May 21, 2021   6 mins

When Nancy Jo Sales fell in love with the man she calls Abel, she was 49 and he was 23. It was the summer of 2015 and she had just finished writing a big Vanity Fair story on how Tinder had caused an “apocalypse”, both in dating and in the treatment of women. The piece caused Tinder to have a well-chronicled meltdown at Sales on Twitter. No wonder: Sales had just made a convincing argument that the dating app had not only done something terrible to intimacy, but that it had unleashed a monstrous form of masculinity too.

Intriguingly, while reporting on the sexist horrors of Tinderland, Sales was using the app herself, by her own admission addicted to it. In her compulsive new memoir, Nothing Personal, she admits that as the proofs of her Vanity Fair article arrived in her inbox, she was messaging the young Abel, an exchange that would lead to his appearance at her Manhattan apartment a few days later — and a multi-year involvement that friends came to call a “situationship”. This description wasn’t to do with the age gap, but with the “casualisation” of dating. As Sales stresses, the barrage of choice offered by internet dating has “made marriage and committed relationships look less attractive and less necessary, especially for straight men”. Her entanglement with Abel was never going to be a relationship, then, to the dismay of a smitten-but-realistic Sales.

It’s become received wisdom that apps — the delivery devices of hook-up culture — encourage a kind of callousness that is particularly damaging to women, for whom purely transactional sex is more likely to be a downer. Tinder’s founders are archetypes of the Silicon Valley “tech bro”, who dress up poor treatment of women as sexual revolution. But despite this, something surprising is happening: the inversion of powerful truisms about women’s age and sexual desirability.

Until recently, it was a basic assumption that women age out of the fray, our peak time of sexual desirability being our late teens and twenties. This idea was sharpened by a raft of inaccurate studies in the 1980s suggesting that after 30, women’s fertility sinks like a stone. In Bridget Jones, published in 1996, the heroine ­is a “spinster” at 32. Even in 2014, dating and relationship “expert” Katy Horwood wrote that women in their thirties must “either compromise or dust down your spot on that shelf”. Just last year, Made in Chelsea star Ashley James told how she had a “meltdown” on the eve of her 30th: “I didn’t feel old enough to be… well, old. I wasn’t married, I wasn’t even in a relationship.”

James felt she had “run out of time” and remembered hearing people talk about women who were single at 30 as being “left on the shelf”, their “looks fading”. Part of the problem, perhaps, is the fact that older men have continued pursuing younger women.

Now, however, the middle-aged woman has become a prime target for younger men, not only for sex but in some rarer cases for relationships too. Sales never has trouble getting matches on Tinder, and the age difference between her and her lovers was dramatic: about 25 years. She’s not the only one. High profile examples include Kate Beckinsale, who at 43 was caught kissing 21-year-old comedian Matt Rife; at 45, she dated 25-year-old comedian Pete Davidson. This reshuffle has also become a trend among ordinary folk.

Why have young men switched the focus of their sexual energy on to middle-aged women? The most obvious explanation is that life is imitating porn, where the Milf (“Mother I’d like to fuck”) has seen a stratospheric rise. In 2018, Milf porn was the third most searched for category. As Sales writes, this is in part thanks to the “megastardom” of Lisa Ann, the 49-year-old porn actress who became “the world’s most famous Milf” after the release of her 2008 satirical video about Sarah Palin: Who’s Nailin’ Paylin? Lisa Ann combined character with beauty, and an upbeat image of the pornographic potential of mature female sexuality.

There is, of course, something empowering — even thrilling — in the age reversal; the sudden realisation that being a woman in your late 30s, 40s or 50s does not mean sexual invisibility, but rather its opposite. “It wasn’t only the swiping I was getting addicted to, but the attention of all these excited young men,” Sales writes. But when I interviewed her recently for a radio documentary I’m making about singleness, she was keen to stress that however many young men were desperate for sex with her, the experience should still be seen in terms of an overarching misogyny.

The examples offered in Nothing Personal certainly chronicle some appalling behaviour, from the rude to the threatening. As well as more respectful missives, men routinely sent messages — “I’m thinking we do a few tequila shots, I do some coke on your ass, pull your hair back and bend you over while listening to Zeppelin IV on vinyl” — and, even worse, desires — including for rape simulation — clearly influenced by porn.

Of course, older women have many obvious attractions: they are more likely to be confident and solvent, for instance. But the Milf idea thrives because it links to a kind of power-play integral to BDSM, which has become one of the most popular genres of sex. Older women are more likely to initiate sex, and in a kink-mad era in which the more transgressive something is the better, this role reversal no longer seems to challenge traditional masculinity. Instead, it is simply shifted into the category of “hot”.

The Milf figure also caters to complexes born of the chaotic conditions of the contemporary erotic-romantic landscape. Justin Lehmiller, who has researched the sexual fantasies of American men, found that men keen on Milf porn often suffer from relationship and attachment anxieties, and see a sexualised maternal figure as a source of comfort. “They’re worried that their partner might leave and they need quite a lot of reassurance,” says Lehmiller. Most young men on dating apps do not appear to be thirsting for a “partner”, but for men frightened of sexual rejection, which can be immediate, it’s not hard to see why an older woman — and especially a mother — might seem more sympathetic and more attractive.

When it comes to men their own age, then, young women seem to be drawing the short straw sexually (older men still prefer younger women). Their relative immaturity and inexperience seems to be held against them, and they are perceived as more likely to put the pressure on long-term commitment. Older women are (misleadingly) seen as lower-maintenance and more straightforward — or, Sales might add, as easier punching-bags. But if 20-something men are turning away from 20-something women, the feeling may well be mutual: young women are deeply frustrated with their counterparts, and seem to be looking to date older men instead.

There is nothing romantic, or particularly feminist, then, about the sudden emergence of middle-aged women as sexual hot property on dating apps; older women are treated no better than the young. And all women are struggling to find long-term partners in the current landscape. Still, as an alternative to the complete invisibility, or worse, mockery, that used to surround single women over 35, being a 43 or 53-year-old with the option to be inundated with sexual attention from gorgeous 25-year-olds is surely preferable.

It makes a nice change from being pummelled by narratives about decline. In the Eighties, for instance, the apparent cliff-dropping of fertility was used as a way to jab at women pursuing careers. After the feminist gains of the Seventies, as Susan Faludi argued in 1991, the following decade saw a “firebombing” of women, and the “backlash” continued, more subtly, for decades. In the media, everything from the burned-out “superwoman” to “the spinster boom” and “the infertility epidemic” were, Faludi pointed out, held in opposition to the virtuous, happy, stay-at-home, married Mom.

Nobody much, at least on the apps, seems to be thirsting for a virtuous Mom now. And Milfs, especially older Milfs, are past their fertility peak, and in some cases their window altogether. This suits today’s young men, who, as well  being unschooled and uninterested in commitment, seem oblivious to women as potential mothers of their children.

Flexibility and the ability to move frictionlessly through the world have come to be prized in all areas of life. The direction of travel in romanceland, to some extent, reflects this — dating has evolved to offer maximum freedom and minimal cramping of style. In this sense it suits the Milf as much as the younger man. Many 50-something women, including Sales, are busy, with parenting commitments and demanding jobs. Young whippersnappers who can deliver sex on a plate and nothing more might therefore appeal.

The trouble is, sex gets complicated. Sales isn’t the first woman to catch feelings during a fling; as Erica Jong realised back in the Seventies, there is — for women anyway — no such thing as the truly zipless fuck. Today’s dating scene may be convenient but, like the fast food hurried to your door by Deliveroo, it’s also often unhealthy.

Zoe Strimpel is a historian of gender and intimacy in modern Britain and a columnist for the Sunday Telegraph. Her latest book is Seeking Love in Modern Britain: Gender, Dating and the Rise of ‘the Single’ (Bloomsbury)