At 29, I look back on my teenage relationships with older men with more – not less – confusion

I thought getting older would allow me to look back and put a definitive frame on those dynamics. As with most of my hopes of reaching unambiguous emotional clarity, I have been disappointed.

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Last month I turned 29, the same age an ex-boyfriend was when we broke up more than ten years ago. We had started our relationship when I was 17. He wasn’t the only older man who was interested in me when I was a teenager, of course, nor the only one I slept with. But he was the one I was with the longest, and the last adult I was romantically involved with while still at school, so he has come to stand in for all of those age-imbalanced relationships in my head.

In a way it feels as though I have been waiting to become this age for a long time, as if it would clarify these relationships for me. I thought getting older would allow me to look back and put a definitive frame on those dynamics. Maybe I would become more forgiving when I became as old as he had been then; or maybe the vast gulf of experience that had separated me from my teenage self would make his interest in me seem more obscene, and more concretely deserving of condemnation.

As with most of my hopes of reaching unambiguous emotional clarity, I have been disappointed. When I think of him and me now, I feel just as guilty, angry, confused, and pathetic about it as I always have. I find it so strange, so curious, that these relationships happen (and are not rare), that I could talk about it forever. But I am also disgusted by my need repeatedly to revisit it and bored by my proclivity to self-victimise.

What is clear now, at 29, is that the very idea of becoming romantically involved with a teenager myself is farcical. How would I to speak to one with earnest intimacy? How would I enquire after their exams without bursting into laughter at the absurdity of it all? How could I let their bright and shiny brand-newness rub up against my years? When I see beautiful 17-year-olds now, it’s not as though I’m ignorant of how one could be attracted to them. I can see their beauty and charisma as well as anyone. Maybe I even see it more clearly than those older people who seek out relationships with them, because I can’t imagine sullying it with my cynicism and beer gut and eye bags.

But then I remember that when I was that beautiful teenager, I wanted it to happen, all of it, every time, with every older man who wanted me. I wore men down when they regretted starting a flirtation. I spoke articulately and affectionately about how I was more mature than my years, how it was different for us. How I was special – we were special. I did all the things that make it my fault.

At times, I have wanted to misremember the situations as more absolutely wrong than they seem to me now. So, to indulge this need for moral clarity, I have tried believing that I was a wholly different person back then. And then some scrap from that time – an email or a letter – resurfaces occasionally and jars me with its familiarity. Oh God, I think: I still use that turn of phrase. Oh, God: I really was funny back then, in the same way I am now. Oh, God – that was me.

But what did I really want? Was it all to do with them, or was it that I wanted access to a different world? A teenager, no matter how charming and dazzling and intelligent, is by definition unformed, malleable: liable to take on the opinions and habits of those who impress them. I think sometimes that what I wanted above all was a shortcut to grown-up sex, grown-up conversation, grown-up life; a suspicion lent weight by the fact that, once I had my own adulthood, I left this dynamic behind as quickly as I could. I didn’t want those men any more. I had my own life, or was trying to find one anyway.

When I look back on these relationships now, what I feel most is not outrage about any injury done to the teenager I was, or righteous anger that anyone old enough to know better dared to touch me. It’s embarrassment and humiliation, for both parties. I’m embarrassed for the men, introducing me to friends who were already architects and doctors while I was sitting my mock exams; and I’m embarrassed for myself, too, for thinking I was too smart and too cool to be hurt by something so prosaic and clichéd as an older man.

There is some anger as well, but over how it has shaped my adult life as a sexual woman. Anger over how attractive I was then to men the age I am now. Shame at the thought that I may, even now, be “past it” in the eyes of my contemporaries. Dread that the men I know now, in their late twenties, may suddenly choose a teenager instead of someone their own age – that they might turn and laugh in my face and say that of course that’s what they’d prefer, that it’s nature after all  and can’t be helped.

I fear a world that brutal. I fear that evolutionary advantage is all that counts in the end, and that, with each day I have aged away from my 17-year-old self, I have become less appealing; that nobody will ever love me or want me with the force that those men did then.

I fear that the accumulation of knowledge and self-definition (and the gaining of weight!) has made me less, not more, desirable. Bound up in all these memories is the sense of how physically small I was: how easily picked up and tossed around and hidden away. How they must have enjoyed my barely-thereness. Today, I feel the grief of knowing my solid, ordinary, safe body will never give anyone that pleasure again. And I fear that I will never be desired as I was when I wasn’t old enough to comprehend it in any meaningful way.

That’s what I feel most of all, at 29 years old: a fear that I will always be searching streets for the girl I was then, trying to measure her against my ageing self. Wanting to shelter her, wanting to be her, and wanting that glimpse of what felt so much like power: so fleeting, so false, so unforgettable.

Megan Nolan is a writer of essays, criticism and fiction born in Ireland and based in London. She writes a fortnightly column for the New Statesman.

This article appears in the 19 July 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Facebook fixer