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If you’re a woman re-entering the dating world at midlife, you might think there’s nobody out there for you. Men your age are looking for women your daughter’s age, or so the conventional wisdom goes. But it turns out that the status/money (man) trade for youth/beauty (woman) might be far less common than we think.
Elizabeth McClintock, Ph.D., a sociologist at the University of Notre Dame, studies how age, physical attractiveness and income affect mate selection. In one study, she looked at the effects of physical attractiveness on the number of sexual partners, relationship status, and timing of sexual intercourse.
"Couple formation is often conceptualized as a competitive, two-sided matching process in which individuals implicitly trade their assets for those of a mate, trying to ﬁnd the most desirable partner and most rewarding relationship that they can get given their own assets," McClintock says. Her study shows that good looks may be exchanged not just for status and ﬁnancial resources, but also for control over the degree of commitment and sexual activity.
Her findings challenge common beliefs about the relationship between attractiveness and sexual activity:
Sex: When and How Many: Very physically attractive women are more likely to form exclusive relationships than purely sexual ones, and are less likely to have sexual intercourse within the ﬁrst week of meeting a partner. Presumably, says McClintock, this difference arises because these women use their greater power in the partner market to control their relationships.
Number of Partners: For women, the number of sexual partners decreases as physical attractiveness increases, whereas for men, the number of sexual partners increases with increasing physical attractiveness.
Body Type and Sex: The number of sexual partners reported by women is tied to weight, with thinner women reporting fewer partners.
Life Reimagined asked McClintock to comment on the Hollywood formula of older male stars mating with much younger women. “I think people are biased toward observing the instances when older men do marry younger women, or ugly men marry pretty women, and to not noticing the instances when couples are roughly the same age or equally attractive. Take Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie. No one ever comments about their similarity in beauty. People have a similar recall bias for all sorts of things For example, we notice and remember when there is traffic and we don't notice or remember when there was not traffic. So casual observation is not reliable in evaluating the prevalence of trophy wife couples.”
Bottom line: “The strongest force by far in partner selection is similarity—in education, race, religion and physical attractiveness," McClintock says