I am home from a very happy visit with my family in Northern California. Despite nursing a mild cold, I did get in some good trail running, got plenty of sleep, plenty of time with my family. I also got to be among the 72,000 in attendance as my beloved Golden Bears won an impressive victory over the Oregon Ducks last night. It was my first time in Memorial Stadium since 1986, and it was a joy to be back.
I am pleased to find that such an interesting and civil discussion took place beneath this post. I always worry when I'm not around to edit or delete offensive comments, but it seems to have gone quite well.
First Fiona 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!!
Then in a follow-up:
Do male youth leaders like him (Hugo) behave because they don't have sexual desire, or do they have sexual desire but just control it? It makes a difference to me as an 18 year-old, and it was something my friend who was in his youth group always wondered.
A couple of other commenters weighed in, but I want to address this immediately.
I know that I tend to write a great deal about the importance of male self-control. My emphasis on self-discipline, I realize, suggests that I spend a great deal of time "wrestling with temptation." I've often made statements along the lines of "Virtue is not the absence of desire, but restriction in the presence of desire."
I realize that this is a problematic line to take as a youth leader. I make it clear that I am trustworthy and safe, but I don't explain whether it is a struggle to be so. While Kip (another commenter) advises I don't answer the questions Fiona asks, I think it is vital to do so.
No, I have never experienced sexual attraction to the kids in my youth group. It is with considerable confidence (and a sigh of relief) that I can make that statement! Never, ever, have I experienced physiological or emotional arousal as the result of an interaction with a teen who was under my charge. I don't know what to attribute this to, but I suspect both chronological maturity and spiritual conviction play a part in this. At nearly forty, I can say that quite happily it has been years and years since I have experienced strong attraction to someone that young.
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've been getting a lot of email lately (again) about my posts on older men, younger women. (Here, here, here.) I've got some points I'll probably address in another post on the subject soon. But I realize that my experience as a teacher and a youth leader is not the only factor that makes me so inherently mistrustful of age-disparate relationships. There's another factor at work, and that is my own conviction, rooted in my experience, that emotional maturity always means being most strongly attracted to those in one's own age group.
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 blessed. And 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. Today, I can say that my wife's beauty awes me. She's beautiful in her fourth decade of her life, but 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 (some seven 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 39 (as I am) shouldn't be attracted to someone who is 29 or 49. 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. Please understand that 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 makes me instinctively angry, both on behalf of the girls who are all too often horrified by inappropriate sexual attention and on behalf of those "older" women who are forced to worry obsessively about losing their sex appeal as a consequence.
I began this post intending to make an emphatic response to the awkward but important question that Fiona posed. I realize I've gone off on quite a tangent, and for that I apologize. But as I started to write, I thought about what Sean had asked all those years ago. I don't know whether or not his life has turned out as mine has. For his sake, and the sake of the women who love him, I hope it has.
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?