not categorized by stereotypes of age and gender.