Data were taken partly from my personal experience and partly from an online dating site. We love science 'round here.
Please allow me to set the scene for you. Over a year ago I dabbled in some dating platforms of the "swipe left" "swipe right" variety. I am a thirty-one year old woman and therefore, on dating sites and apps, I set my age preferences for thirty-one to thirty-five year old men. On one particular app I matched with quite a few men, all from different backgrounds, all very successful and all very cute.
After swiping and matching with these presumed eligible bachelors we proceeded to step two, the initial chat. Naturally, the conversation stage is where most dating potential goes bust. Some dudes are blatant perverts, some are rude, some have baggage, but the rest are ones you can safely accept a date with to see where things go.
After I found my "safe date" dudes the conversations continued and we started making plans. Despite their differences, there came a point in all of our conversations where they all sounded like one universal man conscious. Eventually, they all went on to tell me how young I looked and how I could pass for a twenty-three or twenty-four year old. I was beyond flattered. I thought to myself "heyyyy, all this melanin, water, sweat, and sunscreen is working..."
The chit-chat continued until the day of our dates. Everything seemed to be going splendidly. Each guy even looked like their pictures in person. I felt like I was winning. Then, casually over dinner, they would bring up the topic of exes. I'd like to note that I almost never bring up exes because I don't want to know about theirs and I don't want to discuss mine. However, these men just really wanted to talk about their exes for some reason.
I kid you not. These thirty-three and thirty-four-year-old men had all just gotten out of relationships with twenty-two and twenty-three-year-old women. One guy even married a seventeen-year-old girl when he was twenty-seven. His teen bride promptly divorced him when she turned twenty-three and graduated college.
I quickly discerned that these men were mentally and emotionally stunted but I could still have some fun while in their presence. The shenanigans continued and if what they went on to tell me hadn't been so funny it would've been sad.
One of the thirty-three-year-old guys started dropping truth bombs about getting his heart irrevocably broken by a twenty-three-year-old woman. She was using him for his transportation and laptop while dating men her own age on the side because, duh.
The last guy, age thirty-four, was dating his twenty-three-year-old co-worker and dumped her when she wanted a commitment. Apparently he thought women under thirty magically didn't want the comfort of a commitment. Boy, did he learn from that mistake!
I was mind-blown. I'd somehow found myself in a Twilight Dating Zone from hell where it was actually a disadvantage to look younger than your age. In this alternate reality, all of the men who actually prefer to date a decade below them see you as an easy compromise and stampede your inbox. Suddenly it all made sense, them commenting about my not looking my age wasn't a compliment but a coded message that I almost fulfilled their desires for a MUCH younger woman.
I was so disturbed by that experience that I dug up some research to see if such antics uniquely happened to me. OKCupid, famous for providing data and insights about their user's preferences found that the men on their site never stop preferring twenty-year-old women.
If you're reading this and saying to yourself "duh! men like younger women, this isn't news!" I have to agree with you. Society has always presented a clear narrative that women aren't allowed to age lest become undesirable. However, what's utterly shocking to me is that these men don't simply prefer younger women. If that were the case then fifty-year-old men would think that snagging a forty-year-old was a "win." Instead, these men prefer women who aren't even legal drinking age. Ew! Ew! Ew!
Preferences indicate a first choice, not just an option to consider. For example, I love pizza. I would prefer pizza to any other food every single time. It's my first choice; it's what I want. If pizza isn't available to me, then I'll consider other options. To some men, twenty and twenty-one-year-old women are pizza, and they'll take women their own age if the twenty-year-olds aren't available.
Based on OKCupid's data points, after age twenty, men no longer prefer women their own age. Forty-five-year-old men bravely step outside of the box and manage to also find twenty-four-year-old women hot. However, by the time these men are forty-six they've grown out of twenty-four-year-olds and are back to scheming on twenty-year-olds.
To provide comparison, women up to age forty generally have tastes that align with their age. Still, even at fifty, we're not dipping our toes in the fake ID dating pool.
If you're interested in learning more about adult dating habits, OK Cupid regularly publicizes aggregate user analysis. Some of the findings are disturbing, some funny, and some sad as in the case of the racial preference against black women. If you'd like to stick with dating and age gaps here's another enlightening post for your reading pleasure.