About five years ago, after I’d written a blogpost about my work as a youth group leader, I got an email from someone named Fiona. She asked:
Do you ever worry about being sexually attracted to your students or youth group kids? Don’t you ever think you might be tempted to cross the line? You write as if you are immune to temptation. Just because you don’t act on it doesn’t mean you don’t feel it!!
Do male youth leaders like you “behave” because you don’t have sexual desire for teens, or do you have sexual desire but just control it?
My answer was a simple one: no. No, I was never attracted to the kids in my youth group. No, it’s not about control; it’s about the genuine absence of desire.
One thing I’ve been blessed with: a consistent track record of being attracted to women my own age. When I was 16, I thought about my fellow teens. In my college years, I was attracted to other students. Unlike some of my peers, when I was in college I had little interest in older women (honestly, I found them intimidating beyond words!) I certainly lost interest in high school-aged girls not long after leaving Carmel High.
I think a case can be made that being peer-attracted throughout one’s life is developmentally healthy for everyone concerned. But it’s possible I’m universalizing (and worse, moralizing) from my own experience.
When I was in college, I remember having a discussion with a male friend of mine. "Sean" and I were talking about my friend’s father, who had recently left his mother for a younger woman. Sean was understandably disconsolate. But one thing he said haunted me for a long time. I’ll paraphrase:
Dad left mom for someone only a couple of years older than us. (We were 20 or so at this time). I don’t find women my mom’s age sexy at all. It seems my dad doesn’t either. What if I get married, get to be my dad’s age, and find out I’m still attracted to girls in their early twenties? What if my sex drive doesn’t mature along with the rest of me?
Boy, do I remember when Sean asked that question in bold! I had no answer for him, beyond a feeble "Man, that would suck." But it frightened me. All around me I saw evidence of men in their forties and fifties who were strongly attracted to young women in their teens and early twenties. It wasn’t just a media phenomenon; in my early years of taking women’s studies classes, I heard countless anecdotes from my female classmates about harassment at the hands of much older men. It made me angry, it made me cynical, but it also terrified me. Sean was right about me too: when I was 20, I didn’t find women twice my age to be at all sexually attractive. What if I felt the same way when I too was 40? For whatever reason, that fear nagged and nagged at me.
But I was lucky. I found that my libido evolved along with the rest of me. As I aged, my interest in my peers remained the same. Gradually, girls in their teens lost their appeal. Women in their 30s, and then older, began to become far more interesting. By the time I was in my early 30s, this maturation in my own psyche was quite clear to me, even as I was going through a series of unsuccessful relationships. My behavior was neither feminist nor gentlemanly, but even at my worst, it was always age-appropriate. Yes, I slept with some of my students early in my teaching career; almost all of them were within half a decade of my age, older than the traditional students. One was three years older. That doesn’t make my behavior any more defensible, but it does make it, perhaps, less overtly predatory.
Today, I can say that my wife’s beauty awes me. With a body that bears the unmistakable marks of having given birth, she’s beautiful late in the fourth decade of her life, and I have every expectation that I will find her every bit as lovely in her eighth decade on this planet.
Once I began working with teenagers regularly at All Saints Church (some 12 years ago), I found that my emotional response to "my kids" was, not surprisingly, often intensely paternal. I’ve wanted to be a father for a few years now, and the teenagers with whom I work today are easily old enough to be my biological children. And while I adore these teens in the specific, I find that those protective, paternal feelings exist for all boys and girls of similar age. While I can certainly acknowledge the aesthetic beauty/handsomeness of certain teens, juvenile loveliness strikes no chord in me. This is not merely due to my very happy marriage, but also due to this strong internal sense that sexual desire is rightly directed towards one’s approximate peers.
When I was in my early teens, one of my first celebrity "crushes" was on Kristy McNichol. (Famous for "Little Darlings", but also for a favorite TV show few of you remember, "Family.") Then in high school and college it was on Jennifer Jason Leigh. Now, if I were to admit to one at all, it would be (as I’ve posted before) on Mariska Hargitay. All three are just slightly older than I am. And while I admire Scarlett Johannsson as an actress, hearing her dubbed "the sexiest woman alive" made me laugh out loud with disbelief — not because she isn’t lovely, but because she seems so damned young to me.
I do not mean to suggest that someone who is 44 (as I am) shouldn’t be attracted to someone who is 34 or 54. But those ages seem to me — and this may be my own peculiarity — the outer limits of acceptability. Anything beyond ten years either direction seems, well, odd. At the same time, I acknowledge that age-disparate relationships can work, as long as the younger partner is genuinely emotionally mature. A relationship between a 35 year-old and a 15 year-old is immoral, criminal, and indefensible; a relationship between a 55 year-old and a 35 year-old is none of those things.
Still, I admit that I am perplexed by those who find such disparities to be erotically or emotionally exciting. For me, the truth is simple: since I hit puberty, I have never experienced sexual attraction to someone old enough to be my mother or young enough to be my daughter. And I acknowledge that one reason why I am often so hard on men who do experience that attraction to much younger women is because I can’t empathize with it, not even for a moment. I try and "get it", and I just can’t.
It is possible that my experience that the objects of my desire age as I age is just a quirk of my personality. It certainly hasn’t been the result of any conscious effort on my part (and my regular readers know I am quick to sing the praises of conscious effort!). But I can’t help but think that "my way" is the fundamentally healthier way. It just seems to me that a great deal of heartache and exploitation could be avoided if we could all just match our libidos to our approximate peer group. Or am I wrong?