Studies have shown that a straight man will always find women in their mid-20s sexually attractive, whatever his age. Gareth May explores the reasons why
Have you ever caught yourself checking out a woman only to realise that she’s much younger than you? Well, don’t beat yourself up too much. Blame science.
Last month, a study published in the Evolution and Human Behaviour Journal revealed that men have a tendency to be sexually attracted to women in their mid-twenties. The study of 12,656 Finns also affirmed that both younger and older men veered towards women of this age. Which begs the question: why are men so obsessed with twentysomething women?
David M. Buss is an Evolutionary Psychologist and author of The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating. He told me in an email that the findings of the study were “roughly” correct and that men are attracted to women who show cues of peak fertility (youth, beauty, symmetry), typically in the early to mid-twenties and usually centring on the age of 24.
“The evolutionary logic is sound,” Buss says. “Men in our evolutionary past who were attracted to infertile women are not our ancestors; they bit the evolutionary dust. So all men alive today are descendants of a long and unbroken line of ancestral men who succeeded in mating with fertile women.”
Is it really just a caveman thing? Do we simply go for the young twentysomething because she can give us children? Or is there more to it than that? Buss says some have argued that men are attracted to young women because they are easier to control. However, the fact that younger men, including teenagers, are also attracted to women in their mid-twenties debunks such a theory, as the attraction is rarely reciprocated, which makes the women and their sexual preferences fundamentally uncontrollable.
Another explanation of desire has it that we’ve evolved to be attracted to those who react to our attraction with rewarding stimuli, such as a compliment. But, according to Buss, since younger men, and men who are more than 10 years older than a 24-year-old, are not ‘reinforced’ by these women, that theory also goes out the window.
Which brings us back round to the caveman hypothesis. If men are always programmed to find women in their mid-twenties attractive – if only to pass on their genes – doesn’t this deal a blow to the idea of monogamy? “The key thing is that one has to separate sexual attraction for short-term mating and long term desires in a mate for a committed relationship,” Buss says. It’s a notion backed up by Buss’ study of 37 different cultures around the world, which revealed kindness and intelligence as two traits that beat out ‘physical attractiveness’ in desires for a long term mate (alongside compatibility such as similarity of political orientations and religious views).
“Just as with food, we can choose to act on our desire or not to act on our desires. If we want to lose weight, we might forgo that dish of ice cream, even though we desire it,” Buss says. “Similarly, men who experience sexual desires for younger women when they are already married may choose to act or not to act on their desires. Older women too find younger guys sexually attractive. So a 40-year-old woman might want to have sex with the pool boy, but she certainly would not want to marry him.”
It seems there’s a Hugh Hefner inside us all. And straight men everywhere are destined to run on the treadmill of unending attraction to mid-twenties women well into our octogenarian years, regardless of whether or not we actually act on it. As Buss admits, in the modern environment, “these preferences may indeed lead to problems.”
Independent Psychologist Dr George Fieldman agrees: “As long as the most fecund women of the population are in their mid twenties we will always see this sexual attraction,” Fieldman warns. ‘[However] the sex drive evolved in a contraception free environment. As we’ve learned more about ourselves, and more about how reproduction works, we’ve said ‘Hang on, we can cleave the usual linkage between sexual activity and having babies. If we use our technology to separate that natural process, we can have lots of fun and sex without having the baby’.’
In other words, there’s a glitch in the system. Men are still programmed to sexually desire young women, but that desire isn’t bearing fruit due to contraception. As a result, according to Fieldman, “it’s very possible that a new selective process will be take place”, albeit one which may take hundreds if not thousands of years. In fact, Fieldman suggests that one day men may find women who have already had children hugely attractive because they show actual fertility – the ability to reproduce – rather than the potential fertility of the fecund twentysomething.
An evolutionary shift which will lead to another problem: a population explosion and the need for a new planet. But we’ll let the descendants worry about that.