It’s three weeks before shutdown in 2020 — or, if you’re a romantic, it’s Valentine's Day — when a man approaches a woman at a table. They’re both at a neighborhood hole-in-a-wall, a rather divey place in Boston, and it’s emptied out for the night. It’s the kind of spot you’d probably find dingy Christmas lights and cheap drafts, but it also happens to be where Caitlin, 31, finds Ben, 26. They exchange numbers. Despite Ben’s magnetic charm and persistence, Caitlin recalls being “a little turned off” when she first uncovered their age gap through text. Still, she decided to give it a chance.
For women who date men, having a younger partner has been routinely met with apprehension. It’s the friend asking, “Oof, could he be immature?” when you Hinge-swipe on a 20-something. It’s the backlash Olivia Wilde received after announcing her relationship with a 10-years-younger Harry Styles. And while there’s a Very Long™ list of gender-related double standards in dating that still exist in 2022, it’s safe to say that dating older has typically been the more culturally accepted route for women. Until now.
According to TikTok, the older man/younger woman standard is out. Videos circulate on the app with captions like “perks of dating a younger man,” accompanied by lengthy lists of positives: openmindedness, willingness to try new things, more feminist worldviews, and — like one viral TikTok jokes — full heads of hair. Celebs who’ve joined the trend, from Kim K and Pete Davidson, who have a 13-year age difference, to newly married Britney Spears, 40, and husband Sam Asghari, 28, show that a younger-in-age man and older woman isn’t only TikTok-approved, but works IRL, too. (It’s also worth noting that Match did a survey in 2020 that found 81% of women are open to dating someone 10 years younger than them. And for men? 90% are into dating a woman 10 years older.)
In Caitlin’s case, she was pleasantly surprised by what she found in her younger guy. The Boston-based account specialist says that while she “only dated guys older” or around the same age as her, she found Ben to be more deliberate than the others: “One of my huge peeves was men my age not being able to commit to or even make a plan,” she tells Bustle. “When they did, it would always be at a bar, conveniently located next to their apartment.” Ben, instead, got creative with his dates ideas — bull-riding shows, New England Revolution games — and his spontaneity matched her go-with-the-flow spirit.
Not only was he innovative with date planning, but he was also looking for something more serious, Caitlin says. “Before meeting Ben, had you told me any mid-20s man wanted this, I would have laughed.” The two have been together since that night at the bar.
According to Natalie Logan, director of communications at Bumble, this could be because of a global increase in meaningful dating post-lockdown. In a recent survey of over 8,000 of the app’s users, more than half (59%) of Bumble daters say they’re now more direct with partners about what they’re looking for. “This is what we identify as intentional dating,” Logan says.
And it turns out Caitlin isn’t alone. Dana, 32, a clinical social worker in Oregon, says that’s exactly what drew her to her husband, Ethan, 24. “He was also kinder and more sensitive to things than guys my age,” Dana tells Bustle. “I do trauma-intensive therapy and I’m a high school mental health social worker, so emotional intelligence was a must.”
But if you’re unfamiliar with dating younger guys — or maybe writing them off altogether — you might think the relationship would look something like it did on Season 1, Episode 4 of Sex and the City, “Valley of the Twenty-Something Guys,” in which Carrie and Samantha find themselves dating younger men as women in their mid-30s, only to opt out shortly after their findings. (Those findings were childish 20-somethings with messy apartments that came with roommates.)
But to Dana, her then-boyfriend, now husband always made her feel secure and appreciated. He was mature — and far from being that stereotype: “He’s emotionally available and wasn’t damaged or hanging on to an ex,” she says. “He talked about his feelings without shame, which was a big first for me.” Add that to the list of things Carrie Bradshaw got wrong.
*Sloane, 31, says that she fell into dating younger men because they are “sweet, giving, and usually less jaded than older men” — in and outside the bedroom. “They actually cared about my pleasure during sex,” the Ohio-based active military service member tells Bustle, which was something Sloane didn’t experience with men her age. “The young guys [ages 21-24] were into getting experimental and using toys,” she says. ”They never quit until I had had mine, which has been so refreshing.”
Kate Balestrieri, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist and certified sex therapist, says there’s a reason why this dynamic works so well inside the bedroom. “Older women, in their 30s, are more likely to be in their sexual prime,” she tells Bustle. “Moreso than younger women, older women may also know more about what they like and want during sex and may feel more comfortable asking for it.” According to Balesterieri, younger men might be more receptive to hearing it, compared to their same-aged peers, who may (consciously or unconsciously) feel more insecure, competitive, invested in being seen as in control, or focused on their own pleasure. “Plus, men in their 20s are closer to their sexual prime, meaning that there can be more synergy around their desire for sex.”
She also notes that their eagerness to please may be because men who are now in their early-mid 20s grew up with more exposure to gender equality and sex-positive content.
Her advice for anyone interested in exploring a sexual or emotional relationship with someone younger is to ignore any stigmas, and just go for it. That’s what Caitlin did — and she’s so thankful she didn’t narrow her dating pool. She advises others to do the same, or else they might miss out on a man who’s “lower in age, higher in quality.”
*Name has been changed to protect privacy
Experts & sources:
Kate Balestrieri, Ph.D., licensed psychologist, certified sex therapist, certified sex addiction therapist, PACT therapist and founder of Modern Intimacy, a group therapy practice in Los Angeles, Miami, NYC, Denver, and Chicago.
Natalie Logan, director of communications at Bumble