Hello! I am confused. I have recently grown attracted to someone who is older than me. Not too much older, but enough to make me question where I’m coming from. When it comes to age gaps in sexual relationships, I have always been so standoffish, mostly because I was aggressively pursued by older men when I was closer to being “jailbait.” I’m not there anymore. I don’t think this person is interested in me, which is fine. I am wondering, however, if this means something.
Age is a tricky thing in relationships. Some people say age is just a number. Sometimes, it’s very clear that age is far more than just a number – it’s a real power dynamic, one that can play out in subtle or not so subtle ways. Gender plays a huge role in how age plays out in relationships – which it sounds like you have some history dealing with, being pursued by older men at a vulnerable age. Gender also plays out in complicated ways for the older person: Only under the best of circumstances are older men seen as suspicious for pursuing younger women; more often, large age differences between men and women are viewed with a wink and a nod, and “dirty old men” are normalized, as if men being drawn to younger women is natural rather than a deliberate choice to exert power over someone. Even the term “jailbait” is kind of cheeky, and the only time I ever saw statutory rape charges taken even remotely seriously was on Law and Order: SVU, that paragon of justice system wishful thinking. Younger women, by contrast, who enter relationships with older men with any sense of savvy, are villainized as gold diggers, a narrative that, in my opinion, ultimately stems from cultural entitlement to femme emotional, intellectual, and sexual labor, as well as an utter fear of women’s agency with regard to their sexuality and the choice of whether or not they want to capitalize off of it for their own goals and agendas.
Older women with younger men are viewed as monstrous or laughable in many cases, except in the cases where the boys in question are so young that they should unequivocally be considered victims – in those cases, there’s a disturbing cultural trend that jokes about the victim’s “luck” or even sexual prowess in being taken advantage of by an adult woman.
Within queer spaces, though, age differences – when they’re discussed at all – have to be considered with some nuance (though they rarely are). Age differences in relationships between two men, for example, are definitely not perceived the same way as relationships between an older man and younger woman. And age differences between lesbians? I can think of exactly one that comes anywhere close to being well known.
Which is all to say that age, romance, and sex are complicated, and a lot of social factors come into play when navigating dating someone who is substantially older or younger than you. Since you said that you’ve only recently become aware that you’re attracted to this person, and since the likelihood of them returning your interest is small, let’s focus instead on the meaning that you make from this age difference. What about this person attracts you? What does their age symbolize to you? Do you feel as though they’re more mature because of their age? Are you comparing them to partners you’ve had in the past who were closer to your age? How were you treated in those relationships, and how do you imagine this older person might treat you? Do you just like them and their age is a coincidence?
It’s interesting to me that you seem to be suggesting that there is something going on beneath the surface of this new attraction. Attraction, at least in the way you’re describing it now, exists in the realm of fantasy – and there’s no value judgment in the realm of fantasy, because it exists entirely in your head. You can’t get attraction wrong, is what I’m saying, and if you know that nothing is going to come of the relationship beyond how it currently exists, then in some ways, my advice to you is to give yourself a break and have at it. Fantasizing and infatuation can be fun, especially since you have the self-awareness it takes to create sufficient boundaries around that infatuation.
I understand that your history of being pursued by older men, though, is what is giving you pause – and I think that’s smart. It sounds like you knew enough when you were younger to protect yourself, and I wish that was something that more young people were taught growing up. A lot of damage is done because we’re not taught about power dynamics in explicit ways as children and adolescents, and when I was younger, more than one of my friends had experience dating a guy who was substantially older than her. Our attitudes were often ones of uneasy awe: that someone so theoretically “cool” and “mature” could be into one of us, when we hardly felt older than children. That, though, was exactly the point — and the older guys who were buzzing around were definitely aware of the ways in which our starstruck admiration worked in their favor. Now, on the other side of thirty and reflecting back on men in their mid-twenties hanging around high school girls seems nothing less than the most transparent – and pathetic – form of coercion.
I think the most telling line of your letter is when you say, “I’m not there anymore” and to me, perhaps that has to do with some looking back that you’re doing of your own. You’re not the vulnerable teenager being aggressively pursued anymore, and I wonder how new it is, to be in this difference place. I wonder if you’re stepping into a new sexual role, and if that feels a little bit unfamiliar to you now. Many of us were taught from an alarmingly early age that our sexual role is that of object – something inert, something that arouses desire in others and then is acted upon. But there is a lot of agency in your letter – you are the subject, and the object of your attraction/infatuation/fantasy is older than you. The tables have turned, and the roles are reversed. When I read this letter, what is clearest to me is that this is so not about this older person you’re crushing on. Instead, it has everything to do with you, and how things have changed for you. That’s a heady, exciting, and, because of it’s newness and unfamiliarity, an anxiety-inducing place to be, and I think it certainly does “mean something.” It means you’ve changed, and maybe that your at the precipice of stepping into your sexual subjectivity (as opposed to objectification): your ability to create an authentic and fulfilling sexual life for yourself based on your desires rather than what is desired of you. What it means beyond that, though, is entirely, exhilaratingly, up to you.