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America Can't Decide What An Adult Is
why is leonardo dicaprio a “creep” for dating younger women, but cher is a “cougar” for dating younger men? is 25 too young to consent to elective surgery? should 16-year-olds be voting?
What is an adult? America’s laws usually say an adult is an 18-year-old — if she wants to vote, fight in a war, have sex, and take on debt — or a 21-year-old if she’d like to enjoy a beer or cigarette. America’s citizens can’t seem to make up their minds either, as we saw last week after a picture of Leonardo DiCaprio sitting next to a 19-year-old Israeli model at a party resurrected the “age-gap” discourse. The “age-gap” discourse is an eternal internet argument in which one side posits that legal adults can have sex with whoever they like, and the other side posits that if the age between two consenting adults is too large, the relationship is predatory on the part of the older person, and effectively non-consensual on the part of the younger.
The older, “predatory” partner in question is always a man, and usually a straight one. For example, no one alleges that lesbian actress Sarah Paulson, 48, is being preyed upon by her 80-year-old partner Holland Taylor. Even in heterosexual world, an older woman who sleeps with younger, adult men, might be seen as wild or desperate, but never sinister. When Cher dated a man 40 years her junior and tweeted “love doesn’t know math,” people rightfully laughed.
In contrast with how young heterosexual women are portrayed when they date older men, the young men with whom older women sleep are seen as able to fully consent — somewhat ironic given that on average, men’s brains fully develop about two years later than women’s. Real-life cougars might be predators, but the women we call cougars are never perceived this way. In fact, Valerie Gibson, the writer who popularized the term in 2001 through publication of her book Cougar: A Guide for Older Women Dating Younger Men said she “deliberately set out to turn the word into an empowerment image for older women.” Like careerism, bullish assertiveness, and many other qualities deemed “empowering” for women, the word cougar symbolizes an appropriation of stereotypically male behaviors. Toxic masculinity for thee, female empowerment for me.
Critics cast DiCaprio’s dating behavior as “creepy” — an interesting and somewhat revealing choice of word which implies fear and unease. But of what? Perhaps it is the uneasy fact that, almost universally, heterosexual men of all ages are most attracted to younger women. Christian Rudder, the founder of OKCupid and author of Dataclysm: Who We Are (When We Think No One is Looking) found that men of all ages said women in their early 20s look best, while women were most attracted to men their own age. Meanwhile, a 2018 study that used data from a popular dating website found that, among heterosexuals, desirability peaked at 18 for women and at 50 for men.
This incongruence in desirability is at the root of why this discourse arises at all, and why it’s only directed at men. A cougar might very well be regarded as a fetishist, as her attraction to young men is out of the norm. DiCaprio is regarded as a “creep” for precisely the opposite reason. His attraction to younger women isn’t fetishistic, but rather typical. The fact that he, and men like him, embrace the incongruence in desirability is perceived as an unacceptable bucking of the social norms which serve to reconcile this fundamental problem in heterosexuality. Unfortunately, the social order which created and rectified those norms is long gone, and not merely because of playboy celebrities. As controversial feminist academic and social critic Camille Paglia said in 1997:
There is an enormous bitterness among contemporary heterosexual women toward men, whom they blame for not understanding them, for not communicating well, for shirking responsibility, for exchanging their aging wives at midlife for younger trophy wives. Here is nature’s injustice once again. A man can sire children until his seventies, but nature removes women from the sexual race relatively early. In the old days of the rural village, women gained power by moving into the grandmother role, where they could boss around their sons’ young wives from the apex of the extended family. But today aging women are edged off the map. Isolated by the nuclear family, scattered in the suburbs, surrounded by strangers with no sense of their past role or contribution, aging women now experience cultural abandonment.
This problem has only become more extreme since the late 90s. Of middle-aged GenXers, only a small majority, 53%, were wed between the ages of 23 and 38. Things are even worse for millennials, the oldest of whom are now in their 40s: a majority have never been married, a first among living American generations. The anxious Silent Generation and Boomer wives that Paglia described were at least insulated by the institution of marriage — which, at least somewhat, insulated them from competition from other women by introducing social, legal, and financial costs to the would-be philandering of their husbands. Today’s aging women do not have these institutional weapons at their disposal. Infantilizing younger women, and calling the older men who date them “creepy,” is an attempt to reintroduce a social cost that might help level what has become an increasingly uneven playing field. Sometimes, this reaches the absurd, where even men dating short women within their age range are implied to be “disturbed.” Unlike their married predecessors, today’s unmarried women compete with their nubile counterparts in a free market, and one in which their physical desirability, as an asset, deprecates with time.
Of course, physical desirability is not the only asset women have, or the only one men care about, especially older men. One Australian study found that men prioritized looks less in a partner as they grew older — one explanation for why Leo’s dating habits are less universal than we otherwise might expect given heterosexual men’s near-universal attraction to younger women. Men, at least most of them, also want love and families – sex can spurn both, but only companionship can maintain it. This makes critiques of DiCaprio from figures like Megyn Kelly more compelling. Kelly’s critique was ruthless, but she implied that his dating habits were immature and pathetic, calling them “sad” rather than predatory. “I feel like this guy… is never going to know the joy of meeting somebody who he can fall in deep love with and build a family with.” If one wants to stigmatize older men dating younger women, doing so on the grounds that his choices are immature for his age even if his tastes aren’t — an idea supported by statistics — is far more justifiable than, for example, advocating to raise the age of consent to 21 if not higher.
It is ironic that for some on the political left, a woman is mature enough to determine her own gender from the moment she can speak, but not mature enough to consent to have sex with a man until age 19. If at 13 or so she decides she’s a man, she can receive cross-sex hormones through research projects funded by the same government which will deny her legal access to beer and cigarettes until the age of 21.
On the flip side, some on the right don’t think 25-year-olds have the capacity to determine whether or not to undergo gender reassignment surgery. In Oklahoma, a top Republican State Senator is attempting to ban gender reassignment surgeries for anyone under 26, on the basis that “We want to make sure that if we're going to do a procedure like this that is irreversible… an individual is at their full maturity when it comes to cognitive development.” This is a rather laughable proposition for a country that not only permits — but encourages — 18-year-olds to volunteer to fight in wars they can and do die in.
But no serious figure on the left, and certainly nobody on the right, is advocating that we raise the age of enlistment to be in congruence with the statistical age in which the brain is “fully developed.” On some level, this inconsistency might be a matter of class. The people who pass laws of any kind in this country barely send their children to public schools anyway. There's a slim chance that they will ever find their son at a high school cafeteria table, shaking hands with a military recruiter over a deal that will see him risk life and limb for a subsidized Bachelors in Kinesiology. They might, however, see their daughter come home from her private all girls school or Ivy league college and announce that she, like an ever increasing number of people in her friend group, is transgendered — as was the typical case with the disproportionately upper-middle class subjects of Abigail Shrier’s book Irreversible Damage.
Of course, sometimes it’s not that deep.
It goes without saying that the right also likes the trans-kids issue because it's political red meat, and the only thing more valuable than that is votes. And earlier this year Congresswoman Grace Meng (D-NY) introduced a bill that would allow 16- and 17-year-olds to vote. One justification cited in the bill’s press release was that “16- and 17-year-olds are legally permitted to work, drive, and they also pay income taxes.” It’s a reasonable point, and one that would seem sincere if Meng didn’t belong to a political party that increasingly depends on high youth voter turnout to win elections.
There is constant squabbling about the age of adulthood, to say nothing of the inconsistent laws which already exist. We’ve already mentioned the issues of work, driving, sex, enlistment, tobacco, alcohol, and voting. But there are others too. Take matrimony, wherein 46 states allow child marriage under certain conditions, or criminal law, where some states can try minors as young as 14 as adults for certain crimes. These last two are telling, as they are holdovers from a time when adolescence hardly existed. But adolescence is here, now, and its undefined boundary with adulthood is ripe for the stretching by DiCaprio haters, paranoid Oklahoma lawmakers, and Democratic congresswomen alike. We’d be wise, as both a culture and legal polity, to be consistent. 18 to drink, 18 to marry, 18 to shoot Afghanis or Russians or whoever it is now, 18 to fuck Leo, 18 to cut off your cock and crack open the surgeon’s window for a Marlboro light. By God’s grace, just call it 18 and call it a day.