I posted last Thursday about my friend Sean and his experience with a Starbucks barista less than half his age. As you'll recall, Sean had thought the young woman was flirting with him; it turned out that she was "checking him out" in hopes of introducing him to her mother. Sean was bemused and crestfallen, but has promised to call the mom (whose number he was given.) I'll give an update when I get it.
A number of folks asked again what a man Sean's age (my age, just on the cusp of 40) would see in a young woman of 19. The socio-biology crowd usually trots out the fertility argument: older men are attracted to younger women because they can more easily conceive our children. I have very little time for evolutionary biology as an explanation for human behavior, but then again, I'm trained in the humanities and the social sciences!
In any case, let me offer a different explanation: the fragility of the aging male ego. Sean and I -- and a number of my other male friends -- are in our (very) late thirties and early forties. And though some of us are straight, and others of us are gay, and some of us are married, and some of us are fathers, and some of us are doing what we love and others hate what they do -- all of us are acutely conscious of getting older. The signs of our aging show up in countless ways. They show up in the lines on our faces; the grey on our heads, beards, chests; the thickening of our middles. The signs show up in other ways, too: our parents are becoming more frail. We are starting to worry more about mom and dad than they worry about us. For many of my peer group -- as for me -- our parents are dying. I can think of half-a-dozen friends who have lost their dads in the past couple of years, just as I did in June.
We fight our aging in a number of ways. In my case, now that I am seven months from 40, I've revamped my diet (I'm achingly close to being a true vegan). I work out a great deal, and have dropped fifteen pounds since my dad's funeral in early July. I also make sure to eat my veggies, and I check my skin assiduously for growths and bumps and moles. (Running shirtless in Southern California risks turning Hugo into a melanoma farm.) I won't bother with worrying about wrinkles or grey hairs, however. My pride dictates to me that diet and exercise are the "right" ways to fight aging; cosmetics and (heavens forfend) plastic surgery are the "wrong" ways. Forget the Botox, pick up the boxing gloves.
But it would be disingenuous to insist that my buddies and I are all fighting against death. Yes, we want to be healthy; yes, we want to live long enough to see our grandchildren graduate high school -- even if we don't reproduce until our fifth decade. We want to outlive our fathers. Yet there's more to all of this effort than keeping ourselves healthy, and it ties in with what was going on with Sean and his barista last week. We not only want to be fit and youthful, we want to hold on to the world of "limitless possibility" that so many of us associate with our teens and twenties.
So many older men hit on younger women for reasons that have little 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, charm, sex appeal, and, above all else, possibility. When a 19 year-old flirts with a 39 year-old (as Sean thought the barista was flirting with him), it feels like the world is reassuring the fella that there's still time, there are still new opportunities, still a chance to be young. What was so painful to Sean --even as he laughed about it -- was that while he imagined the barista saw him in the category of "potential boyfriend", she saw him as "potential step-dad." Where he wanted to present himself as filled with erotic potential, she apparently saw him as "safe" and "nice" and "perfect for my mom." He was using Starbucks gal as a gauge to measure whether he still had "It", and she gave him a very clear answer: No.
I am absolutely convinced that many of my peers (and men older than myself) chase younger women for precisely this reason. 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 "younger than our fathers", still hot and hip and filled with potential. Inspiring romantic or erotic desire in women young enough to be our daughters becomes the most potent of all anti-aging remedies, particularly when we can display our much younger mates to our peers. By comparison, the famous little red sports car reveals only the size of our pocketbook; attracting a girl barely out of her teens reveals the enduring power of our youthful appeal. And for those men who are desperately afraid of losing out on possibilities, afraid of closing doors, afraid of the humble acceptance that things have changed forever -- then there is nothing, nothing more compelling than significantly younger women.
Women our own age know us. Really well. A man my age finds that "lines" don't work as well on women around 40 as they do on women around 20. Experience is not the best teacher, but she's not a bad one either; most single women in our peer group have heard it all before, six times over. And when we string together sentences filled with eloquent bullshit, our female peers will smell it and call us on it. While some younger women can also see through our sad little facades, the less experienced she is, the better our chances of deceiving her. And when we deceive her, we get the chance to see ourselves through her eyes, as we would like to be seen: heroic, decisive, strong, sexy. Women our own age are less likely to buy what we're selling without a thorough test drive. (Yeah, the metaphors are flyin', but you get the point.)
As I near 40, I find myself constantly quoting the lines from the Donald Justice poem:
Men at forty
Learn to close softly
The doors to rooms they will not be
Coming back to.
One of the most important doors to close is the door marked "everlasting youth." Part of growing up is learning to accept that our choices are finite, that our youth is temporary, that the sexual desirability we may have had (or wished we had had) at 25 is gone, or at the least, significantly changed. Another door we must learn to close is the one marked with the unwieldy phrase: "constantly in need of validation and reassurance." This doesn't mean we won't always need affirmation from others, but the kinds of affirmation we need will change. Whether we have "It" can't matter anymore; whether we are loving, kind, safe, generous, and reliable will. The world doesn't need us to be sexy in middle age. The world doesn't need us to be "on the prowl". The world needs us to close softly the doors to our past, to embrace our aging and changing bodies, to embrace our families (in whatever form those families come) and to embrace the great adventure that only promises to get better and more glorious. But it will only get better if we close those doors.
And part of closing those doors is loving younger women as our daughters, not as gullible potential partners who offer us the chance to believe in our own immortality just a little longer.