Older Men, Teenage Girls: An Essay in Three Parts

This post is long, and deals with uncomfortable situations involving minors (including me). They happened a long time ago, and didn’t cause lasting damage to me, although I don’t know and can’t speak to anything that might have happened to anyone else. I was very lucky.

1)
When I was in summer camp the year I was fifteen, there was a counselor, a wonderful, thoughtful guy named Stephen, who patiently and with a little bit of horror in his eyes lived through being subject to our affections. One day, as we were hanging out at a picnic table discussing writing, one of my friends (who had a huge crush on him) said that she didn’t think the age difference between a fifteen and a nineteen-year-old was so big. To his credit, he didn’t bang his head into the table or run screaming or anything. He just said that there’s a lot of life experience that happens between then and now. What about people in their twenties? we demanded. Twenty-one-year-olds date twenty-five-year-olds all the time. He, still patient, ever-patient, said that it didn’t matter so much after college, but that when you’re still in high school, you’re in a very different place. I am still grateful to him for that conversation. Not so much because it changed anything, but because it put a quiet, non-parental voice in my head, a voice from someone close enough to my age and my perceived “cool” levels, that maybe some of the other things that were about to happen involving me might, just possibly, be on the wronger side of things.

2)
Later that summer, I was part of the costume crew at a theater running a fairly expensive and (in its own mind, at least) prestigious youth program. The techies were all men in their late twenties, good-looking, etc. I had an uncomfortable (for both of us) crush on one of them, but he kept mostly to himself, away from the shrieking, hormone-fueled, slightly confused, sexually frustrated on a molecular level, roiling mass of teenager that had infested his theater. There was another one, though. I’ll call him Jon. The average population of any high school musical production is going to be heavy on girls, and teenage boys were, as they have always been, a combination of terrified and consciously oblivious that is very frustrating then and in hindsight a survival mechanism for the good of the species. Jon spent a lot of time with a few of the girls. He was at least thirty, and came across as funny, smart, and interested. The attention made us feel good, you know?

I got a weird vibe off Jon, kind of. I spent more time with the techie guys than the girls in the show, and he was a little too friendly when he was friendly, but he was all business a lot of the time, so it seemed okay. I know Jon and I talked. I know I must have been flirty, it was what I did. I liked using my words, and here were a couple of older guys who seemed to like talking to me. There was a rumor that the old lighting guy had been fired because of “something happening” with a girl our age, but we were safe. He had been fired, and she wasn’t involved in productions here any more. (That was mentioned sideways, like maybe she had been culpable, too.) Of course we were safe! How could we not be safe!

One afternoon, it was in a break between scenes. It was me, two other girls, and Jon sitting in a clump on the darkened stage. One of the girls, a thin blond wearing plaid shorts, was talking about something, and she said something funny. We were all laughing, and Jon put his hand on her thigh like it was the most natural thing in the world. Another time, he and I were in the wings killing time between scenes, and my hair color came up. He asked if “the carpet matched the drapes.” I, in a reckless display of ingenuity and ignorance, shot back with “What do you think?” I had no idea what that meant until I got home and asked one of my friends. When my friend told me, I was aghast, but it wasn’t any dumber or weirder than the questions the guys my age were asking me, so I let it go.

Few days later, he pulled me into him, wrapped us in one of the wing curtains, and kissed my neck. I was surprised. This wasn’t a thing that grown men were, you know, supposed to do to me.

Holding me in that old, dusty black velvet, he said, “You’re seventeen, right?”
I blinked. It hadn’t occurred to me that he might not know how old I was. I felt myself start to smile.
“Think again.”
His arms stiffened. “Sixteen?”
Now my smile was real, if tremulous, and just a little bit vicious. Remembering it now, I am sick to my stomach like I was at the time.
“Think again.”

I had not, up to that point in my young life, seen the color actually drain out of someone’s face before. He immediately let go of me, untwisted us, quietly falling all over himself, saying he was sorry, that he thought I was older, that it was a joke. I’m pretty sure he called in sick for several days, and didn’t come near me again the rest of the time I worked on that show.

I haven’t told that story much. I was lucky, I know I was. He’d been assuming I was legal, which made me nonprosecutable fair game, even though it would never have been fair. He was nearly twice the age he thought I was, and twice the age I actually was. He’s forty-one, now, and I hope he still feels ashamed of himself. Hell, I hope he never did anything worse.

3)
So when I listen to talk of James Franco messaging with a seventeen-year-old girl who got her picture with him, I think about being seventeen. I think about being half in love with a dozen different movie stars, playing and replaying fantasies in my head that somehow magically involved me being older, or sometimes they didn’t. It was strange, because my historically minded self reacted with revulsion whenever I heard about marriages where the groom was so much older than the bride. Some fantasies aren’t supposed to come true.

Would he have messaged a twenty-one-year-old? Or a twenty-seven-year-old? Or a thirty-year-old? Or a thirty-five-year-old? Somehow I doubt it. These interactions are age-specific and they are all about power, and the assumption is that the man has all of it. Also based on the idea that there is some kind of secrecy, that he is protected because she won’t say anything. He told her not to tell. Sometimes she will. Not always, but she will. I am so happy that Lucy Clode did.

I didn’t say anything about Jon at the time. I didn’t tell my parents, I didn’t tell the director of the show, or the director of the program. I didn’t want to disappear, like that girl who’d been involved with the lighting guy disappeared. I was protecting myself against questions about my own behavior (which was probably verbally questionable) and against the embarrassment, and in the process I protected him. I should have said something.

Post it everywhere when anyone does something that makes you uncomfortable. I don’t care who you are, or who they are. Tell everyone. Shout it. Make fliers. Paper the world in our discontent and our vulnerability and our power. Tell them to think again when they go to seduce us, to take advantage of our limited experience and boundless desire to be older, to control our fates, to be like the older girls. The hardest part is the first part: telling ourselves to think again.

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