Earlier this year, Sadie Frost confessed to “feeling invisible”. At just 52, and still a mainstay in the press, the former model and It girl said she’s become “irrelevant”; lamenting her ability to command the spotlight being diminished by her age. She’s one of countless women who’ve spoken publicly about their fears of being ‘over the hill’.
So when is this unwanted cloak thrust upon us? In our fifties, like Frost? At 39, when women’s salaries peak? Or 30, when our pay begins to decline? For some women, it’s happening even younger.
“No one tries to chat me up anymore,” Emma*, a 27-year-old Londoner tells me. “When I was 20, I’d go into a bar and have countless guys offer to buy me a drink, now they don’t even bother to say hello.” She shows me pictures of herself back then, and I’m struck by her statements – she’s arguably more attractive now; better dressed with sleek blonde hair and an enviable body from five-a-week gym sessions.
“All my single friends say the same thing,” she continues. “Even the most beautiful girl I know is struggling with the hetero dating scene right now – it’s like we’ve become invisible to guys our age.”
It’s almost unimaginable, but Emma and her friends are far from alone. In his 2010 book, Dataclysm, OkCupid co-founder Christian Rudder revealed some shocking statistics from the dating site, showing how much men and women differ when it comes to the age groups they’re attracted to. While women find men of a similar age appealing, men at almost every age were most attracted to women in their early twenties – in fact, female desirability appeared to peak at 21.
“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,” Rudder revealed.
Studies on human behaviour have confirmed Rudder’s findings – that a woman will be most attractive to men in her early-twenties – something evolutionary psychologists have put down to ‘cues of ‘peak fertility’, like youth, beauty and symmetry.
But there’s an interesting exception to the OKCupid rule – men in their twenties are more willing to date older women. In fact, a 40-year-old woman will have better luck messaging a 25-year-old man than she would a 55-year-old one. And a 30-year-old man is more likely to respond to a message from a 50-year-old woman than any other age group.
I’ve certainly overheard echoes of this notion at the pub. A twenty-something man landing a date with a teenager from Tinder? He’ll most likely get a pat on the back from his mates (and perhaps a few eye rolls from the girls in the group). But matching with an older woman? Now that’s really something to show off about.
As for women in the ‘limbo years’, it seems dating can be as difficult as finding work as a porn star (bear with me here). In The Butterfly Effect, journalist Jon Ronson’s seven-part podcast about the modern world of online pornography, he discovered a disturbing trend – female porn performers are experiencing a “fallow” period between the ages of 22 and 30.
As porn producers explained to Ronson, it’s all down to keyword dominance. Porn films with easily searchable titles receive more views, and the more popular the words, the better it will do.
The most searched for terms by men last year? ‘MILF’, ‘Step mom’, ‘mom’, ‘teen’ and ‘step sister’ all made it into Pornhub’s top ten. On competing adult site YouPorn, ‘MILF’ knocked ‘lesbian’ off the number one spot.
While there’s undoubtedly a fetishisation of age in modern porn – film titles like Stepdaughter Cheerleader Orgy and Horny Grandmas in Heat will tell you that – the popularity of certain keywords has led to porn producers applying the terms more loosely. While ‘MILF’ (that’s ‘mother I’d like to f**k’, for the unaware) originally applied to mothers, it’s now used to describe any woman who looks like she could have had kids. Today, the average age of a performer playing a ‘MILF’ is 33; only 7% are over 40 years old.
But you’re not a ‘MILF’ or a ‘teen’, you’ll struggle getting work. “Being 25 years old now is almost a death sentence in the adult business,” one porn producer told Ronson. “Just attractive,” isn’t a searchable term, he added, revealing even a “really hot 26-year-old” will most likely be out of work until she hits her early thirties and can pass for a mother.
Cindy Gallop, Founder of Make Love Not Porn, tells me these keywords don’t really reflect what men want to watch. “People watch what they're given. People search for what they're given,” she says. “Porn is like any other industry – it falls easily into standard, cliched genres, and it takes individual creative vision to break through with something new. Nobody knew they wanted the iPhone till Steve Jobs gave it to them.”
But, desired or not, psychiatrists believe the type of porn we’re exposed to has the power to change our sexual tastes; causing watchers to acquire new sexual preferences and, in the case of teenagers, can even lay the foundation of what they find attractive.
As Owen Redahan, counsellor and sex addiction specialist, explains, the “significant amount of dopamine” released by the brain during pornography use creates the perfect environment for learning, as this is what allows new neural pathways to form and strengthen. “Teenage brains, in particular, undergo huge changes and rewire as they develop. Which is why the growth of internet porn use in adolescents particularly concerns me,” he says.
So could porn use from an early age ‘teach’ the brain to find certain ages more attractive, and others less so? More studies into the subject are needed, but as 29-year-old porn addict Adam* tells me, it’s a phenomenon he’s experienced. Having watched pornography almost daily since the age of 14, he admits that despite having no fetishes during his early teenage years, he's now built up a large collection: “Step mothers seducing their sons, incest, gangbanging – they’ve all been implanted in my brain by porn.”
Putting age to one side, there’s something else at play too. The best-known effect of porn over-consumption, proved in countless studies? A lack of enjoyment when it comes to real life sex. Men who spend more time watching porn are less able to connect with a partner in the bedroom; they’re less satisfied with their partner’s affection, physical appearance, sexual performance and curiosity. Porn desensitises men’s arousal pathways and, over time, reduces libido and can even cause chronic erectile dysfunction.
When you consider millennials have been exposed to extreme pornography from an early age, is it any wonder they’re ‘turned off’ sex, as some headlines suggest? Not only are they staying virgins for longer compared to previous generations, they’re having less sex too – research by Match.com found that almost half of twenty-somethings hadn’t had sex at all in the past year.
But the blame doesn’t all lie with porn. Millennials’ lukewarm attitude to sex and relationships has also been put down to online dating. Today’s youth have watched dating sites grow and evolve with them: first Match.com in 1995; OKCupid in 2004; Tinder in 2012; and the slew of copycats that followed the latter's meteoric rise.
Buss’ sentiment is backed up by falling marriage rates amongst straight millennials. Across the US, Asia and Europe people are marrying later or not at all, birth rates are falling, and single-occupant households are on the rise. Of course, there are plenty of men who do want long-term relationships – it’s just for many, they’re not a priority.
Young people are busier than ever, working longer hours than generations before them, yet – thanks to soaring rents – they have lower disposable incomes, and owning a house or affording a family remains a distant dream for the majority. When dating apps mean there’ll always be an abundance of possible partner options at the swipe of a finger, and porn provides instant gratification in the meantime, what’s the rush to settle?
And as Adam* asks, what’s the incentive to put yourself out there? “I’ve definitely approached girls less since joining Tinder,” he says. “It sounds bad, but I know if she’s single and lives nearby I’ll probably see her on the app anyway. That way, it won’t be awkward if she’s not interested.”
This pressure to appear aloof is something Emma is all too familiar with. “It’s cool to act like you don’t care,” she tells me. “Catching feelings is like a cardinal sin – for both guys and girls – it’s so tiring having to act like you’re not bothered in case you scare someone off.”
Electronically connected but emotionally disconnected, millennials have been dubbed ‘generation apathy’, and they’re struggling to relate to each other. In fact, twenty-somethings are now the loneliest age group in Britain – four times more likely to feel lonely than those 70 and above.
If, as some have said, we’re in the ‘dawn of the dating apocalypse’, then what awaits those already struggling with being single in modern society? Futurologists have painted a pretty bleak picture – according to Dr Ian Pearson’s ‘Future of Sex Report’, by the year 2030, virtual sex will be as casual as porn use today. By 2050, we’ll all be having dream sex; orgasms will be stimulated by instant message; and human-robot sex will overtake human-human sex.
Pearson believes these advances will make sex more frequent, easier, safer better, but warns that love and the act of sex are to “become increasingly separate”.
*Names have been changed
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