I first met Sam while living in Chandigarh, India. He was the founder of the alternative learning space I worked for, a school that taught young children how to express their emotions. I was impressed by a man so invested in emotional intelligence. He was 40. I was 24.
There was an instant attraction between us. We talked about stargazing and constellations and shared an interest in permaculture. At first we’d meet at restaurants and go on outings around town with other friends, but soon there were long, late-night conversations that led to kissing on the edge of my bed.
He paid for everything. My mother had always taught me that a good man would do exactly that, and even though the urban, progressive elite in me scoffed at that idea, in practice I acquiesced to it quite easily.
He kissed my forehead and, for a moment, I felt a fatherly presence.
One night, we went on a wild drive around town. After sneaking into a local circus to see the elephants, we ended up on the street outside a strip mall. From a nearby cart, Sam bought a thick wedge of paan, a rolled leaf with areca nut and tobacco that’s meant to be chewed and spit out for a momentary high.
I was reluctant to try it, but Sam insisted, saying it was a necessary part of the cultural experience. After one bite, I was viciously nauseated. Sam rushed to get the car and carefully scooted me into the backseat. I had to open the door and vomit out the side of the car every few minutes on our way back to the home of the Indian family I stayed with.
Sam carried me to my room, gently took off my shoes and socks, and tucked me into bed. My stomach churned and my body was weak, but I felt so cared for, so loved, that I resisted drifting off into a feverish sleep. He kissed my forehead and, for a moment, I felt a fatherly presence. Sam was my father’s age, and being attracted to him felt strange and slightly awkward, yet, it felt good. So wrong, but so good.
I have a history of dating older men. Much older men. Throughout my twenties and early thirties, I had relationships with men who were 15 to 30 years my senior. Most of them were flings and short-lived romances, sparked through spontaneous meetings at social gatherings or, like Sam, through work.
I had all sorts of theories as to why this was the case. They ranged from the poetic—The soul knows no age—to the prosaic: I didn’t have a present and loving father so I crave that experience now.
But, until recently, nothing really got to the heart of it.
I was on the phone with a friend, musing about my relationship patterns, when the proverbial light bulb went off.
“I don’t know why I always get approached by much older men,” I said to her, genuinely unsure.
She laughed. “It’s not just you. We all do. It’s all of us.”
Something about the way she said it made me stop short. It had never occurred to me that the forces behind my May-December romances weren’t all that unique.
I was a product and a perpetuator of society’s collective messaging and conditioning that implies a man is valued in his older age and a woman is not.
Our phone call happened on the heels of the #MeToo movement, in the midst of a flowering awareness and conversation around power dynamics, boundaries, and consent. My friend was right: It wasn’t just me. My relationships had happened in a social vacuum, one in which the rules of engagement had patriarchy written all over them. And I had participated in them, albeit unknowingly.
I took inventory of all the explanations I had adopted around the story I’d long told myself about why I had romances with older men.
- Younger men were not emotionally mature enough for me.
- I needed to experience fatherly love now, any way I could, because of the stark lack of it growing up.
- I was actually defying social norms by not being with someone my own age.
I saw things in my past relationships that I’d never seen before, especially the one with Sam. Looking back, I realized he’d claimed a subtle ownership over me by being my boss and paying for everything. It was an unspoken transaction, a power dynamic that discreetly entitled him to my compliance and affection, an undercurrent that I don’t think either of us perceived at the time. In defying social norms, I’d actually just been reinforcing them. Oh, the irony.
It’s far more acceptable and common for older men to date younger women in our culture. It’s reflected back to us everywhere: in the media, in movies and magazines, and in our professional and personal lives. It’s Pretty Woman; Lolita, Woody Allen and almost every Woody Allen film; it’s our current president; your female co-worker who has an affair with her much older male boss; it’s the neighbor down the street whose second wife is half his age.
Yes, I had my own personal (daddy) issues to work out. But I had been far more entrenched in the muck of our collective experience than I’d cared to admit.
All of my theories about why I was drawn to older men were partially true, but I never owned—or wanted to own—the most obvious: I was a product and a perpetuator of society’s collective messaging and conditioning that implies a man is valued in his older age and a woman is not.
An unspoken implication in the older man, younger woman dynamic, whether it’s fully understood or even conscious, is that men get better with age: They get more emotionally mature and financially stable; women, on the other hand, slip out of the realm of desirability, lose their sense of adventure and potency, and, as the years roll on, accumulate cumbersome emotional baggage.
With all this in mind, I made a decision to take ownership of how I contributed to gender inequality of this kind, even in its subtlest forms. Yes, I had my own personal (daddy) issues to work out. But the grander point is this: I had been far more entrenched in the muck of our collective experience than I’d cared to admit.
I like to imagine an alternative culture in which we allow boys and young men to mature emotionally from the start, and a culture that allows women to age gracefully, peaking in magnitude and sexual prowess as they get older. I wonder what relationships between men and women who were supported in that development would look like.
Unconsciously absorbed and acted out, that narrative had done its work on me without my knowledge; it’s safe to say I’m not alone in being unaware of the societal conditioning at play in my intimate relationships. Until now, I hadn’t thought to consider how my personal actions, however small, extended to a larger web of oppression.
Our stories are personal and potent, yet they are also connected. They are single threads in a larger tapestry, individual experiences framed within a larger, cultural context. We are in it, we are of it, and we are perhaps just beginning to understand how to flex the collective power of that.
I often like to imagine an alternative culture in which we allow boys and young men to mature emotionally from the start, giving them space to cry, to need, and, if they choose, to be sensitive caretakers; and a culture that allows women to age gracefully, peaking in magnitude and sexual prowess as they get older. I by no means condemn those who have relationships with age gaps, nor do I diminish the depth and beauty of the relationships I’ve had myself, but I wonder what relationships between men and women who were supported in that development would look like.
The last time I ever saw Sam was at the Taj Mahal. He had taken a train down to meet me there, and we spent a few wistful hours wandering the halls and towers, holding hands. Even though I knew it was probably going to be the last time I’d see him, I felt no sadness. I felt like I could let him go. When he got back on that train and we parted ways, saying goodbye was easy and sweet.