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Age as a Factor in Sexual Orientation and Attraction

A new study considers people who consistently prefer an older sexual partner.

Chris MacLellan, used with permission
Chris MacLellan, 57, and Richard Schiffer, 83.
Source: Chris MacLellan, used with permission

When asked about sexual orientation, a person typically will respond with the gender of their preferred sexual partner. Is it a same-sex partner, an opposite-sex one, or both? In a paper published August 22, 2016, in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, Michael Seto writes that the age of one’s sexual partner may be as stable an element of sexual orientation as gender.

GLAAD defines sexual orientation as “the scientifically accurate term for an individual's enduring physical, romantic and/or emotional attraction to members of the same and/or opposite sex, including lesbian, gay, bisexual and heterosexual (straight) orientations.” In this definition, gender is the sole criterion to establish sexual orientation. But Seto seeks to define sexual orientation more broadly, including “a stable tendency to preferentially orient—in terms of attention, interest, attraction, and genital arousal—to particular classes of sexual stimuli.” He emphasizes classes of stimuli that include age, rather than gender alone. He uses the term chronophilia to describe a preferential treatment of certain age categories.

Much of Seto’s previous work has been on the forensic study of pedophilia, but in this paper he broadens his discussion to other age preferences. His research focuses on men because, as he says, there is almost no research on chronophilias in women. In addressing age, he does not limit age to the chronological age but includes physical and sexual maturity. Sexual age, then, is reflected in body size and shape, secondary sexual characteristics, and other visible signs of age such as wrinkled skin and white hair. Seto also incorporates psychological features of maturity such as intelligence, kindness and an agreeable sense of humor.

Seto argues that “we have an incomplete understanding of how human sexuality is oriented if we focus only on gender as the important dimension.”

Chris MacLellan, used with permission
Source: Chris MacLellan, used with permission

How often does age factor into sexual attraction? The default position when considering sexual attraction is typically two sexually mature, young adults, engaged is conventional sexual activities, the most common representation of sexual activities fed to audiences in movies and television, but a study of pornography gives us a window into the hidden world of sexual desire and sexual fantasy.

Attraction to an older man or woman is common enough for the Urban Dictionary to have an entry for DILF (Dads I’d like to f***)--a crude but specific term--and a Google search for DILF turns up nearly 1.7 million hits. Sites included heterosexual, homosexual, and bisexual references. If you wish to filter your search, Google recommends searching for naked DILF, gay DILF, black DILF and monster DILF. “Tumblr” has categories for dream daddies, hot daddies, and bear daddies. “Silver Daddies,” one of the largest chat sites for intergenerational gay relationships posts over 155,000 profiles from a wide variety of countries and cultures.

The most studied aspect of sexual orientation is gender with age being the second most studied, but age has been studied almost exclusively in the context of pedophilia, and most research on gay men has centered on young, urban men. Huge gaps exist in our knowledge of maturity as it relates to sexual orientation. Seto writes, “I am not aware of any empirical research on individuals attracted to middle-age [or older] persons.”

Seto focuses on four features of sexual orientation—age of onset, neurobiological correlates, association with romantic and sexual behavior, and stability over time.

Chris MacLellan, used with permission
Source: Chris MacLellan, used with permission

In researching Finally Out: Letting Go of Living Straight, a Psychiatrist’s Own Story, I had the opportunity to interview a large number of younger gay men in intergenerational relationships, and I found some common themes:

  • A large majority--if not most--of them believed they have always been attracted to someone fifteen to twenty years older or more, and as they age, that age difference in their attraction persists.
  • Many were or had been in enduring relationships, and frequently as the older man has grown frail, the younger partner had become the primary care provider.
  • Demands are often made of the younger man to explain his attraction to an older man, even though he doesn’t understand it himself; older men were rarely asked to defend their choice.
  • The younger man often explains his attraction with words like wisdom, experience, sensitivity, a life well-lived, but the attraction was clearly very erotic as well.
  • Most resent any implication that their relationship is based on a wish to exploit the older partner, e.g. “a sugar daddy.”
  • Although these younger men often questioned if their relationship with their father was responsible for their attraction, they were about equally split between those who had a good relationship with their father and those with a bad or no relationship.

Although these relationships are atypical, they are not as unusual as commonly believed. The American Psychiatric Association does not define atypical sexual interests as a disorder unless it causes personal distress, causes another person psychological or physical injury, or involves a person unwilling or unable to give legal consent. These distinctions were made to show that individuals who engage in atypical sexual behavior must not be inappropriately labeled as having a mental disorder.

When we think of sexual orientation, we usually think of the continuum of gay, straight, and bisexual, but sexual orientation is a deep-seated attraction toward a certain kind of person. Erotic desire includes attention, attraction, fantasy, thoughts, urges, genital arousal, and behavior. It is further complicated by variations of dominance or submission, sadism and masochism, fetishes, and consent or no consent. These interests may be single or multiple, exclusive or nonexclusive, idiosyncratic or opportunistic, stable or fluid. Possible legal consequences, lack of opportunity, and unwillingness or inability to act all work to constrain our behavior.

Alfred Kinsey, in Sexual Behavior in the Human Male wrote: “The living world is a continuum in each and every one of its aspects. The sooner we learn this concerning human sexual behavior, the sooner we shall reach a sound understanding of the realities of sex.”

The reasons for our sexual choices are analyzed obsessively, imposing an undue emphasis on categorization rather than accepting the great diversity of same-sex attractions. But the act of categorizing all of these atypical sexual attractions does not mean that acting on them is either legal or morally acceptable nor unacceptable.

Explanations for all of the elements of our sexual attractions are complex and probably unknowable. All research runs the risk of reductionism, but when research on sexuality focuses exclusively on genital sexual activity --to the exclusion of considerations of attraction, affection and affiliation--it falls short in understanding our sexual orientations and our sexual identities.

More from Loren A. Olson M.D.
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