The Double Standard and Aging
In previous chapters we have discussed the double standard as it relates to male and female sexual expression during adolescence and adulthood. The assumptions and prejudices implicit in the sexual double standard continue into old age, imposing a particular burden on women. Although a woman’s sexual capabilities can continue throughout her lifetime, the cultural image of an erotically appealing woman is commonly one of youth.
In contrast, the sexual attractiveness of men is often considered enhanced by aging. Gray hair and facial wrinkles are often thought to look distinguished on men—signs of accumulated life experience and wisdom. Likewise, it is relatively common for a man’s achievements and social status—both of which usually increase with age—to be closely associated with his sexual appeal. However, the professional achievements of women may be perceived as threatening to some potential male partners.
The pairing of powerful older men and young beautiful women reflects this double standard of aging. The marriage of a 55-year-old man and a 25-year-old woman generates a much smaller reaction than that of a 55-year-old woman and a 25-year-old man. And as you might expect, pairings of older men and young women occur much more commonly than the reverse. However, a survey found that 34% of women over age 40 were dating younger men, and more women marry younger men now than in the past (Coontz, 2006; Mahoney, 2003).
Sexuality and the Adult Years
In response to the double standard of aging, writer Susan Sontag presented an alternative view:
Women have another option. They can aspire to be wise, not merely nice; to be competent, not merely helpful; to be strong, not merely graceful; to be ambitious for themselves, not merely themselves in relation to men and children. They can let themselves age naturally and without embarrassment, actively protesting and disobeying the conventions that stem from this society’s double standard about aging. . . . [T]hey can. . . remain active adults, enjoying the long, erotic career of which women are capable. (1972, p. 38)