If you haven’t watched “Nanette,” Hannah Gadsby’s fearless comedy special on Netflix, do that now. (We’ll wait.)
In it, Ms. Gadsby takes on the fragility of masculinity — and at one point drills into Pablo Picasso, who, well into his 40s, had an affair with a teenage girl.
Ms. Gadsby, who has a degree in art history, recounted how Picasso justified the relationship by claiming that he and the girl, Marie-Thérèse Walter, were both in their prime. Seething, Ms. Gadsby said: “A 17-year-old girl is never in her prime. Ever! I am in my prime.” She is 40.
That anecdote came to mind recently, in response to a new study about online dating published in the journal Science Advances.
In it, researchers studied the “desirability” of male and female users, based on how many messages nearly 200,000 users, all of whom were seeking opposite-sex partners, got over one month on a “popular, free online-dating service” — and if those sending them those messages were desirable based on the same criteria.
The researchers determined that while men’s sexual desirability peaks at age 50, women’s peaks at 18 and falls from there.
In other words, not so far from the ages of Walter and Picasso.
“The age gradient for women definitely surprised us — both in terms of the fact that it steadily declined from the time women were 18 to the time they were 65, and also how steep it was,” said Elizabeth Bruch, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Michigan and an author of the study.
This study isn’t an anomaly.
The study results echoed data shared by the dating behemoth OkCupid in 2010, in which the service found that men from the ages of 22 to 30 focus almost entirely on women who are younger than them.
“The median 30-year-old man spends as much time messaging teenage girls as he does women his own age,” OkCupid wrote in a blog post at the time.
OkCupid also reported that as a man gets older, he searches for relatively younger and younger women, while his upper acceptable age limit hovers just above his own age.
“The male fixation on youth distorts the dating pool,” OkCupid concluded.
Caveman mentality persists.
Michelle Drouin, a developmental psychologist who focuses on technology and relationships, was not surprised by the new study — in part because they “align with evolutionary theories of mating” in which youth suggests fertility, she said.
Dr. Drouin pointed out, though, that there are also theories that suggest that “men are just less interested in earning potential or power, and more interested in physical attractiveness.”
Women want brains. Men care less.
Speaking of earning potential, Dr. Bruch also found that a man’s desirability increased the more education he attained.
For women, that benefit ended with an undergraduate degree — and postgraduate education, in fact, made them less desirable.
Women now outnumber men in college and earn more degrees, Dr. Bruch said, adding: “Preferences coupled with the availability of partners may drive the patterns we see in our paper.”
Dr. Drouin said that educational dynamic might also be related to “beliefs that higher degrees among women translate into more work commitment and less relationship and family commitment.”
People aim high (probably too high).
Dr. Drouin stressed that the preferences of people seeking mates online reflect aspiration, not necessarily what people want in real life. A key finding of the study was that most users sent messages to people who were more desirable than themselves. Twenty-five percent more desirable, to be exact.
This data represents “the reality of dating preferences” — in other words, dating out of your league, Dr. Drouin said. That is often not the reality of dating.
“These messages sent by online daters can be likened to slot machine play in Vegas,” she said. “Little investment on the front end might pay out big on the back end — so why not opt for a chance at the biggest win?”
But the again, the internet can’t read chemistry.
“In the real world, the woman with a graduate degree who knows your favorite Kerouac passage, speaks a few languages or discovers new ways to cure disease might be undeniably attractive,” she said. “Think of Amal Clooney.”
Maya Salam reports on gender issues for The New York Times. Follow her on Twitter @Maya_Salam.