Age disparity in sexual relationships

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A Dream, depicting an older woman thinking about a younger man

Age disparity in sexual relationships and sexual relationships between individuals of a significant difference in age have been documented for most of recorded history and have been regarded with a wide range of attitudes, from normalized acceptance to taboo. Concepts of these relationships and of the exact definition of a "significant" age disparity have developed over time and vary between societies,[1] legal systems (particularly with regards to the age of consent),[2] and ethical systems. These views are rarely uniform even within cultures and are affected by views of consent, marriage, and gender roles, and by perceptions of social and economic differences between age groups.

Marriage between partners of roughly similar age is known as "age homogamy".[3]

Cross-cultural differences[edit]

Region SMAM Difference



Age difference in heterosexual married couples, 2013 US Current Population Survey[5]
Age difference Percentage of All Married Couples
Husband 20+ years older than wife
Husband 15–19 years older than wife
Husband 10–14 years older than wife
Husband 6–9 years older than wife
Husband 4–5 years older than wife
Husband 2–3 years older than wife
Husband and wife within 1 year
Wife 2–3 years older than husband
Wife 4–5 years older than husband
Wife 6–9 years older than husband
Wife 10–14 years older than husband
Wife 15–19 years older than husband
Wife 20+ years older than husband

Data in Australia[6] and United Kingdom[7] show an almost identical pattern.

Relationships with age disparity of all kinds have been observed with both men and women as the older or younger partner. In various cultures, older men and younger women often seek one another for sexual or marital relationships.[8] Older women sometimes date younger men as well,[9] and in both cases wealth and physical attractiveness are often relevant. Nevertheless, because men generally are interested in women in their twenties, adolescent boys are generally sexually interested in women somewhat older than themselves.[10]

Most men marry women younger than they are; with the difference being between two and three years in Spain,[3] the UK reporting the difference to be on average about three years, and the US, two and a half.[11][12] The pattern was also confirmed for the rest of the world, with the gap being largest in Africa.[13] A study released in 2003 by the United Kingdom's Office for National Statistics concluded that the proportion of women in England and Wales marrying younger men rose from 15% to 26% between 1963 and 1998. The study also showed a higher divorce rate as the age difference rose when the woman was older and a lower divorce rate as the age difference rose when the man was older.[14] A 2008 study, however, concluded that the difference is not significant.[15][16]

In August 2010, Michael Dunn of the University of Wales Institute, Cardiff completed and released the results of a study on age disparity in dating. Dunn concluded that "Not once across all ages and countries ... did females show a preference for males significantly younger than male preferences for females" and that there was a "consistent cross-cultural preference by women for at least same-age or significantly older men". A 2003 AARP study reported that 34% of women over 39 years old were dating younger men.[17]

A 2011 study suggested that age disparity in marriage is positively correlated with decreased longevity, particularly for women, though married individuals still have longer lifespans than singles.[18]

Evolutionary Explanation[edit]

One approach that provides an explanation for age disparity in sexual relationships is from evolutionary psychology which is based on the theories of Charles Darwin (1858, 1871) where behaviours can be explained in terms of natural selection and sexual selection [1][2] . This approach assumes that observed behaviours were in some way adaptive (having better fitness to survive their environment or gaining better access to mates which results in these adaptions being passed on to offspring) in the species evolutionary history. Within sexual selection Darwin identified a further two mechanisms which are important factors in the evolution of sex differences (sexual dimorphism): intrasexual selection (involve competition with those of the same sex over access to mates) and intersexual choice (discriminative choice of mating partners)[3]. The following two paragraphs will focus solely on age disparity in heterosexual relationships between humans. An overarching evolutionary theory which can provide an explanation for the above mechanisms and strategies adopted by individuals which leads to age disparity in relationships is called Life History theory[4] which also includes parental investment theory.[5] Life History theory posits that individuals have to divide energy and resources between activities (as energy and resources devoted to one task cannot be used for another task) and this is shaped by natural selection. A principle decision regarding resources and energy use is whether to devote these to somatic efforts (extending and maintaining self) or reproductive efforts (for example courtship, birth, childcare and other factors associated with reproduction)[6]. Parental investment theory refers to the value that is placed on a potential mate based on reproductive potential and reproductive investment and it predicts that preferred mate choices have evolved to focus on reproductive potential and reproductive investment of members of the opposite sex[5]. This theory predicts both intrasexual selection and intersexual choice due differences in parental investment; typically there is competition among members of the lower investing sex (generally males) over the parental investment of the higher investing sex (generally females) who will be more selective in their mate choice. However, human males tend to have more parental investment compared to mammal males (although females still tend have more parental investment)[7] and thus both sexes will have to compete and both be selective in mate choices. These two theories explain why natural and sexual selection acts slightly differently on the two sexes so that they display different preferences. For example different age preferences may be a result of sex differences in mate values assigned to the opposite sex at those ages[5]. A study conducted by Buss (1989) investigated sex differences in mate preferences in 37 cultures with 10,047 participants. In all 37 cultures it was found that males preferred females younger than themselves and females preferred males older than themselves. This phenomenon was confirmed in marriage records with males marrying females younger than them and vice versa[8]. A more recent study has supported these findings, conducted by Schwarz and Hassebrauck (2012)[9]. This study used 21,245 participants between 18 and 65 years of age who were not involved in a close relationship. As well as asking participants a number of questions on mate selection criteria, they also had to provide the oldest and youngest partner they would accept. It was found that for all ages males were willing to accept females that are slightly older than they are (on average 4.5 years older), but they accept females considerably younger than their own age (on average 10 years younger). Females demonstrate a complimentary pattern, being willing to accept considerably older males (on average 8 years older) and were also willing to accept males slightly younger than themselves (on average 5 years younger). These patterns slightly change as males and females get older. For males, the older they get the younger (relative to male age) females are accepted as but for females as they get older they begin to resemble the male pattern: more willing to accept younger men (relative to female age) and acceptance for older males lessens. This is somewhat different to our close evolutionary relatives: chimpanzees. Muller and Wrangham (2006) found that male chimpanzees tend to prefer older females than younger and suggested that specific cues of female mate value are very different to humans[10].

Why do males prefer a younger female mate? Buss (1989) attributed the young age preference for females to the cues that youth has. In females, relative youth and physical attractiveness (which males valued more compared to females) demonstrated cues for fertility and high reproductive capacity[8]. Buss (1989) stated the specific age preference of around 25 years implied that fertility was a stronger ultimate cause of mate preference than reproductive value as data suggested that fertility peaks in females around mid-twenties[8]. From a life history theory perspective, females that have these cues, display they are more capable of reproductive investment[11]. This notion of preference of age due to peak fertility is supported by a Kenrick, Keefe, Gabrielidis, and Cornelius’s (1996) study which found that although teenage males would accept a mate slightly younger than themselves, there was a wider range of preference for ages above their own. Teenage males also report that their ideal mates would be several years older than themselves[12]. Buss and Schmitt (1993)[13] highlight that although long term mating relationships is common for humans, it is not characteristic of all mating relationships: there is both short term and long term mating relationships. Buss and Schmitt provided a Sexual Strategies Theory which predicts the two sexes have evolved distinct psychological mechanisms which underlie the strategies utilised for short and long term mating. This theory is directly relevant and compatible with the two already mentioned theories Life History and Parental Investment[14][15]. Males tend to appear orientated towards short term mating (greater desire for short term mates than women, prefer larger number of sexual partners and take less time to consent to sexual intercourse[15]) and this appears to solve a number of adaptive problems including using less resources to access a mate[13]. Although there is a number of reproductive advantages to short term mating, males still pursue long term mates and this is due to the possibility of monopolising a female’s life time reproductive resources[13]. Consistent with the above paragraphs results males prefer younger females for short term mates[16]. In line with the findings for short term mating, Buss and Schmitt (1993) found that when pursing a long term mate, males seek younger females (reproductively valuable)[13][16] demonstrating that regardless of short term or long term mating males prefer younger females.

Why do females choose older males? Females tend to have a more difficult task of evaluating a male’s reproductive value accurately based on physical appearance as age tends to have fewer constraints on a males reproductive resources[11]. Buss (1989)[8] attributed the older age preference to older males displaying characteristics of having high providing capacity.  Schwarz and Hassebrauck (2012)[9] found that females tend to be the more demanding sex (which predicted by parental investment theory as they are higher investing sex[7]) and consistent with Buss’s findings that females place an importance on status and resources. In terms of short term and long term mating, females tend be orientated towards long term mating due to the costs incurred from short term mating[13]. Although some of these costs will be the same for males and females (risk of STIs and impairing long term mate value), the costs for women will be more severe due to paternity uncertainty (cues of multiple mates will be disfavoured by males)[13]. In contrast to above, in short term females will tend favour males that demonstrate physical attractiveness as this display cues of ‘good genes’[13]. Cues of good genes tend to be typically associated with older males[17]. Buss and Schmitt (1993) found similar female preferences for mates in long term which supports the notion that for long term relationships females prefer cues of high resource capacity, one of which is age[13].

Social Perspectives[edit]

Social Structural Origin Theory

Social Structural Origin Theory argues that the underlying cause of sex-differentiated behaviour is the concentration of men and women in differing roles in society. It has been argued that a reason gender roles are so prevalent in society is that the expectations of gender roles can become internalised in a person’s self-concept and personality[16] . In a Brown University study, it has been noted that the social structure of a country determines the age difference between spouses more than any other factor.[17] In regards to mate selection, social structural theory supports the idea that individuals aim to maximise what they can provide in the relationship in an environment that is limiting their utilities through expected gender roles in society and marriage.[18]

It is thought that a trade-off or equilibrium is reached in regards to what each gender brings to the mating partnership and that this equilibrium is most likely to be reached with a trade-off of ages when selecting a mate.[19] Women are said to trade youth and physical attractiveness for economic security in their male partner.[20] This economic approach to choosing a partner ultimately depends on the martial or family system that is adopted by society. Women and Men tend to seek a partner that will fit in with their society’s sexual division of labour. For example a martial system based on males being the provider and females the domestic worker, favours an age gap in the relationship. An older male is more likely to have more resources to provide to the family and a younger female is more likely to have less status or resources and so therefore will be these in a relationship, therefore lending the younger female to be more suited to the domestic worker role in the relationship.[18]

The rational choice model also suggests that people look for partners who can provide for them in their life (bread-winners); as men traditionally earn more as they get older, women will therefore prefer older men.[21] This factor is diminishing as more women enter the labour force and the gender pay gap decreases.[21]

. Retrieved 2013-11-25

Age-Hypogamy in Relationships[edit]

Age-hypogamy defines a relationship where the woman is the older partner, the opposite of this being age-hypergamy.[22] Marriage between partners of roughly similar age is known as "age homogamy".[23]

Older female-younger male relationships are, relative to age-hypergamous relationships (older male-younger female), less researched in scientific literature.[22] Many slang terms such as 'Cougar' have been used in films, TV shows and the media to depict older females with younger male mates. The picture often displays a stereotypical pairing of a divorced, middle-aged, white, affluent female dating a younger male with the relationship taking the form of a non-commitment arrangement between the partners. [24]

Although historically, age-hypogenous relationships have been very infrequent, recent US census data has shown an increase in age-hypogenous relationships from 6.4% in 2000 to 7.7% in 2012. [25]

There may be many reasons as to why age-hypogenous relationships are not very frequent. Sexual double standards in society may be one particular reason as to why women do not exhibit as many age-hypogenous relationships in comparison to age-hypergamous relationships.[22] Women also experience a double standard regarding the effects of ageing. In comparison to male sexuality, it considered that ageing in women is associated with decreased sex appeal and dating potential.[26]

There is debate in the literature as to what determines age-hypogamy in sexual relationships. A number of variables have been argued to influence the likelihood of women entering into an age-hypogamous relationship such as; racial or ethnic background, level of education, Income, marital status, conservatism, age and number of sexual partners.[22]

For example, it was found that in US Census data that African American communities showed an imbalanced sex ratio, whereby there were 100 African American woman for every 89 African American Males.[27] Support for this evidence was then found in regard to marriage, whereby it was shown that African American women were more likely to be in age-hypogamous or age-hypergamous marriages in comparison with White American women (Atkinson and Glass 1985). However, more recent evidence has found that women of other-race categories, outside of African or white American women were more likely to sleep with younger men[22], illustrating that it is still unclear which, if any ethnic groups are more likely to have age-hypogamous relationships.

Another example illustrating the varying literature surrounding age-hypogamous relationships is research indicating that a woman's marital status can influence her likelihood of engaging in age-hypogamous relationships. It has been found that married women are less likely to be partnered with a younger male compared to non-married women[28] in comparison to Alarie & Carmichael's more recent findings which provides evidence to suggest that previously married women are more likely to engage in an age-hypogamous sexual relationship compared to women who are married or who have never been married.[22]

Despite social views depicting age-hypogamous relationships as short lived and fickle, recent research published by Psychology of Women Quartlery has found that women in age-hypogamous relationships are more satisfied and the most committed in in their relationships compared to younger women or similarly aged partners.[29]

It has also been suggested that male partners to an older female partner may engage in age-hypogamous relationships due to findings that men choose beauty over age. A study conducted by Dr Fieldman found that when shown pictures of women of ages ranging from 20-45 with different levels of attractiveness, regardless of age, males chose the more attractive individuals as long term partners. [30]

  • Cougar (slang)
  • Hypergamy: the act or practice of marrying someone wealthier or of higher caste or social status than oneself.


  1. ^ Casterline, John; Williams, Lindy; McDonald, Peter (1986). "The Age Difference Between Spouses: Variations among Developing Countries". Population Studies. 40 (3): 353. doi:10.1080/0032472031000142296. 
  2. ^ "What is the Age of Consent to Sexual Intercourse?". 
  3. ^ a b "Long Term Trends in Marital Age Homogamy Patterns: Spain, 1922-2006". 2009-08-21. Retrieved 2013-11-25. 
  4. ^ United Nations. (2000). World Marriage Patterns 2000. Retrieved April 17, 2009 from: worldmarriage.htm
  5. ^ "Married Couple Family Groups, By Presence Of Own Children Under 18, And Age, Earnings, Education, And Race And Hispanic Origin Of Both Spouses". U.S. Census Bureau, Current Population Survey, 2013 Annual Social and Economic Supplement. 2013. 
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  7. ^ Ben Wilson and Steve Smallwood. "Age differences at marriage and divorce" (PDF). Office for National Statistics. Office for National Statistics. Retrieved 27 December 2014. 
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  9. ^ Hakim, Catherine (2010). "Erotic Capital". European Sociological Review. 26 (5): 499–518. doi:10.1093/esr/jcq014. 
  10. ^ Antfolk, Jan; Salo, Benny; Alanko, Katarina; Bergen, Emilia; Corander, Jukka; Sandnabba, N. Kenneth; Santtila, Pekka (2015). "Women's and men's sexual preferences and activities with respect to the partner's age: evidence for female choice". Evolution & Human Behavior. 36 (1): 73–79. doi:10.1016/j.evolhumbehav.2014.09.003. 
  11. ^ Wardrop, Murray (2009-06-02). "Men 'live longer' if they marry a younger woman". The Daily Telegraph. London. 
  12. ^ Wang, Wendy (2012-02-16). "The Rise of Intermarriage - Page 3 | Pew Social & Demographic Trends - Page 3". Retrieved 2013-11-25. 
  13. ^ Zhang, Xu; Polachek, Solomon W. (October 2007). "The Husband-Wife Age Gap at First Marriage: A Cross-Country Analysis". CiteSeerX accessible. 
  14. ^ "More women marrying younger men". BBC News. 12 December 2003. 
  15. ^ Ben Wilson and Steve Smallwood, "Age differences at marriage and divorce", Population Trends 132, Summer 2008, Office for National Statistics [1]
  16. ^ Strauss, Delphine (2008-06-26). "Age gap is no risk to marriages, ONS says". Retrieved 2013-11-25. 
  17. ^ Moss, Hilary (August 22, 2010). "New Study Claims No Cougar Trend, Dating Websites Attempt To Show Otherwise". Huffington Post. Retrieved 11 September 2010. 
  18. ^ Ian Sample. "Marrying a younger man increases a woman's mortality rate | Science". The Guardian. Retrieved 2013-11-25.