(This isn’t going to be very well written, Melbourne has just gone into our 5th lockdown and my mind is mush but I just wanted to do some writing to take my mind off the apocalypse for a little while.)
In my youth, I often fell in love with significantly older men. My relationships with these men taught me to be afraid of aging and so now, as my body changes and ages, I wish we had never been close.
These men fixated on my small and youthful body, they told me the details of it that they adored, they spoke of how lucky they were to have the attention of a younger woman, like my youth was a prize that they had won and that other men would envy. In one way “conversations” with me, a younger woman, they would deconstruct the details of older women’s bodies, they bemoaned their lack of attraction to them – it wasn’t the poor guy’s fault! Alas, they simply couldn’t get hard for heavy hips, bigger stomachs, wrinkles and bitterness! Young women were fresh, vibrant, glowing, exciting, small and happy!
Though, like so many a lonely young person, I was grateful for the attention and adoration, even at the time it felt like a limited, finite sort of love because I knew my youth to be a temporary and fleeting state. But I knew our culture was obsessed with feminine youth and it felt, often, like the only option I had to receive love. I grew up hearing songs about girls being sweet 16 and so by the time I was 18, I already started to worry that I was losing some sort of prime freshness. I grew up hearing about how the president of the United States cheated on his wife with a much younger women. I remember being 14 years old and seeing Britney Spears perform “Baby One More Time” and my friend’s father commenting on how sexy this girl was, only a few years older than us, styled and shaped by others into a male fantasy which becomes all the more disturbing, the more we learn of her abusive father. I remember being 14 and having another friend’s father talking reverently about my youth, “lily white skin” and cupping my crotch when he threw me into the air in a swimming pool. How sick, how sad.
When I was 17 years old, I had a long distance, online friendship with a man in his thirties. For much of my life, I thought of him as a dear friend who helped me through some of the hardest and loneliest parts of my life and in fact, in my head I thought of him as a mentor and so for the purposes of this writing, I shall refer to him that way. The thing is, this is true. He supported my art like nobody else did, he read my giant emails and took my problems and concerns seriously when I had nobody else to speak to, he introduced me to books, music and art that informed the trajectory of my artistic growth and life. In short, he influenced me a great deal and I do believe he was a man with a kind heart. The problem is… our relationship, when I became 18, also became romantic and sexual, he would tell me in great detail what he liked and didn’t like in women’s bodily features and we would exchange words of love, I planned for a time to fly to his country and live with him, I am so glad this never happened because I do not think it would have been good for me.
When I was at art school at 19 or 20 years old, I had an uncomfortable experience where I was talking to the photography teacher, a man the same age as my Dad, and as he flipped through folders on his computer, for the briefest moment, a folder popped with photos in it. The photos in question? Nudes I’d put on my Deviantart. Just my nudes. Now, look, the photos were publically available and I have no moral objections to people wanking, in private, to whatever the hell they like. My seeing the photos was obviously not the teacher’s intention as I’ve never seen someone close a window more quickly, nor quickly find something to talk about in the hope that nothing was seen or said. I didn’t say anything and nothing ever came of it. That said, he should not have had those photos on his work computer.
And I did feel uncomfortable. It wasn’t the first time I’d experienced sexual attention from a teacher and it made me unhappy because to me, art school represented a place where I might be able to build something for myself on the merits of my hard work and skill. I was incredibly passionate about trying to make a career as an artist and I felt afraid that being a young woman would get in the way of people seeing me as a valid artist. Frankly, a valid fear. And so I expressed my fear to my online mentor and lover, this older man in America and his advice? That I should not see men being sexually attracted to me as a problem, that in fact it was my source of power in the world, something that I could use and be proud of. This advice made me uncomfortable but I took it to heart and it hurts to think how much my idea of where I could get power from came from his advice.
What would I say to a girl coming to me with these fears? I would validate her fears. I would ask her what she wanted, if anything, to do about what she had seen. I would empathise with her about how the world is a difficult place to be a young woman and how it can feel like you can’t trust any man. Of course, a man in his 30s was probably never going to have the insight to give me such advice but the advice he did give me was god awful, it taught me not to pay attention to my discomfort when men were sexually inappropriate, it taught me to push my discomfort down and use this “power” that I had. Except it never felt like power to me and it would take me many more years before I could find any sense of “power” in sex and that power came from finding and practicing sexual autonomy and agency, not from men’s attraction to me.
A few years later, I ended a relationship with a young man I’d been dating for several years. It was a heartbreaking time but we were striving to retain a friendship as there was a great deal of love between us. At the same time, I was still in contact with my online mentor, now just a friend again and no longer a lover. We had our first ever big argument over a difference in perspective – he felt I should have sex with my ex to make him feel better, since I was the one who ended things. I thought this was outrageous and offensive to my ex. At this point, my mentor started to tell me that he couldn’t help but have some empathy for rapists and how little women understand the power they have with sex.
We stopped speaking for a while, I think, and my connection with my mentor was never the same after that. But during my twenties and early thirties, I dated a few men from the BDSM scene who were older – this time the gap wasn’t so large, around ten years but both of them (who are no longer in my lives) also dated a lot of women who were significantly younger than them and both of them had a habit of talking to me about what physical attributes they found attractive/unattractive in women. A lot. At one point, I got into a fight with one of them over the fact that he, a man now in his early 40s, had his dating parameters set to women as young as 19 (we were polyamorous). Angrily, he told me that I was being patronising of young women and that there many young women who were perfectly capable of making their own choices. I simmered but I shut my mouth and wondered if he was right.
But the thing is… I support young women being able to do what they want. I do not believe in policing the lives or sexual decisions of young women. This was not my point, my point was that I felt uncomfortable with this man actively choosing to date women who were so much younger, less experienced and more vulnerable than him. Yes, there are plenty of incredibly mature and worldly 19 year olds but some things only come with time and young people can also be profoundly vulnerable and easy to hurt. Perhaps the major part of my protectiveness was that this man, ten years my senior, often badly hurt me and later I realised that his behaviour towards me was emotionally abusive which devastated my mental health for awhile and I wonder, in horror, at the damage he might do to someone 20 years his junior.
Now I’m now the age that my mentor was when I was 18 and when I see 18 year olds, I see 18 year olds as children and I simply couldn’t imagine entering a romantic relationship with them. I fact, the thought makes me feel physically unwell, the power imbalance, the damage I could cause… ugh. The perspective of time and age has completely reframed my relationship with him so that I now realise how little I knew and how much he got into my head. Though I view the relationships I later had with men only ten years older as somewhat less problematic, I can still see how there was a power imbalance and a lack of emotional maturity on their part to accept the extra responsibility they should come with dating someone who is younger and less experienced.
The conversation around age differences is a tricky one because it is, ultimately, somewhat arbitrary and like most aspects of life, there are grey areas and exceptions. However, as I age and find myself deeply afraid of becoming unlovable and unattractive to my male partners, I can see what profound and toxic damage was done to me by these men who did not love me for who I was but for an aspect of myself over which I had no control; my age. These days, I would neither date nor be friends with a person with a chronic obsession for younger women and when I meet men who date significantly younger women, I do look at the men and their relationships with scepticism and concern. In the last few years, I’ve become more vocal as to my feelings on this and have had a few people get upset and angry with my prejudice towards relationships with large age gaps. Be that as it may, my concerns do not come from nowhere but from my own lived experience and the damage to my self-worth that I am now striving to overcome as I see that I can be powerful, sexy and loved no matter my age and no matter what the older men who I used to love would think.