CAIRN-INT.INFO : International Edition

1Age is a structural element in dating. The endogamous and asymmetrical nature of couples bears this out: they often pair partners who are close in age, and in the case of heterosexual couples, usually place the man in the position of the elder. So what meaning does age have in the selection of a partner? Observing the composition of existing couples does not provide an answer to this question: it reveals the final outcome, but remains silent as to how couples actually come into being. Understanding the way in which romantic relationships are formed, and the role of age in this process, necessarily involves taking an interest in how people meet and in the partner preferences that come into play in dating.

2This study looks at one type of relationship in particular: those that get started on online dating sites (cf. “Methods and Data” at the end of this article). These sites, dedicated to partner matching, have become increasingly popular in France since the early 2000s. [1] They considerably widen the pool of potential partners, but at the same time, they change the process of dating and couple formation. While relationships usually start with an actual physical encounter, users of dating sites present themselves through “user profiles” before meeting in real life. This new scenario changes the role of age in partner selection: it gives priority to numerical age over social age, which takes precedence in face-to-face interactions. This article takes a closer look at this change in the way people meet. More precisely, online dating here serves as a mirror held up to “ordinary” dating. Because these sites alter the role played by age, they reveal all the better the way this characteristic operates in relationship formation.

3Thus through the prism of dating sites, the aim is to shed light on the significance of age in dating, not only online but also offline. The demonstration will take place in three steps. First, a brief overview of the history and the organization of online dating will show the way these sites alter the scenario of romantic and sexual encounters. Second, an analysis of users’ self-presentations will highlight the difficulty of translating one’s subjective age into chronological terms. Finally, users’ partner criteria will illustrate women’s and men’s different approaches to age and the gender inequality that exists in the way couples are formed.

The inverted scenario of mediated dating

4Online dating sites are a recent invention. They first appeared in the United States in the mid-1990s before being imported to France a few years later. As commercial services dedicated to matching romantic and/or sexual partners, however, these sites are part of a much longer history. They can be seen as a continuation of the marriage agencies and personal ads that developed in the late nineteenth century. The matrimonial agencies, which began to proliferate in France in the 1870s, were aimed at a well-to-do, urban, bourgeois clientele. They promised discreet matchmaking, for which they received a portion of the dowry if the couple ended up going down the aisle. [2] Personal ads, which caught on with the rapid growth of newspapers and magazines at the turn of the twentieth century, reached a broader socio-economic circle. [3] In France, one of the main media for such advertisements was Le Chasseur français (“The French Hunter”), which published its first matrimonial ads in the 1880s. The magazine’s “marriage partner” columns took off in the period between the World Wars. [4] Yet the use of these commercial services never became socially accepted. Harshly criticized right from the start, [5] they remained a marginalized practice that concerned less than 2% of French adults in the mid-1980s. [6]

5Dating sites, however, have been considerably more successful. In 2013, approximately 14% of the French population aged 25 to 65 had subscribed to a site at some point. Unprecedented in terms of their popularity, these sites are nevertheless a continuation of earlier dating services, and especially of personal ads. This ancestry is clear from the first American dating sites which were created by companies specializing in personal ads. [7] Continuity can also be seen in the sites’ architecture, which is based first and foremost on self-presentations (user profiles) where users introduce themselves and describe the type of partner they are looking for. These presentations are subject to a specific type of writing which could be seen in the earliest “marriage partner ads” [8] and which is also observed on dating sites, where the self-presentations are often called “ads”.

6Finally, these sites are based on a dating scenario that is similar to that of earlier matchmaking services and which is very different from “ordinary” dating. One key element of this new script is that actual physical encounters are deferred to a second stage. On dating sites, just as when people resort to ads or agencies, the prospective partners first discover each other through “profiles” before meeting “for real”. This is a major change in the dating process, as it diminishes the importance of the body in making first impressions. While physical appearance is usually the first source of information about another person, in this context “natural hints” about social status and identity are replaced by written clues. [9] Thus mediated dating is characterized by a process-based judgement of potential partners. The latter are evaluated first on the basis of certain objective criteria (age, marital status, parenthood, profession, level of education, etc.) before an appreciation of the way these criteria are embodied (bodily hexis, habits, how the person talks and moves). [10]

7The role of age in partner selection is consequently altered. In the context of face-to-face interactions, age is as much a social category as a biological one. Although it would seem to be an objective characteristic, it actually takes on different meanings depending on the context and the people involved. [11] Through behavior, clothing or occupational status, for instance, a given person might be seen as “young”, while someone else of the same age, but with a different style and status, could be perceived as “mature”. [12] This social perception of age is partially lost in mediated dating, where, age is announced in numerical terms and is also disconnected from the person’s other features and characteristics. Dating services lead to an objectification of age, by presenting it in its chronological form only.

8At the same time, these services turn age into a key criterion for selecting a mate. This is particularly true for online dating sites where a person’s sex and age, as well as their preferences in terms of the sex and the age of the partner, are all required when signing up. While users are generally free to choose how to describe themselves, these particular elements are often mandatory in order to validate one’s user profile and access the site. Age is therefore a fundamental component of both the self-portrait and of the search for partners. This is all the more true since age is a criterion for filtering members’ profiles on the site. As it is often impossible to explore all profiles available on a site, users sort through them with the help of a search engine (or algorithm). Age is a central element in this pre-selection process. It constitutes a discriminating criterion that automatically reduces the pool of potential partners.

9Online dating thus modifies both the nature and the place of age in partner selection, as compared to face-to-face encounters. It reduces age to its strict chronological form and turns it into a condition of eligibility for partner choice. These features make mediated dating similar to the job-recruitment process. To cope with an often overwhelming number of applicants, employers perform a preselection in stages. The first stage corresponds to an evaluation of the candidates’ “profiles” – CV or résumé and covering letters – in order to call only a small fraction of them in for an interview. [13] In a similar way, dating site users reduce the range of prospective partners using standardized search criteria. They perform assessments of “qualification” [14] on applicants and establish their eligibility using a limited number of criteria, with age being first among them.

10This new role played by age in dating has provoked some reactions. Although dating sites undeniably modify the logic of evaluating partners, users do not yield to it entirely. This is obvious from user profiles where several strategies are at work in order to bypass the reductive character of numerical age. This is also noticeable in users’ declared age preferences, which do not only refer to the potential partners’ chronological age but reflect the wide range of significations that can be given to this feature. Precisely because online dating sites tend to reduce it to a uniform criterion, they bring out the highly social and gendered character of a person’s age.

Putting a number on one’s age: self-presentation strategies

11Unlike personal ads – where people present themselves however they please, and choose whether or not to specify their age [15] – dating sites include a required field for date of birth. The answers provided to this question reveal strategies of circumvention with regard to the mandatory and restrictive nature of the question. One of these circumventing strategies consists in indicating an implausibly high age (e.g. 99 years old), which is just another way of not indicating one’s real age. Another, much more common, approach is to alter one’s date of birth in order to pass as older, or, more often, as younger. This practice can be observed on the Meetic site where subscribers’ birth years hit peaks at “rounded” numbers, like 1970, 1975 and 1980. The age pyramid on Meetic thus has an irregular shape. This is true for both sexes: the degree of over-representation at rounded numbers is comparable for women and men (fig. 1).

Figure 1

Stated age pyramid on in 2014

Figure 1

Stated age pyramid on in 2014

Interpretation: In 2014, there were 12,784 user profiles of 34-year-old men (i.e. men born in 1980) created on vs. 9,918 accounts for 35-year-old men (men born in 1979). That same year, 11,232 profiles of 34-year-old women (women born in 1980) were created vs. 8,564 profiles of 35-year-old women (women born in 1979).
Coverage: “Active” user profiles registered on in 2014. In this context, an “active” user refers to a user who reconnected to the site at least one day after the profile was created. (N = 988,883).
Source: 2014 user base, Meetic Group.

12Although users of dating sites are often accused of lying in general, this research, as well as other studies, indicates that deceit is actually limited, and often restricted to information regarding age, height and weight. [16] What these different characteristics have in common is that they form a continuum. Unlike other characteristics – such as marital status, level of education or occupation – switching from one category to another does not in itself imply a change in status. Age, height and weight are by definition measures that evolve. In addition, they are rarely perceived in entirely objective terms, but are subject to approximation: people are described as young, tall or slim. Equivocation regarding these features can thus be understood as a reaction to their arbitrary nature: the numerical objectification sometimes does a poor job of expressing how these characteristics are subjectively experienced. Rather than an instance of dishonest behavior, revising one’s self-portrait appears as a way of bringing the objective measures into line with one’s physical appearance or with how old “one feels”. Strategies of this sort were common in personal ads, where some kind of qualitative judgement was often added to the numerical age: “49 but looks 40”, or “43, youthful appearance and attitude”, “69, looks less”. [17] These self-presentation strategies, which consist in introducing one’s physical and social age alongside the chronological one, are impossible on dating sites that require a date of birth. By modifying that information, users “lie” about their objective age in order to stay true to their subjective one, which may appear more favorable for attracting potential partners Evasive interpretations of age are also a way of anticipating the age preferences of the opposite sex. As stated above, users of online dating sites resort to search engines in order to reduce the pool of potential partners. Knowing that age is a key criterion in this preselection process, some users adapt their age in order to correspond to the criteria they assume will match those of people they want to meet. This strategy leads both sexes to take a few years off their actual age. As shown in a study in the US, men lower their age to make themselves acceptable to still younger women. In response to this expected male preference, women also lower their age, but in order to appeal to men close to their own age. [18] The same tendency appears in the interviews conducted for this research.


[Véronique, 68 years old, retired businesswoman, no children]
[Follow-up question] So, you didn’t put your real age in your profile?
No, when I met Jean [current partner] I hadn’t. I didn’t put my real age, I took six years off it. Liliane told me to say I was younger! She said, “Listen…” The truth is that if you write 58… I think I said 53.
Why is that?
Because Liliane had said, “Listen, you look 50”. I had put 53 [laughter]. Why? To get a foot in the door, you know. Because with Jean, if I had put my real age, he wouldn’t even have answered. He told me so himself. I said to him one day, “Listen, you’re happy that we got together and all, right? And don’t you think I’m, you know… But if I had put my real age?” And he answered, “Yeah, well, that would have been…” He had gotten it into his head that he wanted to meet – in fact, I think it’s what he’d written [in his profile], that he wanted to meet a woman who was, I can’t remember exactly, but he was 63, right? He’d written something like 45-50 […] I just wanted to meet someone about my own age, and to meet someone my own age, I had to say I was younger. Otherwise, I wouldn’t have met any. That’s pretty much the lesson I learned from my profile.

14This excerpt from the interview illustrates strategies for getting around the chronological age imposed by dating sites. Véronique modified her date of birth in order to make it fit her social and subjectively felt age. She gives preference to how old she looks rather than to how old she is. The aim is essentially to match the criteria of men she herself is interested in. The idea is to get “a foot in the door” despite the fact that men her age close the door on women over a certain age – locking her out. To hear the interviewee, her “lie” isn’t really one and hasn’t been perceived as such by her partner. Face to face, social age is in fact more important than chronological age and it ends up mattering more in couple formation.

15Online dating sites, by giving priority to numerical age, reveal that this component is not of primary importance in ordinary dating. This inverted mirror effect also works in the study of age preferences in a partner. Although dating sites undeniably reinforce the importance of chronological age in partner selection, this is not the only criterion taken into account when evaluating potential partners. As in self-presentations, age preferences refer to social characteristics and, as such, highlight the multiple significations of age in partner choice.

Partner preferences and the gendered significations of age

16The role played by age in partner selection is well documented in sociology and more specifically in the literature on the age gap between spouses. The starting point for this field of research is the observation of a structural asymmetry between heterosexual partners: in most relationships, the woman is younger than the man. This tendency has been remarkably constant across both time and space. Only the extent of the age gap seems to differ as between countries and time periods. [19] As a consequence, many researchers see in this phenomenon a universal cultural norm, claiming that, at all times and in all places, “men prefer young women and women prefer mature men”. [20] This essentialist interpretation of age preferences is problematic. First of all, it presents numerical age as a key element in partner evaluation. Secondly, it is to extrapolate a univocal preference for age asymmetry, among both women and men, from an observed average age difference between spouses. The study of online dating goes against these interpretations. It shows that age does not have the same meaning for women and men and that its signification and relevance vary over the course of a life history. Thus, although the age gap in favor of men is a strong tendency, it is not unanimously sought after by both sexes. The age preferences expressed by dating site users are informative about the role of age in couple formation and the gendered attitudes of both sexes towards this characteristic in a partner.

17The analysis of age criteria stated in user profiles on Meetic gives clues as to the structure of women’s and men’s age preferences in a prospective partner. The first observation is that the age range considered is relatively wide: most users (64%) indicate an age bracket of 10 years or more, whereas very few users (5%) state a narrow bracket of three years or less. Whether the users have an ideal age in mind or not, most of them display a generous threshold of acceptability. However, the degree of “generosity” varies: at almost every age, women indicate narrower age brackets than men do. More importantly, the two sexes differ as to the nature of their stated preferences, accepting to different degrees the idea of dating an older person or a younger one. In order to grasp these different attitudes toward the age gap, we will look first at the preferences of young people in the early stages of their romantic life, and then look at older people who have experienced a break-up. Considering these two groups will show the different significations of age and how these vary depending on both gender and the stage reached in one’s life.

The desire for femininity or maturity early in a life trajectory

18Among Meetic users, young people stand out as to the age criteria they indicate in their profiles. First, their preferences differ from those of older women and men. Secondly, it is among the young that the criteria differ most between the sexes. Men aged 18 to 24 appear to be relatively indifferent to their prospective partner’s age (Table 1). While they would prefer to meet someone whose age is close to their own, they are open to meeting both younger women (69%) and older ones (95%). This openness distinguishes them from older men who display a clear preference for younger partners. It also makes them different from women in their own age range. Indeed, female users under 25 have the most rigid age preferences. They express an almost unanimous desire for an older partner (98%) and, at the same time, they show considerable hesitation about younger men: barely a quarter of the young women (26%) are willing to consider a relationship in which the man might be the younger partner. Early on in their romantic and sexual life, women insist strongly on an age gap in favor of the man, while younger men are open to either configuration.

Table 1

Stated age preferences on by gender and age (%)

Table 1
Open to meeting younger people Exclusive preference for younger people Open to meeting older people Exclusive preference for older people Women 18-24 26 1 98 42 25-34 62 1 99 21 35-39 69 1 98 19 40-49 80 5 91 10 50-59 84 12 84 7 60 and up 89 18 75 4 Total 69 5 92 17 Men 18-24 69 1 95 12 25-34 96 4 92 1 35-39 98 9 85 1 40-49 98 21 70 1 50-59 99 38 53 1 60 and up 99 51 38 1 Total 93 17 77 3

Stated age preferences on by gender and age (%)

Interpretation: 26% of women aged 18 to 24 indicate an age bracket that includes younger partners (i.e. the minimum age indicated is below their own age) as opposed to 69% of men in the same age group. 18% of the women aged 60 and above indicate an age bracket that is focused exclusively on younger partners (the maximum age indicated is below their own age) as opposed to 51% of the men in the same age group.
Coverage: “Active” user profiles registered on in 2014. In this context, an “active” user refers to a user who reconnected to the site at least one day after the profile was created. (N = 988,883).
Source: 2014 user base, Meetic Group.

19A textual analysis of young users’ profiles was carried out in order to fit these age preferences into the broader framework of what young people look for in a partner. [21] It shows that young men pay attention notably to their prospective partner’s sensitivity, gentleness and kindness, as well as to her sexy, feminine and affectionate side. All these are qualities traditionally considered to be typical of women. When describing what they are looking for, young men indeed focus on femininity. While this feature is generally associated with youth, it is not an exclusive privilege of younger women. Femininity is a key element of gender relations but not necessarily associated with a certain age. Textual analysis therefore shows that young male users are just as likely to look for a woman as for a girl, while the female users are much more likely to be looking for a man than for a young guy or a toyboy.

20Young women’s profiles are of a different kind. When female users describe what type of partner they are looking for, they describe someone who is thoughtful, affectionate, a good listener, a gentleman and respectful. In other words, they focus on relational qualities that depict the man as a provider of a series of gratifications: gallantry, attention, affection, respect and care. Female users describe a man who will protect them and whom they can lean on. In addition, they want a partner who is mature, serious and settled. The attention and support which women are looking for will be sought from a mature man.

21The age preferences stated by female users must be seen in the light of this search for maturity that Michel Bozon observed among young women as early as the 1980s. The author linked the preference for mature men with the value placed on men’s experience and, more precisely, on their social situation. Thus a man’s maturity referred less to his chronological age than to his social one: a man who showed himself to be economically independent and who had a stable position was considered mature. [22] In the past 30 years, young women’s expectations from dating don’t seem to have changed much. The preference for a partner who has left behind the uncertainty and insouciance of youth can still be seen in online dating profiles, and is also clear from the interviews conducted with young female users.


[Pauline, 22, working student, no children]
He [the current partner] just does have life experience that means that… he’s not like all those guys who don’t know what they want. I mean, with both Anthony and Clément [former partners], that was how it was. Basically, it’s because they were too young and they didn’t know who they were, where they were going, or why. You see what I mean? So, well, I’m kind of fed up with all that.

23Although several of the young women interviewed had had sexual partners their own age, their experiences in a couple most often involved men who were older than they were. When young women enter conjugality, their choice goes first to men whose life experiences show “who they are” and “where they’re going” to quote the interviewee above. Unlike men their own age, these partners are reassuring to young women because of their social stability, which offers a sense of security, even in emotional terms. The fact that women today can enter higher education and have better access to the job market and to positions of responsibility than in the past does not seem to have significantly changed the way in which they picture romantic relationships or their role within the couple. Even though women’s social status has increased considerably, they seem reluctant to transfer their newly acquired independence to the field of conjugality. Indeed, young women’s representation of the couple leads them to choose partners who are ahead of them in terms of education and occupation. [23] This automatically results in an asymmetry in age, reflecting an asymmetry in status which young women are the first to advocate.

The gendered ages of separation

24Not only do women’s and men’s partner preferences change with age, but they become reversed. Women become progressively more indifferent to their future partner’s age: between ages 40 and 49, they express a desire to meet both younger men (80%) and older ones (91%). Men, on the other hand, become more and more selective. The proportion of male users looking exclusively for younger women increases with age: that is the case of 21% of the men aged 40 to 49 and 51% of those aged 60 or more (Table 1). Women’s and men’s attitudes towards the traditional age gap are thus reversed. This result stands in contrast to observations made in the 1980s showing that, at all ages, men were more likely than women to consider a relationship in which the man was the younger. [24] The stated preferences on Meetic show, on the contrary, that from age 40 and up, men are more likely than women to seek an age gap in their own favor. This reconfiguration of partner preferences must be seen in the light of the rising rates of separation. Most Meetic users aged 40 or more sign up after a break-up. Their age preferences therefore reflect the different aspirations that women and men have after a separation.

25Specific considerations do come into account when one has already experienced life in a couple. In one’s youthful years, as shown by the profiles of young dating site users, preferences mainly concern a partner’s “personality” and individual qualities. This changes with age and more specifically with experience of family life or as part of a couple. As people age, prospective partners are also evaluated with regard to their marital and parental status.


[Cécilia, 39, secretary, two young children]
Did you have an idea about who you wanted to meet [on Meetic]?
It isn’t so much that I had an idea, it was more that I knew what I didn’t want. That was my starting point… I was looking for someone I could share certain things with, someone I was attracted to, a middle-class person whose [marital] status was clear. I didn’t want to end up with someone – I know this sounds very selfish, because I have kids – but I didn’t want to end up spending every other weekend with five kids, you know? I have a really hard time accepting that idea. I don’t want any trouble, either. Because of course, when you’re 40, you’re going to be meeting men who are separated. Meaning they have a past, an ex-wife, kids, and you’re going to have to deal with all that […] So this guy was a good fit because he was 47, with three kids – two of whom are out of the house and have jobs, and the youngest who’s like 15 or 16 years old. A perfect man in my opinion.

27When asked to describe the kind of partner she was looking for, the interviewee gave a negative portrait that focused more on eliminatory criteria than on selective ones. She spoke succinctly about who she was looking for, and at much greater length about what she didn’t want: a man with children and a marital past that was still present in his life. With a relationship that had ended badly, and with custody of two young children, she was focusing more on the practical aspects of forming a new couple than on the romantic ones. In both style and substance, her description is characterized by a pragmatism typical of women who have already experienced family life and living as a couple. This pragmatism also characterizes the age preferences. If the 47-year-old man described by the interviewee is “ideal” in her terms, it’s because he no longer has young children. Reluctant to enter a “blended family”, the interviewee wants to meet a partner with no previous family life or one whose marital life is long over. In this case, the man’s age is an indirect criterion of the age of his children. The relative indifference that middle-aged female users of Meetic show with regard to their partner’s age can be understood in the light of these considerations: at a time in life when forming a couple means repartnering, age per se counts less than the family status that goes with it.

28By the same token, men’s interest in younger women can be seen as more than just lusting after youth. As in the case of women, it can be understood as a consequence of their own marital and parental trajectories as well as of considerations regarding the partner’s trajectory. Men settle down later than women do, and, after a separation, they are less likely to have custody of any children. [25] This means that a separation has different implications for the two sexes and, consequently, women and men do not have the same expectations regarding a new relationship and, more specifically, they do not have the same attitudes towards parenthood. This is clear from the Meetic user profiles. In answer to the question whether they “want children” or not, women are more likely than men to say no.

29While a majority of respondents – women and men alike – say they want children when they’re young, the gap widens after age 35, with women refusing this idea more firmly. [26] Men’s preference for younger women can then be understood as a way of approaching women who are less likely to have a marital past and children. It can be seen as the desire to start over with a partner who is equally available for a new couple and family life. This desire appears quite clearly in an interview with Bruno, who met a younger woman on Meetic, with whom he wants to start a new family. Although a father of two, Bruno does not have custody of his children and was planning, at the time of the interview, to move to Paris in order to live with his new partner. On this subject, he adds:


[Bruno, 44, non-contractual welder, two teenaged children]
The first thing she [current partner] said when we met on Meetic was that I lived far away and that that could be a problem. And I answered, “Well, it’s true that it could be a bit complicated at first, but later, we’d have to see. If we get along well, if there’s a good feeling between us…” I know that the house where I’m living is my house, I fixed it up myself, but nothing’s keeping me there. […] I could even cross the ocean for love. Even if I do in fact have two children who are there, in Troyes, and who are 13 and 15 years old now. But for me, that’s no longer an obstacle.

31As a divorced man, Bruno wants to start over and feels free to do it. This kind of clean slate after a first relationship is less accessible to women his age, who are more likely to bear the consequences, i.e. who generally have custody of the children. Men’s and women’s age preferences should, therefore, be seen in the different stakes involved in repartnering for the two sexes. Female and male attitudes towards the partner’s age are not the same, because their aspirations and margins for maneuver in terms of “starting over” are not equal. Accordingly whenever women’s and men’s situations are similar, so are their preferences. This can be seen in the interview with Michèle, a single woman with no children, whose age criteria are comparable to those of men her age.


[Michèle, 49, no job (writer), no children]
I was already in my mid 40s and I really don’t think marriage is so important at this point and I don’t want kids and I don’t want to be with someone who’s raising little children. I felt very clear on that. I had an idea that it would really be nice to meet somebody to be committed to, so we could travel, and do interesting things together, someone intellectually at the same stage as me, and, you know, to just enjoy life (…) I figured, I’ll put 35 as the lower limit and 50 as the maximum age. That was the limit. But even with that, I was having a hard time. I would look at pictures of some of these men in their 50s and they looked so old! And I just could not find that attractive, not at this stage in my life. So I went for a wider range below my age than above.

33Ready for a new relationship, the interviewee joined Meetic in 2007. Aged 46 at the time, she was hoping to start over, but rejected the idea of founding a family or getting married – events which she did not think suited her age. She hoped to meet a man who shared her lifestyle and projects: someone who didn’t have children, who was free to travel and to “enjoy life”. In a way analogous to men her age – looking for younger women who share their conjugal and family aspirations – Michèle looked for younger men in order to find someone “at the same stage” as herself. The interview highlights the way in which age preferences are caught up in considerations regarding the prospective partner’s lifestyle and family status. But it also shows how marital and parental status can influence the way one experiences one’s own age. Due to her situation, which is characteristic of younger people, Michèle “feels young”. At the same time, she thinks older men look “old” and says that she “just could not find that attractive, not at this stage of [her] life”. The preference for younger partners reflects a sense of feeling young oneself. The same thing can be seen in the interview with Bruno, who explains his desire to start a new family by referring to his own youth: “I’m still young, so I’ve been thinking, why not have another kid?” The interviews show that age criteria are not guided only by a person’s numerical age, but also by his or her social age, which is forged by a person’s living conditions, life events, and the subjective sense of where one is in life. After a separation, this subjective age is not the same for women and men. Less affected by their first union, men are “still young”, and look to partners whom they identify as being young as well. The same thing can be seen amongst women with an atypical life trajectory that makes them feel younger than the women their age who have children.

Gendered approaches to age and gender inequalities

34Age takes on different meanings in couple formation. This is particularly clear from online dating sites as they try to reduce this social attribute to an objective variable. These sites also highlight women’s and men’s contrasting attitudes towards both their own age and that of their prospective partners. In so doing, they reveal the gender inequalities that are part and parcel of couple relationships.

35Firstly, young users’ age preferences bear witness to women’s and men’s dissymmetrical relationship to the romantic experience. Unlike men, young women display what Sonia Dayan-Herzbrun calls an “emotional dependency” on their partners. [27] When searching for a spouse, young women look less for reciprocity than for support and security and so turn to older men. The economic independence acquired by women over the past decades does not seem to have erased this emotional dependency. On the contrary, couple formation appears to be a place where asymmetry between the sexes persists with particular strength.

36The situation of people who are separated (both women and men) reveals the unequal consequences of conjugal and family life on the two sexes. Because women generally have custody of their children after a break-up, men have more leeway and freedom to “start over”. Thus, separation makes men young again. Single and living without children, they’re ready for a fresh start, and look for women who are young “as well” and therefore likely to share their aspirations. Thus ageing – and the romantic and parental experiences that stem from it – leaves more of a mark on women than on men. This leads to the exclusion of older women, who, while they are equally affected by the rising rates of separation as men, are much less likely to repartner. The gendered approaches to age observed on online dating sites therefore reflect the unequal conditions in which women and men enter life in a couple, as well as the different perspectives offered to them when they exit it.

Method and Data

37This article is based on a sociological study of the production and the use of online dating sites in France. In order to study the role of age in online dating, three different studies were used. The first, carried out between 2008 and 2012, was based on some 50 biographical interviews conducted with users of dating sites, of different ages and with various social backgrounds. The second study was based on an analysis of user profiles registered on As part of an agreement with the company that owns the site, I was able to obtain a copy of the member database. This database contained all user accounts registered on the platform between 2002 (the year the site was launched) and 2014, which represented over 16 million accounts. This data was used to study the age distribution within the user population as well as users’ stated age preferences. These two types of information are subject to mandatory questions: in order to sign up with the site, users must provide their date of birth [28] and indicate an age bracket (between 18 and 99 years old) for potential partners. The article presents the principal results of this descriptive statistical analysis. Lastly, a textual analysis was made of self-presentations (i.e user profiles) published by users of The study was conducted in 2008 on 300 profiles posted by 25-year-old users. was chosen as the only major dating site that required subscribers both to indicate their age preferences and to write a profile of at least 40 words. The textual analysis was carried out using the software SPAD.


  • [1]
    Bozon 2008: 276-277; Bergström 2014: 86-91.
  • [2]
    Kalifa 2011.
  • [3]
    Garden 2008 [1981]: 288.
  • [4]
    Martin 1980: 299; Garden 2008 [1981]: 289.
  • [5]
    Kalifa 2011.
  • [6]
    Source: Les Situations familiales survey conducted by INED, 1985. Coverage: individuals aged 21 to 44 and living in France (N= 4091).
  • [7]
    Bergström 2014: 72.
  • [8]
    Garden 2008 [1981]: 290.
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    Singly 1984: 524.
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    Bergström 2014: 274.
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    Bourdieu 1980.
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    Bozon 1990b: 583.
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    Eymard-Duvernay & Marchal 2000: 412, 416.
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    Eymard-Duvernay & Marchal 1997; Chaulet 2009.
  • [15]
    Of the “spouse wanted” ads published in Le Chasseur français from 1978 to 1979 and studied by François de Singly, approximately 20% do not indicate the announcer’s age. Singly 1984.
  • [16]
    Brym & Lenton 2001; Toma, Hancock & Ellison 2008.
  • [17]
    Fages 1972: 92.
  • [18]
    Ellison, Heino & Gibbs 2006: 427.
  • [19]
    In France, the age difference between spouses has decreased over the past century but has not disappeared. Among couples formed in the 1990s, the age gap was on average 2.3 years. During this same period, in only 16% of the relationships formed was the woman older than the man. Vanderschelden 2006.
  • [20]
    Mignot 2010: 316.
  • [21]
    This study is based on a text analysis of 300 profiles published by 25-year-old users. The words presented here are characteristic of women’s and men’s profiles.
  • [22]
    Bozon 1990a and 1990b.
  • [23]
    Bozon 1990a and 1990b.
  • [24]
    Bozon 1990a: 346-347.
  • [25]
    Chardon, Daguet & Vivas 2008.
  • [26]
    Between the ages of 35 and 39, 22% of the female users state that they do not want to have children, as opposed to 10% of the male users. Between ages 40 and 44, 52% of the women reject the idea as opposed to 22% of the men. A different standpoint in terms of marital and familial projects can also be seen in the answers to the question regarding marriage. At every age, women are more likely than men to reject the idea of getting (re)married. Source: 2014 user base, Meetic Group. Coverage: “Active” user accounts registered on in 2014. (N = 988 883).
  • [27]
    Dayan-Herzbrun 1982: 120.
  • [28], like an overwhelming majority of dating sites, is not intended for minors. The minimum age accepted on the site is, therefore, 18, and the maximum age is 99.

Age counts in dating, but women and men count it differently. This is apparent from the use of online dating sites. The ways in which users engage with these services – through self-presentation and description of preferred partners – show that the perception both of one’s own age and of that of potential partners differs as between the sexes. Through an examination of these gendered attitudes, this article sheds light on the role that age plays in couple formation, and on the gender inequality that accompanies it.


  • age
  • gender
  • couple
  • internet
  • online dating
  • age gap

L’âge et ses usages sexués sur les sites de rencontres en France (années 2000)

Si l’âge compte dans les rencontres amoureuses, les femmes et les hommes ne le comptent pas de la même manière. C’est ce que montrent les usages des sites de rencontres sur Internet. La manière dont les utilisateurs s’approprient ces services – par la présentation de soi et la description des critères amoureux – révèle les significations différentes qu’accordent les deux sexes à leur âge comme à celui du partenaire. En prenant pour objet ces attitudes sexuées, l’article éclaire la place de l’âge dans la formation des couples mais souligne aussi l’inégalité des femmes et des hommes face à la conjugalité.


  • âge
  • genre
  • couple
  • internet
  • sites de rencontres
  • écart d’âge


  • Bergström, Marie. 2014. Au bonheur des rencontres. Classe, sexualité et rapports de genre dans la production et l’usage des sites de rencontres en France. Doctoral thesis. Sciences Po., Paris.
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  • Bozon, Michel. 1990b. Les femmes et l’écart d’âge entre conjoints : une domination consentie. II. Modes d’entrée dans la vie adulte et représentations du conjoint. Population XLV(3): 565-602.
  • Bozon, Michel. 2008. Pratiques et rencontres sexuelles : un répertoire qui s’élargit. In Enquête sur la sexualité en France. Pratiques, genre et santé, ed. Nathalie Bajos and Michel Bozon, 273-296. Paris: La Découverte.
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  • Garden, Maurice. 2008 [1981]. Les annonces matrimoniales dans la lunette de l’historien. In Un historien dans la ville, 285-298. Paris: Éditions de la Maison des sciences de l’homme.
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  • Martin, Marc. 1980. Images du mari et de la femme au xxe siècle : les annonces de mariage du “Chasseur français”. Revue d’histoire moderne et contemporaine (XXVII)2: 295-311.
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  • Toma, Catalina L., Hancock Jeffrey T., and Nicole B. Ellison. 2008. Separating fact from fiction: an examination of deceptive self-presentation in online dating profiles. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin (XXXIV)8: 1023-1036.
  • Vanderschelden, Mélanie. 2006. L’écart d’âge entre conjoints s’est réduit. Insee première 1073: 1-4.
Marie Bergström
Marie Bergström is a researcher at the Institut national d’études démographiques (INED). She is working on the sociology of the couple and sexuality, with particular reference to online dating, which was the subject of her thesis (2014). Her most recent articles are ‘La loi du supermarché ? Sites de rencontres et représentations de l’amour’, Ethnologie francaise (2013) and ‘Nouveaux scénarios et pratiques sexuels chez les jeunes utilisateurs de sites de rencontre’, Agora débats/jeunesses (2012).
Translated by
Regan Kramer
with additional input from the author
Uploaded on on 21/10/2016
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