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Illustration by Wenzdai J. Figueroa

Dear New Romantics,

A few years ago, when I was active in the dating (app) scene, I saw that a guy in his early-to-mid twenties had super-liked me. He was younger than what my preferred age range was set to, but he was kind of cute, and I was curious, so I matched with him to learn more.

In a world where women in their early twenties are seen as optimal for everything from sex to marriage, I wondered why a man that age had his preferences set high enough to catch me in his proverbial net. He had a simple answer: “Older women tend to be better at knowing and expressing what they want.”

Of course. I’m well-aware of how commonly my peers have progressed into their thirties with a more solid understanding of their sexuality and more confidence in asking for their needs to be met. But wait a minute. “Older women?” I was 33!

Whether we’re thinking consciously about it or not, we all fall into the trap of making assumptions around age. Now, at 36, I couldn’t imagine my dating app settings accepting people younger than 28 (what the hell would I do with a 23-year-old?), and I would most definitely side-eye anyone my age who was dating someone that young. In the opposite direction, I would end my settings at 45, and I would be suspicious of someone my age dating someone in their fifties or above.

And wow! That’s a whole lot of assumptions going around.

It’s easy to brush age range settings off as a preference — and sometimes, that’s really all it is. But not so fast. There are several factors at play here that make age (and ageism) in dating a thing. And it’s worth looking at why we have the age preferences that we do — and whether it’s holding us back from genuine connections.

1. We want to date babes at our same developmental stage

Developmental stage is a psychological term that describes both what our brains are capable of and how we interact with the world socially as we grow and age.

Of course, these stages seem based on “normative” development, which leaves out people living with disabilities. In truth, our brain functioning and our ages don’t necessarily overlap. But it can be a helpful jump-off point for understanding why we tend to want to date people who are, well, in the same boat.

Erik Erikson looked at how we face different psychosocial crises at different ages. That is, depending on our age group, we’re preoccupied with different challenges. Adolescents are concerned with how identity development and role confusion show up in their lives, for example, while older adults are worried about how generativity and stagnation play a role in their happiness. (Funny enough, early adulthood is said to be riddled by the theme of intimacy versus isolation — an apt idea at the moment!)

Because we’re said to wrestle with different themes at different stages of our lives, it makes sense that we might want to date people who are experiencing similar challenges. Otherwise, we might not be able to relate to the people we’re dating!

So, if your age preferences are set within your same age range because you’re looking to connect with folks who are more likely to get it, that sounds fair.

If you’re looking to date people who are significantly younger than you because you know that with your wisdom and experience, they may be more easily manipulated, we have a concern.

2. We want partners who are in similar places in their lives

I know, I know. This can be a bit of a cliché, particularly in breakups: “I think we’re just in different places in our lives.” But it’s also a valid desire. Often, we want to date people who are on similar journeys, and this doesn’t necessarily encapsulate the developmental stage.

For example, even the one-year difference between a senior in high school and a first-year in college can be too disruptive to a relationship! Same with someone who is 20 and someone who is 25. They’re wrestling with similar psychosocial challenges, but someone who is still in college, perhaps with an undeclared major and a lack of direction, and someone who is settling into their career are two very different people when it comes to where they are in their lives.

You even see this show up in our friendships as we grow into ages where milestones like marriage and children become more common. Friends often grow apart when one “settles down” or has a child and the other stays single or child-free. Because these life choices can have a huge impact on our perspectives and experiences, we can start to have trouble relating to one another.

The idea of where we are in our lives converges with our values — and shared values are a great foundation for compatibility! Maybe we’re super career-driven, and we want to date someone who can keep up. Maybe we’re looking to explore the depth of our sexuality, so folks who are interested in life partnerships only are a no-go. Maybe we’re feeling free-flowing and adventurous and are looking for matches who aren’t tied down too much.

Setting an age range with the hope of matching with people in similar places in their lives makes a lot of sense. Just remember that this doesn’t always correspond with age. Assuming that women in their thirties are looking to settle down, or that men in their forties are in the midst of a post-divorce mid-life crisis are not fair assumptions to make.

3. We’ve internalized oppressive ideas about both youth and aging

Usually, when we talk about ageism — or the oppression that occurs at the site of someone’s age — we’re talking about older people. Even in dating, examples of this abound, like the idea that older men are only viable for sugar daddy arrangements, or that menopausal women are no longer sexual.

But ageism may be a form of adultism. It’s a predisposition towards adults when children and adolescents have fewer rights. They’re also not taken seriously often. This can spill into folks approaching adulthood too! We often assume that people ages 18 to 25 lack maturity, direction, the preparation for the demands of long-term relationships, and look for casual hookups.

Of course, youth has a benefit: Our idea of beauty is centered on it (another strike for older adults). But in terms of being taken seriously, emerging adults lose out.

We often chalk this up to “preferences,” instead of looking at the deeper sociocultural reasons why we dismiss both emerging and older adults. Desirability politics is a phrase that describes how, who, and what we’re socialized to be attracted to has political significance. We’ve learned through socialization that we should feel an attraction to cis (or passing) people, people in smaller bodies, white people, and people without disabilities. We’ve also learned through socialization that we should feel an attraction to people who are not ”too young” or ”too old.”

4. We’re fetishizing people based on their age

Ageism can play out as a fetish: an obsessive desire for people of a certain identity, based largely on that identity itself and the stereotypes associated with it. Fetishization spans identities — think about sexual stereotypes about Black men and East Asian women, or about men who are attracted to lesbians — and it also comes up with age.

More commonly, we talk about the ways in which youth — and particularly young girls — are dangerously fetishized. There’s an entire category of pornography called “barely 18” or similar, particularly around the idea of young women having sex for the first time. Teenage — and even pubescent — girls are often the targets of unwanted sexual advances from older men.

In fact, the Daily News reports that according to a worldwide survey from an anti-harassment group Hollaback! and Cornell University, 84 percent of women have been catcalled before the age of 17. Our cultural obsession with youth can lead to the normalization of this kind of fetishization, which can show up in our pursuit of people younger than us, even when they’re of age.

But the fetishization of older people, particularly older women, happens. Need I say more than “MILF?” Having an attraction to older women to pursue a stereotypical fantasy may be ageist too!

Of course, sexual fantasies aren’t wrong. What we need to look out for is if we’re reducing people to aspects of their identities without considering their full complexity and autonomy. If we’re searching for people to partner with who fall into certain age categories, without examining where that desire comes from or how it could play out harmfully, we may be fetishizing.

And the line between attraction and fetishization matters.

Most of the time, we haven’t learned to think deeply about our age preferences in dating, especially when they fall in a range that encompasses our age. But because age is an axis on which people can be oppressed, we have a responsibility to consider that vulnerability.

So, before you jump back onto dating apps, here are some self-reflection questions to engage with:

  • What is my age range preference in dating and why? Having a preference for people of similar ages or for people who fall outside those limits, isn’t inherently a bad thing. But it’s helpful to consider where those preferences come from. This isn’t about shaming those preferences! It’s about being aware of their existence and understanding why they exist.
  • What prejudice do I hold about younger and older people that may impact those limits? There’s no “woker than thou” rule saying that you must be open to dating people outside your age group to prove you’re not an ageist. But it’s worth asking yourself what stereotypes you might believe about age groups and whether they determine whom you’re open to dating.
  • Am I reducing people to their ages? Or am I seeing their full, authentic selves? This goes especially for people who have attractions to people in age ranges that are significantly younger or older than they are. But we can all benefit from asking ourselves where and why we get stuck on age. What do you believe about people in your age range preference? What are you looking for specifically? Can you find that in people of other ages too?

Sure, there are lots of reasons why age might play a role in whom we want to date. The question is: Which of those are fair — and which of them aren’t?

Melissa Fabello, PhD, is a social justice activist whose work focuses on body politics, beauty culture, and eating disorders. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.