As a woman who spent most of her teen years becoming expertly familiar with the streets of New York City, I am no stranger to the spell of attractive older men. As a teenager who considered herself "ahead of my time" (ignore my adolescent narcissism), older men were often my kryptonite. They provided a kind of intellectual and social worldliness that I felt was missing from the boys my own age. While I was probably right about that difference in intellectual and social capital, what I did account for was the kind of emotional capital these older men had over me.
I was 16 and distraught from a newly diagnosed-personality disorder. I fought with my mother as consistently as I would self-injure, and my high school dean was my only friend. Every morning, he would buy my breakfast and let me skip my first period class to sit in his office and read. It seemed innocent enough at first -- he had a daughter my age and a photo of his wife on his desk. He'd been a support to me for almost a year, so I barely noticed as his behavior -- and our relationship began to change.
One morning, I came to school incredibly distressed, more than I had been in months. As was the routine, I went to his office to eat my breakfast, but spent most of the time crying incessantly. He came from behind the desk to sit with me, holding my hand as I cried. "Look at me," he said, his finger arching my neck. I looked up. "You are so beautiful. Even when you cry." It was a compliment. It was a warm, comforting compliment when I felt most ugly. "I wish I were young enough to marry you, so that I could take care of you." The compliments that had at first comforted me later became a clear look into the mind of a predator. It wasn't my first run-in with a charming predator, but this was different because it wasn't really about sex, and he was my only friend. I should have told someone, but out of fear of loneliness, I kept him close, even as his advances grew more intense.
Recently, when I checked the updates on my newsfeed, I felt a drop in my stomach when a story about a conflict between Tyga and Lil Wayne popped up, with a photo of Kylie Jenner below the title. As I have almost no interest in the Kardashian Klan, I almost didn't Google Kylie Jenner's age. But I did, and was concerned when I learned the the conflict had little to do with music--and everything to do with 25-year old Tyga's rumored relationship with a then 17-year-old Kylie.
I am not asserting that Kylie Jenner, or necessarily every young woman in a relationship with an older person is being treated outside of their own will. What I am asserting is that the appeal of the Young Girl to heterosexual older men is no innocent attraction, and that it is a male-centered construction embedded in our culture that perpetuates a deeply irresponsible misogynistic dynamic.
Laurence Steinberg in his piece Adulthood: What the Brain Says About Maturity, an op-ed published by the New York Times writes,
significant changes in brain anatomy and activity are still taking place during young adulthood, especially in prefrontal regions that are important for planning ahead, anticipating the future consequences of one's decisions, controlling impulses, and comparing risk and reward.
Nowhere in the world does a girl at 16 occupy the same social space as a woman at 26 -- and this has nothing to do with the way she is perceived or what is expected of her body. Before an individual can truly claim adulthood, some things that we have no control over must occur: the brain's prefrontal cortex continues to develop until around age 25, and it influences our decision-making, critical thinking, personality expression, and the self-moderation of social behavior.
The young girl is beautiful and brand new to her beauty. She is still just as in awe of it as you are, and that makes her routinely vulnerable. Misogyny loves a vulnerable girl. Misogyny loves an impressionable and easily-influenced body. It means that the person in control can create a social and physical ownership. The young girl barely knows the difference between being owned and being cared for. The young girl is talented and fresh with unrealized power. If misogyny can claim her power, then it can capitalize on it -- or exert dominance over it.
The young girl is my 4-year-old self who once felt comfortable with an uncle, but turns 17 years old and avoids his gaze at dinner.
The young girl is Aaliyah, who married a 27-year-old R. Kelly at 15. He goes on to assault every other young women he crosses paths with. And the community says, "How could we have known?"
The young girl is 16-year-old Jada, who's rape went viral and was mocked by thousands after her attackers posted videos and photographs of her naked, violated body on social media -- eventually shared by over one million viewers, under the hashtag #jadapose.
We should care about the implications of Kylie's alleged relationship with Tyga. We should also care about Jada and Tjhisha and Angelia. While I'm no advocate for telling anyone "how to be a feminist," I think that to be feminist and anti-misogynist also means we are vigilant about how narratives of young women and girls are manipulated and presented in mass media. These stories reinforce a pathology that confuses young women and potentially endangers them. I've overheard and directly spoken to some of my students about their relationships with much older men. It always seems to begin in shrouded mystery and always ends in trauma. I can't count how many adult romance novels I read as a child about teacher/student relationships and young mistresses. I can't count how many of those unhealthy dynamics I found myself in because of my unfiltered and unguided exposure to those stories.
A few months into my last year of high school, I found out that The Dean had been suspended because of an investigation. As it turned out, other young women came forward about advances he'd made on them. My naiveté had never considered that he might have been inappropriate with other girls -- I thought of myself as his irresistible attraction, not the subject of an unhealthy obsession he'd always had. That misunderstanding was not my fault, but a functional part of how he'd come to manipulate me and other girls. When men who hold power (whether it's due to their age, status, race) prey on young women, this is a consistent tactic. These predators make her believe she is special, not like those "other girls" her age, and isolate her. When I read those old romance stories now, these patterns of psychological manipulation are ever present.
This is not just about young women in the public eye, who have advocates and famous rappers who will speak out to protect them. This is about men getting away with being predators, and the way our society puts girls without advocates in danger. Our most vulnerable and most at-risk young women are left to "figure it out," but we offer them no support and no models of healthy relationships. It is our duty as a global community to continue to educate our children about healthy and unhealthy relationships -- and the law cannot continue to be the only qualifier in how we identify them.
Originally published by ForHarriet Magazine.