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Image credit: Erik Sagen / Engadget

The panic and pleasure of online dating as a woman in her 40s

Age ain’t nothin’ but a number, until the algorithm says it is.
Jenni Miller
03.23.17 in Sex
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Erik Sagen / Engadget

Dating in my twenties and thirties made me feel like Odysseus, trying to choose between dashing myself on the ego-bruising rocks of casual romps or a slow death from unrequited lust for garbage humans. There was the ex who brutally dumped me but wouldn't stop emailing me for months, whose presence at dorky work gatherings made me dizzy; the sociopathic film critic whose shoulder I virtually cried on; the go-nowhere first dates; and the great, wide swaths of time spent single, usually pining after some unavailable director or writer who'd relish my attention and nothing else. And lots of therapy.

There were a few things that sent me into a panic about turning 40, but the biggest — looming larger than the golden ring of a book deal or a staff job or, like, finally going back to yoga — was what it meant for me to still be single and actively looking for a partner at that age. Not so much even that I was single, but that I cared and what that implied. It just felt really basic, to be frank. There are plenty of things I simply do not give a single solitary fuck about when it comes to what women my age are supposed to be doing. So why did this one detail bother me?

Algorithms.

If you're not familiar with the exciting world of online dating, sites and apps let you set search parameters that range from location to body type to education and, yes, age range. Just as there are movies on Netflix you might never stumble across in your bleary-eyed scrolling, there are plenty of people you might never see through some whim of programming code. Moreover, there's the human factor; it's much easier to reject someone arbitrarily than it is to make an exception. Those exceptions take effort, and online dating is like Amazon Prime for sex. (And love, ideally.) If it weren't for the algorithms, I could meet all of these people IRL and they wouldn't know I was 40 unless I showed them my birth certificate — ah, the very idea made me irate. How dare they reject me before I could reject them!

I've had dating profiles on and off for years. Whether they were the ancient Nerve.com ads I helped beta test as an intern or the old standby OKCupid, I'd invest time and energy into meeting men I wouldn't otherwise come across in my day-to-day life (read: freelancing at home, usually pantless). Eventually, I'd get fed up with the banality of it all, hide my profile or delete the app. It has generally been rote and fruitless, with occasional flurries of excitement, but for someone who makes their living with words, I've had a weirdly difficult time wooing dudes with them.

Still, the day after I turned 40, I decided to fire up an old profile and see what happened. I'd taken a break from dating after a quick but hot liaison with a punk I'd met at a Damned concert petered out, but I wanted to, you know, put the vibes out there into the universe. As I waded through OkCupid's endless questions and block of text, I imagined the countless men of New York City setting their age filters to 35 or, gasp, 39, and I wondered if it was true that anyone who didn't accept me as I am isn't worth knowing.

It never occurred to me in a serious way before this to lie about my age, even when I hit 30 or 35. In the context of dating, those ages felt a lot less damning than 40; they felt a lot more viable. Like my eggs. As ambivalent as I am about having my own children, there's something haunting about that scene from My Cousin Vinny where Marisa Tomei stomps her foot about her biological clock ticking. My clock didn't begin ticking louder when I turned 40, but the echo of her boots on the floor did.

Before now, the single men I wanted to date weren't interested in nubile twenty-somethings — at least not exclusively — and even in my mid-thirties competition from younger women didn't concern me. I had time, and if someone wanted to get up in my grill about having kids eventually, well, my mom had me when she was 38 and I turned out mostly okay. But now I'm encountering divorcees and mid-life crises and men who themselves lie about their ages and cheekily confess, "Haha, just hoping you'd be so charmed by the time you clicked that it wouldn't matter!"

So, is lying the answer? My friend Chelsea G. Summers, who is 54, is firmly in favor of skimming a few years off one's age, though always coming correct with current photos. Like me, she straddles the digital divide; we remember a time before DOS, but not a lot of dating without the accompanying click and beep of a modem. "I'd call it a slow attrition of diminishing returns," Chelsea said about dating in NYC. "I feel as if I make out with a guy and tell a guy I'd like to enjoy sexual congress, he should be stoked. I had about a year-long run of being semi-seduced by men to have them hightail it, like scared little bunnies. It was making me feel like crap, so I went to Europe, specifically Stockholm, and immediately got laid."

For the time being, going to Europe is off the table for me, if only because I hid my passport from myself after a long-distance tryst with someone I'd met on a work trip went sideways. Luckily, OKCupid's data is much more optimistic than my friend Chelsea. Data scientist Dale Markowitz wrote via email, "When it comes to receiving quality messages on OkCupid (that is, first messages that turn into conversations), there is no penalty to being 40 or over. In fact, the proportion of men to women on OkCupid grows with age; women over 40 get on average more messages than women under 40, and have the pick of the litter, so to speak."

If Markowitz is right, then perhaps being 40 could be to my advantage. Michael, a gorgeous musician who used to bartend at my local watering hole, is one such sensitive younger dude; he's an old hand at online dating whose sexploits have singed the eyebrows right off my face, but he's also articulate, smart and funny. (You might recognize him from being quoted at length in Vanity Fair's "Tinder and the Dawn of the 'Dating Apocalypse'" story, which makes him an expert of sorts). Michael also prefers older women though I assume he wouldn't kick a younger woman out of his bed for eating crackers.

"Since I was about 17, I've always found something alluring about 'older' women," he wrote me. "Now that I'm 31, I realize that I just liked WOMEN. My current girlfriend is four years older than me, but I definitely see her as my equal. When I was younger, I saw the girls (and the guys, for that matter) my age to be kids, which I was too. Older women were how I escaped that feeling."

Michael isn't alone in his desires though they're not always reciprocated. My friend Brooke, who is a similarly fresh-faced 40-year-old, divulged over Gchat, "I joined OKCupid [when I was 39] and actually had to quit because I was INUNDATED by men in their 20s — though I put an age range and that is well below it. They were like 'Would you consider a guy below your age range? U so hot.' I wonder if it's some cougar thing. Like they think I know shit about sex? And can teach their useless baby bodies what to do?"

While I have encountered a few boychiks who are curious about bedding older ladies and nothing more, my inbox hasn't been a total waste of space. There has been no shortage of men under 39 sending me messages and little "likes" through the ether. And while they're not all necessarily piquing my interest, they're also not the horrible fuckboys whose janky messages and blurry cock shots you see screenshotted on Tumblr and Instagram.

Then there are the men I've met online who are actually my age, chronologically and emotionally, who seem to click with my weirdness in all the right ways. Some are people whose social circles overlapped with mine but whom I'd never have otherwise met; whose emails wake me up at 5 a.m. with anticipation; who encourage me to be a bit of a mush about Valentine's Day and Jerry Maguire, much to my surprise; who don't blink twice at comparing natal astrology charts; who inspire me to take classes and write more and wear red lipstick because it looks good on me. Some are delightful surprises because sometimes it's about being at the right place at the right time when you're the right age.

Screw the algorithms.

Check out all of Engadget's "Adult Week" coverage right here.

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