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    10 MIN READ

    The age of desire

    Why are some age gaps more attractive and acceptable than others? 

    In June last year, as I sat in a wildly good pizzeria in London with one of my dear friends, we discussed our complete disinterest in men younger than us. I sat perched loftily on my high horse, confidently asserting that I could never be interested in someone younger than me. I just wouldn’t be. I was and have always been incredibly attracted to masculinity, men (not boys), the caretaker notion, a daddy mmm. In part, it’s because I’ve always been comfortable with submission and I want someone to metaphorically and literally be able to take care of me. I’ve always dated men either my age or older. The one time I did date someone who was a few months younger than me, his personality was dominant in a way that offered the illusion of power I was searching for in older men. When I was younger, I always imagined dating a man who was both physically and emotionally more powerful than me. This is wildly problematic and a lot of unlearning has had to happen around this, but I can completely see that my preoccupation with age stems from this indoctrination through the media that men should dominate me, and I should want that.

    For a lot of us, I imagine we hold the shared reality that the acceptability of age gaps depends on the age of the parties. Ie- if you’re a sixteen year old girl dating a 26 year old man, problematic. If you’re a 26 year old woman dating a 36 year old man, probably fine. I adamantly believe it is unacceptable for people in their mid-twenties and beyond to date teenagers. Sophia Coppola’s Priscilla made me feel all kinds of yuck in the obviousness of her and Elvis’ problematic age gap. All I saw was an example of men overpowering women, and fetishising innocence in a way that requires women to bring nothing of themselves to the table: the blanker, the better.

    In high school, when girls dated boys two or three years above us, it made total sense to me. Women date up, men date down. We were always told girls mature quicker (or is this completely based on the way women are socialised into caretaker roles from birth?), so of course they date older men. It wasn’t uncommon for 14 year old girls to date 18 year old men, and so on. What could an 18 year old possibly have in common with a 14 year old? At this point in our lives, all the men needed to be was: older. They didn’t need a single other redeeming factor, so powerful the elevating social capital prospect of dating an older man. The lingering image of the older guy honking in his Toyota Hilux outside school picking up his pubescent teenage girlfriend rots my brain with retrospective rage. But I loved it at the time. It felt like the greatest measure of success and desirability to date an older man: your maturity noted, hand-picked from the gaggles of young women around you. ‘Pick me girl’ notions were tied up intrinsically in our desire to date older men. The media we consumed parroted this back to us, endless influential characters dating ‘college’ men at 14, 15, 16 years old. It was both normal, and celebrated for teenage girls to date men significantly older.

    And yet, I rarely, if ever, noted the inverse of this phenomenon. Did you know any 18 year old girls dating 14 year old boys? Or 24 year old women dating 16 year old boys? I cannot think of one such example in my life. Where this did happen on screen, it was tied up in MILF imagery, the woman offering a sexualised maternal replacement (Freud eat your heart out). She remained the caretaker even in a position in which she possessed significant power.

    Objectively pedophilic and predatory interactions aside, how have our ideas about age gaps changed as we move into our mid to late twenties, a time when it is objectively normal to date men both older and younger than us? And how does this relate to my own bias about sleeping with men even a few months younger than me?

    Last year I met and was attracted to someone who was quite a bit younger than me… five years younger actually. I was completely and adamantly against it. I was insistent that anything between us could never be equal, I had too much life experience on him. It was simply not okay. On the white cobblestoned streets of Lagos I told him as such, and again later in the evening, and again before he kissed me. His opinion was the complete opposite to mine, he couldn’t have cared less. He was an active agent in his life, with significant life experience and awareness of what he wanted. I deliberated over and over, before finally accepting that he was completely consenting, and I was perhaps overthinking something quite simple. I was attracted to him and he was attracted to me.

    Once I accepted that I would not be harming him in our interactions, I ended up having a really gorgeous time. I didn’t just see him once either, we spoke for a while and I visited him in England a month later. In his case, I was able to let go of some of my biases around younger men, because I knew there was no chance of it being anything other than something temporarily lovely. I felt completely differently about the notion of something brief and sex oriented than I would have about a committed romantic relationship. This, I still believe, wouldn’t be fair. I am significantly closer to wanting to have children and some semblance of stability than I did five years ago, and I would be horrified at myself for disallowing someone the independent growth years I had in my early to mid-twenties. Part of my feelings around the inappropriateness of age gaps relates to the likelihood of people skipping key growth periods of their life to meet the older partner where they are at. I don’t believe this is necessarily true at all for people in their late 20s and beyond who can have wondrously fulfilling relationships with people significantly older than them, but I do believe that the period of time from your late teens to late twenties should be fruitful, luscious, and dripping with freedom and self-growth.

    And yet, I was completely thrown by how much I enjoyed spending time with this person and my ability to be genuinely attracted to him. I was forced to truly reckon with my bias and see that there was never a risk of me erring into something genuinely inappropriate, excruciatingly self-observant as I am. So where was the harm in seeing someone a little younger than me? Of course, I cannot have one simple idea without over-analysing myself, so I began to wonder if there was an element of my constant yearning to fix men (ugh) that was being satiated in seeing someone younger who invariably hasn’t had the years to make meaning of themselves yet. This feels like a misuse of power. I do not want to dominate someone, I want reciprocal care and connection. That cannot happen where power is unbalanced. And yet, I simultaneously don’t think this is happening. There was something else causing my hesitation, I just couldn’t put my finger on it yet.

    Of course, despite my initial acceptance of it, after seeing that first younger person, I doubled down on seeing older men again. Preferably 6-8 years older. Mid-thirties was ideal. If not significantly older, at least my own age. Until it happened again.

    I began to wonder if there was an element of my constant yearning to fix men (ugh) that was being satiated in seeing someone younger who invariably hasn’t had the years to make meaning of themselves yet.

    In reflecting more, I think dating apps have made us preoccupied with specifics: age, height, aesthetic, that we just wouldn’t cast someone aside for if we met them in person. Personality shines, not to mention the excitement of mutual attraction in our connection-starved, app-addicted age. I noticed this person where he works in a book shop on Smith Street and thought he was so hot. There is just something about a man behind a counter.

    After excitedly liaising with mutual friends, chatting with him, and going on the best date I had been on in a long time, I found out he was almost three years younger than me. I had a somatically visceral reaction to our age gap, dread filling my stomach. Why was I having such a dramatic reaction again? Hadn’t I moved through this? On the one hand, my logical brain could defend against the notion that there was something amiss: connection is connection. But my patriarchal media-soaked brain began to welcome the idea that in dating younger men, I had ‘failed’ in being hand-picked by an older man. And so perhaps the crux of my discomfort is not the idea of me having more power (although this certainly plays into it), but the idea that I have failed to rank in the compulsory competition women must participate in, one in which we’ve been pitted against each other since birth. Considering the media I consumed as a young person, of course it’s been indoctrinated in me that it’s a measure of success to date someone older than you. Until we hit about our mid-thirties, at which point this rapidly flips and we should aspire to youth again.

    Where is the space for genuine connection?

    This person I’ve met more recently is someone whose company I really enjoy, and have kept seeing consistently since that first date. And yet I’ve regularly raised with him how unsure I feel about the age gap we have. He laughs at my concern, once again unphased by it. But I can’t let it go, I feel so much more comfortable with the notion of the older man. I always have. I remember sleeping with men in their mid to late twenties when I was 18 thinking it was no big deal (if anything, I loved it). I still, somehow cannot fathom the inverse. Is this feeling completely about dominance? And specifically, heterosexual power relations?

    Men get the option of dating younger (submission assumed), and older (hot). Both of the younger men I’ve been with have loved the idea of me being older, and perhaps even sought out older women. They have different relationships with the age gap that I find fascinating. The first still wanted to dominate me, the pursuit of older women a sort of exemplar of his masculinity and his ability to pull women towards what they think they shouldn’t want. Whereas the more recent man enjoys the idea of my dominance in a way I am not used to. Will I ever be comfortable with not being dominated by men? Does how I see the performance of masculinity, and its connection to age play into my attraction to men? And yet, I can see another side to this where I am subverting what I have been told to desire by actively choosing instead of being chosen. I have chosen to spend time with this person because of how he makes me feel, instead of how it feels to ascribe to a selection process which denies my agency and organic desire.

    Frankly, the more I analyse, the deeper I weave myself a web I cannot extract neither myself nor my genuine desire from. Age gaps are complex, worth considering, and yet (once at an appropriate age) far less important than my analysis would suggest. Perhaps I could just give it a go dating men who I feel safe with, equal to, and respected by, and see how this makes me feel? What a shockingly radical idea: discarding patriarchal ideas of my desire and falling into my body with trust and authenticity. I’m ready to give it a go. I have a funny feeling that magic awaits me. Here’s to consent, subverting power, and genuine pleasure!

    Men get the option of dating younger (submission assumed), and older (hot).

    Sarah is a Naarm based social worker who writes a sexy blog on the side all about feminism + sexuality. She is at her core an oversharer with her heart permanently on her sleeve, ready to wash the world in love, sunshine, and cinnamon scrolls.