Hugo is posting a lot today.
My fiancee and I did make it out of the house this past weekend, despite the rain and our mutual flu affliction. We went to see A Love Song for Bobby Long starring Scarlett Johansson and John Travolta. It was a passable film if not a deeply memorable one, and the two leads were quite fine. (I do want the soundtrack.)
Johansson's character, "Pursey", is 18 and lovely. Travolta plays the title character, a 50ish alcoholic former English professor prone to quoting George Eliot and making odious sexual remarks to Pursey. At one point,following a particularly obscene comment, Pursey turns to Bobby in hurt and frustration and cries out "But I'm just a girl." It's the line that lingered for me. Pursey is legally an adult, and the film makes clear she is not sexually unexperienced -- but the plain power of that one line drove home for me the reality we often choose to ignore, that those who appear outwardly fully adult may still be in need of our care and protection.
I thought about this just now as I read this post by Sofia at Volsunga. Among other things, she touches on issues of older men dating younger women, and I thought I'd add some musings. No, there will be no personal disclosures in this post. All I will say is that I can say in all honesty that today my private life matches my public pronouncements on this issue, and to God be the glory for that.
I don't think I need to defend the proposition that we live in a culture that sexualizes and objectifies young women starting very early in life. I work with junior high and high school age girls in my church youth group, and am well aware that a substantial number of them struggle with the overwhelming pressure to be alluring, to be sexy, to be powerful. In frank group discussions, we've touched on these pressures many times over the years. I've had countless similar (if slightly more sophisticated) discussions in classes with my students at PCC.
I see a great many young women eager for attention and validation from older men. By "young", I mean both underage girls and college-aged women. (What I mean by "older" depends on the age of the girl who is the subject of the conversation. 20 is an "older man" for a 16 year-old; 30, or even 40, might be an older man for a 21 year-old.) For all of the progress our culture has made on some issues, it is truly remarkable how the older man/younger woman ideal has persisted. Though there remains considerable disagreement about how old might be "too old" and how young might be "too young" (especially given legal considerations), most folks seem quite prepared to accept these relationships not only as normal, but perhaps even ideal.
Now, I don't think that significant age gaps in relationships are always a problem, but I do think that they are far more problematic than we are willing to let on. When we are talking about men over, say, 27 and women under 21, they are almost invariably a very poor idea.
I've often written about how much I enjoy working with young men and adolesecent boys. I've talked about the importance of male role models, and about how crucial it is that older men take an active interest in the emotional and spiritual development of young men, not just their athletic and intellectual achievements. I love "my guys". But I also think it's equally vital that adult men work with adolescent girls and young women. I'm convinced that young girls badly need the presence of loving older men who are not parents or relatives, but who are still fundamentally safe.
I've heard, over and over again, how shocking and upsetting it is the first time a young girl realizes that an older man is sexually attracted to her. The first catcall, the first leer, the first whistle, the first inappropriate remark -- these are seldom forgotten, and they leave deep and enduring wounds. (The younger the girl and the older the predator, the deeper the scar, it seems.) After these early experiences, by the time they arrive at college, many young women expect to be seen as objects of desire by men in their thirties, forties, and perhaps beyond. Young women employ different strategies to cope with this onslaught of attention. Some hide from it, making a conscious effort to deemphasize their sexuality, to appear less desirable. Others, more troublingly, see it as an opportunity to get much-wanted validation and attention.
In my work, it is absolutely critical that I never, ever, respond to the sexuality of the young women with whom I interact. This has nothing to do with preserving my job, and everything to do with the precious integrity of my work on gender issues. Now, at the risk of the accusation of narcissism, I will share that I do get plenty of female students who flirt with me, a few quite brazenly. (My colleagues tell me it will happen less after I turn 40.) I don't let it go to my head much, because I understand that it's not Hugo they really want. At the risk of sounding paternalistic, what they really want is to be noticed, to be seen, to be validated as good and worthy and interesting individuals. And they believe -- with good reason in most cases -- that using their sexuality is hands down the best (if not the only way) to get that attention that they rightly want.
If I were to flirt back, or if I were to date a student, I am convinced I would send a devastating message about what older men "really" want. Young women need older men in their lives who will respect and care about them, who aren't their fathers or brothers but who aren't prospective lovers, either. They need to know that they bring more to the table than their sexuality. They need to be seen as complete human beings. Paradoxically, seeing young women as complete human beings means that in actions, words, and yes, even in thought, older men cannot see them as objects of sexual desire. That doesn't mean that we (older guys) shouldn't acknowledge that younger women are sexual creatures. But we must (and the burden is on us alone here, fellas) love them with radical unselfishness,and that requires that we ourselves always refrain from sexualizing them. We need to see them as Pursey wanted to be seen.
When I first started teaching, I wanted to be admired. The older I get, I am happy to report, the less I worry about that. I do still do care what my college students (and my youth group kids) think of me. I don't care all that much if they think I'm brilliant or eloquent or handsome (though, oh, one likes to hear that sort of flattery). But there is something I do care very much about. I want all of the young people I work with, be they 14, 18, or 21, to think I'm safe. The longer I do this work, the more that becomes my goal. I want my kids to know I love them for who they are, I want my students to know I respect and honor their minds and their spirits, not their bodies.
I will not sit in judgment of others' relationships, save those that are obviously exploitative. Clearly, not all young women are equally mature at the same chronological age. But I will say that older men do well to see younger women as full human beings rather than objects of desire. If more of us would take small steps to make the younger women around us feel both seen and safe, our culture would be a damn sight better off.