When you’re a child, all adults seem so old that you put them in one bracket marked “ancient”. Your parents? Ancient. Your grandparents? Same. They’re all so much taller than you, and none of them want to play with your train set: there’s really no difference between any of them.
This childlike way of viewing the world isn’t just restricted to kids. When it comes to our ideas around who is considered attractive, there appears to be similar thinking at play. Especially if you’re straight, and especially if you’re a man.
The announcement from US magazine People that Idris Elba is the sexiest man alive brought me an initial burst of joy. Idris, at 46, is undeniably sexy, and it’s excellent to see people recognising that men don’t need to be young in order to be a sex symbol. But after celebrating Idris’s win I was curious about the average age of the world’s sexiest women, so I did a bit of digging into it. And as a 34-year-old straight woman, it wasn’t great news for me.
The closest I can find to People’s award is Esquire’s “Sexiest Woman in the world”, which ran from 2004 to 2015. While the average age of a “sexiest man” winner is 38, with some guys managing to bag the title in their late fifties (hello Sean Connery and Harrison Ford), the average age of an Esquire sexiest woman winner is 30. The oldest on the list is Halle Berry, who won aged 42.
I doubt any of this will surprise you. If you’re a feminist you’ll have long been riled up by the fact that women apparently have a “best before” date when it comes to attractiveness, one which is notably shorter than that for men. If you’re not a feminist, perhaps you have some opinions regarding evolutionary reasons for straight men to restrict their fantasies to young, fertile-looking women. Perhaps you just have unexamined prejudices, like the guy who – just this morning! – left a comment on my sex blog lamenting his misfortune that he would never find a woman “under 30 and under 80kg”, in the same tone you’d use to discuss a bankruptcy or recent bereavement.
Although I’ve been aware of this kind of sexism since I was in my early 20s, it came as a shock in my 30s to realise just how soon this best before date kicks in. Sometime last year, while watching porn with my partner, I noticed that all the women were younger than me. Every single one. If you want porn that features women my age, you need to actively seek it out, on forums like Reddit’s GoneWildOver30 or by hunting in fetish categories like MILF. Women over 30 are sexy in the same way as “feet” or “BDSM”: you’ll only like us if you have a specific kink, or are in an adventurous mood. The same rules don’t seem to apply for men: as long as they put in a good performance their porn scenes won’t get tagged DILF or “over 30” to warn off women viewers who were only in it for “fertile” young lads.
What should we do about this age preference discrepancy? When it comes to sexual attraction I’m not allowed to call it “prejudice”, although it is, because angry straight men on Twitter will pop up to tell me that I can’t force them to fancy someone over 30 any more than I could force them to prefer brunettes over blondes. Which may be true for the individual, of course: I won’t change his instinctive desires just by showing him photos of Toni Collette, Laverne Cox, and other hot women over 40. But that doesn’t mean that I have to throw my hands in the air and give up – accept that straight men are basically children, unable to see women over 30 as anything other than ancient.
Tastes and opinions change, only very rarely by accident. One of the things that makes the biggest difference in terms of shifting attitudes is representation. At this point in history, it is hard to conceive of an older woman being crowned the sexiest when we so rarely see older women in sexy contexts. Go and google the word sexy, then check out the images: it’s my favourite go-to example to highlight just how ageism (and racism, and so many other isms) impacts on our day to day lives. You’ll be confronted with a page full of mostly slim, mostly white, mostly cisgender, mostly young women. These pictures are what happens when you try to use “majority opinion” as a means of determining the answer on a subjective concept: Google’s algorithm picks the images that seem to most closely match what “sexy” looks like, and those pictures in turn are suggested by humans who are subject to a whole range of biases and opinions.
Imagine if, when illustrating articles about sex, or making sexy TV shows or films, people reached for someone other than a slim, white, young, cisgender woman to be the face of it? After all, although you can argue that straight women care less about age, and are therefore happier to accept 46-year-old Idris as the sexiest man alive, you could also point out that older men are far more frequently framed as sexy than older women. Although male movie stars are allowed to play lead roles even as they age, their female counterparts are usually replaced with younger models. Do men really have a longer lifespan of sexiness? Or are we just more used to seeing older men in a sexy context?
Ultimately the issue with sexiest man or sexiest woman competitions is that there are no objective criteria on which to decide what counts as sexy. So we end up, like on Google’s image search, with a best fit idea based on what we’re used to seeing in that context. We’re used to seeing older men like Idris in sexy contexts, so we find them sexy. If older women were better represented in that context, chances are we’d be better able to appreciate their sexiness too. Sexiness will always be in the eye of the beholder, so why not open our eyes a little wider?