When I was in high school, I dated an appalling-in-retrospect string of men five years or more my senior. I met most of them at the Rocky Horror Picture Show, which was where my friends and I spent our adolescent Saturday nights. The twentysomething men who hung out there treated us like adults, or what we imagined that to mean at fifteen: they smiled and nodded thoughtfully when we spoke, leaned in as though our every stray thought was fascinating. They made us feel respected, intelligent, mature.
I knew, abstractly, that older men who dated younger women – not women but girls, high school girls, girls not even old enough to drive – were creepy and better avoided. But for some reason it never occurred to me that that applied to my own life. The guys my friends and I dated made it seem like there was nothing strange about men in their twenties sexually pursuing teenage girls – after all, we were so old for our age. We were so wise. They had never met girls like us, girls who knew so much, girls who understood them so well. They told us this over and over, every one of them, like reading from a script: You’re so cool. You’re so different from all the others. When I was young, I didn’t understand that as an insult, lifting girls up in the singular while putting us down in the plural. I was dying to feel older, which I accomplished by wearing impossibly short skirts and sky-high platform shoes, carrying a tiny knife disguised as a tube of lipstick in my purse and feeling sly and dangerous. I wanted to feel desired, and the men I met were more than happy to comply – to tell me I was beautiful in my Hot Topic bustiers, breasts hiked to the collarbone, boots laced up to the knee.
On Saturday nights in high school, my curfew was five a.m. I told my parents that I spent those early morning hours hanging out in a diner with my friends, girls a year or two older than me who would drive me home. Some nights that was true. Some nights, though, I caught rides with men I’d never met before, circled the city endlessly or found places to park where the streetlights didn’t reach. Or my friends and I ended up back at someone’s house, one of those horrible shared houses that all men in their twenties seemed to live in: broken furniture, cigarette butts in beer bottles, nothing in the refrigerator. We sat awkwardly on lopsided couches making tense small talk while one girl or another disappeared into a bedroom, a kitchen, a bathroom, giggling, hand in hand with a man five, seven, ten years her senior.
When I was fifteen, I dated a man named Michael. He was twenty-three and already divorced, had fled the state of Texas to get away from his ex-wife, who he said had broken his heart so badly he didn’t know if he could go on living. I found this tragically romantic, imagining I might be the one to heal his wounded soul. On Valentine’s Day, he gave me a rose, already wilting. He offered to buy me a cell phone so that he would be able to hear my voice whenever he wanted.
Later that year there was Steven. I don’t remember exactly how old he was, but he must have been at least twenty. The night we met, he pulled me away from my friends, around the dark side of a building into an alley where he pushed me up against a wall and kissed me so hard it made my teeth hurt. In the gray early morning hours, he took my friend Jocelyn and me back to his apartment, where we sat on the edge of a filthy couch watching Steven and his roommates smoke cigarettes and complain about their jobs. I can see now that their lives were small and grimy, with little joy besides driving fast and listening to loud music, playing pool in bars where the very air felt gritty and making out with girls too young to know better. But to me, back then, it seemed glamorous and important.
Compared to the boys we knew at school, these men were smart, experienced, interesting. They had jobs and cars and apartments of their own, and to a teenager, this extremely basic level of independence seemed thrilling. Suddenly we didn’t have to take the bus or plead for rides from our parents; our boyfriends picked us up in their busted, dented, fifteen-year-old cars, smelling of stale smoke and overflowing with old fast food wrappers, loud music crackling unevenly from their stereos. Older guys were exciting. They were a ride at an amusement park, a gasping plummet followed by stomach-dropping uncertainty. I was never afraid of heights, but looking back, I should have been. Looking back, I can see the abyss below my feet, my balance unsteady in those five-inch heels. At the time, I didn’t understand why every guy I dated left me feeling wrung out and discarded, but now I can see that there’s never an equal balance of power between a teenage girl and an adult man. As grown-up as I believed I was, I didn’t have the power to stand up for myself or the experience to communicate what I wanted and needed, so I became a conduit for satisfying the needs of others and ended up miserable. I don’t think a relationship with this kind of age disparity – the difference between adolescence and adulthood – can ever end any other way.
When I was fifteen, I was exploding with desire. I felt wild and barely contained. There were days when I wanted to fuck so badly I could feel it in my teeth. In the narratives of teen girl sexual awakening I’d encountered at that point, the girl is passive, sought after, acted upon. I didn’t know how to seek out sex with an appropriate partner; all I could do was try to make myself an appealing target. I was told “Wait until you’re ready to have sex.” I was told “It’s okay to say no.” I was never told how badly I would want to say yes, with no one around to say it to. I was never told how to know when I was ready. So I became this shaken-up Coke bottle full of desire, ready to burst if anyone cracked the cap.
When I look back on my teenage years all I can see is a long line of near misses, and I’m terrified for my younger self in retrospect. I accepted rides from strange men without thinking twice. I went back to older guys’ houses. I lied to my parents to cover where I was going, and my friends backed me up – we made up elaborate structures of misinformation to throw our collective guardians off track. There were so many nights when no one but me had any idea where I was or who I was with. That nothing really bad ever happened to me seems like nothing short of a miracle. I’m lucky to have escaped with no worse experiences than feeling confused, hurt, and taken advantage of.
I wish I had known better. I believe young people, and especially girls, need sex education that tells them something more than “don’t,” because without guidance, desire is driving the car – and desire, I’m sorry to say, is dumb as shit. Girls need to be taught not only to say no to sex they don’t want, but to pursue sex they do want in healthy, safe, age appropriate ways.
At fifteen, desperate for sex and attention, and with no guidance about healthy ways to get them, I ran wild. Now, it’s twelve years later and I’m getting ready to have children of my own. I think about what I’ll want them to know, what I wish I had known as a teenager: You’re probably going to want to have sex. Start with people your own age, because people way older than you who want to sleep with high school students are creepy and predatory. And if you can’t find a cool, smart, age-appropriate person to fuck, it’s better to just not fuck anybody. Just because someone wants you doesn’t mean he likes you. Don’t have sex – or even make out – with people who don’t like you. It’s okay to say “yes” or “no” as the spirit moves you, but don’t say “yes” just because you’re afraid you’re never going to get a better offer.
Mostly, I wish I had known that wanting to have sex didn’t make me an adult, and being desired didn’t make me powerful. I didn’t become adult and empowered until I learned how to seek out relationships with people who saw me as an equal.