“As a gay man, when you get older, there can be a few shocking moments,” says Chris, 40. “One of those moments is when you’re chatting to somebody and they say that they’re ‘really into older guys’. And then it hits you: I’m the older guy.”
In 2016 and in his late thirties, Chris became single again after almost a decade in a monogamous relationship. And on dating apps, social media and in clubs, there’s one word he gets called more than any other:
Chris is far from the only man this is happening to in “gay world”, from dating apps to Gay Twitter and “the group chat”, the use of “daddy” as a descriptor is everywhere. It’s a “tribe” (category) on Grindr, the world’s most-used gay dating app. And there are even specific apps like DaddyHunt for “Daddies and guys that love Daddies”. According to PornHub, “daddy” porn is now the fifth most-viewed gay porn category in the United States.
A couple of years ago the New York Times boldly declared we were in the “age of the twink”, but move over fellas, because the era of the daddy has arrived.
So what exactly is a daddy?
Generally speaking, “daddy” is an archetype or category that gay men use to define themselves and/or each other. Other such categories include “otters” (slim hairy men), “bears” (bigger hairy men) and “twinks” (skinny, smooth men).
Some people outwardly identify as a daddy, often on hook-up apps or on alt social media accounts, and some people describe others that way.
Daddies don’t have to be gay, per se. And men who are described as daddies often aren’t: think Stanley Tucci, Henry Cavill and Harrison Ford. But there’s no shortage famous gay men who are seen as daddies either, from Ricky Martin to Andy Cohen, Ivan Massow, Anderson Cooper and Tom Ford.
In its most stereotypical form, a daddy is an attractive older man who takes on a dominant yet paternal role in relationships with men who are often younger than him. He is well groomed, toned, masculine and often successful. He takes the lead outside the bedroom and (again, so the stereotype goes) is a top – the penetrative role – in the bedroom.
But it isn’t all about sex: LGBTQ+ publication The Advocate’s list of 26 things to look for in a daddy emphasises “patience”, “caring” and “communication skills” as traits that are key to the daddy role.
Similarly to concepts like “queer” and “camp”, daddy is much debated and its meanings and representations can be different depending on the person. For instance, not everyone thinks a daddy has to be mature in age.
“Daddy is a look and a feeling,” says Peter*, 26, an admirer of daddies. Peter says he’s “seen 22-year-old daddies”; but that the “vibe” is definitely easier to embody as a man gets older. To him, a daddy embodies “a soft toughness, a gentle roughness. It’s caring, capable and masculine.”
There’s also debate about whether a daddy has to occupy the penetrative role in sex. Peter thinks it’s more complicated than that: “Someone is daddy before they f*** you. It’s that they could do all those things”.
Yet the majority of daddy admirers that I spoke to do associate daddies with sexual dominance and penetration. Sam, 22, says daddies are men who can “physically and mentally dominate me and turn on my submissive side”. Similarly, James, 26, says someone being a daddy has more to do with “sexual dominance than age”.
Chris says calling him daddy is often a way that younger guys project their sexual fantasies on to him. “When guys say ‘daddy’ to me it normally means they’re somebody who wants a masculine person, and I’m not particularly masc. Then they also expect you to be all dominant and I’m not a dom person either.”
But fantasy goes both ways. And for some men it even evolves past fantasy form a central part of their relationships.
Tim*, 44, has self-identified as a “daddy” in sexual relationships for the past 15 years. His last two boyfriends have even called him daddy, instead of his name, at all times except in public. “‘Daddy’ infers a certain respect and dynamic,” he says. “I’ll care for you, love you and even provide for you, but ultimately I’m in charge and what I say goes. When you mess up, I’ll correct you. It’s like a deal.”
So in short: daddies tend to be older and, more often than not, on the dominant side. But not always. The trope is an identifier for older men, but also a label that’s often put on them by younger guys whether they like it or not. Depending on the person it can be a kink fantasy, or a genuine relationship philosophy.
Why are daddies having such a moment right now?
The current popularity of daddies highlights a meeting point between several long-running trends.
First is the widespread proliferation of porn and the growing influence that this is having on internet culture and how people interact with each other. In straight culture, “MILF”, “stepmom” and “daddy-daughter” porn has been popular for a long time, but gay “daddy” porn is now just as popular.
Similarly, the concept of “sugar daddies” – a relationship where an older man provides money or gifts in return for sex and/or companionship with a younger man – has become less taboo too in straight and gay culture.
A daddy by no means has to be a sugar daddy, but it’s common for people on gay dating apps to outwardly say they want this type of relationship, and there’s specific apps dedicated to them.
Paul*, a 38-year-old lawyer, tells me that this type of setup appeals to him more and more these days. “I suppose I must see success as one of my most attractive features,” he says. He admits that it’s probably tied to a desire to be seen as a “provider” figure, with a touch of ego-stroking too: “I think it’s part of how I see my own masculinity”.
It’s also become common to see gay relationships with big age gaps romanticised in films, from A Single Man to Call Me By Your Name, where sexual desire is combined with a sort of “mentorship”.
Historian Justin Bengry, lecturer and convener of Goldsmiths, University of London’s Queer History MA, tells me that there’s a long history of these age-differentiated relationships. In Ancient Greece, for example, younger men reminiscent of the “twinks” of today – young, hairless, skinny and slender – adopted a feminised and passive role to give sexual relief to older men. But in the 19th and 20th centuries, Bengry explains: “Classical examples could be cited to justify sexual desire as a kind of intellectual mentorship of a younger man by an older man”.