the receiving end
[CN: more or less the same as yesterday’s feature, to which this one relates. Relationships with a very large age gap, where one partner is a teenager. I was personally very upset by one sentence in here, but because of how very well it articulated something the author criticizes, a thing that my father also wanted and shouldn’t have wanted – a thing that another old man I know who is on trial right now also wanted and shouldn’t have wanted – not because of anything explicit. The essay was more than worth the resulting flashbacks, but I was grateful to have been warned before I read it. Can you have a trigger warning for insight? (Don’t answer that in the comments, please.) — Maribou]
When I was in high school, I was positively surrounded by much older and extremely flirtatious men. Hard, tough guys, most of them, policemen and firefighters and paramedics. My stepfather and mother were social butterflies, so my home was regularly full of such men over for barbecues and football games. We attended parties with them and get-togethers pretty much every weekend, went boating and camping and played softball together. From the time I was about 16, I was fair game for flirting. To outsiders I’m sure it would have appeared highly questionable, but it never went too far. Wives were always lurking nearby, children were always underfoot, and they were all decent enough guys with a sense of right and wrong. I know any one of them would have laid down their lives to protect me, my virtue, if it had come to it. It never came to it, because they would never have taken it that far.
It was consensual flirting. I was into it, never felt pressured or embarrassed or humiliated or exploited. I enjoyed the attention because boys my age never seemed to have much use for me. It was flattering and fun and I learned a skillset that has served me well in life, acquiring the ability to get myself both into and out of trouble with a giggle.
Despite the apparent charm I held for the older set, boys my age weren’t interested. Guys just didn’t seem to like me, not at all, not even a little. Over time, this fact coupled with being a child of divorce – a state that takes the normal human fear of rejection and turns it pathological, or at least it did for me – and some other traumatic events too dull to list caused this to grow in my mind. I was unlovable, disgusting, a reject. No teenage drama, either. I thought it was obvious and self-evident that I was flawed on a fundamental level and that no one would ever want me.
Then, disaster struck. Over the last few months of my senior year in high school, at the age of 17, I was groomed by an older male teacher. By groomed, I mean, I’m sure he didn’t think of it that way, but I believe in retrospect that’s exactly what he was doing. He gave me extra attention, was unusually solicitous of my well being, offered me extra help (I was doing terribly in the class, which was Physics). He was so flattering and complimentary; he seemed to think I was funny and charming. He helped me before class every day for several weeks, and would put his hand on my knee sometimes when he explained my velocity problems. And I ate it up. I was dying, it felt like I was literally dying for anyone male to pay actual attention to me. And he did.
I didn’t really want anything to happen, in fact I worried a lot about what I’d do if he tried taking it farther, but at the same time I craved the attention. I sought it out even though I knew I shouldn’t and even though I was scared of the possible outcome. Until one day I messed up in a very teenager-like fashion, didn’t show up to a school program I’d committed to helping with, and he totally cut me off. Just like flipping a switch. When I look back on it now, with a charitable eye, I suspect that me acting like a teenager made him realize I was one, so he came to his senses and stepped back. All to his credit, if true, but at the time it was devastating. It verified as fact what I’d supposed, which was that I was unworthy of love, of affection, and if people didn’t see that right away, they would, in time. I would screw it up eventually. It was how I was made. The last time I saw him was at graduation. It was my 18th birthday, and he gave me a big enthusiastic hug, and I had a lot of mixed emotions about it all.
That summer I took a job at my stepfather’s workplace, and a 28 year old started hanging around, chatting me up. He was almost 29 and was divorced and had a young son. I had just barely turned 18, so about 11 years of age difference. 11 years seems like a smallish number – two ones, and everything – but it’s a lot when it’s the 11 years between 29 and 18. Plus, I looked extremely young for my age – I got carded by skeptical clerks at R-rated movies and believe it or not, even when playing the damn Monopoly game at McDonalds, which you had to be 16 to do because I guess it was gambling or something. Most people assumed I was 13 or 14. One time, a stranger harassing me on the bus didn’t believe I was 18 and actually demanded to see my driver’s license (which I, being a good little girl, dutifully showed him). But, despite my extremely youthful appearance, this almost 29 year old divorced father pursued me anyway and I, having been set up for it so nicely by parental divorce issues coupled with my teacher’s recent attention and rejection, went right along with it, even though I didn’t find him particularly interesting or physically appealing. I just felt SO LUCKY to have anyone, anyone at all, who wanted to be with me. Back then, you see, the single most attractive quality to me in a man was that he liked me – whether I liked him or not – and I think I’d have followed a guy to the gates of Hell at that point in my life if he showed me the least bit of affection.
Now, 18 is not 14. Of course it isn’t. But I am telling you as I sit here today looking back on it, I was not in control of the situation, not at all, it was not equal, it was icky and wrong. It was exploitative. It was not me flirting with the guys at my parents’ barbeques, safe and harmless and positive, a learning experience. It was different. Too much, too far, not what I really wanted, and not who I wanted to have it with. But he was a nice guy, that was the thing. He was a nice guy. He was a giving person, never pushed me to do anything I didn’t want to do. It was consensual, totally. He truly loved me, cared about me, and I broke his heart (or so he said) when I ended it a year later because it only took me a year of growing up before I realized it wasn’t ok, what was happening. That it wasn’t right or healthy. It was on the whole, a positive experience for a first serious boyfriend, but it wasn’t right. And he knew it wasn’t right too, because he got embarrassed and defensive when we’d go out in public, him looking 30 and me looking 13, and people would give him dirty looks.
Since this Moore scandal came out, I have read several diatribes from women describing their experiences dating much older men when they were about the same age I was at the time. 18-ish. They’ve been very eloquently sticking up for their right to pursue that type of relationship and I respect that. That’s what freedom is all about. I would never presume to tell any other woman that something that was not healthy for me couldn’t be ok for them. But I can only assume that these women began their relationships in a different place developmentally than I did. I like to think that these girls were the kind of very secure girls who I have met many times in my life, girls who know who they are at a young age and compromise for no one and have been fortunate to have had a life experience that hasn’t broken their sense of self-worth.
I wasn’t that girl. I can only speak for me myself, and for me, I wasn’t ready for what happened. I don’t think the guy should be thrown in jail obviously, but I wasn’t ready. I was supposed to be figuring it all out with some boy my own age, even though, as my husband sometimes likes to remind me when I talk about all of this, younger men are jerks too. It is entirely possible I’d have had an even more negative experience with a boy my own age. But at least the playing field would have been level, at least I would have started off on an equal footing, at least I would have been holding some of the cards. As it was, I had nothing but a burning desire — not for sex, but for someone to love me.
Girls are programmed, be it biologically or by the culture per your belief system, to find the idea of getting swept off of one’s feet to be immensely appealing. Honestly, it still appeals to me. But it’s a dodge, you see. Getting swept off of your feet means you aren’t finding your own way. You aren’t going the direction you necessarily wanted to go; instead, you’re getting pulled off course into a whirlwind romance on someone else’s terms. And for a very young woman, older men have so much more ability to Pretty Woman you than men your own age do, because they have money and experience and wisdom and younger men have none of those things. A teenage boy can’t compete against a father figure. Getting swept off your feet is so easy when you’re young, because young women are so heavily programmed to do what older people want them to, just like me obediently showing my driver’s license – with my home address upon it, mind you – to that total stranger on the bus one day. Because he demanded that I do so, because I had to prove I wasn’t a liar, because I apparently owed my personal information to the world. Older men pursuing young, inexperienced women absolutely know this and use it to their advantage. And it is a huge advantage.
Now, one can make the argument that this is true of very beautiful women, that they can dazzle a man into idiocy with the weapons at their disposal and that this isn’t a level playing field either, but at least a beautiful woman still has to have something beyond the physical to offer a guy and the guy has to have something beyond the physical to give in return. It is the rare adult relationship where it’s solely physical attraction between a man and woman. Yet there are so many very young women in relationships with older men that are utterly devoid of non-sexual content.
What did my boyfriend and I even have in common? Nothing. He had a child and I was barely more than a child. I had only just left home, but he had been in the Air Force and had traveled the world. I didn’t have an education, let alone a career, and he was a paramedic who had seen death, actual death. We were out to dinner once, and an old woman started choking. He got up and gave her the Heimlich and saved her. He had seen dying children. When we were dating, he dealt with two dying children – a fire and a premature birth – and he was all broken up about it. I had nothing to offer him. Because, honestly, I really didn’t care that much. My empathy hadn’t grown in yet, just like my wisdom teeth. I was interested in parties and school dances and eye makeup. I still liked stickers and teddy bears. I couldn’t even drive a car. And though he tried to be interested in things I was interested in, like fashion and music and similar fluff, seriously that is a really, really bad look on a grown-ass man.
So what was the appeal for him? What is the appeal for a Roy Moore with a 14-year-old girl? I’ll tell you what I have come to believe after ruminating on this for nearly 3 decades. In the telling, maybe it will be easier to see why, in retrospect, it all feels so gross and exploitative to me, even though he was a nice guy and everything seemed on the face of it to be totally consensual.
I believe the appeal is that young women are often seen as empty vessels that an older man believes he can fill however he wants to. It’s an “I’m your teacher, you’re my student” fantasy, and at its very core it implies not a two-sided relationship between equals, but a twisted fantasy in which a man believes he can construct a sex robot, order up a Stepford Wife, take Eliza Dolittle under his wing and turn her into a lady. He thinks on some level that he can turn an unfinished girl into a woman, and have that woman be exactly who and what he thinks she ought to be. And it’s not even that there aren’t times when consenting adults can play that game and mutually enjoy it, because they can and it’s fun, it’s when someone tries to make it real that it becomes a problem. Because if the girl isn’t capable of consent, for whatever reason, then it kind of IS real. Isn’t it?
Some young women really are like empty vessels, or uncooked dough, maybe; I certainly was. They’re malleable, alterable, not fully formed yet, willing to bend in whatever direction someone stronger and wiser pushes them. And it’s really pretty skeevy for an older experienced person who’s had their chance to grow up already, to want to put their permanent stamp into that lovely innocent willingness like pushing a wad of soft fresh Play Doh through the Play Doh Fun Factory, not caring if they turn it into a massive mess of tangled blue spaghetti.
And beyond that, you know what else it is for these guys, I think? At the end of the day, what they’re getting out of it most of all, perhaps? It is that younger women are easier. Easily impressed, easily dazzled, easily charmed. They’re eager to please, insecure, manipulable. I know I was. They’ve accomplished nothing with their lives yet, since they haven’t had the time, and so they aren’t intimidating (with the exception of the young women with that inherent, inborn self-confidence I mentioned before, which casts some of these relationships into a different, more equal light. YMMV.). Perhaps unsurprisingly, my boyfriend had endured a bitter divorce from a perpetually angry bitch – an accomplished woman his own age, by the by – and of course she was totally in the wrong about everything all the time, and he was an innocent wronged victim, and I completely believed him when he told me about how terrible she was, because I was so eager to please, so insecure, so manipulable.
There is a reason why so many men declare mature women to be bitter angry bitches – it’s because they won’t just silently go along with a man’s bullshit if he’s full of bullshit. But many young women will. There are men in this world who can’t stand to be challenged, who can’t tolerate a woman who is on an equal footing, who may be accomplished in her own right. Some men don’t want that kind of relationship or that kind of woman. Some men want a relationship where they are the boss, the daddy, showering gifts and doling out favors from above like a benevolent dictator, and while it isn’t just age that comes into play when setting up this dynamic, age is a pretty reliable predictor of a differential in power, in achievement, in self-confidence, in independence. An 18 year old is barely a woman. She hasn’t even lived on her own yet, and she is used to relying on others to meet her needs, used to asking permission to go places and to do things, used to being told what to do. An 18 year old demands very little emotional heavy lifting from a man, very little long term planning on his part. She lives in the moment, because she’s at that time in her life where she still can live in the moment. Older women want things and need things and demand things that 18 year olds do not, like respect, like equality, like permanence, like a relationship in which they have some say in the terms of the affair, and some men simply cannot handle it.
18 is just not the same thing as 28 or 38 or 48 and we can’t pretend that it is. And I will not pretend any longer that I wasn’t taken advantage of just because a piece of paper had the word “legal” stamped on it. I couldn’t even buy myself a beer. I was unbaked dough. Raw still. Gooey in the center. It didn’t matter how much I’d flirted with older men in the past or how mature everyone said I acted or how consensual I thought my relationship was at the time, it wasn’t cool since I wasn’t able to consent using the full power of the faculties that I currently possess as I sit here today as an adult – faculties that I came into very shortly after the affair ended, the faculties of an adult female human. And if ~I~ wasn’t really quite capable of giving a real, non-icky consent (even if it was technically legal) at 18, with my 29 year old caring, tender, considerate, legitimately trying to be a nice guy boyfriend, then I can guarantee you, meaning the people out there who have defended 32 year old Moore for mackin’ on a 14 or a 16 year old, those girls were not capable of consenting to that relationship. Period.
Now, some will say Roy Moore couldn’t help himself, my boyfriend couldn’t, it’s programming. It’s evolution, they will say; men are simply predestined to want younger unspoiled women. They may be right about that. If so, it must be some kind of cosmic joke or something, because I don’t think it’s true for women. Looking back on my life, when I was 14 I liked 14 year old boys. When I was in my 20’s, I liked men in their 20’s or early 30’s, and I no longer liked teenagers (it was a condition of my parole.) When I was in my 30’s, this process continued unabated and I found that I liked men who were my age or somewhat older – 25 year olds held no appeal, but 45 year olds suddenly did. And now that I’m well into middle age, I look around at balding, graying, pudgy men in their 50’s pushing their bifocals up onto their noses, and I think, “I would freaking destroy that guy if I had a chance.” I think this is a natural progression for most women. Yet a fair number of men, sitting where I am sitting age-wise, gaze longingly at the coltlike Taylor Swift — or worse, the sweet, chubby-cheeked Selena Gomez, who looks about 14 to me, and are thinking about some stuff. And it may be natural for them. They may be blameless in the grand scheme of things. It may all be programming and genetic imperatives and Y chromosomes and testosterone and shit.
But you know, just like the line in The African Queen, Nature, Mr. Allnut, is what we were put in this world to rise ABOVE.
So as I’ve read the defenses of Roy Moore, things like “it was consensual” and “some of these girls are impossibly mature and flirtatious” (yeah, I read that somewhere but can’t remember where, now) or “the 16 and 18 year old were old enough to be considered legal” and all the rest of it, I want to scream because I know differently. The age difference matters. It matters a lot because the age difference changes the dynamic. Takes it from people on an equal footing, on a level playing field, to a land of massive power imbalances and terrible potential for manipulation. It is a sad, crazy state of affairs where we’re putting teenage boys on the sex registry forever for relationships with girls their own age, and yet people defend the very concept of a 32 year old and a 14 year old, or a 16 year old, or an 18 year old. And yeah I know your mom did it or your grandma did and everything seemed all hunky dory, but do you really, truly know how she felt about it? TRULY? Do you think your lovely sweet adorable grandma would tell you all about how she wished things could have been different sometimes, and about how maybe getting hitched to a 30 year old dude when she was 15 maybe wasn’t always the greatest, and about how she had regrets sometimes, but she stuck it out because that’s what people did then? Didn’t think so.
And this doesn’t mean that the older/younger dynamic is inherently bad. It isn’t. It is different with a 28 year old and a 38 year old and a 48 year old in a relationship with that kind of age difference. 11 years is nothing at 38 or 48. Because those women have had a shot at life, dudes. Adult life. They didn’t go from their parent’s house to the mall to Roy Moore’s house to get felt up outside of their bra. They’re not raw dough any more. They’re baked and have assumed their final, delicious form. Take it or leave it. They are formed, they are no longer in their formative years. And beyond that, couples in a relationship with that kind of age gap only skewed a couple decades older have things in common, things to build a relationship upon, since they’ve lived adult lives simultaneously. Music and history and politics and food and books that they read. Life experiences. They can talk about things other than what they’re doing in the sack. Everyone knows the joke “Where were you when Kennedy was shot?” “Ted Kennedy was shot?” But at least they both knew Ted Kennedy existed. How can you build a real relationship without that common ground?
My boyfriend and I had nothing, NO thing in common. How can you truly love a person if you have no commonalities between you? What did Roy Moore and a 14 year old have in common? Did they both like Leif Garrett and Shaun Cassidy? Probably not. Did they both like roller skating and Bonne Bell lip gloss and putting super big combs in the pockets of their James Jeans? Probably none of those things either. There was nothing there to Roy Moore’s mind but an empty vessel for a man to fill, a girl to “turn” into a woman. But girls do that on their own, it’s called growing up. They don’t need the help of a skeevy creep to make it happen.
My boyfriend never loved me. He loved an empty vessel that he could pour his own fantasies into. And that’s all that it was. He may as well have bought a sex robot and programmed her. That’s not love. You don’t love a ball of raw dough that you think you can squish into whatever shape you want. You love the finished product, the finished person.
Now, I fully understand that the law is a series of line-drawing exercises and that line has to fall somewhere. We have to have a line of demarcation written clearly into the law for the sake of fairness and justice and sometimes for some individuals this line may fall in slightly the wrong place, like it did for me. I understand that these lines are based on imprecise dirty messy human behaviors involving gray and blurry moral boundaries, but that, despite that fogginess, the line must be drawn somewhere concrete. I accept that. My boyfriend broke no law. But I don’t have to think that he was a good person. And I don’t, not any more. He may have been kind, but he wasn’t good. I don’t have to defend him, not one more day. Even though I was legal (I was legal, how dehumanizing), it is okay for me to think that his behavior was indefensible. I am giving myself permission to do that.
Regardless of where the law drew the line, I don’t have to think that he was a good person for following the letter, but not the spirit of it. And it is OK for me to look back and believe that I was taken advantage of, and to regret, deeply regret, giving myself away so easily. I won’t call myself a victim — but I can acknowledge my regret.
The Roy Moore thing has brought all this back to the surface, which, although upsetting, is probably good in a way. It has made me really revisit some experiences that I probably would never have willingly thought about again, and I’m processing them, I think, for the first time, really. It’s the first time I’ve really admitted even to myself that something bad happened to me, and that I was irrevocably changed by it, harmed by it, in ways that really have lasted my entire life, and still echo today.
Maybe that’s just how life is. We have our wounds, our scars, we carry them with us, and sometimes we even show them to other people like I am doing now. We can’t escape them, but we can accept them, and forgive ourselves for bearing them.