“Stop before you become the ‘dirty old man'”: a remembered morsel of advice

Not an hour ago, I had a vivid flashback to a conversation I had had in 1996, and hadn’t thought about since. I sometimes joke that it’s the drugs I did that have robbed me of certain memories, and that may or may not be true — but particularly when it comes to the mid-1990s, there are substantial lacunae in my recollections.

In the fall of 1996, I was 29. Three years into my teaching career, my reputation as an energetic lecturer was quickly being eclipsed by rumors of my sleeping with students. Most of the rumors were true. I was reckless to the point of stupidity, showing little interest in protecting the job I loved. I was trying to get sober and failing. I stashed drugs in the same file cabinets that held student papers, gave lectures with booze in my bloodstream. I had sex with students on my office desk.

It was a “slipping-down life”, and more and more people were noticing.

One afternoon, my colleague “Don” stopped by my office. Don taught psychology, and was one of our most senior faculty members, pushing sixty and getting ready to retire. He asked to chat, and I offered him a seat. He wasted no time: “Man”, he said, “you’ve got to be discreet.” Don told me what he’d heard and what he’d seen. “You’ve got friends”, he said, “and we’ve got your back. And I’m sure you’re only with women who want to be with you. But you’re going to get caught if you’re not more discreet. And you don’t even have tenure yet! The administration can can your ass!” I said something fumbling and asinine, and Don softened.

“I was like you once, Hugo. I fucked a lot of students when I was young. I did it for years. No one complained, it was always consensual. But I was a hell of a lot more cautious than you’re being, my friend. Watch your back, for Christ’s sake.”

Not wanting to continue the awkward conversation, very much on the defensive, I thanked Don for his concern, and he rose to leave. And what he said next is what I remember best:

I’ve noticed you mostly seem to go for the older students closer to your age. But there’ll be fewer and fewer of them soon as you get older yourself. And though the girls all think you’re hot now, trust me on this: right about the time you hit 38, your sex appeal will fall away so fast you won’t know what hit you. You won’t look any different to yourself, but all of a sudden, the crushes will get rarer. Girls will still flirt, but now they’ll only flirt because they want attention, not because they want you. And as hot shit as you are right now, if you don’t stop in the next few years, you’ll just be another dirty old man. Remember I told you that.

And with that, Don walked out of the room. He retired a year later, and we never spoke alone again.

And what I remember thinking first, with an addict’s false bravado, was that there was a damned good chance I wouldn’t live to 38. What I thought second was that 38 seemed like a very arbitrary number; why not 40, I wondered? But what I thought third is what I remember so well now, amazed that I blotted it out for so long. I remember thinking how horrible it would be to be that “dirty old man” of popular lore, and that if by some chance I survived in body and career that long, I’d make sure “to stop” before I was 38. “Quit before you become pathetic”, was how I put it to myself; never mind that a fair number of people considered me pretty pathetic at 29.

As it turned out, the end came sooner than expected. Not long after my 31st birthday came my last drink and drug, a suicide attempt, and a spiritual rebirth that led to a radical shift in my sexual ethics. Consciously, when I made the commitment to stop sleeping with my students, I wasn’t thinking of Don’s words. I was thinking about justice, about responsibility and power, and about the ethics of mutual consent. But I realize that in a strange way, I was blessed to have hit bottom so young. As damaged as my reputation deservedly was, I quit being a lech long before I was old enough to be father to any of my students. I was called many names, most of them accurate, but avoided the epithet “dirty old man” that Don had assured me would be my fate.

By the time 38 rolled around, my life had changed. My boundaries were in place, my ethics altered, my amends to the campus and my past student lovers made. But as it turned out, I realize today Don was right. I could feel students start to look at me differently that year, that the crushes and flirtations dropped precipitously. It wasn’t just the wedding ring on my finger, or my continued commitment to being a safe, non-sexual professor and mentor. It was also that my aging had become visible, and that I was starting to disappear for all but a very few as an object of sexual desire. I’m not saying all that many people “wanted me” at my peak of desirability in my late 20s or very early 30s — just noting that I could sense something change as I hit the very age Don had mentioned.

There are many excellent reasons why older men should avoid pursuing much younger women, as I’ve written many times in many places. But if there’s one purely self-serving rationale for steering clear of age-disparate relationships, it’s the chance to avoid a very particular kind of humiliation. In literature and pop culture, there is something both ridiculous and sinister about the man who falls in love with a woman young enough to be his daughter. Sooner or later, he will act the fool. My colleague Don warned me of that, and as it turned out, I was saved in time to avoid any need to worry about that fate.

I’m grateful today not merely that my life was changed — but that it changed so dramatically while I was still so (relatively) young.

47 thoughts on ““Stop before you become the ‘dirty old man'”: a remembered morsel of advice

  1. I had sex with students on my office desk.

    That’s a gratuitously arousing sentence, Dr. S.

    Great title to this post. I am glad that you stopped in time, and I appreciate that fear of being the “dirty old man” wasn’t the reason. I’d hate to think that was the primary cause of your conversion!

    And you can still be handsome after 38, just not as likely to be considered potential boyfriend material.

  2. “But if there’s one purely self-serving rationale for steering clear of age-disparate relationships, it’s the chance to avoid a very particular kind of humiliation. In literature and pop culture, there is something both ridiculous and sinister about the man who falls in love with a woman young enough to be his daughter. ”

    Fair enough, but you could broaden that argument to any relationship with a discrepancy of attractiveness between the partners. Should a fat girl avoid going for a handsome guy to spare herself the humiliation? (There is a lot of reference in pop culture that ugly girls falling for handsome guys are ridiculous and vice versa.) I’ve witnessed situations like that, when someone is out of someone else’s league. As an outsider you know it’s most likely not going to work. But people tend to make a fool of themselves in the romantic field and if they don’t try they have already lost. Why should this not apply to older men?

    And high five for the sex on the office desk!

  3. I can’t help but think that here, the term “dirty old man” is used much like the terms “slut” and “filthy whore,” to shame people. Obviously sex between teacher and student poses a conflict of interest in an academic environment, but maybe it’s nobody’s business who you fuck, or how old you are, or how old she is. “Dirty old man” follows the implication that sex is dirty, which it isn’t and that because you are “old-er” you should feel bad for having sexual experiences with consensual women younger than yourself. So what? Maybe we should stop labeling people’s sex lives. While I’m sure Don was looking out for you, hoping you did not experience aging in the same way he did, I think there is nothing “dirty” about being attracted to younger women. (As long at it is not Pedophile status- that’s another can of worms.)I also think it is interesting he used your fading looks and a foreshadowed lack of female attention as a motive to zip your pants. I guess for Don, avoiding the “dirty old man” stereotype really comes down to wanting to be desired and fear of rejection, as is human. I’m not necessarily advocating your behavior, clearly it was complicated with many surrounding issues and vices, I’m just saying I disagree with some of Don’s points.

  4. On the desk in your office… damn. Such a fantasy I’ve had about some of my profs. Hugo, I’m sure that the students you did on that desk still relive that as rockingly hot.

    Amelia, I agree with you! Men of any age should feel free to lust after younger women. They just should recognize that most of us have an incest tabu, and when we see a girl fucking a man old enough to be her dad, it’s natural for most of us to judge it and be disgusted by it. It’s impossible not to think of father-daughter incest in those situations.

  5. I disagree with the previous posts: sex on your desk is hardly unusual, barely interesting, and certainly not “gratuitously arousing.”

    I agree that the term “dirty old man” is unnecessarily shaming. As you know, I don’t share your views on age-disparate relationships. I could write a book about how a relationship with an older guy gave me nurturing and support in a desperate period in my life. But I soubt that anyone needs to read how broccoli and cheese sauce made me feel loved and safe, and how I paid for it with sex. Suffice it to say, that for those of us who can’t afford therapy, a relationship with an older man can be a reasonable substitute. The problem is that the older men do not want to think of themselves or their relationships with younger women in that light.

  6. “Men of any age should feel free to lust after younger women. They just should recognize that most of us have an incest tabu, and when we see a girl fucking a man old enough to be her dad, it’s natural for most of us to judge it and be disgusted by it.”

    Given this, why would guys feel free to lust after younger women? The fact that so many do now is precisely because it’s often accepted as normal and not taboo.

  7. I’m old enough to be my girlfriend’s father. She is, however, well past thirty and looks it. Any trepidation about incest reminders says more about the one feeling trepidation than it does about me and my girlfriend.

  8. What FWC said about sex on the office desk. Maybe if I worked in the porn industry, work would be sexy, but I don’t, so it’s not particularly. But then I was never the student who had the hots for my professors, so YMMV.

  9. Based only on this anecdote, I’m guessing “Don” was a pretty darn good teacher. He understood that Hugo was young and arrogant, and that appealing to his ethics or morality wouldn’t go far. Instead, he addressed the situation in terms of ego — if this behavior continues, it will lead to your humiliation.

    I think of “dirty old men” as older men who are aggressive and invasive in their pursuit of younger women — especially when those younger women have made it clear they’re not interested. That kind of persistence is annoying and unwelcome in a younger man, but I find it creepy and even threatening when it comes from a guy old enough to be my dad. I don’t know if it’s the power difference or something else, but it definitely has a different feel than being hit on by someone closer to my own age.

  10. Goodness, I hardly thought of my desk reference as particularly erotic. It was intended to convey a kind of compulsive shabbiness rather than something sexy.

    And as I’ve said before, I think terms like “creep” and “dirty old man” can be useful and accurate (depending on the context.) Age is NEVER just a number, despite the protestations to the contrary we hear — and for every anecdote of a healthy and blissful relationship between a younger woman and an older man, the research (Phillips, et al, whom I often cite) paints a darker picture.

    Obviously, I didn’t stop sleeping with students so that I could “quit while I was ahead” and leave “the game” while I was still reasonably attractive. At the same time, there was a truth to what Don said, a claim less about desirability than about the belief that the libido should mature along with the rest of the person — and that a mature libido will, more often than not, be directed towards one’s approximate peers.

  11. Interesting insight into the old boys network that has these private little chats “be discrete” — wow, what a moral giant Don was… sarcasm dripping here. What a brilliant post on the true nature of the boys club on campus… I would have fired you
    and you wouldn’t have gotten another academic job again. No feminist I know of would have ever given that advice… it’s shocking what passes for advice among younger and older men who work in academentia.

  12. Wow. There are some really strong responses here.

    I think the point of discussing age difference is mostly about power dynamics and the way people use sex as leverage. It might not seem so nice, but many (though certainly not all) older men DO go after young girls because they feel like it’s easier to retain a sense of control in the relationship. Likewise, many young women paradoxically use sex to feel powerful while also giving up power, giving up control. I have mostly only anecdotal evidence for this, but it’s personal anecdotal evidence, nonetheless.

    I don’t think it is so black and white as to say that those power dynamics are wholly healthy or wholly unhealthy. I think the whole thing is murky, at best. But you can’t take power dynamics out of it, that’s for sure.

    I can attest to having many fantasies about Profs and people in positions of power. I think power is attractive. The question is, is finding power an attractive trait healthy? It might be, depending on who you ask. But like I said, things can get murky. Personally I’m glad I never had any affairs with my professors – mostly because all were married and that would have been wrong, but also because i think it would have crossed a line of respect that I had for said profs. That could just be me, though.

    Good post!

  13. I will also add that I had one brief, mostly innocent flirtation with a person of authority while in high school and when things were taken a step too far things got awkward fast, and the respect I did have for this person was lost. I thought the flirtation was a game, but what it really was a young girl being in over her head and a desperate man at the time.

  14. @ Hugo

    “And as I’ve said before, I think terms like “creep” and “dirty old man” can be useful and accurate (depending on the context.)”

    If one were to say the same about the terms “slut” or “whore” would you hold that same position?

  15. I’ve said this elsewhere and I’ll say it again.

    I’m the product of a marriage that was a May/December relationship and started as both an adulterous affair and a workplace relationship. It was also a union…..and a divorce….that consisted of great dysfunction and great love irrespective of those other factors.

    Neither my parents nor I would have it any other way.

  16. I like the way you’ve conveyed how pathetic these may-december hook-ups really are. They’re not the stuff of fiction.

    One of the myths used to taunt single women over 25 is that while we turn into hags, single men our age will be dating younger women. As someone who has had the experience of dating younger men, I know the reality of dating younger people… sucks. Its nothing to be envied or feel threatened over.

    I’m not talking about the outliers – those few that are hyper mature or immature. I’m talking about everyone else.

    The experience of dating younger people is like groundhog day. You keep revisiting the same life-phase that you yourself have passed through. The first couple of times is a novelty, but when it becomes a pattern it makes you feel cynical and tired.

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  18. Rehearsal to Ourselves
    Of a Withdrawn Delight—
    Affords a Bliss like Murder—
    Omnipotent—Acute—

    We will not drop the Dirk—
    Because We love the Wound
    The Dirk Commemorate—Itself
    Remind Us that we died.

  19. I love that poem, emily.

    It raises for me the question of how much pleasure you get, Hugo, from contemplating your past “sins”? Is it a withdrawn delight you miss? Or rather something in which you no longer have any interest, save to illustrate your blog posts/columns?

  20. Grrr.

    We’ve had words about this stuff before, Hugo. I can’t say I’m with the radfems, because just like the last time a snippet from your past irked me, it’s not the gender thing. It’s the class thing. “Don” sounds like a first class asshat.

    And it’s not the age, sweetie. It really IS the wedding ring. My prof crush is in his mid forties. I keep my lust to myself out of respect for his wife and kids.

    You might want to consider that your students had more on their minds than Dr. S, no matter how good you are/were at your job. Horny young women are still capable of respect for a man’s wife and children. Respect them enough to recognize that they may have stopped checking you out because “hotness” in a man means shit next to respecting one’s sisters.

    I still love your blog, even when I have to tsk tsk your rich whiteness ;-)

  21. I’m with the commenters who think that gettin jiggy on the desk is sexy, tho. I daydream about hot desktop sex with my prof crush all the time. I find naughty uses for office furniture quite erotic too.

    It’d be even better on the desk of a hated prof with a sweet young cub of a classmate :-P (I’m 38 and I still get checked out by twenty somethings. So there!)

  22. Sometimes I wonder if there are people who are into the teacher/student dynamic, and people who are not, and never the twain shall meet. I mean, I had some fabulous professors who I admired greatly, but finding them sexy? Hell no. They were old enough to be my dad.

  23. Mythago, I’m with you. I mean, I had a couple TAs I thought were cute, but they were maybe mid-twenties, and I didn’t even try to flirt with them.

  24. The thought of having sex with most of my professors is horrifying. I’ve never been attracted to much older men, anything more than four or five years older seems icky and incestuos to me.

    I know many young women who do have huge professor crushes, and some of them are on men much older than you, Hugo, and judging from your photos, not as attractive. My guess is that when you got married and made it so obvious how happy you were, the total lack of a sexually available vibe was the reason why students stopped coming on to you. Not so much your age.

  25. Hey Hugo, epic story! You’re as honest as Diogenes in this post. I keep my drugs in my student papers drawer too.

  26. Clytemnestra – I’m guessing not. “Lack of a sexually available vibe” is not something that is going to repel somebody who has a fetish for Forbidden Love, or who fantasizes about being so irresistible that even a happily married man cannot keep his sacred vows in her presence.

  27. Yeah, Clytemnestra, I’m inclined to agree with mythago. I think it’s less that I’m married (though that counts, for sure) and more that I am now clearly old enough to be their fathers == and in some cases, more and more each year, am older than their fathers.

  28. There’s nothing wrong with age-disparate relationships. It’s power-disparate relationships, such as between a student and a teacher who grades her papers, that are dubious.

  29. I still disagree with the commenters who think prof crushes are more often about power. Sure, you’ll find a few young women who are power hungry or looking for a therapeutic daddy fling, but most of us are smart enough to know better than to try to trade sex for grades.

    HINT: I’ve commented numerous times about the wrongness of ACTUAL as opposed to fantasy-only sex with profs.

    Oh, and my prof crush is an audit only deal. Some of us–especially those of us who return to school in our thirties–also see the value in learning for its own sake, as opposed to getting enslaved in some Skinner Box of a grade point system.

    I’ll side with one of the points Hugo made on another post last fall. For me crushes are about competence and mutual discovery. Wanting to BE the person, not just wanting to be with him/her. And that’s what allows me to see be silently grateful for more than one type of mid afternoon smile, without having to deal with all of those silly girlie emotional THINGS. When it’s not about power and coveting, it’s easy to sieze the moment, and then let it go and pass it on.

    Also, I’ve always had a preference for men aged around 28-45. I’ve always been open to dating 21 years olds, if they’re unusually mature, but less so than *older* intelligent men who are very good at a particular craft. Now that I’m closer to 40 myself, men who “give good mind” don’t get the same disapproving stares for being with me. I’m lovin that!

  30. I once had a professor who committed suicide after the administration found out that he had been sleeping with a girl who had been raped by another student the year before. I think he did the right thing!

    I would fire any teacher who had sex with a student on the spot, no questions asked. The dynamics behind it are disgusting. Young, impressionable girls are sent to school by their families to learn not just about their major, but about common sense, ethics, and general life skills. What exactly is the life lesson here? That conflicts of interest don’t matter when it satisfies one’s own hedonistic desires? Are those the kind of female citizens our schools are sending out into the world?

    Many of these girls have never been around older, accomplished men. These men should act as mentors *in good faith* so that they can eventually find a good man who they truly deserve. Instead, some of them take advantage of the situation. As far as I’m concerned, these professors are exactly the kind of people that statutory rape laws are intended to address. Not to mention that it is unfair to every single other student in the school. And it furthers the negative stereotypes about successful women always sleeping their way to the top.

    I’m all about older men with younger women. But to do it, quit your job as an educator! Find some other way to hook up.

  31. Dungone, just to be clear, very few college students fall below the legal age of consent. (Statutory rape laws don’t apply, in other words.) And I think we can have good strong rules barring sex between students and teachers that don’t infantilize all female students as “impressionable.”

  32. I hope it was understood that I was referring to the spirit of such laws. They’re not perfect and can never be so, but I think we can all understand why they exist. It is the educators who are expected to exhibit a higher level of maturity than both their male and female students. It has nothing to do with infantilizing females. I don’t like that you brought this line of reasoning up, so I have to mention that professors shouldn’t have sleep with the boys, either, in case you were wondering. The students are free to pine after anyone they want, that is their privilege. Professors who respect their profession have a responsibility to abstain from those students. It has nothing to do with consent. Simply put, there is no good reason for a professor to have a romantic relationship with a student. Ever. Even the day after graduation… But I hardly think that those good strong rules barring sex are enough, as your story demonstrates.

  33. “I once had a professor who committed suicide after the administration found out that he had been sleeping with a girl who had been raped by another student the year before. I think he did the right thing!”

    How is the fact that she had been previously raped relevant? If she hadn’t been, would his suicide have been justified? What if she HAD been raped, but 2 years ago? Your assertion that breaking a university’s code of conduct warrants capital punishment is really bizarre.

    “It has nothing to do with consent.”

    It has everything to do with consent. Part of the reason for these regulations is the fact that a student’s ability to freely consent is limited in a teacher/student relationship because a rejected professor can fail the student.

  34. PM I believe in karma, not in capital punishment. Besides, I was making a point. When people are in drastically different positions of power, some of the decisions they make can leave them in a spiritual ruin that has real consequences. Power corrupts. There is a continuum here, from one abuse to the next, with the vulnerable person being flung from one abuser to the next. The power and the opportunity presented by circumstance can lead otherwise decent people to do awful things. I hope that this is what people get out of my anecdote. The professor knew that the girl had been raped – she confided in him and looked towards him as a mentor – she had a boyfriend who loved her. When people are thrust into dominant and submissive roles for the sake pouring the knowledge of humanity from one mind into another, the relationship should be regarded as sacrosanct.

    Sorry, my definition of consent is that blackmail does not count. Otherwise I think we’re in agreement. No matter how much anyone insists that they were mutually consenting adults, it’s all about power. It’s not just about the relation between the two actors, but about their relation to the dozens of other students who are spending 40k per year in good faith. The blackmail can work both ways, by the way.

  35. “Power corrupts. There is a continuum here, from one abuse to the next, with the vulnerable person being flung from one abuser to the next. The power and the opportunity presented by circumstance can lead otherwise decent people to do awful things. I hope that this is what people get out of my anecdote.”

    I understood what you meant and I also agree. I also don’t necessarily view “impressionable” or otherwise unequal in power as infantilizing either.

    I was not one to fantasize about my older professors. I very much desired my professors to act appropriate and what I mean by that is as emotionally safe “mentors” or role models. What I didn’t expect or bargain for was for them to sexualize the relationship or try too and then suffer the consequences for my rejection.

    I was very aware of the students, usually graduate, who would hook up with the professors, despite whatever policies were supposed to be in place. Everyone knew whether it was anyone’s business or not. Why? Well because the participants liked to talk about it and make it everyone’s business.

    I don’t know why the professor you speak of committed suicide. There must be more to the story here. His actions towards her were a betrayl of trust and very inappropriate given the situation. It sounds like he had other serious issues–like depression and despair which would lead him to take his own life. It’s a very sad story to hear.

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