I stood in a grocery store aisle deciding between slivered almonds and crushed ones when I noticed a store associate standing in my peripheral vision for a while. A few minutes into our conversation that began when he approached to offer his help, I realized the man wasn’t wearing a Stop&Shop apron. It turns out he didn’t work there at all. He told me he had been watching me, and just knew he had to talk to me.
When I moved towards the registers, the man poured out compliments, his voice filled with desperation: that I was beautiful, stunning, there was something special and mature about me. He said he wanted to talk to me more. I declined. Question after question continued. He asked if I was home on break from college and I answered no, that I was only sixteen. At that, the man gripped his chest and let out a soft moan as if my age had pained him in some way. He said it couldn’t be possible and that he was 29. I assured him it could. (I wore braces, still had chubby cheeks, and was a late bloomer). Again, this man persisted, saying that if I wouldn’t give him my phone number, then I could at least give him my email. “You don’t even have to reply all the time if you are busy with school,” he pressed. “I could just be like a mentor to you for a few years until you’re ready.” I didn’t ask what exactly I would be ready for. I paid for my groceries and told him my mother was waiting for me in the car.
Historically, society has associated girls and their “purity” with flowers in a misogynistic sense. Their virginity is likened to a flower and so, once tainted by sex, a young woman becomes “de-flowered.” As in the popular TV Show, Jane The Virgin, Jane learn about sex through the dramatic crumpling of a flower meant to symbolize that once she has intercourse, she will never be the same. When many Christian girls are gifted promise rings, they are given flowers for the same reason.
Yet, outside of the purity myth lies a different (less sexist) degree of similarity between young women and flowers. Like some unfortunate flowers, girls are picked as soon as the first sprouts of maturity appear. A flower is alluring no matter its age, even before it is fully bloomed, while it’s curled into itself, hiding away its sweet essence of youth. A flower, though unripe, can still offer its delicate beauty. And the pickers, so filled with desire, are impatient.
But, it isn’t always cat-chases-mouse. Some younger girls are attracted to older guys, and the romantic interest with age gaps can certainly be mutual. Still, it is the responsibility of the older person in the situation to know better than to pursue someone younger. When I was in kindergarten, I was obsessed with the child rap star Lil Bow Wow. Driven with a burning dedication for our imagined love, I made up a song about him with full choreography and performed it for my family. Yet, I’m sure, being over a decade my senior, had he met me and considered me the most beautiful five-year-old on the planet, he probably wouldn’t have dated me. Leonardo DiCaprio once stole my heart as he stole everyone else’s and at sixteen I would have dropped out of school to be with him. But, seeing as he was 40 years old at the time, he wouldn’t have entertained such a relationship. A friend of mine once shared a post that says it better than I can:
This applies to any grown person trying to be intimate with teens including people in their late teens. And while some may argue that age is just a number and doesn’t matter in the context of “love,” experience certainly does. A 40-year-old dating a 50-year-old is not wrong, although that’s the same 10-year age gap that kept me from my one true love Lil Bow Wow. Those individuals are in a much more similar stage of life than a teen star and a girl still spending most of her day occupied with play-dough. Some people believe age gaps actually benefit younger women dating older men because those men are more experienced and thus better at caring for a woman’s needs. Not, necessarily. Coming from a different knowledge background in regards to the world, younger women are a lot less wary, more trusting, and pliable. A younger girl is more likely to see the actions and decisions of that older person as “right” because we are conditioned to regard age with authority. Younger partners haven’t yet learned how to navigate all the bullshit.
According to the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health, teens who had sex with a partner over one year older subsequently had higher levels of depression and lower self-esteem. Additionally, teen girls who date men 3 to 4 years older are at a higher risk of unwanted pregnancy than those who date boys their own age. Researchers have found that when engaging sexually with a male who has more power and status due to age, teen girls may find it more difficult to say no to sex or insist on the use of contraception.
A friend of mine was sixteen at a bar with friends in Europe when a man wrapped his hands around her waist and pressed himself on her. She wriggled away from him, and he asked for an explanation. Frantic for an excuse instead of saying she wasn’t interested (because we as women learn quickly how polite rejections often play out), she offered her age to make him leave her alone. He didn’t believe her, said he was 32 and there was no way she could be seventeen. “You can ask my friends,” she insisted. “We’re all students here.” His eyes lit up with an idea. He told her he was a student too, going back to school for his nursing degree. He said they could at least meet at the library regularly, study together. He could help her with her homework. He said he wouldn’t try anything.
Too many young women have had to navigate creepy older guy situations. And as I hear more stories like this, I have to wonder what attracts some men to younger girls. Is it merely that youth is appealing because it exudes health and fertility? Or is there a more profound incentive in that a younger woman is probably less experienced, less confident, more trusting, and easier to manipulate?
It is disturbing that men should see their actions as either those they will be penalized for or those they can get away with. Doing anything that will not garner consequences should not be a standard to live by. Grooming a teenage girl under the guise of mentoring or tutoring her until a time when you will not be thrown in jail for putting your penis in her vagina shouldn’t be seen as a “dating” tactic either. And depending on the age difference and power dynamic at play, sleeping with a teenager isn’t always ethical even if it is legally permissible. By picking a flower too early, you cripple its growth, possibly denying it the beauty and confidence that comes naturally with full and unaltered bloom.
Just a few months after the grocery store incident, I was back in France at a barbershop surrounded by men a decade older than me. (I’m black, and I have short cropped hair, so I always get it trimmed in the company of boisterous men.) When I showed the barber a picture of me with the style I wanted, he gawked and exclaimed how attractive I was in the photo. The compliment didn’t make me uncomfortable until he showed the picture to all the other men hanging around the barbershop who hooted in appreciation. About halfway through the haircut, my barber asked me what I thought of Kamil, the man who had been staring at me from across the room. I wanted to answer that I didn’t know anything about Kamil. I was thinking about how I needed this haircut to be done so I could get home and start my homework. But, when someone is holding shears to your neck, you are pretty careful about what you say. So, I shrugged. “Kamil thinks you’re so pretty,” he pushed. The jeering and goading of the nearby barbers drowned out the buzz of their electric trimmers. I tried to concentrate on counting each thump of my heart in my ears. As my barber cleaned up my hairline, I felt the cool edge of the razor blade on the nape of my neck. With my head bent down towards my lap, I couldn’t see Kamil’s reaction. “If Kamil invites you to a club with him this weekend, will you go?”
“Okay,” I gave in.