Anyone who’s casually browsed porn sites has probably seen “MILF videos” at some point, listed among the countless niches available. But MILF (an acronym for “Mom I’d Like to Fuck”) is actually one of the hottest genres in porn sought by straight guys. On mega-tube site Pornhub, it’s the third-most popular category—trailing only “HD Porn” and “teen.” And shockingly, the most popular search term on PornHub isn’t even an explicit one, like “blowjob” or “threesome”; it’s the familial “mom.”

Hot moms aren’t just limited to porn aggregators, though. Adult superstore Adam & Eve offers more than 500 MILF-themed videos, including clever titles like “Mommy Dear Ass,” while Amazon offers more than 1,900 erotic MILF stories available for Kindle alone, such as “Milking the MILF,” the story of a single mother who literally gets milked by the college football team.

All of this begs the question: How did MILFs come to dominate so many men’s interest in porn? Evolutionary psychology would argue that men evolved to prefer ladies at the peak of their fertility—that is, younger women. So how do psychologists explain the allure of the MILF, given that sex with an older woman is less likely to result in a man passing along his genes? What explains their massive presence in male-targeted pornography?

I would argue that the reason MILFs are sexually desirable has little and perhaps nothing to do with a man’s feelings for his own mother. In fact, it probably has relatively little to do with the fact that she’s a mother at all. The appeal of the MILF speaks more to men’s desire for “real women” who are confident, knowledgeable, and practiced when it comes to sex, as well as the promise of a mutually satisfying sexual experience.

The Graduate

The Graduate

Indeed, Hollywood has stoked the fantasy of the sexually experienced older woman for decades now. The success of the 1967 film The Graduate—where a recent college grad (Dustin Hoffman) receives a carnal education from a sultry, middle-aged mom (Anne Bancroft)—ushered in a wave a of 1970s and 80s porn flicks featuring older women as “sex teachers.” A sudden staple of the adult film industry, the genre never really had a name until the gross-out comedy American Pie popularized a term, 15 years ago this summer.

MILF Guy #2 (looking at a picture of Stifler’s mom): “Dude, that chick’s a MILF!”
MILF Guy #1: “What the hell is that?“
MILF Guy #2: “M-I-L-F. Mom I’d Like to Fuck.”
MILF Guy #1: “Yeah, dude! Oh yeah!”

Stifler’s mom, played by a luscious Jennifer Coolidge, was not your average suburban housewife, and her sexiness launched the acronym MILF into the mainstream. Since then, demand for MILF porn has only continued to increase. Porn actresses whose film careers sagged with age—like 55-year-old star from the 80s Nina Hartley—have seen renewed interest in their work. (In fact, just last year, Hartley received an Xbiz nomination for MILF Performer of the Year.)

American Pie

American Pie

So what explains men’s fascination with MILFs? The first idea that comes to mind might be the Oedipus Complex, Sigmund Freud’s theory named for the Greek myth about a guy who kills his father and marries his mother. Freud argued that all young boys go through a short-lived stage where they desire their mothers sexually and hate their fathers. Most boys eventually get over this, he claimed, but only when they realize that daddy will castrate them if they keep competing for mommy’s affection.

Could it be that attraction to MILFs stems from some unresolved or repressed Oedipal desires among a large number of porn consumers? It’s unlikely. The Oedipus complex was first proposed nearly a century ago and, since then, very little scientific support has been found for this idea.

An alternative explanation is that, perhaps, guys see MILFs as more sexually voracious than younger women. That theory fits with a widely-held belief that women reach a sexual “peak” in their 30s, making them a better sexual match for younger guys with all of those raging hormones.

Some research supports this. In Alfred Kinsey’s classic work on female sexuality, he found that women in their 30s reported having more orgasms than women in any other age group. More recently, a study published in Personality and Individual Differences found that women aged 27 to 45 reported the most daily thoughts about sex, interest in casual sex, and frequent sexual activity of any other age group. The authors of this study theorize that women have evolved a tendency to become more interested in sex as their biological clock winds down in order to make the most of their remaining fertility.

However, these differences are pretty small: It’s not like women in their 30s and 40s are hypersexual—they just seem to be slightly more sexual than their younger counterparts. We don’t know whether there’s something biological behind this, or if it is just a byproduct of the fact that women become more sexually confident and assertive as they age. In fact, sexual confidence probably has a lot more to do with what makes MILFs so hot.

Nina Hartley

Nina Hartley

The major way that MILF porn differs from most traditional heterosexual porn (aside from the age of the female lead, of course) is in the woman’s level of power and dominance. A recent study published in the Journal of Sex Research painstakingly analyzed the content of 50 MILF videos and 50 teen videos pulled from 10 popular porn sites and found that the actresses in MILF porn were 2.5 times more likely to be the initiators of sex and nine times more likely to control the pace and direction of the sexual encounter. In addition, in pornos where the characters’ profession was part of the plotline (e.g., supervisor/employee), not one of the women in the teen videos had a higher status job than her male partner, whereas 83 per cent of the MILFs had more status than their partners. In MILF porn, women were often depicted as employers, teachers, and judges, while men were often depicted as employees, students, and bailiffs.

Part of the appeal of the MILF may reside, therefore, in the fact that a lot of guys are simply turned on by a woman who is powerful. For some of these men, their growing attraction to MILFs may be a reflection of the changing gender structure in the workplace, in which women today hold more positions of power than ever before. In other cases, MILFs may be fulfilling a deeper desire for submission, a fairly common male sexual fantasy. In fact, one study published in the Journal of Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy found that 15 per cent of men surveyed reported having fantasies about being the submissive partner in the last 3 months.

Of course, attraction to MILFs is not always about power and submission. Instead, some guys may just be drawn to the fact that it is easier to sexually please a woman who knows what she wants and isn’t afraid to ask for it. “Men inherently want to please a woman. They want her to enjoy sex with us,” psychologist David Ley, author of The Myth of Sex Addiction, explained over email. “And, when a man is with a woman who knows her body, her desires, and is sexually confident and adventurous, it increases the chances (in fantasy and real life) that the man can give that woman sexual pleasure.”

Ley also believes that the appeal of MILFs has something to do with the fact that a MILF “looks more real, looks like she could live down the street.” Given that they tend to be a bit older than the typical female porn star, MILFs don’t necessarily have the “perfect” skin and bodies that younger actresses do. MILFs may seem like a woman you might actually run into in the real world—someone who is perhaps more attainable. According to Ley, “That’s a powerful fantasy and excitement—for men who want to fantasize about sex with a realistic person, rather than a pneumatic doll.”

It is somewhat surprising, then, that “MILF” is the term that stuck for describing this genre of porn. Whether the women in these videos are actually moms seems irrelevant, as are the viewers’ feelings about their own mothers. Indeed, MILF porn isn’t really about moms per se—it’s about real women who are comfortable and confident with their bodies and sexuality and aren’t afraid to show it.

Justin Lehmiller, PhD is a sex educator and researcher at Purdue University and author of The Psychology of Human Sexuality blog. Follow him on Twitter @JustinLehmiller.