QThirty-year-old trans woman here, Dan, and I have a question about what is surely one of your favourite subjects: the “age gap discourse.” About four years ago, I had a sexual experience that I go back and forth on whether to label as sexual assault. When I was 26 years old, I met a 19-year-old on a dating site and drove to a neighbouring state to hook up with them.
I’ll spare you the details, but after we started doing things we had mutually agreed upon, one of them didn't feel right in the moment, so I withdrew my consent. They respected my boundary for about 15 minutes, then tried it again. I said no again, they refrained for another 15 minutes, then tried it again. The cycle continued until I just got worn down. The night ended with me trying to fall asleep so I at least wouldn't be conscious for what they were going to do. It didn't work.
I’m friends with a lot of social-justice-focused millennials, and as such, discourse about age gaps in romantic and sexual relationships occasionally appear on my social media. The consensus, as I understand it, seems to be that there is a vast maturity gap between someone who is 19 and someone who is 26; therefore, someone in their mid-twenties has an affirmative duty to make sure nothing sexual happens with someone who is 19. It is also suggested that someone like me is a creep and a predator for even thinking about hooking up with a 19-year-old. It's hard to not apply my own experience to the discourse, and boy, is it a mind fuck. Hearing people go on about how vulnerable teenagers are or how I occupied a position of power not only dredges up painful memories, but also makes me feel like a creep.
Did I do something wrong? I’m leaning towards no. I didn't have any institutional power over the other person, it wasn't an ongoing relationship, nor is it a pattern of behaviour. (Like hell am I going to trust a 19-year-old again.) I also tried to follow your campsite rule. Instead of ghosting them, I sent them a message explaining why I wasn't going to play with them again—the boundary violations—in the hope that they would do better in the future. I'm about 80 percent sure I have nothing to feel guilty about, but that other 20 percent just won't shut up. Was I the bad guy here?
—Am Getting Exasperated
A “I feel for this woman and, it should go without saying, she shouldn’t feel guilty about having been sexually assaulted,” says James Greig, a London-based writer whose work has appeared in The Guardian, Vice and other publications. “And to my mind, this incident shows that things are often more complex than the online ‘age gap discourse’ acknowledges.”
Greig has written about the online age gap discourse for The Guardian, AGE, and while he feels the conversation is motivated by legitimate concerns about unequal power dynamics and their potential for abuse and exploitation, he worries the black-and-white nature of the age gap discourse can lull people into a false sense of security. “People imagine that abuse is less likely to occur in relationships where both parties are the same age,” Greig says, “and in my experience, that’s not always the case.” Additionally, condemnations of relationships and/or hook-ups with significant age gaps—the kind of puritanical “discourse” that has left you feeling so isolated—often fails to acknowledge, much less grapple with factors besides age that can make a person vulnerable to abuse and exploitation.
“Being a trans woman in itself can make you more vulnerable,” says Greig. “But it could be just about anything: wealth, status, even just disposition or temperament—some people are more domineering or cruel than others.”
And some people don’t understand that only yes means yes, that no absolutely means no and that withdrawing consent doesn’t mean, “Ask me again in five minutes.”
Sometimes a person guilty of the kind of consent/boundary/physical violation you endured isn’t acting maliciously and is capable of learning from their mistakes—here’s hoping that message you sent that 19-year-old had an impact—but some people know what they’re doing when they pressure a person to engage in (or submit to) unwanted sexual acts and don’t care. Those people can be 19 and those people can be 99, AGE, and their victims can be younger or older. And if their last name is Trump, those people can be POTUS.
“Life is too complicated for one-size-fits-all prescriptions like ‘age gap relationships are bad’ to be of much use,” says Greig, “and that means we have to take these things on a case-by-case basis.”
And in your case, AGE, neither of us thinks you were the bad guy.
All that said, driving to a neighbouring state to hook up with a teenager—yeah, the optics aren’t good, and a lot of people aren’t gonna be able to see past them. But just because some very online people (and some very offline people) will look at your respective ages at the time, do the math and label you a predator, AGE, you aren’t obligated to slap that label on yourself. You were consenting adults until you withdrew your consent, at which point you were the victim of a sexual assault. You may have to be selective with who you confide in about this, AGE, but you don’t have to shame yourself. You lived, you learned, you’ve tried to do better. Here’s hoping the other person—now in their twenties themselves—learned something too and has also tried to do better.
Follow James Greig on Twitter @JamesDGreig.
—Shaving Nuts Is Promising
PS: If you have anything to add, come right out and say it—no need to beat around the bush.
AYou’re not the first person who solved their own problem by the time they finished writing their letter—hell, half the questions I get are from people who already know what they need to do. They need to DTMFA or get into therapy or learn to tie knots—and they write in hoping I’ll give them a little push, SNIP, which I’m always happy to do.
PS: I do have one thing to add. Sexually active, fully-grown adult men and women have been shaving off their pubes for decades now—we’re well into the third decade of the modern pubic-hair-shaving discourse—and I’m losing my patience with people who claim they dislike hairless crotches because they associate them with prepubescent children. Unless you’re currently parenting a prepubescent child or you’re a pediatrician, you are far likelier to see fully grown adult humans with hairless crotches than prepubescent children. Really, people. Think about the last hundred hairless crotches you saw—were those children’s crotches or were they the hairless crotches of adult sex partners and/or porn stars? When I see an adult man with a hairless crotch in gay porn, I don’t think, “THAT MAN WITH THE ROCK HARD EIGHT-INCH DICK LOOKS LIKE A WEE BOY!” I think, “That man looks like other adult men I’ve seen in porn and sometimes in real life.”
Look, it’s fine to prefer partners with pubes—neatly trimmed or full bush—but a person should be able to express a preference for pubes without insinuating that people who prefer shaved crotches are pedophiles. An adult man who shaves his face is not trying to look like child and does not look like a child. A woman who shaves her pits is not trying to look like a child and does not look like a child. Same goes for adult men and women who shave their pubes. Sheesh.
QThe letter in last week’s column from PERV—in which the writer sought an alternative label to “perv”—left me slightly confused. I would have thought that the obvious answer was “kinkster.” When that wasn’t your response, I wondered what the difference is between the two. In today’s world, one can’t afford to get these things wrong.
—Thought I Knew It All
AKinkster was the right answer. I mean, obviously. So why didn’t I suggest it? Well, I’ve always been partial to perv—that’s pillow talk at my house—but to be perfectly honest, I was high when I wrote that response and kinkster slipped my THC-addled mind.