The Appeal of the DILF: Why Men Who Have Children are Sexy
June 3, 2020 by Justin Lehmiller
In the wake of Kobe Bryant’s death earlier this year, an ESPN news anchor shared a heartfelt story about Bryant’s love of being a father. The emotional tribute instantly went viral, resulting in the hashtag #girldad trending across several platforms. Fathers everywhere took to the internet to share their own parenting stories and express their love of being a dad.
This appreciation for fatherhood seems to be a growing trend in Western culture. Some academic articles observe that the image of the “doting dad” has become hugely popular in mainstream media ; standing at the checkout you’ve most likely seen magazine covers with handsome celebrities – think Chris Hemsworth, Adam Levine, or David Beckham – pushing a stroller or carrying a small child in their arms. Gone are the days of the emotionally distant, authoritarian father figure; as a society, we now admire a man who can embrace his more emotional paternal side.
The modern dad is warm, nurturing, and stable. And according to new research from our lab in the Department of Psychology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, he is also sexy.
Our team recently conducted the first empirical study of the DILF (“Dad I’d Like to Fuck”) phenomenon. Although MILFs have been discussed at length in academia and popular culture, the male equivalent has received much less attention. However, middle-aged men – and dads in particular – are being increasingly sexualized at a cultural level. For example, the term “DILF,” which seems to have been popularized in 2011, is associated with nearly 400,000 Instagram posts, and accounts like Dilfs of Disneyland have garnered hundreds of thousands of followers. “DILF” and “daddy” are increasingly being searched for on pornography websites like xHamster, where “daddy” was the most popular search term for American women in 2018. Clearly, many women are attracted to DILFs – but why, exactly?
There are no universal features that characterize a DILF; however DILFs in magazines or on social media typically have a toned physique and fall somewhere between 35 and 50 years of age. Previous research has established that women tend to prefer older partners, leading some to question whether age is a factor in the DILF’s appeal.
There is also a popular assumption (based on Freudian theory) that women who pursue older men have ‘daddy issues’ – that is, women seek out sexual partners who resemble their own fathers. Alternatively, evolutionary theory suggests that women are attracted to partners with resources and the ability to support offspring – things which a DILF is likely able to provide.
To determine which of these factors might explain women’s attraction to DILFs, our team of research assistants surveyed more than 600 heterosexual women on their age-related partner preferences, their level of sexual openness, and their relationship with their own fathers . The survey also included a picture and description of an attractive 45-year-old man.
Participants were randomly assigned to see the same image accompanied by a different description – in one condition, the man was described as having two children, in the other, it was explicitly indicated that he had no children. All participants rated the man on various characteristics and indicated their level of interest in having a short-term or long-term sexual relationship with him.
So, which man was more appealing to women? Turns out, it was the DILF! When women believed the man had children, he was rated more positively overall and was specifically perceived to have more emotional skill. Participants felt the DILF was more nurturing, empathetic, dependable, and so on, although the childless man was perceived to have more social opportunity.
Both men were considered equally desirable for short and long-term relationships, although results were trending in favor of the DILF as a potential long-term partner. Women’s attraction to the DILF was not associated with his age and was not predicted by so called ‘daddy issues.’ Ultimately, the emotional skills associated with fatherhood seemed to be the main component of the DILF’s increased appeal.
Interestingly, despite being perceived as more nurturing and emotionally skilled, the man with children was not considered any less masculine than the man without children. Emotionality is typically considered a ‘feminine’ quality, and is not part of traditional masculine ideals. In a society that values masculinity so highly, it is perhaps encouraging to confirm that men can be emotional, engaged fathers and not be judged ‘less’ of a man for it. In fact, it seems to make them more appealing to women.
We point to this study as preliminary evidence of changes in the way society perceives masculinity. The fatherhood role allows men to take on traditionally feminine roles and qualities, without fear of losing masculine status. By idealizing and sexualizing fatherhood, we may be creating a culture in which men can freely express nurturing and emotional elements of their personality – and be celebrated for it.
However, while this change is largely positive, we also note that it is potentially upholding gender inequality. Previous research acknowledges that the value our society places on fatherhood suggests it is ‘special’ or ‘different’ from motherhood, and inherently more important . For example, discussions on the importance of a strong male role model imply that fathers are uniquely responsible for shaping children’s lives in a way that mothers are not.
Our study suggests that we also assign an element of sexuality to fatherhood not necessarily seen in cultural understandings of motherhood; motherhood itself is not sexy – but fatherhood is. MILF fantasies, for instance, seem to be related to a woman’s sexual assertiveness and power rather than the fact that she has children . In other words, women can be sexy despite having children, but men are sexy because of it.
Of course, ours is only one study, and further research is certainly necessary to clarify our findings. But at a preliminary level, this discrepancy shows the gendered divide that exists in our cultural understandings of parenthood and sexuality.
Thanks to Shelby Hughes and Dr. Cory Pedersen for this guest post! Learn more about them below:
Shelby Hughes graduated from Kwantlen Polytechnic University in 2017 with a BA in Psychology and a Certificate in NGO/Nonprofit Studies. She received the prestigious Dean’s Medal Award as well as the Governor General’s Silver Academic Medal for the highest academic standing in her graduating year. Shelby is beginning her MSc in Communication Sciences and Disorders at the University of Alberta in September 2020.
Cory Pedersen earned her Ph.D. from the University of British Columbia in 2004 and has worked in the Department of Psychology at Kwantlen Polytechnic University since 2005. In 2011, Cory founded the Observations and Research in Gender and Sexuality Matters Lab to further her interests in human sexuality, providing students an opportunity to gain valuable research experience. Since its inception, several collaborative projects with the lab have been presented at psychology and sexology conferences, and in publication.
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 Smith, A. (2018). Bulging biceps and tender kisses: The sexualisation of fatherhood. Social Semiotics, 28(3), 315-329. https://doi.org/10.1080/10350330.2017.1295868
 Oswald, F., Hughes, S., Champion, A., & Pedersen, C. L. (2020). In search of the appeal of the DILF. Psychology & Sexuality. https://doi.org/ 10.1080/19419899.2020.1769164
 Randles, J. (2018). “Manning up” to be a good father: Hybrid fatherhood, masculinity, and U.S. responsible fatherhood policy. Gender and Society, 32(4), 516-539. https://doi.org/10.1177/0891243218770364.
 Lehmiller, J. (2018). Tell me what you want: The science of sexual desire and how it can help you improve your sex life. Hachette Book Group.
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Dr. Justin LehmillerFounder & Owner of Sex and Psychology
Dr. Justin Lehmiller is a social psychologist and Research Fellow at The Kinsey Institute. He runs the Sex and Psychology blog and podcast and is author of the popular book Tell Me What You Want. Dr. Lehmiller is an award-winning educator, and a prolific researcher who has published more than 50 academic works.Read full bio >