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I got a cheeky anonymous email recently: “I’d like to commission an article on the plight of sexually invisible middle aged men. I thought you’d be the perfect person to do it.” As an insult, it was a mildly clever thing to say to a 44-year-old writer. But it reminded me of the reality that aging men do experience anxiety about our own diminishing attractiveness. It’s hardly news to point out that men are more concerned about their bodies than ever before, but the fear of visibly aging is no longer limited to women, if it ever was.
The truth is, however, that the “sexual invisibility” felt by many older men is really about becoming less attractive to young women. It’s a lament I’ve heard from many of my male peers, who complain that they don’t get “checked out” as often as they claim they once did. “Young women look at me and they see someone who looks like their Dad,” my friend Sean said. “They may still smile, but there’s no flirtation or desire behind it.”
Women over 35 often report the same thing. The difference is that most 40-something women aren’t lamenting the fact that they don’t turn the heads of college boys. Many of them would just like to turn the heads of guys their own age. Not so for their male peers, many of whom are busy chasing substantially younger women. Middle-aged men don’t seem to value validation from women their own age as much as they value it from women 10 to 25 years younger.
This isn’t just opinion. It was borne out in the now-infamous results of the 2010 OK Cupid survey, which found that in the world of online dating, men seemed almost universally interested in pursuing substantially younger women. Men’s desired age range for potential matches was dramatically skewed against their chronological peers. A typical 42 year-old-man, for example, would be willing to date a woman as young as 27 (15 years younger than himself) but no older than 45 (just three years older.) And as OkCupid discovered, men regularly devoted most of their attention to women at the very youngest end of their stated range — and frequently messaged female members who were well beneath that.