A Pro-feminist's

More on older men and younger women

I got a very interesting e-mail last week from a young woman whom I'll call "Kate" (not her real name):

I am 17 years old...and I googled "Older Men, Younger Women" because I am attracted to older men and I feel alone in my peer group (despite my many good friends and wonderful family). I was thankful to find your post. So many things you touched on are things that I feel. But I also felt abnormal and ridiculous for having the feelings I do. Although I am young, I suppose am one of those girls you described, "...those who appear outwardly fully adult may still be in need of our care and protection." I am in every way mature. I feel more comfortable with adults than I do with my own peers thus the need for more attention from the more mature male. Having said that, I want you to know, I am a good girl. I know right from wrong...and these attractions I have for older men always stay platonic----mostly because I'm attracted to the men who are safe. But sometimes it pains me because I feel like I'm building such awesome relationships that when I become legal, or more eligible to date older men, they won't see me like that. At that point, I get upset and I feel so rejected before anything even began. This usually happens in the school atmosphere because there are many male teachers. So many of them seem wonderful because of the teenage boy scum I go to school with. You touched on that too--the obvious attraction girls have because the older male is (hopefully) well spoken and has a wealth of knowledge and experience...verses the teenage male who is not any of those things.

I hope this e-mail makes sense...it's so late and I am confused by my feelings. My mother knows how I feel about older men--and she said she expected it because I am so mature mentally, emotionally and yes...physically. I want to be seen and appreciated by men...and for the most part I am--and I have been for a long time. It is getting to the point, however, when I want things to progress and they just can't. Then I don't know how to behave and I just want to crawl out of the hole they call high school and just exist in this world without my age tattooed on my forehead.

Anyway, as much as your post made me feel slightly exposed, it was comforting because you seem to know the inner-working of the young female mind. So, thank you for that. And if you could extend some advice or something, I would appreciate it. I apologize if this is scatter brained...again, it's late, and I'm a bit nervous e-mailing someone and pouring out all these intimate details---but I wouldn't have done it if I thought couldn't help me sort things out a bit.

I asked Kate if I could respond via a post, and I'm afraid I haven't heard back from her. Given that her e-mail contains nothing that could identify her, I'm going to assume it's okay to respond publicly.

I just checked on Google, and this post is the #8 ranked site for the query "older men, younger women." Who knew?

Kate's e-mail really challenged me. In that January post, I laid out what I believe is a fairly compelling argument for older men to avoid romantic and sexual relationships with much younger women. I was fairly clear that I wasn't worried about women in their thirties dating men in their fifties; I was more concerned about young women in their late teens and early twenties dating men eight or more years older than themselves.

But yet, where does that caution leave the Kates of the world? If I can take Kate at her word, she's an unusually mature teenager. She's still got plenty of growing up to do, as even the most sophisticated of youth do, but she's probably right when she says that she's significantly ahead of many of her peers. Obviously, she's still a minor, and she recognizes that she's not yet "legal". But next year, when she's 18? What then? If all older men scrupulously avoid dating young women Kate's age, whom is Kate supposed to date who meets her intellectual, emotional, spiritual, and yes, physical needs? I don't think all teenage boys are "scum", mind you. (My men's rights advocate critics might suspect that I harbor that conviction). But I'm aware that many young women, like Kate, mature at a much faster rate than their male peers. It's going to be difficult for her to find a real equal among young men her age, and I'd be giving her unrealistic advice if I told her that there were large numbers of mature, sensible, emotionally grounded and wise 18 year-old men running around. That doesn't mean that such fellas don't exist, just that they aren't plentiful!

I think there's a colossal difference between an 18 year-old woman dating, say, a 30-something man she met at church or through friends and dating a 30-something teacher. Leaving aside the question of professional ethics (something that the teacher ought never leave aside), a relationship that begins with an obvious asymmetry in terms of direct power is, I think, almost always a profoundly unhealthy experience for both parties involved. But if Kate (once she's 18) wants to date an older man who has no direct responsibility for her academic development or emotional well-being, what then? Does an age gap of ten, twelve, even twenty years or more inherently constitute an unhealthily asymmetrical relationship in terms of power? Frankly, I think it depends entirely on the two people involved, simply because I know too well just how different 18 year-olds (and some 35 year-olds, for that matter) are from each other. A hard and fast rule, as it were, simply won't suffice.

Here's a section of what I wrote in January:

If I were to flirt back, or if I were to date a student, I am convinced I would send a devastating message about what older men "really" want.

Young women need older men in their lives who will respect and care about them, who aren't their fathers or brothers but who aren't prospective lovers, either. They need to know that they bring more to the table than their sexuality. They need to be seen as complete human beings.

Paradoxically, seeing young women as complete human beings means that in actions, words, and yes, even in thought, older men cannot see them as objects of sexual desire. That doesn't mean that we (older guys) shouldn't acknowledge that younger women are sexual creatures. But we must (and the burden is on us alone here, fellas) love them with radical unselfishness,and that requires that we ourselves always refrain from sexualizing them.

I still stand by that. But I wrote those words not just as a man in his late thirties, but as a teacher and a youth worker. I see teenagers and young adults through the eyes of my profession and my avocation. I've known for years that I was called to work with young people, and as a result, I value my role as a mentor and (sometimes) a "father figure". In my work as a professor and church group leader, it's absolutely vital that I never, ever, sexualize the young women with whom I work. It's essential that I keep firm boundaries in place, the kind that allow young people to trust me.

But in my customary enthusiasm, I took a code of ethics that applies to me personally (and one I had to grow into) and offered it up as a standard for all "older men." Obviously, most men my age don't do the work I do. Most men in their thirties and forties don't spend both their days (and often, their nights and weekends) with teenagers and young adults to whom they aren't related. And I'm not sure it's reasonable to ask all men to refrain from exploring romantic relationships with women who are significantly younger. And Kate's letter reminds me that it's even more unreasonable to ask all young women (provided they are legally adults) only to date men who are no more than five years older than themselves.

I've seen many, many disastrous relationships between young women and much older men. But to be honest, I've also seen a few such relationships that were marvelous, sparkling, honest, mutually rewarding, and long-lasting. I think such relationships are uncommon, often because so many of the older men who do date much younger women are struggling with their own issues, issues that an older woman would challenge them to confront but a younger girl might not recognize. And of course, more than a few young women do have unresolved issues with their fathers that they seek to play out in a relationship with an older man.

But these are generalities that do not apply in every instance, as Kate (and others) have reminded me in the months since my post on the subject. So, to conclude this long post, here's the best advice I can give to Kate:

I understand that it's not easy to be where you are, caught between adolescence and adulthood. 17 is rarely easy for the bright, the gifted, the mature, the one who isn't thrilled by all that high school society has to offer! It's natural and normal to want to be seen and appreciated by men, and to be appreciated for all that you have to give. Please know that your teachers, if they love their profession and genuinely care about you, ought not only not act on any feelings they may develop for you, they ought not even make you aware of them. That's not about infantilizing you, it's about honoring the very special trust that ought to exist between a teaching professional who loves teens and the students who rely upon him.

But Kate, I do think it's possible that in the years to come, you will find older men to date who aren't in a position of responsibilty towards you. Honestly, you're right: all things considered, men who are a decade or more your senior will likely be able to offer you things that your male peers cannot. You're not wrong to want those things, and I don't think that all older men will be "bad" for wanting to give them to you. Yes, I've seen a few -- a very few but a few -- healthy, loving, supportive relationships between young women just about your age and men substantially older. Such relationships are rare, but not unheard of.

Kate, I don't know you. But I can tell you I've known a few young women who've said things very similar to what you've said. And I know that in the end, what many of them really wanted from older men was not a sexual or romantic relationship, but validation and recognition and attention. In our highly sexualized culture, however, they couldn't believe that a man would really love them and care for them unconditionally unless they could offer him something sexual or romantic in return. They shortchanged themselves, and sadly, they found older men who reinforced the notion that their sexuality was the most valuable thing they had to offer. I don't know if that's what's going on with you.

Adults always tell teens to be patient, and teens get tired of hearing it. But if I can give you a piece of advice, it is to be patient just a while longer. Let whatever boundaries you have in place that have served you well stay in place just a little bit longer. Keep those boundaries in place especially with the men who have a sworn (even sacred) responsibility to care for you as your teachers and mentors. There's nothing wrong with wanting. But there's much to be gained by waiting, just a little longer, before "taking the next step" with anyone, especially someone considerably older than yourself. Once you become a legal adult, and (perhaps) are in college, you will begin to meet many different men who will be unlike those you knew in high school. You might even find someone closer to your age who does share your interests and your passions. Stranger things have happened.

I wish I had a magic bullet to make this growing up process easier for you. I know it's frustrating and confusing as hell. But it's my hope that the older men in your life today will continue to be loving, wise guides through that process, and at your age, that's all that they ought to be.

Please take care.

©2005, Hugo Schwyzer

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Women really must have equal pay for equal work, equilaity in work at home, and reproductive choices. Men must press for these things also. They must cease to see them as "women's issues" and learn that they are everyone's issues. - essential to survival on planet Earth. - Erica Jong

The assorted musings of Hugo Schwyzer: a progressive, consistent-life ethic Anabaptist/Episcopalian Democrat (but with a sense of humor), a community college history and gender studies professor, an avid marathoner, aspiring ultra-runner, die-hard political junkie, and proud father of a small chinchilla. hugoboy.typepad.com

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