Sexual disgust, moral disgust, and May-December romance

Aaron Goetz has some interesting ideas about May-December romances. Why, he wonders, do his students regularly have disgust reactions to photos of older men with younger women? Could it have something to do with proposals by DeScioli, Kurzban, me, and others relating to self-interested moral judgments?

His specific ideas are plausible. A young heterosexual man might want to discourage young women from mating with older men, so that there are more young women available for a young man like himself. An older heterosexual woman might similarly want to discourage such relationships, leaving more older men available for older women. In contrast, younger women and older men might not mind the idea of people engaging in May-December romances, because it expands their field of potential mates.

I haven’t thought deeply about the relationship between lifestyle moralizations and disgust, but I mostly agree with a paper Goetz points to – Tybur, Lieberman, Kurzban, & DeScioli’s Disgust: Evolved function and structure.

They distinguish between sexual disgust and moral disgust, which have complex relationships with moralizations. Sexual disgust isn’t primarily about moralization, but relates to individuals avoiding low-benefit/high-cost mating situations. But then sexual disgust can increase the likelihood of moralization, and bleed over into something like moral disgust. But then moral disgust can also arise from a moralization not based primarily in disgust – here, disgust reactions are an effect rather than a cause of a desire to moralize, and are used to communicate and coordinate condemnation of the moralized behavior. Moral disgust is often joined by moral anger, by a desire to confront rather than avoid the disgusting perpetrators.

On sexual matters, I’ve mostly studied conflicts between high-commitment strategies and low-commitment strategies. Here, there are complex interactions involving sexual disgust, moral disgust, and moralizations. High-commitment folks tend to want low-commitment behaviors to be more costly and difficult – sometimes through direct moralization, and sometimes through policy preferences, e.g., making birth control and abortion services harder to obtain or increasing legal sanctions for partying. High-commitment folks also express more disgust at low-commitment sex, abortion, and so on. Is this properly called “sexual” or “moral” disgust? Is one aspect of this psychologically prior to the others? I have no idea.

One can easily imagine sexual disgust playing out without (much) accompanying moralization. A couple of years ago, in a Super Bowl ad, supermodel Bar Rafaeli made out with an unattractive, overweight nerd around her own age. Many found it disgusting. If we gave a survey, I’m sure there’d be some tendency for people to “moralize” the behavior (e.g., endorsing survey items that say it was “wrong” or “shouldn’t have been allowed” or something). But this isn’t really a big moralization arena. It’s just sexual disgust based on the mating irrationality of a supermodel hooking up with an unattractive man. Having said that, I bet we could significantly reduce the disgust effect if this played out more slowly, and we were given lots of reasons why she might want to do this despite his physical features (like if it were a movie and we learned over time, prior to the kiss, that he was smart, rich, a good protector, had attractive exes, would make a good father, and so on).

So now the question is about May-December romances. One big issue: To what extent is this just plain-vanilla sexual disgust without much moralization? That is, to what extent are these just young people who aren’t at a life-history stage where they’re planning to have kids yet, and so the idea of a young woman getting together with a much older man just seems like a low-benefit/high-cost behavior in the absence of lots of other information making it seem like a better idea for the woman than it might first appear? Sure, there may be some modest degree of accompanying moralization, but no more than you’d find at anything else that triggers sexual disgust (or pathogen disgust).

If it’s mostly just ordinary sexual disgust, then young women might find it more disgusting than young men. Also, the disgust reaction in private settings would probably approximate the disgust reaction in public settings, again particularly for women.

Another big issue: If there are elements of strategic moral disgust, what are the strategic elements? Goetz suggests the young men/old women vs. old men/young women divide. I’d speculate there might be others as well. Lots of these kids might be thinking about their father abandoning their mother when they think about May-December, so maybe there’s some small difference between kids whose fathers are still married to their mothers and kids whose fathers are not.

If it’s mostly strategic moralization, then there’d probably be some effect where the disgust reactions are more powerfully felt in public rather than private settings. I also wonder whether expressing this kind of disgust could also serve other functions – e.g., young women signaling to their younger male classmates (or to their older male professors) that they’re interested in younger rather than older men. So maybe there’s also a manipulation here involving the gender and age of the person/people to whom they’re expressing the disgust judgment.

In the end, I suspect this is mostly about ordinary sexual disgust (like the supermodel commercial), played out among a group (college students) who are especially unlikely to view May-December romances as currently sensible for themselves and their siblings and friends, and not driven much by strategic moralization. But that’s just a guess.