The editor of the Welcomat, Dan Rottenberg, recently told me this is one of the four or five articles he's published that stuck in his mind. It seemed to me I saw a lot of smiling women walking around center city Philadelphia on the day the piece appeared. I was in my fifties when I wrote it and I'll stand behind the basic idea now that I'm in my seventies. I called it "Why I am Not As Worried About Growing Old as I Used to Be" when I turned it in. Dan changed that to something like "Good News About Middle Aged Sex Appeal". The current title is an attempt to capture the serious, scholarly nature of this vital matter.
THE NATURAL SELECTION
OF GROWNUP SEX APPEAL
One of the pleasantest surprises of my life was the discovery that the age at which I find women attractive seems to go up as I grow older. When I was thirty-one or thirty-two, I realized one day that the youngest person who fascinated me was in her late twenties and the oldest had reached her late thirties. And now that Iím twenty years older, I can happily report that almost all the women who evoke significant responses from me are women in their forties and fifties.
This may seem like a trivial matter to those of you who are absorbed in important decisions such as the selection of the next President of the United States, but it wasnít a minor revelation to me. When I was in my twenties, I had this terrible vision of myself as an aging chap of forty-five or thereabouts, sitting in Rittenhouse Square longingly eyeing the same bright young things, between eighteen and twenty-seven, who cast a glow over my life in the days when Philadelphia was still the fourth largest city in the United States. Instead, I now have some hope that twenty-five years from now, I will be able to recite Rupert Brookeís sonnet Oh Death will find me long before I tire of watching you to beautiful younger women in their late sixties and fascinating older women in their early eighties.
I even have some reason to think this isnít an isolated phenomenon. Twice now I have talked to recently divorced men in their fifties who had finished their first flurry of experimentation and decided they werenít going to date anyone under forty.
It is also a finding which raises a question of great sociobiological significance. Our responses to the other sex have been shaped by a ruthless selection process which has only one criterion. If something tends to lead to reproduction, it gets passed on to future generations. If it doesnít, no one inherits it, and it fades it into oblivion. And if there is one thing that should have been weeded out of the male half of our species a long time ago, it is the tendency to be enchanted by women who have lived more than two or three decades.
The classic picture of a beautiful woman is simply a healthy woman of childbearing age. All the things women are taught to preserve-- such as smooth skin-- are essentially traits that tell the male he is looking at a healthy woman who is the optimum age to bear children. If you are attracted by those qualities, youíre more likely to have children, and men with your attitudes should eventually be the dominant strain in the human population.
It doesnít matter whether you believe our feelings are shaped by biology or culture. Our chemistry and our cultures both have to meet the same test. There may once have been young men whose genes predisposed them to like women with white hair and aging faces. There may have been cultures in which some charismatic leader convinced all the young boys they should grow up to marry women the same age as their mothers. If there were, we can be certain they didnít have much influence on the future of sexual relations. Some feelings pass the test and some donít. And those that donít, disappear.
So why should some of us find that our image of a beautiful woman changes as we grow older? How can a devoted follower of contemporary semi-scientific thought explain the observed fact that some men are not permanently fixated on healthy young women between sixteen and twenty-five?
It's possible, of course, that we are merely dealing with a minor statistical aberration. The selection process doesnít have to totally eliminate unproductive tendencies. A culture may last-- or a genetic line continue to reproduce-- if eighty or ninety percent of its members come up to standard in the critical areas. Those of us who havenít got it quite right can still hang around as long as there arenít too many of us.
I think I can demonstrate-- to my own satisfaction anyway-- that the trait under discussion is not just a perversion that can be tolerated as long as it remains statistically insignificant. I think I can even offer some evidence that it should be a natural outgrowth of any selection process that has produced intelligent, culture-building creatures like you and me.
To begin with, let us not forget that human women do not merely bear children. They also rear them. There should have been some selection, therefore, for men who are attracted to women with certain personality traits. And, in fact, our images of beautiful women have always included certain ideals-- such as the Roman matron or certain types of Ladies-- that are essentially images of women with a bit of character. If your culture encourages young men to pine over women like that, then the swains that take the bait are more likely to marry women who make good mothers, their children are more likely to grow up and start families themselves, etc., etc., etc.
We should also remember that a human female isnít just a passive receptacle for the male sperm. She provides her children with half their genes. Which means, of course, that there should be some men here and there who are descended from ancestors who were attracted to competent, intelligent women. If you are fascinated by able, intelligent women, then you are more likely to have able, intelligent sons who are, of course, more likely to.....
We may laugh at nineteenth century women who showed off their ďaccomplishmentsĒ and Miss America contestants who display their ďtalentsĒ. But donít those funny little rituals tell us that even in the most frivolous circumstances, we expect a beautiful woman to be someone who has a certain degree of coordination and intellectual ability? She may not be expected to use those qualities herself, but sheís at least supposed to carry the genes for them.
The selection process should have encouraged a third trait which may be even more relevant, and that is the tendency to enjoy being around the other sex. This may seem like a widespread characteristic but Iím inclined to think itís not as universal as we may think.
Lots of people like sex. Most of us have a strong need to be loved and approved. If you watch the crowd at almost any party, however, you will see that there are clearly people who tend to gravitate toward their own sex when theyíre socializing and other people who have a pronounced tendency to orbit the other sex. And it isnít hard to see that men who like to hang around with the other sex are more likely to find mates. They may even be more likely to form stable pairings.
Again, it doesnít matter whether some men have brains that produce little jolts of pleasure hormones when theyíre around women or whether they merely read a lot of stuff like Amy Kellyís biography of Eleanor of Aquitaine at an impressionable age. Either way you get the same result.
And if all three of these traits tend to lead to reproduction, then obviously my pleasant little surprise shouldnít have been so surprising after all, and we are talking about a trait which should actually be relatively common, even if it's not (yet) a dominant characteristic of the male half of our species. If your picture of a beautiful woman includes things like character, competence, and a capacity for companionship, then it would be very surprising if it didnít change as you yourself got older and became used to all the increases in those qualities that tend to come with age.
We have all inherited a number of well-publicized images of successful maleness-- the Sullen Brute, the Heroic Achiever, the Stolid Provider, the Lonely Soul, the Warrior/Protector, the Carefree Impregnator, the Harem Collector. They all have their charms and they are all obviously strategies that produce their share of winners in the great struggle to inflict your genes and prejudices on the next generation. It might be of some value, however, if now and then, in some out of the way corner of our culture, someone pointed out that there is a place in the winnerís circle for friendly, good humored men who like to hang around competent women with well developed personalities. They may not be the biggest winners and I am perfectly willing to admit they may not be the commonest-- but they may be the chaps who have the fewest complaints about the whole strange business.
Copyright (c) 1989 by Tom Purdom. All rights reserved. This document may be printed out and archived for personal use. All other use is strictly prohibited. A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Philadelphia Welcomat.
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