If there's one tangible thing that men can do to help end sexism—and create a healthier culture in which young people come of age—it's to stop chasing after women young enough to be their biological daughters. As hyperbolic as it may sound, there are few more powerful actions that men can take to transform the culture than to date, mate, and stay with their approximate chronological peers. If aging guys would commit to doing this, everyone would benefit: older men and younger men, older women and younger women.
This proposal flies in the face of everything we're taught is normal and inevitable. Take the case of Johnny Depp, who turns 50 next month. His new girlfriend, actress Amber Heard, just turned 27. Described as acting like a "besotted teenager," the thoroughly middle-aged Depp is reportedly eager to start a new family with Heard, who wasn't yet born when he made his film debut in 1984's Nightmare on Elm Street. Last year, Depp separated from his long-time girlfriend (and mother of his two childen) Vanessa Paradis, shortly before she turned 40.
Life imitates art: as Kyle Buchanan wrote for Vulture last month, Depp is only one of many aging male Hollywood stars whose onscreen love interests remain forever young. Stars like Liam Neeson and Tom Cruise age slowly, if at all, out of sex symbol status. Ours, as Buchanan documented, is a culture which represents men's sexual desirability as being as enduring as women's is fleeting.
It's certainly not just graying celebrities like Depp who rob the cradle. Research on the preferences of users of OK Cupid, one of America's most popular dating sites, indicates that "men show a decided preference for younger women, especially as the men get older... so, even though men and women are more-or-less proportionately represented on the site, men's decided preference for younger women makes for many fewer potential dates for women."
The culturally prescribed response to stories like Depp's or that of the OK Cupid data is a knowing nod: Older men chasing young women is a tale as old as time. According to that tale, heterosexual men who have the sexual or financial cachet to do so almost invariably leave the partners who aren't young enough to be their daughters for the women who are. In the popular imagination, men do this because they can—and because they're presumably answering the call of evolutionary and biological imperatives that push them irresistibly towards younger women.
By contrast, the contemporary hype about cougars and pumas revolves around smaller age-disparities. (A recent CNN story focused on the supposedly outrageous novelty of women in their 20s and 30s dating men an average of three years younger than themselves.) When it comes to inter-generational romances with age gaps sufficiently large that one partner could be the biological parent of the other, the course of true love remains maddeningly unidirectional.
What seems harmless and natural, however, is neither. A culture in which older men value younger women more than their own female peers does damage to everyone.
I'm not talking about the harm inflicted by pedophiles on pre-teen girls, which is both monstrous and a given. I'm not talking about the vile street harassment of adolescents by older men, which is also as toxic as it is infuriatingly ubiquitous. This is about the way in which 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. Some young women are attracted to older men (for a host of possible reasons), but even these find too many men who are, in the end, deeply unsafe.
It's not just women who lose out as a consequence of this fixation on the older man, younger woman ideal. Ask women in their teens and 20s who are in relationships with older men about guys their own age, and you'll invariably hear laments about young men's immaturity. That callowness is often oversold by too many aging Lotharios wanting to emphasize the difference between their own supposed expertise and young men's clumsiness. The reality is that just as many young women "grow up too quickly" as a result of older men's attention, many young men grow up too slowly because of a lack of it. If men over 40 spent half as much time mentoring guys under 30 as they do chasing women in that age bracket, more young men might prove excellent partners to their female peers.
Many people who concede that older men's obsession with younger women is disillusioning and destabilizing insist that the sexual choices of men like Johnny Depp are driven by natural imperatives. That's not quite what the science shows. Research on age disparate relationships does find a biological case for older men choosing slightly younger women; a 2007 study of 11,000 Swedes found that the most fecund men were those with partners six years younger than themselves. The strategic reproductive benefit of choosing a younger woman diminished as the age gap widened. According to the science, Depp was better matched with Paradis (nine years his junior) than with the new girlfriend.
So if older men aren't pursuing much younger women because of evolutionary hardwiring, why do they? It's hard not to conclude that much of the appeal is about the hope of finding someone less demanding. A man in his 40s who wants to date women in their 20s is making the same calculation as the man who pursues a "mail-order bride" from a country with less egalitarian values. It's about the mistaken assumption that younger women will be more malleable. Men who chase younger women aren't eroticizing firmer flesh as much as they are a pre-feminist fantasy of a partner who is endlessly starry-eyed and appreciative. The dead giveaway comes when you ask middle-aged men why they prefer to date younger; almost invariably, you'll hear complaints that their female peers are too entitled, too embittered, too feminist.
One of the basic rules of tennis applies here: If you want to improve your skills, you need to play someone who is (at a minimum) at your own level. As sophisticated as a 20-something may be, she will be more so—with a more exquisite bullshit detector—in her 40s. When older men date much younger women, they cheat themselves out of an opportunity to be matched with a partner with the maturity to see them as they really are. Depression, the research shows, peaks for men in their mid-to-late 40s. In the face of statistics like those, middle-aged men can't afford to choose partners who lack the life experience to provide the right kind of challenge.
If the older man/younger woman dynamic is less "natural" and more destructive than we imagined, how then to respond to couples that make that dynamic work? When I've written about this subject in the past, I'm invariably challenged by young women with boyfriends their fathers' age, demanding that I stop judging their love. I always reply that it's possible to wish individuals well while still critiquing the context in which those individuals made their choices. It's like attending the wedding of a couple that gets together as the result of an affair: One can wish them every happiness without endorsing what led them there.
I'm not proposing that we shame every age-disparate couple. I am proposing that we challenge heterosexual middle-aged men to direct their sexual and romantic energies to their female peers. Everyone—older men, younger men, older women, younger women—will reap the paradigm-shifting benefits.