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.