Why men don’t age like wine
You’re not going to become George Clooney
Back in the glory days of the hedonistic 1990s one of the women most beloved of frustrated adolescent males was Anna Nicole Smith. Smith was blonde, Texan and blessed with phenomenally gigantic breasts, qualities which by 1993 had helped her achieve the coveted ‘Playmate of the Year’, the prestigious award initiated by elderly sleazebag Hugh Hefner.
Married once in her teens, Smith rather surprised the world in 1994 when, aged 26, she wed Texan oil baron J. Howard Marshall II, who at 89 was somewhat her senior in age. Cynics questioned what attracted her to the billionaire octogenarian but they lived happily ever after; well, in the sense that he died of old age a year later.
Being a fixture in the world of glamour modelling and reality TV, the surrealism of this marriage rather fitted in with Smith’s chaotic and tragic persona (she went onto die of a drug overdose at 39, having lived quite a sad life and lost her son to the same growing scourge). But it was perhaps only a more extreme and absurd example of the double standard that exists over age gaps, and the greatest illusion that men have when it comes to dating — that they age like fine wine, rather than sour milk.
The male psyche is filled with delusions, forming a sort of psychological protection against real life. Just as men tend to overestimate how competent they are at any given task, they are programmed to wildly overestimate their value in the mating market. The brutal truth of dating apps has shown that around 80% of men are basically unattractive and, in many societies, a significant chunk would fail to find a mate at all, forced to set out on a longship in the hope of winning glory and a girlfriend. We don’t contemplate this, because reality would be just too much to take for most of us.
Among the many delusions males have is the idea that, unlike women, they don’t become less attractive with age; in the minds of many men, female attractiveness peaks early and, while most men don’t improve with age, looks are less important for us so female preference doesn’t really change.
That explains the popularity of a certain genre of feature piece, usually in the Daily Mail, in which women in their 30s lament that there aren’t any available men left, and they can’t get a date despite being beautiful and wealthy and having their own career. Many quite embittered men take pleasure in these pieces, gleeful that the shoe is now on the other foot, and that the women who spurned them have hit ‘The Wall’.
The Wall is the name given to the drop in female attractiveness that comes with age, the decline beginning quite early, around 20 or 21, as judged by searches on dating sites and the number of approaches a woman receives. There are even cruder measurements, such as the average hourly earnings of strippers, lap dancers or prostitutes, and which again show a decline from the early 20s which becomes steep after 30. If you think that’s a depressing measurement, there are even bleaker ones highlighted by Louise Perry in her new book, on rape victims, which show a very similar pattern.
These are all quite horrible measurements, but then science is an empty moral void and the data only has deeper meaning if you choose to give it any. It doesn’t measure attractiveness as most of us feel it; people become more interesting as they get older, and as men mature their interests change, too. What’s strange about our species is that men’s prefrontal cortex — the part of the brain concerned with judgement — doesn’t fully mature until around 25. As women enter their peak for male attention, their male contemporaries have not even finished maturing yet, and are at the pinnacle of stupid behaviour (as measured by things like car accidents).
Some men take pleasure in female contemporaries hitting the Wall, because while those contemporaries became very desirable in their late teens, they struggled to find a date, and so convinced themselves that they were playing a long game. But it just isn’t true — men hit the Wall, too, and it’s not even that much later.
Many men seem blissfully unaware that, while the dating game may seem brutal and unfair in adolescence, it’s going to remain brutal and unfair later, just in different ways. They’re not going to mature into a debonair George Clooney-type who has the women gushing over his overgrown ear hair. They’re just going to become increasingly repulsive as they age.
Part of the misunderstanding comes from selection effect. One statistic often thrown around is that women reach peak desirability around 18, and men at 50. But that applies to men and women on particular dating sites, which will only include very select types of older men. The sort of 50-year-old still in the thick of the dating game is going to be your Blake Carrington type, wealthy and successful alpha males who have probably gone through a couple of divorces but still have enough cash to show a woman a good time and take her to the south of France for the weekend.
To those of you too young to remember TV from the 1980s, Blake Carrington was the silver fox from Dynasty who tricked my generation (born 1978) into believing that men age like wine, when they clearly don’t. He was married multiple times, an alpha male signal, but it’s alpha because very few men can afford it. Rather than living in a neo-classical mansion surrounded by women in shoulder pads, the typical divorced man is far more likely to end up above a kebab shop living in penury.
The ‘men on dating sites are hottest at 50’ statistic doesn’t mean that the average 50-year-old man — pot-bellied, balding, sitting in his shed to escape from the world — has become more attractive as time has gone on. It’s a sampling error like those happiness U-curve charts showing people getting more content in their 50s and 60s, but which actually suggest that the unhappy people are mostly dead by then.
In reality, men reach their peak of desirability a bit later than women, but it’s not that much later. Men hit the wall, too. Male attractiveness actually peaks around the mid-20s, only three or four years after women, and starts to drop quite sharply after 40. Men tend to become ‘sexually invisible’ around 39, not that much older than women (again, according to the Daily Mail, the font of all wisdom on dating matters).
Indeed, by the time men hit 40, even women their own age would prefer someone younger, although male youth preference is far more pronounced. If you can’t get a date in your 20s, you’re not going to get one in your 30s or 40s; maybe the girls who turned you down now struggle to find someone, too, but it’s all relative.
But but but, men will say, women go through the menopause while I can keep on having children into my 70s. In theory, but you won’t.
Of course attractiveness tends to correlate with fertility, and the decline in how women are rated is linked to the end of their reproductive years. That is where babies come from, after all.
Yet, while men can keep on reproducing, male fertility tends to decline from 35 and there is a significant drop from 50. There is also the issue that children born to older fathers are more likely to have health problems (this is not to alarm or discourage anyone, as the risks are relative. My father was old when I was born, and I’m fairly normal. Well, sort of.)
For this delusion, we can partly blame Hollywood, for giving us an unrealistic view of exceptional people. As with most things promised by the silver screen, the well-ageing man is largely an illusion that applies to only a tiny proportion, unusually good looking and sexual charismatic. For example, Harrison Ford was still a catch in his 50s, yet obviously far less attractive than he was in his 20s, when he was absolutely gorgeous looking.
Some argue that Hollywood also displays a bias towards older men. As a famous example, Sally Field played Tom Hank’s girlfriend in Punchline, in 1988; six years later she was cast as is mother in Forest Gump (she is ten years older). Dustin Hoffman is only five years younger than Anne Bancroft, who played probably the most famous older woman in history in The Graduate. Having said that, Hollywood’s older man bias does tend to correlate with overall patterns in attractiveness.
The only way that men become more attractive over time is if they become significantly richer, which is unlikely in middle age if their career is not well-established in their 20s. Aside from money, the main factor determining older male attractiveness is upper body strength, which can keep men appearing desirable after their face starts to fall apart: if you’re jacked, you're still in the game. Jeff Bezos is both very rich and very muscular, and he still’s full of vim: you don’t fly into space inside a giant penis if you’ve given up on life. Hope for older men everywhere.