In a recent column at The Atlantic's web site, Hugo Schwyzer asks us to consider, "What would happen if men stopped chasing much younger women?" I suppose this is an interesting, if impractical question. (Ain't gonna happen, Hugo.)
Before getting too far into the weeds of this thought experiment, Schwyzer makes it clear that he's not talking about pedophiles or other obvious creeps; he's talking about men like Johnny Depp, who is apparently dating a woman in her late 20s, while he's just hit the big 5-0.
After bemoaning the ubiquity of this pattern of attraction, we come to the nub: "What seems harmless and natural, however, is neither." Schwyzer argues—or seems to—that this isn't in fact happening in response to any innate biological desire men hold for women in their most fertile years, despite the overwhelming biological evidence in support of such a view. To back up his thesis that this isn't a reflection of a "natural" desire on men's part, Schwyzer cites a 2007 study done in Sweden (though linking only to an article in The Economist that briefly mentions the study).
A few problems here.
1. You're going to cite a just single study to refute the overwhelmingly accepted understanding that men are attracted to women at the prime of their fertility due to innate, evolved tendencies? Just one?
2. The study Schwyzer cites actually says the opposite of what he thinks it does. The authors conclude that an age difference of 4-6 years (man older) is optimal for greater fecundity, not that partners should be the same age. Here's the first paragraph of their discussion at the end of the paper:
"We show that the offspring count of both men and women who did not change their partner (i.e. the other parent) between the birth of their first and last child increased, the younger the female partner was compared with the male. The age difference between the partners yielded a maximum offspring count for men, if the female partner was approximately 6 years younger than the male and for women if the male partner was approximately 4 years older than the female. These findings may account for the phenomenon that men typically prefer and mate with women younger than themselves, whereas women usually desire and mate with men older than themselves (Buss 1989; Kenrick & Keefe 1992)" (emphasis mine).
3. Note that in addition to concluding that "offspring count ... increased the younger the female partner was compared to the male," the authors stipulate that they only included couples who "did not change their partner (i.e. the other parent) between the birth of their first and last child..." So Schwyzer's contention that there is no evolutionary basis underlying this attraction, expressed as reproductive pay-off, is not supported by the only study he cites. In fact, the study he cites refutes both his contention that "the science" shows this to be other than a natural behavior pattern and his moralistic scolding of Depp for dating a 27 year-old. After noting that, "The strategic reproductive benefit of choosing a younger woman diminished as the age gap widened," without including the crucial stipulation that the study only included couples who only had children with each other, Schwyzer writes, "According to the science, Depp was better matched with Paradis (nine years his junior) than with the new girlfriend." No, that's not what the science says. That's the opposite of what the science says. Schwyzer's "proof" that men's fecundity didn't increase when they hooked up with younger women didn't include men who had a second family after hooking up with a younger woman, as Depp seems poised to do. It's like arguing that smoking doesn't cause cancer without including smokers in your study. Hard reasoning to follow, that.
Which brings us to the moralistic claptrap.
Apparently oblivious to his complete failure to make the scientific point, Schwyzer stumbles along into the judgmental denunciation of men's morals and motivations, writing, "So if older men aren't pursuing much younger women because of evolutionary hardwiring, why do they? It's hard not to conclude that much of the appeal is about the hope of finding someone less demanding. A man in his 40s who wants to date women in their 20s is making the same calculation as the man who pursues a 'mail-order bride' from a country with less egalitarian values. It's about the mistaken assumption that younger women will be more malleable."
Ouch. Poor, pathetic Johnny Depp. Schwyzer somehow knows Depp's not attracted to his 27 year-old girlfriend because she's interesting, smart, has a great sense of humor, and is clearly hot (i.e. He's responding to "evolutionary hardwiring"), he's into her because she's powerless and he's intimidated by less "malleable" women of his own age. Think I'm putting words in Hugo's mouth? Read em and weep: "Men who chase younger women aren't eroticizing firmer flesh as much as they are a pre-feminist fantasy of a partner who is endlessly starry-eyed and appreciative."
So here's the moral of the story: Old losers like Johnny Depp are too weak-willed to pick on someone their own age, so they chase younger women who will put up with their bullsh*t because the poor young things don't know any better and couldn't do anything about if they did.
Ha! A quick perusal of Amber Heard's Wikipedia page suggests that if old Johnny's expecting malleable, starry-eyed, and appreciative, he's got another thing coming. Turns out, Miss Heard is a big fan of Ayn Rand, guns, and other women.
Schwyzer's attempt to shame consenting adults out of what he considers to be inapproapriate relationships strikes me as quite the opposite of an informed feminist perspective. If anyone's suffering from a "pre-feminist fantasy" in this situation, it would appear to be Mr. Schwyzer, who thinks a smart, successful 27 year-old woman is necessarily disempowered by her youth and beauty. I don't think she needs your help, Uncle Hugo. She seems to be doing just fine.
* Full disclosure: I've met Hugo Schwyzer when we appeared together on The Point, and he seemed like a nice enough guy. I've never met Johnny Depp, but he seems like a nice guy, too. And lastly, my wife is older than me (but far prettier).