One of the most frequent Just Wondering questions we get here at Rookie is some variation on the following: “I’m a teenager and I’m thinking about dating/am intensely attracted to a person who’s significantly older than me. THOUGHTS?”
Well, as someone who not only has always been interested in older dudes, but has also dated quite a few of them, I have some things to say about your situation, question-askers. When I was 15, I was dating a 28-year-old (cue gasping). Looking back at that relationship now, seven years later, there are so many things I wish someone had told me before I decided to become the Lolita to this guy’s Humbert². That, by the way, is actually a comparison I made at the time, which is so gross to me now. I romanticized a story about an adult man kidnapping, molesting, and raping an adolescent girl. None of that stuff happened to me, but I still wince when I remember how I idealized the thought of someone being single-mindedly obsessed with me the way the novel’s narrator is with Lolita. (Um, probably don’t do this, you guys.)
It wasn’t like I was stupid. At 15 I was smart and self-aware. But I didn’t have enough experience or wisdom (as opposed to intelligence) to completely understand what I was getting into. I thought I was totally prepared to deal with the daily realities of having a boyfriend who was older than me by a decade-plus, which turned out to be less than correct.
Before I get into the real nitty gritty, though, a few caveats. First, being attracted to older guys is completely and totally normal. It doesn’t mean you have “daddy issues” or whatever; that phrase doesn’t actually mean anything, because it can be applied (or, preferably, not) to every person on the planet. Being attracted to someone older just means you are a human person who sometimes thinks other human people are sexy! I mean, I know: some cute college guy who spells his texts properly and actually seems to wash his face (be still my beating heart) can be pretty tough crush competition for the bros in your 10th grade math class. And if there’s one thing of which I’m certain about you Rookies, it’s this: to borrow a compliment frequently expressed to you by your grandpa/kindly next-door neighbor/best friend’s mom, YOU ARE VERY MATURE FOR YOUR AGE. Which means it can sometimes be tough to find things in common with other people who, well, aren’t that way, including potential homecoming dates. So it’s totally fine to moon over people who are older than you! Acting on those feelings, however, is more complicador.
Which isn’t to say that there aren’t plenty of loving, mutually respectful relationships between people with long gaps between their birth years. Not every one of these situations is going to be a soap opera about forbidden love and sexual corruption; sometimes it really is just about two people who really like and respect each other. It’s totally doable, as long as you keep some things (*cough* MY INSANELY WISE WORDS BELOW *cough*) in mind.
My third preface is that this article is, by design, focused on the younger woman/older man dynamic, because that’s what so many of you have written to us about, and it’s so powerful a cultural trope as to have spawned novels, movies, stereotypes, and clichés. And the fact that adults and males have social/cultural/economic/etc. power over teenagers and females adds extra force to the power differential in this kind of arrangement. At some point we’ll do a piece on age differences in queer relationships, but this one is about teenage girls dating older dudes. I’ll use male pronouns a lot for this reason. (That said, most [but not all] of this advice will apply to sexual/romantic relationships involving people of any and all genders.)
Finally, I don’t mean for this article to read as “A HORRIBLE OLD MAN TOOK MY YOUTHFUL INNOCENCE,” because that’s not what happened. I made my own decisions when I was 15, and I enjoyed the majority of the time I spent dating that 28-year-old as well as the older dudes who came after him. But if you’re looking to get into one of these situations, I’m guessing you don’t need to be told about the alluring/fun parts, and if you’re writing to us about it, it’s clear that you are weighing your decision carefully, and not being passively swept away or coerced. And so this article is gonna focus on the not-so-fun stuff—the things I didn’t know or understand back then, and that maybe you don’t now.
So, here are the things I wish someone had talked to me about when I was 15—if they had, I doubt I would have acted on my proclivity for adult men at least until it was legal for me to do so, or maybe I would have just dialed my actions back a little. If you share my teenage (and current) tendencies and decide, after reading all these points, to charge ahead with your May-December romance, no one here is judging you, and I hope it’s a beautiful and positive experience. But maybe within it, you’ll find these points as useful as I would have at your age.
1. Sex with a minor is a crime in most countries.
What this means is that even if the person you’re seeing doesn’t know you’re underage—like, even if you show him or her a fake ID—he or she can face felony charges if someone finds out that you’re engaging in any kind of sexual activity, even if you were a willing participant. So, in addition to potentially messing with your brain, which is obviously what I care about most and what we’ll be primarily dealing with after this point, getting sexually involved with an older person if you’re under the age of consent (which varies from state to state and from country to country) could result in that person’s being sent to jail, which is a pretty serious thing to keep in mind.
2. Consider the age difference—how old are you and how old are they? When I first started getting involved with older men, I was all “age ain’t nothin’ but a number.” But that is actually not the case, and the fact that I know that now but didn’t then proves my point. (Also, did you know that that song was written for Aaliyah by R. Kelly, who was boning her teenage self at the time? Anaheed told me this last year and I was like EW.)
When plotting to French an older person, you might be tempted to rationalize the stretch of time between your two births thusly: “Well, my mom and my dad [or whoever] are seven years apart in age and they’re doing swell, so LET’S GET THIS THING GOIN’.” Everyone knows a happy grown-up couple with a significant number of years between them, but the thing is this: Those two people are adults, and when that’s the case, how old you are in relation to your partner matters less. When you’re a teenager, however, every year is a pivotal one! Consider how different you are now from how you were two years ago—huge, right? You’re basically a whole ’nother person. Just as awesome, but with a radically different perspective on what happened in middle school, you know? That idea also applies to the years between you and an older paramour. Time behaves more peculiarly when you’re younger because everything changes so quickly, so the distance between 16 and 21 is way bigger than the one between 23 and 28.
That said, when you’re 17 or 18, it’s not really a big deal to hook up with someone who’s just a few years older than you. (And many jurisdictions have added so-called “Romeo and Juliet” clauses to their statutory-rape laws to acknowledge this common sense.) Maybe your girlfriend or boyfriend went off to college, maybe you met a cute 21-year-old drummer at a show—these things happen and are fine as long as you feel comfortable with this older person. That means: Do you feel OK disagreeing with them? Are they respectful of your life outside of your relationship? Do they get along with your friends? Do they treat you as a peer? If you’re unsure, a good rule of thumb is to draw the line at getting involved with anyone who is older than you by a quarter of the years you’ve been alive. And anyone under the age of 17 should probably wait a little while to be with any person whose age doesn’t also end in -teen.
3. You have plenty of time to date people older than you, but not nearly as much to have a high-school romance.
Teenagehood lasts only seven years. You have literally the rest of your earthly days to date people in their 20s and up, but you can never have a real high-school romance again after 12th grade is over. I didn’t give myself a chance to do all that puppy-love stuff like passing love notes in class, holding hands during cheesy assemblies, and sneaking quick kisses in the hallway during passing period. All of these things seem awesome, and I’m kind of pissed that I gave them up!
When you get a little older, the fun first-timeyness that goes with teenage love dissipates. While love and sex are still the absolute jam, the hot mystery of figuring out how to do them is over with. It’s much more fun to share these things with people who are also just learning about them, i.e., not some graduate student who doesn’t get why you’re so stoked to be making out with someone since they’ve done it a million times. Even though high school boys can seem immature, they, like you, are most likely going to be SO EAGER AND WOWED by the prospect of romantic and sexual stuff. Doesn’t that sound kinda great? That’s because it is!
4. Because of the whole potential-incarceration-of-their-partner thing, a teenager may have to hide a relationship with an older person from everyone else in their life.
Some of the best parts of having a boyfriend or girlfriend involve other people: he or she is someone with whom you can roll your eyes at family functions, a teammate for party games, and a topic of obsessive conversation with your best friends. If you’re in a relationship that is not only frowned upon by society in general but also highly illegal, chances are that most if not all of these things are off-limits, because you have to keep your relationship a secret. While at first it might seem alluring to have a PRIVATE ROMANTIC WORLD with someone (and it is exciting in the beginning, I admit), your life is not a movie (sucks, I know). Keeping things underground gets tiring and frustrating, not to mention a little overwhelming, really quickly.
I learned this the tough way with my 28-year-old, whom, for convenience’s sake, I’m going to give a name from here on out: Alan. I can’t tell you his real name because our relationship was a secret and also illegal, and even though the statute of limitations on that crime has expired, he would be still be rightly embarrassed to have anyone in his life know that he was creepin’ with a high school sophomore when he was five years out of college. Because of the taboo nature of our situation, I had to keep Alan hidden from even my bestest of buds. This was really difficult and very isolating. When he and I got into fights, there was no one in whom I could confide, since no one knew he existed. When I wanted to hang out with him, I had to do a lot of sneaking around and lying to the people I loved. That blew. And when the novelty of having an illicit love affair wore off, I had no one to talk to about how confused and upset I was about certain aspects of the relationship.
Having a significantly older partner severely limits the stuff you can do together, too. You can’t exactly bring a 30-year-old to prom! You also can’t hang out with each other’s friends without everyone feeling a little awkward, go on public dates without attracting a lot of weird looks and potentially the attention of authorities, or, most likely, meet each other’s families. Basically the only things I could do with Alan regularly were hanging out in his car or in secluded places like parking lots and dark corners of public parks. Sounds really safe and romantic, right? UH, NO, ARE YOU KIDDING ME EVEN. Not to be all dramatic, but seriously: flying solo with an older guy who wants to sleep with you in shady places where no one knows who you’re with or where you are = a really easy way to get murked or otherwise hurt. Please be smarter than I was about this BASIC TENET OF COMMON SENSE, because I like you exactly how you are: in one piece.
5. Why does this person want to date a teenager?
This is the biggest question you should ask yourself about some older suitor who’s sniffing around your doorstep. Why does he/she want to date you and not someone their own age? Your natural answer might be the one I would have given when I was 15: BECAUSE WE ARE A PERFECT MATCH AND I AM SPECIAL AND VERY MATURE. You are special and mature, of course—there’s no denying that—but it’s probably not the main reason that a grown man is trying to get all makey-outey with you. It’s easy to feel flattered and ~so adult~ when this is happening—it can be totally exciting when a cute older person thinks you’re cool! But I encourage you to take a step back and consider the motives of anyone significantly older than you.
OK, here’s where I bring up the big topic that drives the whole controversy surrounding this discussion, one which I would have rolled my eyes at when I was dating my 28-year-old, but which I now know is a valid line of thinking: if a person who is of legal drinking age or above makes a habit of courting people who are in high school, there’s a good chance they might be a pedophile (or, if you want to be super technical, an ephobophile). Also, adults know that seducing teenagers, even willing, smart, self-aware teenagers, carries with it a power imbalance that is ripe for exploitation, and very often qualifies as abuse. They know how easy it is to screw with your brain, and that can have long-term effects, 99% of them negative. No one who cares about your wellbeing will seek to do this to you, no matter how attracted they might be to your personhood. If they chase you despite this knowledge, they’re putting their sexual interest above the basic and awful knowledge that they are probably hurting what is, let’s face it, a kid. That, my loves, is fucked.
6. While older people might know more about books and kissing and Good Bands of the Past, they probably also know more about how to manipulate people.
A lot of older people select much younger partners because they themselves are insecure—they feel intimidated by women their own age, who aren’t as easily impressed as someone with a lot less experience might be. It’s not like I was a DUMB NAIVE BABYHEAD regarding books/music/etc. when I was 15—I would say I was so taken with Alan because I was the opposite! I was really excited that, whoa, here was a dude who could talk to me about art and poetry and other stuff that I loved, in a way that the grunty guys in my classes didn’t seem capable of. I thought it was, like, the absolute greatest thing in the world when Alan knew who Samuel Beckett was. (I now know that being able to name a playwright isn’t really enough to base a relationship on, but I digress.) I was so thrilled to be able to talk to my boyfriend about literature ’n’ stuff that I didn’t really notice that he wasn’t talking to me so much as he was talking down to me. This strikes me now as enormously pathetic–some dude almost in his 30s needing to prove how SMART and LEARNED he was to someone who wasn’t old enough to drive.
It’s really common for older partners to pull the you’re-so-young-and-I-know-so-much-better-than-you card about just about everything, from movies to politics to sex. You might feel like you and your older person are emotional equals, but again, age and gender differences create power imbalances, and those can be leveraged to pressure you into stuff, no matter how self-possessed you are. It doesn’t take much for someone older than you to make you feel babyish, and you might make choices that aren’t in your best interest just to re-establish the feeling that you’re totally mature and that you two are peers.
In any good relationship, the people involved are treated with equal respect and value, and when someone is dismissing your thoughts because of your age, that’s bullshit behavior because it’s rude, and because it can make you feel disrespected and chip away at your self-worth. When I was with Alan, I was constantly afraid of seeming immature and unintelligent, which led me to go along with a lot of what he said and what he wanted to do, even stuff I didn’t agree with. This was far from healthy; also, his ideas of what constituted mature behavior were often MAD WRONG. When I was with friends or at parties and not immediately answering his text messages, he would become enraged. His logic was that I was being passive-aggressive and uncommunicative by not getting back to him within five minutes, and that this was a childish thing to do. I changed my behavior to better suit his idea of what an adult relationship was like, but now I know that he was being the infantile (and scary!) one.
I want to talk about that situation a little bit more, because it’s another important thing to keep in mind before you get involved with an adult. All that power-imbalance stuff we discussed in point #5 is really appealing to people who have a need to control their partners, which not only leads to abuse, but is abusive all by itself. Alan freaked out when I was with other people. He wanted to restrict my social interactions, and punished me by getting angry when I wouldn’t answer his texts fast enough. He also tried to turn me against other people in my life: when I confided in him about my problems with my family or friends, he would try to make it seem like they were the WORST, MOST VILLAINOUS PEOPLE IN THE WORLD (they weren’t, of course) and that he was the only person who understood me, so I should only spend time with him.
A common theme in emotional abuse is the abuser creating distance between the abused person and their friends and family in order to exert control over them. When you can’t tell anyone that a relationship is even happening in the first place, the potential for abusive isolation is built right in from the start. A predator can easily take advantage of your lack of a support system—they know that if they manipulate and/or hurt you, no one can give you a reality check and say, “WAIT, HOLD UP, THE WAY THIS PERSON IS TREATING YOU IS REALLY NOT OK.” Of course, this also applies to physical abuse–it makes it a hell of a lot easier for someone looking to harm you bodily if they know you haven’t told anyone about the fact that their behavior is scaring you. If any of this sounds like something you’re experiencing, please tell someone right away, even if—maybe especially if—you’re afraid to do so.
Eventually, Alan’s insecurities about my social life rose to unmanageable levels. I didn’t even have to mention my family or friends (whom, keep in mind, he had never met) anymore for him to launch into hateful tirades about them. This finally got me to see Alan for what he was: a by-then-29-year-old who needed to control and manipulate a 15-year-old in order to feel validated. Once I did, I was outta there LIKETHAT.
7. SEX SEX SEXXXXXX.
SO MANY OF YOU ARE CURIOUS ABOUT THIS. The questions in your emails tend to go like this: “If I date an older guy, is he going to expect me to go further than a little chaste makin’-out sooner than I might otherwise do that?” Well, it depends on the guy, but typically, the answer is yes. Since most of these dudes have been sexually active for longer than you have, sex isn’t, for them, the momentous occasion it might be for you, especially if you haven’t had it (or much of it, anyway). So they’re less likely to wait a while before moving past the tonsil-hockey stage.
In these AND ALL relationships, it’s crucial to communicate clearly what your boundaries are, and by this I don’t mean wordlessly steering someone’s hand away from where it’s feeling around on your skirt like 23 times in a row while you’re kissing them. Tell the person that you’re with, in words, what you are and are not ready to do, preferably well before any of those activities are on the verge of happening—you don’t want to have to make a split-second decision in the heat of the moment about what is or isn’t off limits.
If your love interest isn’t willing to respect the boundaries that you set on your sexual activity, that’s their problem. Another problem of theirs is that you’re not going to stick around so that they can try to convince you that THIS IS WHAT MATURE PEOPLE DO and that IT’S REALLY NOT A BIG DEAL and that YOU CANNOT TELL A GROWN MAN TO WAIT. You’re going to leave them on the curb alongside the other garbage bags.
*** OK. Phew. So, that’s all the stuff I wish I had known! I will repeat here that I don’t think that dating older guys is always terrible or that it will irrevocably ruin your life. Even if you have a bad experience like mine with Alan, you will get over it.
And for all the dangers that come with dating older people, there are upsides—obviously, or we wouldn’t need to have had this li’l talk. It’s nice to be around people who are assured of themselves and their interests, a quality that usually increases the longer you’ve been hanging out on planet Earth. And, of course, there’s the whole face-washing thing. Swoon.
Just be sure—and I say this to you no matter what age your love interest happens to be—that you and of course THEY are responsible and respectful in actions and behaviors; that you are equal partners; that you feel like you can get out of it at any time, for any reason, without fear; and that you are happy.
And remember: "Lolita" is not a love story. OK? All right, get along. As always, be safe and enjoy, ya little minxes. ♦