When my friend Linda broke up with her boyfriend of nine years, she fell into a deep depression. “I am in my 40s and mourning the loss of a partner but also of a traditional life I will never lead — the life where I was married and had kids,” she told me.
After a few months of grieving, she grit her teeth and went on OkCupid, Hinge and Tinder. At first she focused on men who were “age appropriate,” because she told herself to be sensible about dating. She was approached by younger men but kept swiping by them. “I was like, ‘You’re 28, dude. Is this a prank?’ ”
But then she decided to give it a try. Since then, she has dated a few younger men and is surprised by their maturity and enthusiasm and also by just how many younger guys are looking for older women. “And not in a porny ‘Oh-you-are-a -sexy-MILF’ kind of way,” she says. “They just don’t care how old I am. I realized there is no such thing as ‘age appropriate’ and I need to stop looking for it.”
Age is a range, not a number
Call it the Brigitte and Emmanuel Macron effect. Age difference in the dating scene is becoming less of a stigma. Former scandalous pairings — especially between older women and younger men — just aren’t that eyebrow-raising anymore. People online are just dating whom they want to date. The word “cougar” has become passé.
“On OkCupid you can select your age range like airfare on Kayak,” says Mark, 29. “I decided to screw it and leave it as wide as possible, up to 99. It really shouldn’t be a factor.”
Writes “Kimposibi” on Reddit: “I’ve been on and off OKC for a few years. … I've noticed that their age ranges have been widening. For example, a 28-year-old was once grouped into '24-32' and now it’s '20-40.’ ” That’s a big difference.
As a single 48-year-old gay man, I have noticed it myself. “I like older” and “No age limits” are showing up frequently on profiles of younger people on Grindr or Scruff. This coincides with another refreshing trend I’ve noticed — a higher visibility of trans and gender nonconforming users.
For LGBTQ people, expressing attraction outside of the typical “Bobby and Sue were high school sweethearts” storyline is easier because none of us were ever Bobby and Sue to begin with. “I believe that in the gay community, age barriers are less stigmatized,” says Peter Sloterdyk, vice president of marketing at Grindr. “There is an attraction in an older generation that is more seasoned, more educated and, to be perfectly honest, more interesting.”
And that’s what is most dynamic about the expansion of age in dating — where it’s coming from. It’s not led by people over 40 who may have an agenda but by younger people — the same demo who are questioning race, gender and sexual constructions. They don’t feel the need to assign labels to their gender, and they call out casual sexual racism when people make statements like, “I’m not attracted to Asians! or “No black people!” on their dating profiles. For them, age is just another limit to shatter.
Love, ageism —we’re all guilty
When it comes to dating, combating these long-held ageist beliefs isn’t easy — but noticing their daily presence in our lives can help dispel their power. For instance, when friends mention they are dating someone new, notice if one of your first questions is “How old is he?”
“Asking age is a reductive approach to wanting to know a bunch of other things: how stable they are, how committed are they, what stage of life they are in,” observes Effy Blue, 36, a relationship coach and creator of Curious Fox, an event series that focuses on sex and alternative relationships. So when faced with that question, “ask what that person is really wanting to know.”
And then there are the many judgments within us. “Personally, I have been dating someone 13 years my junior,” says Blue. “I’m discovering all this internalized ageism I didn’t know I had. Sometimes I think he won’t understand how I am feeling because he’s 24. But if I sit down with him and find the right words, he understands.”
All those stories that lurk in our heads — “Oh, I’m too old for him,” “Oh, she’s too young to be serious” — are keeping each of us from seeing the truth: Love shouldn’t have an age limit.
“The way to end ageism is by having friends of all ages,” says Ashton Applewhite, speaker and author of the popular book This Chair Rocks: A Manifesto Against Ageism. “If you can make that leap in relationships, that’s even more exciting.” So what better way to break down age barriers than with a little romance?
“Here’s a story: I have an older woman friend and was trying to persuade her to date younger men,” said Applewhite. “She said to me, ‘He won’t know who Eisenhower is!’ I was like ‘Wait. How much do you talk about EISENHOWER every day anyway?’ ”
Applewhite said her friend paused for a moment. “To her credit, she said, ‘Point taken!’ ”
Michael Albo is a writer and performer.