More on Types: A Puzzle

This is a new blog, so I haven’t yet done many entries, and I don’t have tons of readers. (Note to readers: Tell you friends!) But within that limited sphere, the post of mine that has generated the most discussion is the one on whether it is immoral to have a type. For those of you just joining us, I tried to argue that it was indeed immoral, or at least it was immoral to fail to reflect on your preferences to ensure they were not grounded in prejudicial judgements. People commented that to question the dating preferences of others was a form of moral fanaticism or an attempt at social engineering. I tried to defend myself, but let’s pretend I just take a knee on this one, and agree that we shouldn’t make moral judgements of any kind about people based on the sort of partners they choose to pursue. We shouldn’t criticise our friend with the thing for Asian women, his behaviour is no more blameworthy than the guy who tries to judge each woman he meets based on her individual qualities as a person. Fine.

Now I’m left with a puzzle. What about age?

I’m interested more specifically in all the men in their forties and fifties who are really most interested in dating women who are much younger, say in their early twenties, and who thus pay no attention to women in roughly their own age bracket. Surely there is no relevant difference between someone like that, on the one hand, and a guy who prefers Asian women on the other. We want who we want, right? My earlier post, arguing that we shouldn’t have a type, was meant as a challenge to popular attitudes, which I think are generally tolerant of people’s type-preferences when it comes to dating. But now I’ve conceded that point, and I somehow find myself again on the wrong side of public opinion. Because, at least in my social circles, men who only date much younger women are judged rather harshly. For instance, if a couple gets divorced and one partner immediately starts dating someone else, we generally assume, absent other considerations, that, sad as it may be, it’s better for everyone in the long run. We don’t think less of the person. But if we learn that a middle-aged man has broken up with his wife to take up with a woman in her early twenties, and that he says outright that his previous partner had just gotten too old for his taste, we tend to take a different attitude. And if we had a friend who was continually breaking up with his partners once they reached a certain age, so he could “trade up” for someone younger, we might wonder why we were friends with this person at all.

Let’s get clear on what’s at issue. People may find themselves attracted to people of any age, based on who they are as a person. That in itself is not wrong, and most of us will know any number of very happy couples who are separated in age by more than a few years. We are talking here specifically about men who have a type, and that type is: much younger women. We should also be clear what we mean by moral judgement. Nobody is saying that we should somehow try to prevent such men dating whomever they want. This is all about the behaviour of consenting adults, which at the end of the day is not our business. But just because we agree someone has every right to do something does not mean we would admire them for it, or that we would not feel the need to criticise them. If we had a friend who never left a tip at a restaurant, for instance, we would not let someone force them to do so. But we would probably think less of the no-tipping friend, and we might well criticise them for it or encourage them to reflect on their behaviour.

Maybe my friends, who do think less of men who chase younger women, are unusual. Or maybe people really do look askance at men who chase younger women, but they are wrong for doing so. They are falling prey to a sort of moral fanaticism, that seeks to pass judgement on people for things that should properly be regarded as none of their business. Or maybe there is a morally relevant different between liking only Asian woman, and liking only twenty year olds, that I am missing. I can’t see what it is, but I am curious what my readers think.

Image: Adriaen van der Werff, Sarah Bringing Hagar to Abraham

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  1. Max

    Neil: Great post. You might think that the notion of exploitation comes into play when older men date younger women whereas it doesn’t when talking about people only dating a certain “type”, and that this explains our intuitions (although, it might not justify them). It seems plausible that our intuitions against older men dating younger women are caused by a belief to the effect of “One ought not have sexual interactions with someone much less intellectually capable than him/herself because doing so is a type of exploitation.” This might be (at least one of) the principles which accounts for intuitions against pedophilia or sexual interactions between mentally high functioning adults and the severely mentally handicapped (that is, if it is in fact the case that we think older people are typically more intellectually capable than younger people). Of course, the common intuition might simply be a product of our evolution in one way or another, suggesting that it is unjustified.

    Posted January 17, 2012 at 11:37 pm | Permalink | Reply
  2. I for one am not swayed :)
    I don’t think it’s unethical for a man to have a sexual preference for significantly younger women, although I do think pursuing this preference in the world is likely to be ethically and practically complicated.
    For example, I think that if a man is only sexually attracted to young bodies he has an obligation to disclose to any young woman he gets into a relationship with that he is fairly likely to lose sexual interest in her as she ages, and that if/when this happens, he’s likely to end the relationship and seek a younger partner. This is important because it allows the woman in question to consider whether that risk is something she’s willing to take before proceeding.
    I also think the detail of how the man in this scenario feels and acts is relevant. Is he cold-heartedly discarding his sexual partners without any regard for their feelings? Or does it pain him that he’s no longer sexually attracted to them? Has he done his best to end the relationship in the kindest possible way, or has he ridiculed his partner’s looks and rejected her cruelly?
    If an older man attracted only to substantially younger women manages to go through life having a series of such relationships while a) being careful not to sexually harass, scare or intimidate the young women he’s interested in b) honestly disclosing this preference and its likely implications, c) having regard for the well-being of his potential partners (for example, only pursuing relationships with women who seem emotionally strong and self-assured enough to survive more or less in tact) d) treating his partners well during relationships, and e) ending the relationships in the kindest way possible, then I honestly see no ethical problem. I realize that few men in the actual world would meet all these conditions, but even so, I think it’s this – rather than the aesthetic/sexual preference in and of itself – that is unethical.
    While I won’t morally judge this hypothetical man I do feel a bit sorry for him, because he’s going to struggle to have a fulfilling and sustainable romantic/sexual life. Few young women will reciprocate his sexual attraction in the first place (unless he’s extraordinarily attractive). Even those that do will mostly be unwilling to get involved with him once he tells them that he will probably no longer be attracted to them when they’re older. And even if they do agree to proceed on this basis, he’s probably going to feel a lot of guilt and anguish over the impact his preferences can have on others’ feelings. So for practical reasons alone I would advise him to give changing his preferences a shot!

    Posted January 21, 2012 at 12:53 am | Permalink | Reply

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