The Case For An Older Woman

February 16th, 2010 by Christian Rudder

"Women older than me keep messaging me. Sorry, but that is not going to happen."—recent feedback from a male user

The above comment is typical. As it is, men between 22 and 30—nearly two-thirds of the male dating pool—focus almost exclusively on women younger than themselves. I'll be investigating this phenomenon today, with gusto and charts. Ultimately, I'll argue that they would be well-served to expand their search upwards, to women in their thirties and forties.

Because it has been a successful way to introduce previous posts, I wanted to put real faces on this demographic before I delve into a bunch of numbers. Pictured below are some single users in their mid-thirties or early forties, taken from the first couple pages of my own local match search. Nothing I'll talk about today pertains necessarily to any one of them, but I wanted to put forward some people to go with the statistical discussion.

The Back Story
Dating Preferences & Age

It's no secret that dating changes radically as you get older. As you can see below, the number of online daters peaks at 24, drops sharply at around 30, and then gradually tapers off, as the remaining singletons either find mates or withdraw themselves from contention:

The bar chart here shows how the woman to man ratio changes over time. As you can see, it's basically flat. In a better world, this would imply that older people don't necessarily have a harder time finding decent mates than younger ones, as the composition of the dating pool holds relatively steady from age to age. Put another way: a 45 year-old woman shouldn't in theory have a harder time finding a date than a 20 year-old, because the female-to-male ratios at those ages are equal (roughly 11:9).

Of course, we all know that 45 year-olds do have a much harder time, because the male fixation on youth distorts the dating pool. Look at how men have set their age preferences on OkCupid:

As you can see, a man, as he gets older, searches for relatively younger and younger women. Meanwhile his upper acceptable limit hovers only a token amount above his own age. a man, as he gets older, searches for relatively younger and younger womenThe median 31 year-old guy, for example, sets his allowable match age range from 22 to 35—nine years younger, but only four years older, than himself. This skewed mindset worsens with age; the median 42 year-old will accept a woman up to fifteen years younger, but no more than three years older.

A man's bias toward younger women becomes even more evident when we overlay his stated preferences with his actual messaging habits.

This next graph is what's called a heat map. It shows messaging concentrations by age; for each vertical age bracket, the greenest areas have the most messages, the reddest have the fewest, and the yellow have the average.

As you can see, men tend to focus on the youngest women in their already skewed preference pool, and, what's more, they spend athe median 30 year-old man spends as much time messaging teenage girls as he does women his own age significant amount of energy pursuing women even younger than their stated minimum. No matter what he's telling himself on his setting page, a 30 year-old man spends as much time messaging 18 and 19 year-olds as he does women his own age. On the other hand, women only a few years older are largely neglected.

So you can see how differently women think about dating and age, here are the corresponding charts for them:

Except in their early to mid-twenties, when they apparently want nothing to do with younger guys (i.e. guys who are still in school?), women show an admirable openness to both reasonably younger and reasonably older men. Notice also how a woman's actual messaging activity, shown in the heat map below, is roughly centered on her own age (as illustrated by the dotted "age parity" line).

This second chart also contains something very peculiar that we didn't see at all in men. Notice the vertical stripes at ages 20 and 29. These color discontinuities indicate dramatic changes in a woman's dating mentality: when a women turns 20 she decides it's okay to message significantly older men (i.e. the upper reaches of the chart suddenly become less red). At 29, a woman becomes even more open to older men and, in addition, stops writing the youngest ones. The typical 28 year-old women sends a small but significant number of messages to men too young to drink. The typical 29 year-old sends practically none.

In any event, here's what happens when we synthesize all the above data. By tallying the number of people interested in each age group and gender, we can get a dynamic picture of the dating pools. I've made a little javascript widget to illustrate what's going on.

The Shape Of The Dating Pool

a by-age distribution of men who would date an 18 year-old woman

men seeking women women seeking men

I was tempted to title this The Tides Of Longing. Move the slider to the right, toward middle age, and you can watch the pool of dating possibilities gather, crest, then drain away. Metaphors aside, we can evaluate the potential matches for a given age/gender by summing the area under the curve (AP Calculus, ftw!) I made these calculations in the chart below, and we can see that women have more pursuers than men until age 26, but thereafter a man can expect many more potential dates than a woman of the same age. At the graph's outer edge, at age 48, men are nearly twice as sought-after as women. Here's the data:

A woman's desirability peaks at 21, which, ironically enough is the age that men just begin their "prime," i.e. become more desirable than average. Following that dotted line out, statistically speaking, a woman's desirability
peaks at 21
you can see that a woman of 31 is already "past her prime," while a man doesn't become so until 36. As we mentioned above, after age 26, a man has more potential matches than his female counterparts, which is a drastic reversal of the proportion in young adulthood, when women are much more sought-after. Because men's dating preferences skew so young, and women's are age-equitable, men peak later, and have a longer plateau of desirability, than women.

So that's the lay of the land, and now I'd like to say why I think it could be different. In the next three sections of this post, I will show that an older woman's attitudes, both about sex and life, are just as good if not better than her younger counterparts', and hopefully I'll convince more guys to venture north of their current age-limits:

Exhibit A
Sex

Articles touting a woman's mid-thirties "sexual peak" have stalked the pages of Cosmo since time immemorial, but these articles typically cite clinical testosterone/estrogen/progesterone studies and attempt to make the leap to "sexual peak" from there—if they bother to cite any data at all. I, on the other hand, can make my claim by looking at a woman's stated preferences:

Ideally, how often would you have sex?
age of the population

This is a nationwide "age progression" of American women, a normalized heat map similar to the ones you saw above, but with an added geographical component. By moving the slider you can watch how attitudes become more sex-positive as the population gets older.

This older-women-are-more-sexual pattern repeats across almost every proposition. Here are a few more data sets just as sparklines (computed, like the map above, for our sample set of 100,000 women). Again, these are just a handful of examples; whether we ask about bondage or kissing, women are the most sexual in their thirties.

Researching this post, I also came upon an interesting complementary pair of graphs illustrating sexual dominance preferences. Younger men want to be dominated. Older women are generally interested in doing just that.

In addition their lack of physical inhibitions, older women have much healthier attitudes in two other areas of sexual concern: STD testing and contraception.

Is contraception morally wrong?
age of the population
How often do you get tested for STDs?
age of the population
These maps lead directly into my next topic:
Exhibit B
Attitude

There are two operative stereotypes of older single women: the sad-sack (à la Bridget Jones) and the "cougar" (à la Samantha from Sex In The City) and both, like all stereotypes, are reductionist and stupid and I've tried to avoid them. I hesitated beginning my case for older women with something about their sexuality, like I did in Exhibit A, because that territory borders right on cougar country. But the evidence there was too compelling to ignore.

On the other hand, I found no basis whatsoever for Ms. Zellweger's version of the thirty-something single woman. The data indicate that they are in fact way better adjusted than their younger counterparts. For example:

It might be hard to eyeball, because the bottom graph isn't steeply sloped, but women in their thirties are 4.0% more likely to be happy than their younger counterparts. As anyone who's been in a relationship with someone who lacks them can attest, self-sufficiency and confidence are awesome qualities in a match.

The graph below shows a similar trend, until a poignant drop at the end.

Either something very sad happens to a woman at 40, or something incredibly awesome happens at 39. Hard to tell. And I also want to say, guys, that just because a woman is older, she's not necessarily on the fast-track to marriage:

Exhibit C
Looks

The final thing I want to address is looks, because I think that is guys' most fundamental worry about dating someone older. There's no doubt that younger people are are more physically attractive—indeed in many ways beauty and youth are inextricable. That's why most of the models you see in magazines are teenagers, and turn-back-the-clock surgeries like face-lifts are so popular. There's no getting around this fact, and I don't want to hide it:

But, combing through the data, I intuitively felt like this graph didn't tell the whole story. So I dug deeper, and found something interesting. If you separate out the absolute best-looking women, almost all of whom are very young, and also remove the people you won't realistically want to date (the worst-looking women), you find that everyone else's attractiveness doesn't change much with age:

In other words, given that nobody is drop-dead gorgeous or drop-dead hideous, your average 25 year-old is roughly as good-looking as your average 35 year-old. for the vast majority of men, dating the absolute hottest girls isn't realisticYes, throwing out the prettiest of the pretty young things is a clumsy handicap to put on an age-by-age comparison. But at the same time, for the vast majority of men, the best-looking women are simply out of reach, so it's actually accurate to exclude them as possibilities. In fact, unrealistic male expectations inspired this article, so we want to do everything we can to correct for them.

Many of you are probably scoffing at the idea that many 35 year-olds are as attractive as many 25 year-olds, but there are social factors at work that you might not consider as you go through life making judgments. Most importantly: nationwide, thirtysomethings are much more likely to be married and therefore much more likely to have stopped optimizing their attractiveness. So the typical 35 year-old woman you see out in the world isn't representative of the single 35 year-olds who are still dating and looking good.

Anyhow, that just about concludes my case. Ultimately, you be the judge. Here are single women in their mid-twenties and women in their mid-thirties, all in the 70th percentile of attractiveness, side by side. The older women are on the left, in case you can't tell.

Of course, you could also do your own search and see for yourself. Thanks for reading.

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