The day after 65-year-old Dennis Quaid sent the chatterati abuzz with his announcement that he was engaged to a 26-year-old graduate student, fellow one-time movie hotshot Sean Penn was photographed heading out to a movie date with his much younger girlfriend.
The age difference between Penn, 59, and actress Leila George, 27, is not as great as that of Quaid and Laura Savoie — 32 years, as opposed to 39. And the age gaps in Penn and Quaid’s relationships are nowhere as wide as Mick Jagger’s with his latest love. The Rolling Stones frontman, 75, had a baby in 2016 with ballerina Melanie Hambrick — at 32, she’s 44 years Jagger’s junior.
Sean Penn, 59, takes leather-clad girlfriend Leila George, 27, to the movies on low key date night https://t.co/ZAdt9HLcRu
— Daily Mail Celebrity (@DailyMailCeleb) October 21, 2019
Still, the image of these men with decades-younger women once again serves as a reminder we live in a world in which older men — especially rich, powerful and/or famous older men — prefer dating and often marrying much younger women.
Yes, the May-December dynamic is as old as time and is a well-worn topic of literature, film and music. It brings up questions about sexual desirability and gender power dynamics. Some find it “creepy” to see Quaid putting his arms around Savoie. These critics dismiss these men as being emotionally immature or pathetically caught up in mid-life crises; their girlfriends, meanwhile, have daddy issues. The thinking goes: Wouldn’t it be better if these men just indulged themselves in a hot new car or took up triathlons if they wanted to feel young and vital again?
It’s also typical for men like Quaid and Penn to take up with younger women after being married one or more times to women who are closer to their own ages. These men and others have fathered children who could have enjoyed pre-school playdates with the women they are now sleeping with.
For example, Quaid’s previous three wives, including Meg Ryan, were 28 to 31 when he married them. His son Jack — whose mother is Ryan, now 57 — is one year older than his father’s new fiancee. (Quaid also has 11-year-old twins with his third wife, Kimberly Buffington, now 49.) Similarly, Penn’s children, Dylan and Hopper — their mother is actress Robin Wright, 53 — are 28 and 26, respectively, while his girlfriend is 27.
Of course, many people, especially older men like Quaid and Penn, will say “why not?” Everyone’s a consenting adult, right?
Ok but like Dennis Quaid can totally get it pic.twitter.com/CoRiCfPQ2l
— Barrett Lane (@barrettlane) October 21, 2019
Finally, others have attributed the phenomenon to basic biology and say that the reasons older men and younger women find each other attractive is grounded in evolutionary theories on mating. This line of reasoning goes: The male of the species wants to pair up with a female who can produce children. Women’s fertility begins to decline after age 30, but as Jagger showed, men can continue making babies into their 70s, even with decreased sperm quality.
Ultimately, whatever the reason for this phenomenon, there is data showing the extent to which men in our culture are “fixated on youth.” Yes, Quaid and Penn are not alone in their May-December preferences.
Sean Penn, 58, kisses girlfriend Leila George, 27, while on vacation in Positano https://t.co/s7Fg9k9DrR
— Daily Mail Celebrity (@DailyMailCeleb) August 8, 2019
Indeed, a study published last year shows that Quaid and Penn’s tastes in women runs to those who, relatively speaking, actually are on a more mature end. The study, published in the journal Science Advances, looked at the patterns of “desirability” among men and women involved in online dating and seeking opposite-sex partners.
Based on the number of messages that nearly 200,000 users received over one month on “a popular, free online-dating service,” the study found that women’s sexual desirability peaks at 18 and fell as they got older. Meanwhile, men’s sexual desirability peaks at age 50.
“The age gradient for women definitely surprised us — both in terms of the fact that it steadily declined from the time women were 18 to the time they were 65, and also how steep it was,” Elizabeth Bruch, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and an author of the study, told the New York Times.
This study’s findings are similar to data released by dating app OkCupid in 2010. According to a blog post addressing “the male fixation on youth,” the data showed how women’s desirability among users peaked at 21.
For straight men ages 22 to 30 who use the app, their focus almost entirely is on women who are younger than them, with a 30-year-old man spending “as much time messaging 18- and 19-year-olds as he does women his own age.”
Men, as they get older, also search for relatively younger and younger women, the OkCupid data showed. “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,” the blog post said.
Women, on the other hand, tend to seek out men in their own age range and were much “more open-minded” in choosing to message both reasonably younger and reasonably older men, the blog post said. As women reached the end of their 20s, they also became “more open to older men.”
A 2001 study by Dutch social psychologists echoed these studies when looking at women and men’s attitudes about acceptable age ranges for different levels of relationships, from sexual fantasies to casual sex to marriage, the New Republic reported. Their study showed that women tend to prefer men near their own age for fantasies, for casual sex, for serious relationships and for marriage.
For men, though, what they considered an acceptable age gap with a partner increased as they got older.
“Men of 40, 50, 60 all seemed to show an interest in partners for sexual fantasies and casual affairs that extended down into the mid to late 20s,” the study found.
But some men in their 50s and 60s like to take things further than sexual fantasies and casual affairs, the study showed. That certainly seems to be the case with Quaid, Penn, Jagger and a number of other celebrity males over the years.