For the good of the species?

If you believe one story on a popular science news site, there's proof that older men "chasing" younger women benefits humankind (or should that be mankind?) Eirwen-Jane Pierrot considers the impact of these sensationalist claims on women in the real world

Eirwen-Jane Pierrot, 15 April 2009

I recently stumbled upon an online article headlined "Older men chasing younger women: A good thing". There it was, in bold, blue Ariel text at the top of my screen. My eyes quickly scanned the page for the missing question mark - which would surely be somewhere, right? There must have been some sort of glitch, rows of text must have gone out of sync. Somewhere-or-other a bold, blue Ariel question mark would be lurking behind a pop-up advert. But alas, there was no glitch, nor any pop-up adverts. The headline was not a statement not a question: Older men chasing younger women: A good thing.

Perhaps I wouldn't have been so taken aback if I'd accidentally stumbled onto a Hugh Hefner appreciation Facebook group (there are somewhere in the region of 400 of them, incidentally). I would have shirked it off, rolled my eyes and forgotten all about it. But that's not what happened. Instead, I read the whole article, open-mouthed and, by the time I'd gotten to the end, was riled enough to put pen to paper and write this piece. I was mad because the 1,500-odd words, carefully detailing older men's justification to 'chase' young women, was being hosted by a science news site. It wasn't a few fantasy lines from a retired car salesman, lauding the merits of his trophy wife, it was a thorough report, heavily referenced and supported by evidence from prominent universities. It was truth. scientific, objective fact. Can't argue with that, can you?

It's this kind of irresponsible dissemination of science that makes some men continue to see women as no more than the sum of their reproductive parts

The partnering of older men with younger women, the article argued, "contributes to human longevity and the survival of the species". Evolutionary theory suggests that individuals should die of old age when their reproductive lives are complete. But the fatherhood of a small number of older men will have the effect of increasing the lifespan of future generations, because of natural selection. "Rod Stewart and David Letterman," the article continues, "having babies in their 50s and 60s... has an effect on the population as a whole... It is advantageous to the species if these people stick around. By increasing survival of men you have a spillover effect on women because men pass their genes to children of both sexes."

I should be fair. At no point did the author actually say: "Men, for the good of mankind, ditch your bird at 40 and get a fresher model." But he (or perhaps she, unfortunately no name is given) might as well have. No amount of references, jargon or name dropping was able to disguise this tirade of outright misogyny. Alright, perhaps there is evidence to suggest that the older man/younger woman combo might mean offspring live longer - what do I know, I'm not a scientist. I managed to stick at chemistry at school until 18 and then threw in the towel in favour of the humanities. But I think I can smell a hidden agenda: and this stinks.

For a start, let's take the language. "Chasing": last time I checked this wasn't a scientific term. In fact, last time I checked it was synonymous with hounding, hunting, trailing and tracking. Well, we all love 'the chase' don't we, 'foxy' ladies?

Science should be about the advancement of knowledge. It should seek a better understanding of ourselves and of our planet. It can enrich lives: major discoveries make life easier, longer, more comfortable. Science, even popular science, shouldn't be reduced to the language of Nuts magazine. I don't want science, no matter what its merit in terms of uncovering legitimate 'fact', to be used as an excuse for a bloke old enough to be my granddad to leer, wink and whisper "hello, gorgeous" in my youthful ear. I'm not exaggerating. It's this kind of irresponsible dissemination of science that makes some men continue to see women as no more than the sum of their reproductive parts.

Take one charming comment left by Mr 35069:

Im a 50yr Aussie male and I love younger women. The women I see my age are fat or just plain ugly and no amount of help will fix them. Who wants to go after soemthing all worn out? I think after women have menapause the ugly factor kicks in. Or maybe that's the way of nature, so older men go after younger women who are more capable of providing better breeding stock.

There were plenty more of the same. But it's OK because they are only acting in the way nature intended. They are backed up by the unwavering hand of science; that same unwavering hand that celebrates male promiscuity whilst condemning as sluts women who have a strong sex drive or multiple sexual partners. Because for women to sleep around, well that's just not natural. When men do it they are just obeying their biological urges to sow their wild outs and father multiple children. It's for the good of the species.

What really gets to me is the idea, held by some, that science is somehow truly objective and that unlike other disciplines isn't vulnerable to subjective interpretation. Certainly, when I was at university I faced ridicule by a number of scientists (though by no means all) who felt that they were pursuing a far higher form of knowledge than my lowly and pointless history degree. And why? Because they were in search of timeless truths.

But anyone who thinks that the discipline of science isn't subject to the very same patriarchy that dominates the rest of society is kidding themselves. Science is a profession like any other, tied to interest groups and inseparable from the individual carrying out and presenting their research. One need only look at the impact of Darwinism to see how open scientific theory is to gross abuse by the powerful.

For centuries scientific 'fact' has been used to legitimise power structures in any given historical period. Pre-Victorian women were considered to be more hysterical and less rational than men because their bodies were governed by the 'science' of nature. Their menstrual cycles proved this. It is a sad fact that centuries later some people still adhere to this 'scientific' reading of the female body, but it is interesting that attitudes towards women's sexual appetite have changed. Being 'closer to nature' (meaning more like an animal) once meant that women were seen to be highly sexual creatures, less able to control themselves than men. This was used to condemn them as whores and to prevent them moving in public spaces. But now that science has shifted. It's more convenient now for science to declare men as more virile and sexual (but we'll stick with the pre-Victorian notion of women's hysteria, thanks).

At a more academic level, it's not only the use and abuse of the scientific facts of the age that encourage misogyny. The discipline itself is inherently patriarchal. Professor Brian Martin has argued that "the scientific method incorporates masculine features such as the objectification of nature. Scientific knowledge is masculine in its neglect of women's experience and its adoption of paradigms built on assumptions of competition and hierarchy."

I don't want to be hassled and 'chased' on a night out with friends and have science say that it's OK

Hundreds upon hundreds of feminists have written about the male objectification of women. Whether it's an argument about discrimination at work, or about lap-dancing clubs, or about Boticelli's Birth of Venus, the 'male gaze' has been commented on. And we can't let 'evolution' be an apologism for the objectification of women, for removing choice and for casting judgements over what's 'normal' at what's not.

I'm not condemning the theory of evolution. I'm not condemning genetics. I'm not condemning the men and women in the lab with their white coats for undertaking valuable research. My point is that whatever so-called facts are uncovered, scientists need to communicate them responsibly. I don't want any kind of science to justify as 'normal' my being made to feel uncomfortable walking down my own street because I'm being eyed up by some old bloke across the road (or for that matter a young bloke across the road). I don't want to be hassled and 'chased' on a night out with friends and have science say that it's OK. And I don't want older women to be ditched by their husbands, or employers or anyone else because of a scientifically-sanctioned preoccupation with youth, beauty and procreation.

In Three Guineas Virginia Woolf said: "Science it would seem is not sexless. She is a man, a father." That was in 1938; 71 years later it seems this is still true, but feminist scientists and epistemologists are making headway into revising the nature of the discipline to make it less patriarchal, more balanced, more neutral. But there's still some way to go. Science is still imagined as a man. And if "Older men chasing younger women" is right, then he'll hound you now and leave you when your 40. But that's OK. Just lie back and think of the species.

About the author

Eirwen-Jane Pierrot

Eirwen-Jane Pierrot is not a scientist but is interested in the history of ideas and the history of the body. She graduated from university in 2007 and wrote her dissertation on feminist readings of art before and after the European Reformation. She is 23 years old, lives in London and works for an NDPB.

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