THE EXPERIENCED WORLD
OF YOUNG GAY MEN
WHO ARE ATTRACTED TO OLDER MEN

A Phenomenological Study
Nino Wächter


Master's Thesis
University of Turku
Department of Psychology
December 1999



FOREWORD TO THE ENGLISH SUMMARY

Due to the qualitative nature of my study, it was difficult to translate it into English. Translating the direct quotations from the interviews without losing some of the original meanings and tones of the interviewees would have been virtually impossible. Therefore the English version of the study became more of a summary.
 
 

1. INTRODUCTION

1.1. Objectives

The primary aim of my study was to try to "map" those aspects of the experienced world of young gay men who are attracted to older men that pertain to their preference for older men as sexual partners. In this sense my research is mainly explorative in nature, since to my knowledge the phenomenon has not been studied before. However, I have made some comparison between my results and those studies that have been made of age-different gay relationships. I also wanted to see how much emphasis my interviewees put on the usual stereotypical notions attached to age-different gay relationships (for instance that the younger partner always searches for a father-figure).

1.2. The Gay World and the Bear Subculture

Ross (1984) defines homosexuality basically as the expression of love between two persons of the same sex. Classifying people as homo- or heterosexuals in a black-and-white fashion is not very sensible since most people are situated somewhere between these two extremes (Ross, 1984). In the scientific literature the term ‘homosexual’ usually means someone who is mainly or exclusively drawn towards persons of the same sex and who admits openly his preference to himself and others (Ross, 1984). The most essential part of this definition is the person 's own subjective feeling of what he is. The Publication Manual of the American Psychiatric Association (APA, 1994, 51) recommends the use of terms ‘lesbian’ and ‘gay man’ instead of ‘homosexual’ since they refer primarily to identities and the present-day communities that have evolved on the basis of those identities. I have chosen APA 's definition as the starting point for my study.

The term “subculture” means the culture of a religious, ethnic etc. group that differs from the mainstream culture (Tiainen, 1991). As a social and sexual minority, gay people make up their own subculture within which one can also find many other "sub-subcultures" such as sadomasochists and gender-blenders. In the 1990s a new subculture has become visible within the gay world, namely that of the "Bears". Most of my interviewees belonged to the Bear subculture. A book entitled The Bear Book, edited by Wright (1997), is to my knowledge the only scientific study of the Bear subculture. In Finland there has appeared one article in the popular press (Valtonen, 1999) concerning Bears.

The subculture of gay men calling themselves Bears began taking form in the 1960s and 1970s in various parts of the United States of America (Wright, 1997, 21). The birth of the actual Bear movement is dated to the year 1986 when the communication between self-identified Bears became more concrete: parties started being held as well as electronic discussion forums and a magazine ­ BEAR, founded in 1987 and still being published ­ were created (Wright, 1997, 22). The Bear movement arrived in Finland in the mid-1990s when Fin-Bears was founded in Helsinki and Nallekarhut was founded in Turku (Valtonen, 1999).

Various physical and mental characteristics are associated to Bears and generally these are considered equally important: physically, Bears are usually large, hairy, bearded and often stocky and heavy-set; mentally, Bears are warm-hearted, loyal, honest and straightforward, and they like hugging a lot (Wright, 1997, 26 - 27). In real life, one can find many different types of men among Bears, who nevertheless have in common a certain  "bear-like" attitude towards life and social relationships (Valtonen, 1999). Usually younger, slimmer, perhaps less hairy men, who like Bears, are said to be "Cubs", while the term "admirer of Bears" is generally used to describe anyone who likes Bears, whether or not he himself is a Bear (Wright, 1997, 247).

I myself took part in founding the Nallekarhut-group in Turku in the autumn 1995 and I am still functioning as its leader. I started studying Psychology the same autumn and already then I got the idea of doing my Master’s Thesis on a subject matter that is somehow related to the Bear phenomenon. I had noticed that there were quite a lot of "Cubs" ­ young men (including myself) who search for the company of men much older, often heavy-set and bearded, than themselves. I considered the phenomenon a cultural anomaly, because clearly most people form a relationship with a person who belongs to the same religion and age-group, and who has approximately the same educational, ethnic and social background (Greenberg, Bruess & Mullen, 1993, 415). An older man lusting after younger men is considered fairly normal within the gay world that generally adores youth and slim bodies, while a younger man lusting after older men is quickly considered quite a freak indeed. I wanted to start exploring the psychological dimensions of the phenomenon and started my research in the autumn of 1997.

1.3. Age Preference Studies

At the turn of the century, an early pioneer of the gay rights movement, the German Magnus Hirschfeld (1868 - 1935), collected a huge amount of material concerning homosexuality and other sexual variations: for instance, he developed a questionnaire of 130 items, which were answered by 10,000 men and women (Spencer, 1995, 325). Hirschfeld divided gays into four groups on the basis of the information he had gathered: paedophiles (who like pre-adolescent boys), ephebophiles (who like youths between the ages of 12 and 20), androphiles (who like 20 - 50-year-old men) and gerontophiles (who like men over 50 years old) (Hirschfeld, 1952, 227). According to Hirschfeld (1952, 227), most gays are either ephebophiles (approx. 45 %) or androphiles (approx. 45 %); the amount of paedophiles and gerontophiles is much smaller, around 5 % each.

Also according to more recent studies (Hayes, 1995; Kenrick et al, 1995; Harry, 1982), there is usually only 5 years of age-difference between partners in a relationship. The amount of couples who have an age-difference of over 10 years is very small (Harry, 1982). Thus I decided to define the 'young gay man who is attracted to older men' as someone who is searching for a man at least 10 years older than himself (cf. Kaslow, 1989). Compared to Hirschfeld 's gerontophiles, I think this is a more flexible definition and there are naturally also more gay men belonging to this category.

1.4. Studies of Age-Different Gay Relationships

In general, studies of age-different gay relationships are very few in number. Steinman (1990) has studied social exchange in age-different gay relationships. He hypothesized that in an age-different gay relationship the "exchange goods" offered by the older man would be mainly external (money, power etc.), while the "exchange goods" offered by the younger partner would be mainly internal (physical attractiveness, sexual charisma etc.). The hypothesis was partially invalidated by the research. About half of the studied couples participated equally in taking care of daily purchases and neither one was economically dependent on the other. In addition, the internal characteristics (intelligence, social accomplishments, wisdom acquired with maturity etc.) of the older man were very often considered as attractive as the hypothesized material wealth by the younger partner. Most of the younger men considered the older men sexually exciting and in the majority of the studied couples there was no significant difference in the amount of income of the respective partners. If the younger partner earned less, the older one usually demanded that the younger would not be dependent on his income.

In the age-different gay relationships the roles of "daddy" and "son" or "teacher" and "student" assume often a central position (Lee, 1990). A dad-son-roleplay or sexual fantasy occurs also often among male sadomasochists; the fantasy is usually structured in the way that "dad" is the dominant and active partner while "son" is submissive and passive (Sandnabba & Santtila & Nordling, 1999). Lee (1990) thinks that an age-different relationship probably does not last long if the partners only carry out the roles of "dad" and "son" or "teacher" and "student". The partners must also be able to work out mutual roles of equal partners in order that the dynamism of the relationship would be balanced.

According to Harry (1982), most gay men are looking for an equal partner. However, those who search for an older partner want him to be the dominant one in the relationship.

1.4.1. Psychoanalysis and the Search for a Father-Figure

In his work Drei Abhandlungen zur Sexualtheorie (1905), Freud presents the idea that the sexual impulse and its object should be separated from each other (Freud, 1998/1905). Thus, one cannot say that there would exist any natural object to the sexual impulse. Freud thought that homosexuality cannot be explained as an inborn or an acquired characteristic, but as a variation from man's natural bisexuality (Freud, 1998/1905). Commentators have pointed out that in his early thinking Freud placed both hetero- and homosexuality on the same line and was of the opinion that they were both equally natural dispositions of human sexuality (Domenici & Lesser, 1995, 1 - 2; Dannecker, 1981, 39).

In the psychoanalytic thinking homosexuality has traditionally been explained with the help of the concept of the "negative Oedipus complex": a child (boy) fantasizes about "getting married" with his father instead of his mother (Brenner, 1987, 103; Mangs & Martell, 1976, 111 - 112). Theoretically, when it comes to a young gay man who is attracted to older men, this oedipal wish is even more clearly visible, especially if the real father has remained distant or been totally absent; in this case the older man would represent a father-figure. The oedipal wish does not thus remain on the level of fantasy, but is acted out in the adult life. In addition to the social exchange theory presented above, the search for a father-figure is clearly the second stereotype often associated with age-different gay relationships.

According to Hirschfeld (1952, 88 - 91), gerontophilia ­ exclusive attraction to persons who are over 50 years old ­ is one form of sexual infantilism: Hirschfeld thought that in his/her sexual development a gerontophile has remained in the oidipal stage when the child fixates strongly to the father, mother or some other adult person. As an example he mentions a 26-year-old woman who fell in love exclusively with older men who had white beards. This woman had lost her parents when she was young and her grandfather took care of her. They slept in the same bed and grandfather often caressed her genitals. As another example Hirschfeld (1952, 227) mentions a 25-year-old gay man who behaved in a very masculine manner and who also fell in love exclusively with older men who had white beards. One can justifiably assume that childhood fixation plays a central role in the development of the sexual object: people often have a certain clearly defined "type" ­ an ideal man or woman ­ containing physical and mental characteristics, which they find especially attractive. The development of different fetishes can also be plausibly explained with the fixation theory: for instance, a beard is a very powerful sexual fetish to some people (Hirschfeld, 1952, 525). Nevertheless, if one attaches moral prejudices or hetero-normative attitudes to the theory, it easily becomes pathologizing towards some groups like gays or fetishists (cf. Stålström, 1997). APA 's Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV, 1994) classifies fetishism as a disorder belonging to various paraphilias.

Paraphilia is defined as a recurrent sexual fantasy, desire or behaviour which has as its object (1) a non-human entity, (2) causing suffering or humiliation to the self or another, or (3) a child or other nonconsenting person. For some people, paraphiliac fantasies or impulses are necessary for sexual excitement, while others can also get excited without paraphiliac fantasies or impulses. In addition, DSM-IV mentions that the criteria for diagnosis of paraphilia is that the fantasies or behaviour causes significant anxiety or inability to live a full social life.

According to Suppe (1985), DSM 's classifications concerning paraphilias are based on the idea that everything that differs from conventional sexual activity is considered unhealthy. He has developed a broader cue – response model which helps one to classify the effect of certain cues on the sexual arousal of an individual: inhibitory cues inhibit sexual arousal, non-facilitative cues neither inhibit nor excite arousal, facilitative cues increase arousal but are not necessary, and paraphiliac cues are necessary for sexual arousal. For instance, in a study of Finnish male sadomasochists, Sandnabba & Santtila & Nordling (1999) found that sadomasochistic behaviour was for the most part facilitative, that is, it increased sexual arousal but was not necessary.

One aim of my own research was to study the extent to which DSM-IV 's and Suppe 's (1985) classifications could be applied to a sexual preference for heavy-set older men ­ that is, could the preference be classified as fetishism and is it facilitative or paraphiliac in nature.

The studies of age-different gay relationships (Steinman, 1990; Lee, 1990; Harry, 1982) give very little information concerning the experienced world of a young gay man who is attracted to older men. Only Lee's (1990) study manages to shed a little more light on this question, but on the whole it also concentrates more on the dynamics of the age-different gay relationship. On the other hand, psychoanalytic theories (Freud, 1998/1905; Brenner, 1987; Mangs & Martell, 1976; Hirschfeld, 1952) concentrate only on studying the root causes of homosexuality and "fixation" to older men. The own voice ­ their own experiences concerning their preference ­ of young gay men who are attracted to older men is left out of these studies and theories, and in my own research I concentrated on that.
 

2. DESCRIPTION OF THE RESEARCH AND THE INTERVIEWEES

I began the empirical part of my research by sending a questionnaire to the members of the Finnish Bear groups (Fin-Bears and Nallekarhut). I mailed the questionnaire to 39 members via regular mail and to approximately 30 members via an electronic mailing-list. The questionnaire was answered by 25 via regular, and 4 via electronic mail, so the percentage of answers received became 42. The ages of the respondents varied between 26 and 69 years, the mean age was approx. 40 years.

I classified the answers to three categories: young men who like older men, older men who like younger men, and those to whom age was not an important criterion. Clearly the majority (16) of the answers belonged to the first category, while the second category got 8 and the last category got 5 answers. I was interested in the answers belonging to the first category ­ young men who like older men. Most of them had defined the age of their ideal man as starting from their own age upwards, the variation was usually about 15 - 20 years (for instance, self 35 years, ideal man 35 - 50 years). Only 4 respondents defined the age of the ideal man as at least 10 years older than themselves.

The aim of the questionnaire was mainly to get some kind of a general picture of the membership of the Bear groups and to reach interviewees for the main part of the research. On the basis of the questionnaire responses, it seems that within the organized subculture of the Bear groups the majority of men are looking for a partner older than themselves.

In the questionnaire I also announced that I needed interviewees who liked men at least 10 years older than themselves. 12 respondents had written their contact information. I chose 8 from them on the basis of their own ages and the ages of their ideal partners. I tried to get as young informants as possible, who would have a clearly expressed preference for men at least 10 years older than themselves.

Next I created a semi-structured interview. A very open theme-interview would have been the most “orthodox” way when it came to the phenomenological-psychological method of analysis that I used. However, the semi-structured interview proved to be useful when I interviewed more taciturn persons, while I let those who spoke more speak quite freely. The interviews were made October 21 - December 12, 1998. I originally interviewed all the 8 men I had chosen but I could not utilize the last interview because of its bad sound quality. So, my research material consisted of the interviews of 7 men, which lasted from 20 minutes to 1 hour; the mean length of the interviews was approx. 47 minutes. Here are brief descriptions of the interviewees (the names have been changed):

JARNO: Jarno is 30 years old and he has a vocational-technical schooling. At the moment he is working as a salesperson. He was born in a small town. He is the youngest in the family and he has a sister and a brother. His parents are alive.

MARKO: Marko is 28 years old and after high school he has acquired a schooling in the Arts. At the moment he is working as a freelancer in the theatre and as a musician. He was born in a small town. He is the only child. His parents got divorced over 15 years ago and the mother has a new male partner.

JOHANNES: Johannes is 30 years old and he has an MA Degree from the university. At the moment he is unemployed and he goes to a computer course. He was born in a small rural community. He is the youngest in the family and he has a sister and a brother. His father died 4 years ago; the mother is alive.

RIKU: Riku is 32 years old. After comprehensive school he has undertaken a couple of vocational courses. At the moment he is working as a maintenance person. He was born in a small rural community. He is the youngest in the family and he has 2 sisters and 2 brothers. His parents are alive.

TUOMAS: Tuomas is 26 years old and a physician. He was born in a large town. He was the youngest in the family and he has a sister. His parents are alive.

AAPELI: Aapeli is 42 years old and he has a vocational-technical schooling. He has also undertaken a few vocational courses. At the moment he is working as a mail delivery person. He was born in a small rural community. He was the youngest in the family and he has 2 sisters, 1 brother and 1 foster brother. His parents are deceased, the mother 30 years ago and the father 20 years ago.
 

3. THE PHENOMENOLOGICAL-PSYCHOLOGICAL METHOD OF RESEARCH

To analyze the interviews, I utilized Perttula’s (1998a, 1995) phenomenological-psychological method of research, which is a somewhat expanded and revised version of the method originally developed by Giorgi (1988). My intention was not to study the phenomenological-psychological method as such. I only applied the method developed by Perttula to the phenomenon that I studied.

According to the method, my research was emphasizedly based on the interview material. The goal of the phenomenological research is to describe the studied phenomenon as accurately as possible; to try to reach the phenomenon precisely in the same way as it appears in the experienced world of the studied individuals.

In this English Summary I will neither go through the philosophical basis of the method, nor the detailed steps of the analysis itself. If you are interested in these, please contact me. Instead, I will jump directly to the end-product of the analysis, the general description of the phenomenon, “the experienced world of young gay men who are attracted to older men”.
 

4. THE RESULTS: THE DESCRIPTION OF THE PHENOMENON

The attraction towards older men begins typically already as a child. Also, the ideal male type develops already then. Before adolescence, the attraction is a vague desire to be close to older men that manifest the ideal type, and infatuation to them. Sexuality is on the background of the attraction right from the beginning, but the feelings are defined as sexual only on the verge of adolescence.

The origins of the interest in older men are as unexplainable as any other preference. The effect of a distant or absent father is a possible, but not probable, explanation for the preference.

The feeling of security, the life experience, the sexual excitement, the role-model based on one’s own ideals and the relatively high level of one’s own mental maturity are all things that contribute to why older men are experienced as attractive.

The difference in world-views usually follows from the age-difference, and it leads easily to disputes between age-different partners. The age-difference is an important aspect when one chooses a partner: almost all sexual and relationship partners are older men. Starting a relationship with a man who is the same age or younger is even hard to imagine.

The most typical ideal male type is large, big-bellied, bearded and hairy. Greying hair and balding on one hand, and sinewy and small body on the other hand also describe some ideal male types. The metaphors used to describe the ideal male types are “bear”, “dirty old man” and “farmer”. The ideal male type is always older than oneself, most typically 50 - 70 years old. It is rare that one searches for progressively older partners as one himself grows older; in other words, the ideal age of the partner usually stays approximately the same throughout one’s life.

The physical characteristics of the ideal male are more important than the mental ones. Particularly in longer relationships, however, the mental characteristics of the partner are also important. The personality of the ideal male is typically described as loving, affectionate, safe, considerate, masculine, practical and he is treating the younger partner as equal irrespective of the nature of the relationship. When the relationship is purely sexual, the ideal male is sometimes described as dominant, very active, somewhat rough and aggressive, and a little scary, who evokes feelings of submission, being very small and even abused. Both equal and unequal role positions can be central characteristics in a good relationship.

The ideal male need not be wealthy, but it can be exciting in a sexual relationship if the man behaves in a way that his wealthiness shows. The experienced quality of one 's relationship with one's real father in childhood and adolescence varies from “distant” to “close”. The real father is often experienced as the most important male figure of one 's childhood and adolescence. Sometimes the father can be experienced as a sexual object even if the relationship was distant.
 

5. DISCUSSION

Next I will discuss briefly the results of my research and place them in a dialogue with the earlier studies and theories presented in the Introduction. Taking into consideration the qualitative research paradigm that I have adopted, the results cannot be generalized. Nevertheless, they give us clues as to what kind of themes are probably central in the experienced world of young gay men who are attracted to older men.

1. Following Suppe’s (1985) model, it can be said that age-difference is most typically a paraphiliac sexual cue for young gay men who are attracted to older men. In other words, age-difference is necessary for sexual arousal.

2. A subjective experience of being more mature than most young men of the same age-group can sometimes blur the significance of age-difference in a relationship: the partner can be experienced as roughly the same age as oneself, even though he is actually older.

3. Sometimes the older man can represent a Jungian archetype of the Wise Old Man, that is, a role-model. In this case the young man tries to develop himself both physically and mentally towards the likeness of this role-model.

4. The central meaning of the historically significant teacher - student-relationship is closely tied up with the life-experience of the older man, from which the younger partner can benefit and learn. However, in some matters also the younger partner can be in the role of a teacher for the older one.

5. The effect of the organized Bear subculture on the linguistic expressions describing the ideal male type is strong: the most typical metaphor describing the ideal male is “bear”. However, it seems that the ideal male type itself develops already during one 's childhood.

6. Some young gay men who are attracted to older men can clearly be categorized as “gerontophiles” on the basis of Hirschfeld’s (1952, 227) definition: they seek only for partners who are over 50 years old.

7. When they seek for a partner for a more long-term relationship, the young gay men who are attracted to older men seek for a man who treats them as equal in spite of the age-difference. This result is opposite to Harry’s (1982) conclusion, according to which gay men who search for an older partner want this partner to be more dominant in the relationship.

8. The young gay man who is attracted to older men does not seek for material, external “exchange goods” from the older partner, but mainly inner characteristics like wisdom that age brings and sexual attraction. This result seems to confirm Steinman 's (1990) conclusions.

9. The unequal power-positions seem to appear only in the sexual fantasies of young gay men who are attracted to older men. This result seems to confirm Lee's (1990) thoughts that in an age-different relationship the partners must also be able to work out the roles of equal partners for themselves, even though unequal power-positions were central in the sexual life of the couple, for instance.

10. The experienced quality of the relationship with one’s real father in childhood and adolescence varies from “close” to “distant”. For this reason it is justifiable to say that there is no cause-and-effect relationship between the quality of the relationship with one 's father and being attracted to older men.

11. The father - son role-play with an ideal male is a multi-dimensional sexual fantasy where one can find elements of safety and masculine affection on one hand, and sadomasochistically coloured submissive - dominant role positions on the other hand. The father-son role-play and the actual relationship with one's own father in childhood and adolescence are two distinct experienced realities which have little or nothing in common with each other.

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