(We don't know where we'll end up ... but we're all starting at single.)

Monday, November 5, 2012

As the Clock Ticks, The Worm Turns

One of the inevitable tensions of online dating is the traditional push-pull of gender dynamics. As so many of us already know, straight women traditionally are the gatekeepers of dating.  Straight men pursue; women get pursued.  Only the highest-status men get to choose between a wide variety of women suitors.  In general, men aren't constantly fending off approaches from  women looking to hook up with them.

Some of these tendencies are equally evident in online dating.  Women that aren't hideous get tons of messages.  Men generally don't get a lot of messages by comparison.  Women who are average-looking or above get so many messages that their inboxes can't support them.  Even if they wanted to give every guy a chance by reading his profile and looking at his personality, they can't.  There are just too many suitors and not enough time.

The somewhat ironic effect of all that attention is that it leads some women to treat men online the same way they complain that men treat them.  For instance, I've received some very generic opening messages from women online.  One-word introductions.  Or one sentence.  Or a brief snippet that doesn't indicate any knowledge of my profile whatsoever.

It's a bit of an extension of what men and women experience offline.  The offline stereotype  is that most women work on their attractiveness (usually in the physical sense), live fulfilling lives (hopefully), and wait for 'the right guy' to come along.  By contrast, men work on their careers, accomplishments, and hobbies in the hopes of eventually possessing the cachet to go forth and woo 'the right woman'. Both generalizations are kludgy, overly simplistic, and leave massive gaps in the full story.

This post will fill one of those gaps.

There's a famous saying: "Youth is wasted on the young."  It's a saying that is way, way older than any of us.  And there's a very good reason that women past a certain age repeat this saying a lot more than men do.  For men, age usually brings career advancement, stability, and (hopefully) maturity. As men get more experienced, many make the transition from walking, talking id/libido monsters to becoming somewhat more sophisticated creatures that know how to please women.  These are all qualities that many women tend to find more attractive in men as they get older.  I've found that my own stock has not fallen with age; if anything, it has risen.

By contrast, age usually cripples a woman's appeal to men.  Men tend to be much more focused on looks than women are.  More specifically, men have been programmed by evolution and socialization to find youthful looks beautiful. Most damaging of all, despite pop-culture portrayals to the contrary, most men looking for long-term female partners want one who will bear children.  Since pregnancy becomes riskier to both the mother and baby as a woman approaches 40, many single women who indulged in the selectivity that traditional male/female sex dynamics afforded them suddenly discover their desirability begins to plummet once they hit their mid-30s compared to men their age.  Unfortunately, there's no way to reverse the decline in appeal that age burdens women with: at the end of the day, most people -- including most men -- are either breeders or programmed to think like breeders.

Lest readers accuse me of exaggeration, data bears this out.  Here's a choice quote from that link: "I made these calculations in the chart below, and we can see that women have more pursuers than men until age 26, but thereafter a man can expect many more potential dates than a woman of the same age. At the graph's outer edge, at age 48, men are nearly twice as sought-after as women."  

My oldest female friends have experienced this shift firsthand, both online and offline. They'll meet a guy who seems interested, but who backs away once their age is revealed. Relatives will suggest they initially lie about their age so as not to scare off potenital suitors. This is very real.

Thus, each gender faces shifting obstacles during the (straight) pursuit of an intimate relationship. For the most part, men have to pursue women to earn their affections. But as women age into their 30s, this dynamic falls apart: the most desirable men in their age group have growing long-term options, even as women's decent options steadily - and irreversibly - dwindle.  As the clock ticks, the worm turns.