“Joseph asked me to befriend certain girls so he could meet them,” a friend two years younger than me confided. She slept with him in 2007 when she was 15; he was 22.
My friend group in 2005 consisted mostly of 13 to 15-year-old girls and a couple of boys that age. There was a café in the downtown of our North County San Diego suburb we’d all hang out at after high school. Normal.
What wasn’t normal was the group of men who hung around the café and tried to—and did—sleep with us. One of these men, Joseph, went above and beyond that—he actively picked girls up from the high school, cutting out the middle man.
In 2005, when I was 15, I was talking, generally, about sex with two of these older men, one of which was Joseph.
“I’ve only done it twice. I don’t like it,” I admitted.
“You just haven’t had good sex yet,” Joseph explained. “I know what I’m doing. I’ve had practice and I’ve shown others how it’s done.”
“Okay, show me.”
The trope of older men dating younger women is nothing new: Psychology Today, Zoosk and GQ all have articles detailing this trope. Even the American Psychological Association has a 2016 paper on it entitled “Attachment styles of women-younger partners in age-gap relationships.”
But all of these essays and studies focus on the man at the ‘age of a midlife crisis’ pursuing women in their twenties or places the blame on the young women as Lolita-esque seductresses: what about the men in their twenties and thirties seducing teenagers? No one discusses that “regardless of victim gender, almost 3 of every 5 victims of statutory rape were age 14 or 15, with relatively equal proportions in each of these ages.”
Forget “barely legal”—they’re consciously seeking illicit relations.
We didn’t go to Joseph’s house because he was 20 years old but still lived with his parents. And he probably didn’t want them to see this young girl, me. I was 15, but my mom drank a lot and my dad was a Marine who was always gone—we went to my house.
Joseph entered my room first and barely waited for me to close the door. He grabbed me by the hip bone and forced his tongue into my mouth. Finally, he stopped and told me to take my clothes off.
I sat on the edge of the barred Ikea bed I had assembled myself and pulled off my jeans and too-large Pink Floyd t-shirt.
“Oh, wow,” he exclaimed. “You have tits. I could never tell.”
While I undressed, he had removed his pants to reveal a shaved groin area complete with erect penis. But he kept his shirt on, like a horny Winnie the Pooh.
I wasn’t wet when he shoved himself inside of me. I didn’t get wet as he bit at my nipples. Later, I’d notice teeth marks and broken capillaries. But during, I said nothing and stared into the corner of the room, insisting to myself, “This is normal; your reaction isn’t.”
Abruptly, he stopped, extracted himself, and rose to his feet, still hard.
“Yeah, this actually isn’t working for me. You want to go back to the café?”
We didn’t speak until we were outside the place.
“Hey, I’m short on cash,” Joseph said, “would you mind buying me a bagel and coffee?”
At 15, I babysat and tutored for extra cash to spend on pot and alcohol—I was a real winner. Meanwhile, this 20-year-old lived with his parents and was on unemployment. It was the perfect dysfunctional match.
“I’ll get you a bagel—no coffee. You’re really cutting into my drug money.”
In 2011, a freshly minted 21- year-old, my drinking spiraled out of control. I recently returned to California after living in Georgia and found myself around the same café crowd. And Joseph, who’d ask me at the end of each night, when I was semi-conscious, if I wanted a ride home. During this ride, he’d ask if I’d like to go to his (his parents’) house. I’d slur something unintelligible and he’d say, “Right after I drop off Jay, my house it is.”
In the backseat, Jay stayed silent.
One morning after one of these nights, Joseph insisted, with casual persistence, we go eat somewhere together.
“Since we’re dating now,” he added.
“No,” I said slowly. “We aren’t.”
Immediately, his demeanor changed. No longer cavalier, his back straightened and his hands flew from the steering wheel as he began ranting: “You were such a drunk asshole last night. You’re always a drunk asshole. I thought we at least had a relationship to fall back on.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” I said.
He stopped the car and turned his eyes from straight-ahead to me and replied, “You don’t get to tell me what makes sense—you’re always shitfaced. You don’t know what makes sense.”
And then it happened again. This time, I didn’t fight it.
“I guess we are dating then.”
In 2014, 28-year-old footballer Adam Johnson groomed and engaged in sexual activity with a 15-year-old fan. In 2016, he admitted it.
In 2015, Joseph and I hadn’t been involved for three years. A new person I was seeing heard the story of that relationship from my best friend.
“Wow,” he said, looking at me with wonder. “You dated your statutory rapist.”
In 2019, Natalie Portman denied dating a 33-year-old Moby when she was 18.
Moby wrote in his book Then it Fell Apart, “I was a bald binge drinker and Natalie Portman was a beautiful movie star. But here she was in my dressing room, flirting with me. I was 33 and she was 20 but this was her world.”
Portman’s recollection differed—and so did the basic math. Moby was born in 1965; Portman was born in 1981. She couldn’t have been 20 when he was 33. But that’s what these men do—they know it isn’t right, so they obscure details, change facts. They aren’t creeping on younger women—they’re dating them.
“I was surprised to hear that [Moby] characterized the very short time that I knew him as dating because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me when I just had graduated high school,” Natalie Portman told Harper’s Bazaar.
Shortly after the Moby news broke, a different friend from California, a year younger than me, reached out about Joseph.
“I didn’t even think twice about Joseph trying to kiss me when I was 14. My first kiss was at age 12 with a 19-year-old. I just thought that was what happened.”
“I lost my virginity when I was 12 to someone in his twenties,” I replied. “After, I wanted to be normal. Why was the onus on us to recognize manipulation?”
“I am so sorry,” she replied. “None of us deserve to have formative sexual experiences and memories of men abusing their power that way. When I was 19 and only dating women, I never considered anyone younger than my age an option.”
Countdowns to 18th Birthdays Existed for:
(age during their first public production in parentheses)
Mary-Kate and Ashley Olsen (Full House—infants)
Britney Spears (The Mickey Mouse Club—11)
Christina Aguilera (The Mickey Mouse Club—12)
Natalie Portman (The Professional—12)
Lindsay Lohan (The Parent Trap—12)
Hilary Duff (Lizzie McGuire—14)
Emma Watson (Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone—11)
Kendall Jenner (Keeping Up with the Kardashians—12)
It’s strange to me, this normalization of sexualizing young girls—“girls” because they are girls, still developing mentally and emotionally. Trying to figure out the world and being treated as adults while men are treated like children. It starts insidiously slow, “she’ll be a looker when she’s older” and moves to “you have a beautiful body” when the public eye is removed or willfully ignorant. And when men are caught or called out for this behavior, we give them a slap on the wrist and condemn the girl for being too immature with her maturity.
My friends and I had made jokes about Joseph and looked at one another as we rolled our eyes and shrugged. It felt weird to us, but no one else seemed to think it was. To Joseph, we were old enough to say “Yes” but young enough that it didn’t count if we said “No.”
And, just as my friend recounted her 19-year-old’s kiss when she was 12 and my ever-present nightmares about losing my virginity, the Josephs of the world often aren’t the firsts. There have always been older men who have paved the way and groomed us as hand-me-downs to the future generations of younger-than-them-but-older-than-me men.
I write about it whenever a publication will let me: powerful men—powerful because of their age, fame, or position—taking advantage of younger women and girls and never properly atoning. Playboy commissioned my piece about Aziz Ansari’s non-apology. DAME Magazine let me write about men sexually harassing unpaid interns. The Boston Globe Magazine let me poll college students about consent since #MeToo.
The world could be different—it should be different. It would be different if men were expected to be better. My countdown is to the day we don’t blame the young girls for the man’s mistake.