In 1978, Susan Sontag wrote an essay entitled “The Double Standard of Aging” that is worth reading in its entirety here (http://www.uplift.com/mediawatch/?page_id=76). I find that most of it holds true today even as women have made huge inroads in the university and workplace. Some choice bits:
This society offers even fewer rewards for aging to women than it does to men. Being physically attractive counts much more in a woman’s life than in a man’s, but beauty, identified, as it is for women, with youthfulness, does not stand up well to age. Exceptional mental powers can increase with age, but women are rarely encouraged to develop their minds above dilettante standards. Because the wisdom considered the special province of women is “eternal,” an age-old, intuitive knowledge about the emotions to which a repertoire of facts, worldly experience, and the method of rational analysis have nothing to contribute, living long does not promise women an increase in wisdom either. The private skills expected of women are exercised early and, with the exception of a talent for making love, are not the kind that enlarge with experience. “Masculinity” is identified with competence, autonomy, self-control-qualities which the disappearance of youth does not threaten. Competence in most of the activities expected from men, physical sports excepted, increases with age. “Femininity” is identified with incompetence, helplessness, passivity, non competitiveness, being nice. Age does not improve these qualities.
…the double standard about aging shows up most brutally in the conventions of sexual feeling, which presuppose a disparity between men and women that operates permanently to women’s disadvantage. In the accepted course of events a woman anywhere from her late teens through her middle twenties can expect to attract a man more or less her own age. (Ideally, he should be at least slightly older.) They marry and raise a family. But if her husband starts an affair after some years of marriage, he customarily does so with a woman much younger than his wife. Suppose, when both husband and wife are already in their late forties or early fifties, they divorce. The husband has an excellent chance of getting married again, probably to a younger woman. His ex-wife finds it difficult to remarry. Attracting a second husband younger than herself is improbable; even to find someone her own age she has to be lucky, and she will probably have to settle for a man considerably older than herself, in his sixties or seventies. Women become sexually ineligible much earlier than men do. A man, even an ugly man, can remain eligible well into old age. He is an acceptable mate for a young, attractive woman. Women, even good looking women, become ineligible (except as partners of very old men) at a much younger age.
…since women are imagined to have much more limited sexual lives than men do, a woman who has never married is pitied. She was not found acceptable, and it is assumed that her life continues to confirm her unacceptability. Her presumed lack of sexual opportunity is embarrassing. A man who remains a bachelor is judged much less crudely. It is assumed that he, at any age, still has a sexual life,-or the chance of one. For men there is no destiny equivalent to the humiliating condition of being an old maid, a spinster. “Mr.,” a cover form infancy to senility, precisely exempts men from the stigma that attaches to any woman, no longer young, who is still “Miss.” (That women are divided into “Miss” and “Mrs.,” which calls unrelenting attention to the situation of each woman with respect to marriage, reflects the belief that being single or married is much more decisive for a woman than it is for a man.)
…for a woman who is no longer very young, there is certainly some relief when she has finally been able to marry. Marriage soothes the sharpest pain she feels about the passing years. But her anxiety never subsides completely, for she knows that should she re-enter the sexual market at a later date-because of divorce, or the death of her husband, or the need for erotic adventure-she must do so under a handicap far greater than any man of her age (whatever her age may be) and regardless of how good looking she is. Her achievements, if she has a career, are no asset. The calendar is the final arbiter.
…in earlier generations the renunciation came even sooner. Fifty years ago a woman of forty was not just aging but old, finished. No struggle was even possible. Today, the surrender to aging no longer has a fixed date. The aging crisis (I am speaking only of women in affluent countries) starts earlier but lasts longer; it is diffused over most of a woman’s life. A woman hardly has to be anything like what would reasonably be considered old to worry about her age, to start lying (or being tempted to lie). The crisis can come at any time. Their schedule depends on a blend of personal (“neurotic”) vulnerability and the swing of social mores. Some women don’t have their first crisis until thirty. No one escapes a sickening shock upon turning forty. Each birthday, but especially those ushering in a new decade-for round numbers have a special authority-sounds a new defeat. There is almost as much pain in the anticipation as in the reality. Twenty-nine has become a queasy age ever since the official end of youth crept forward, about a generation ago, to forty. Being thirty-nine is also hard; a whole year in which to meditate in glum astonishment that one stands on the threshold of middle age. The frontiers are arbitrary, but not any less vivid for that. Although a woman on her fortieth birthday is hardly different from what she was when she was still thirty-nine, the day seems like a turning point. But long before actually becoming a woman of forty, she has been steeling herself against the depression she will feel.
…the rules of this society are cruel to women. Brought up to be never fully adult, women are deemed obsolete earlier than men. In fact, most women don’t become relatively free and expressive sexually until their thirties. (Women mature sexually this late, certainly much later than men, not for innate biological reasons but because this culture retards women. Denied most outlets for sexual energy permitted to men, it takes many women that long to wear out some of their inhibitions.) The time at which they start being disqualified as sexually attractive persons is just when they have grown up sexually. The double standard about aging cheats women of those years, between thirty-five and fifty, likely to be the best of their sexual life.
…women do not develop their bodies, as men do. After a woman’s body has reached a sexually acceptable form by late adolescence, most further development is viewed as negative. And it is thought irresponsible for women to do what is normal for men: simply leave their appearance alone. During early youth they are likely to come as close as they ever will to the ideal image-slim figure, smooth, firm skin, light musculature, graceful movements. Their task is to try to maintain that image, unchanged, as long as possible. Improvement as such is not the task. Women care for their bodies-against toughening, coarsening, getting fat. They conserve them… the “feminine” is smooth, rounded, hairless, unlined, soft, unmuscled-the look of the very young; characteristics of the weak, of the vulnerable, eunuch traits, as Germaine Greer has pointed out. Actually, there are only a few years-late adolescence, early twenties-in which this look is physiologically natural, in which it can be had without touching-up and covering-up. After that, women enlist in a quixotic enterprise, trying to close the gap between the imagery put forth by society (concerning what is attractive in a woman) and the evolving facts of nature.
Are men naturally attracted to younger women because of biological reasons (their fertility) or social ones? One thing that complicates the question for me is that there is a great deal of ageism in the gay community, with gay men approaching the age of forty with the same amount of shame and trepidation as women. The only book I’ve found on ageism in the heterosexual dating market that devotes a chapter to ageism in the gay male dating world is a 1989 book by Barbara Gordon called Jennifer Fever. Another one from the vault: