Hugo Schwyzer says that a man can redirect his desires away from young girls, but doing so requires three serious steps.
Can the age of the people to whom we are most attracted age with us, or is it doomed to stay stuck at one particular chronological point? Our culture teaches us that female desirability peaks early and then begins a long decline. That toxic view does tremendous damage to women’s self-esteem and drives the troubling sexualization of teenage girls. A less immediate but nonetheless significant side effect is that this prejudice robs heterosexual men of the chance to form the healthiest possible romantic relationships.
According to National Review columnist John Derbyshire, women’s attractiveness begins to diminish before they’re old enough to buy a legal beer. Derbs wrote in 2005 that “a woman’s salad days are shorter than a man’s—really, in this precise context, only from about 15 to 20.” When Derbyshire was fired this past weekend for appalling remarks about blacks, it was widely murmured that many conservatives quietly agreed with his views on race, though they lacked the foolishness to share them publicly. Similarly, whenever I’ve quoted Derbyshire’s line about women’s beauty, commenters point out that evolutionary psychology or biological imperatives bear him out. Even those who want to disagree with Derbs concede that many men of all ages are particularly drawn to 15-20 year-olds; one commenter described men’s ephebophilia (sexual attraction to teens) as a “lamentably universal inevitability.”
But what if a man wants to change? Can he redirect his desires away from the teens who turned him on when he was their age? The answer is yes, as long as he starts by recognizing three things.
I’ve gotten a few notes over the years from men in exactly that position. Last summer, I got a letter from a 33 year-old man, David, who wrote “I often find myself attracted to high school girls…more so than women my own age. I feel like I just can’t turn it off.” David wanted to “turn it off” and find women his own age attractive. He didn’t want to accept Derbyshire’s claim about women’s desperately brief “salad days.” But what could he do?
The first step is seeing that this attraction is less about biology than about conditioning. David needs to see that he lives in a culture that works very hard to condition him to see girls of 16 and 17 as being at the pinnacle of desirability. Barely legal porn (one of, if not the most popular genre in the adult industry) reinforces the idea that teenage girls are particularly hot. Many famous fashion models first achieved renown when they were at the lower end of the Derbyshire spectrum.
David isn’t a victim, but he can acknowledge that his sexual desires have been shaped by an unhealthy culture. Those who misunderstand evolutionary psychology like to suggest that it’s “natural” for older men to be drawn to teen girls because of fertility issues, ignoring the reality that for many 16 and 17 year-olds, pregnancies are often much higher-risk than they will be a few years later. Claims of “biological imperatives” are nothing more than prurience hiding behind the cloak of science. Yet the influence of popular culture is real—and David has been raised to see teen girls as the zenith of desirability. It’s not easy to undo that programming, but it’s certainly possible.
The next step for David is seeing the way in which attraction to the very young is part of a fear of dealing with the demands of adult women. Teenage girls may appear sexually mature, and they may have very real libidos. But despite their not-infrequent claims to the contrary, the overwhelming majority of adolescents don’t have a very good understanding of their own inner terrain. Though they imagine that they are exceptionally intuitive (many young women who do have sexual relationships with older men overestimate their own maturity), few 17 year-olds have the vocabulary and the experience and the courage to engage as an equal with an older guy. And they almost invariably don’t have nearly as developed a “bullshit detector.” Teenagers wear cynicism as an affectation—their naiveté is always there, concealed behind truculence or feigned apathy or ironic detachment or sexual assertiveness. Bottom line: Women David’s age will be much clearer on what they want; girls of 16 or 17 will be much more eager to please and have a much harder time setting boundaries and limits with someone they care for. And though David might not like to consider it so, there’s no question that for a great many men, the sexual fascination with much younger women lies in the not-entirely-incorrect assumption that they will be less demanding and easier to manipulate than their older sisters.
Three factors drive men’s fascination with teenage girls. One is a culture that views adolescent females as being at the apex of desirability—and teaches men that younger women are status symbols in the eyes of their male peers. Second of all, a great many men find that the “emotional intelligence” gap between themselves and their female peers is frighteningly vast. A man in his mid-20s may find that women his age want to have serious discussions with him about feelings. Young girls may find male silence to be sexy, imagining that all sorts of rich and wonderful thoughts are going through the heads of the guys whom they long for. (And many of these girls flatter themselves that they will be “the ones” to whom their beaux will, for the first time, open up.) Older women tend to know better—they are much less likely to eroticize inarticulateness.
But perhaps most importantly, David needs to address a third factor almost certainly driving his attraction to much younger women: anger at women his own age. If he doesn’t deal with it now, it will get worse as he gets older still. If you ask men in their 30s, 40s, and 50s why they prefer to date substantially younger women, you’ll hear an outpouring of anger at women their own age. They complain that their female peers are too demanding, or too aggressive, or too needy (or not needy enough). The anger may also be linked to sexual insecurity; women their own age are much more likely to have experience with other lovers to whom a man imagines he might be compared.
How much simpler, how much more flattering to the self-image, how much less stressful to pursue someone younger, less sure of herself, less demanding of conversation! Teenagers are likelier to confuse taking off one’s clothes with actual intimacy; they often don’t know yet that getting naked doesn’t automatically mean “getting naked.” Is it any wonder that David and a great many men like him long for younger women?
Perhaps David will find the kind of women to whom he is attracted changes organically. He may also find that if he works on his own anxieties (which are surely there) about ageing, about responsibility, about growing up, his longings may start to shift. Above all, if he works on forming friendships (not necessarily dating relationships) with women his own age, he can begin to develop more confidence about his ability to be intimate and vulnerable with others. And if the experience of many of my friends who have been in similar positions is any indication, David may discover to his happy surprise that his libido changes as he does.
Hugo Schwyzer has taught history and gender studies at Pasadena City College since 1993, where he developed the college’s first courses on Men and Masculinity and Beauty and Body Image. A writer and speaker as well as a professor, Hugo lives with his wife, daughter, and six chinchillas in Los Angeles. Hugo blogs at his eponymous website and co-authored the recent autobiography of supermodel Carré Otis, Beauty, Disrupted.