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Why Have Massive Age Differences Long Been Common in Gay Dating?

‘Call Me by Your Name,’ Kevin Spacey and what counts as predatory behavior among gay men

There’s a part of the whole Kevin Spacey scandal I still can’t get over. In an interview with New York magazine, an anonymous gay man told reporter E. Alex Jung that whenever he would describe his sexual relationship with Spacey to friends, he would include a caveat. “Every time I’ve ever told the story, I am compelled to tell people how seductive I was,” he told the writer. At the time of the affair, he said, “I would’ve told you that relationship was completely consensual. I would have said, ‘Yeah, I’m 14, but I’m really smart. I’m really together. And it’s normal that a 25-year-old would want me to be their boyfriend because I’m a grownup.’”

Spacey abused his position of power over this man for sexual gratification — just as he did with the actor Anthony Rapp and what seems like countless others. But other aspects of their relationship — which felt consensual at the time, but in hindsight wasn’t — are less clear-cut.

While pursuing my first significantly older boyfriend, I too remember thinking that we were on equal playing fields sexually and intellectually. I believed, as Spacey’s accuser put it, that “I’d won the jackpot.” I’m not so sure anymore, nor am I sure how to separate the damaging myths about gay predators that I’ve absorbed throughout my life with what actually occurred.

Watching Call Me by Your Name didn’t help me resolve these tensions. The beautifully rendered gay love story just happens to feature a seven-year age gap, and portrays the ideal of a relationship with a significant age difference. But there are also wistful, fantastical elements to the movie which, it’s worth noting, was based on a book written by a straight man and cast with straight leads. It also doesn’t fully capture some of the messy realities — like negotiations of power or consent — that are sometimes present in older-younger gay relationships.

Likewise, there are elements to the stories of Spacey’s accusers that I believe warrant discussion beyond simple condemnation for the actor. How do gay culture and society at large feel about the boys, teens and men who pine for older lovers? And how do these boys, teens and men navigate the taboo nature of their own desires?

Some studies suggest that gay and straight men have similar age preferences when it comes to partners. (With one important distinction: More masculine gay guys seem to prefer younger men, and those who identify as more femme desire older partners.) A more recent study by Facebook, however, found that partners in both gay and lesbian couples tend to have much higher age gaps than their heterosexual counterparts.

But when famous straight men date much younger women, people don’t tend to automatically condemn them as pedophiles — something they’re inclined to do when it comes to prominent gay men.

Different motivations propel younger gay men into these relationships as well. When you’re a teen, entering into a relationship with an older gay man can be a protective measure. Isolated from peers and family who may not understand their sexuality, gay teens sometimes gravitate toward older men who have traveled the road before them (and who could end up exploiting the vulnerability of their situation).

David*, who’s now in his early 30s, has conflicting feelings about a relationship he initiated with a 19-year-old college student when he was a junior in high school. At the time, he felt he’d achieved a major coup. “He was only four years older at the time, but it made a difference,” he tells me. “He had a huge impact on how I perceived myself and my sexuality and what life could be like outside of where I was, which was a very repressed high school existence.”

“Especially if you’re not in a heavily populated metropolitan area, I guess in some ways it’s more understandable if you end up hooking up with someone 20 or 30 years your senior,” he adds. “I wasn’t necessarily seeking older people, but that was what was available to me at the time.”

It wasn’t until recently that David began to question whether the relationship was wholly consensual. “I don’t feel like I was victimized, but I also feel like I could have been fine without some college student intervening on my behalf. But maybe I was seeking it out because it was so isolating being gay in high school and being around people who couldn’t relate to me.”

Still, the label of victim doesn’t sit right with him. On the one hand, he doesn’t know if he should have been “fucked with” at such a young age, but he also says he actively pursued the relationship. “It’s not like I was just passively sitting there,” he says. “We’re all men, and it’s perceived that we have this higher sex drive. It feels like it’s okay because you’re a horny teenager yourself.”

Studies have shown that when you factor in cases where men are “made to penetrate” someone else, the rate of nonconsensual sexual contact between men and women are basically equal: 1.267 million men said they had been victims of sexual violence, compared with 1.270 million women. But myths surrounding male sexuality make it harder for these men to come forward; some are even pressured into reframing the victimization as a “rite of passage.” Studies also show that as men grow older, they’re more likely to be blamed for their abuse than female victims.

It seems even harder to come forward with a story of predation when you’re a gay guy. Not only do you face stereotypes about why you should have been able to fight it off, or how you probably loved it, but you also have to deal with how your own trauma connects to noxious gay-specific myths, like the one about a gay pro-pedophile organization called NAMBLA (or North American Man Boy Love Association) infiltrating everything from Disney programming to Antifa. (Some are even trying to brand Call Me By Your Name, as pro-pedophile propaganda.) NAMBLA was exiled from the LGBT movement in the mid-1990s, but not before the organization released their own infamous documentary on man-boy love called Chicken Hawks. These days, the group has members in the single digits, and is mostly mentioned in jest on shows like South Park.

But the myth of gay men as predators persists. Case in point: In certain parts of the world, May-December romances among gay men are treated differently than straight ones by the courts. While the legal age of consent ranges from 16 to 18 across the U.S. for sex between any gender, in other countries, the law stipulates different rules for same-sex and straight relationships. In Chile, for example, the age of consent is 14 for heterosexuals and 18 for gays. And it took until the turn of the century for the U.K. to equalize ages for same-sex and different-sex partners.

Even if your relationship is deemed wholly kosher in the eyes of the law, it can be hard to avoid the stereotype that dating someone older automatically means you have “daddy issues” — a view supported by some gay psychologists. “Simply put, I think we’re angry at [our fathers] for running away from our expressions of love and physical contact,” writes the psychologist Stephen Lugar in Father Figure: On Dangerous Daddies and Cross-Generational Desire. “The deaths of our gay fathers to AIDS made this retreat literal and final,” he adds.

The porn industry, meanwhile, has made the age differences of their stars a central taboo. On sites like FamilyDick and MormonBoyz, the mythological father figure is often portrayed as a predator interested in rough sex with hairless twinks.

Dan Savage, the iconic gay sex columnist, has taken a practical view: Dating younger men is fine, he’s written, as long as the older partner leaves the younger partner in better shape than he found him. He calls this “the campsite rule.”

That said, many gay men contine to view intergenerational romances with judgement and suspicion. In “Age Preferences Among Gay and Bisexual Men,” Canadian researchers found that men who prefer men older than themselves often endure ridicule from other gays as a result, while men who prefer younger men tend to feel uneasy about it. “I wouldn’t have sex with anyone over 45 — even dating. I find that if they’re over 40, then he’s your sugar daddy and you’re his boy toy,” one respondent said. And a 42-year-old chef approaches younger dates with trepidation. “I often feel my hackles go up, because my upbringing is coming to the fore and it’s like, ‘You vile seducer of youth.’”

Gay men I reached out to expressed similarly conflicted feelings about exploring their own daddy fetishes. Perry, a 56-year-old who has been dating a man in his 20s, says that when he was younger, he’d never even entertain the thought of dating someone of his current age. “When I was younger and I heard about younger guys having sex with guys my age I would think, ‘Oh my god, how disgusting. Why would you want to have sex with that?’”

But when he began a relationship with a 25-year-old, he said that his partner’s perspective on life enriched his own. “It opened up a lot for me, seeing the world through a 20-something’s eyes. We’d be at the supermarket, and all of a sudden, I’d see him at this display of soaps and I’d be like, ‘What are you doing?’ and he’d be like ‘Smell this!’ Or when we’d be driving through a tunnel he’d be like, ‘Perry, we’re driving through a tunnel!’ I wouldn’t usually stop to enjoy these things because I’m older and jaded.”

Others came to embrace their age preferences later in life. An advertising executive in his early 30s tells me that he was initially creeped out by attention from older guys, but realized his own ageism while studying abroad in South America. “I learned there’s a word in Portuguese for an older man that literally translates as ‘troll.’ It made me think, Wow, that’s so shitty. We’re all going to be that one day so we better become okay with it. I realized, Oh, this is only as weird as you make it. This is just another group of people.

Becoming a fully realized gay man also means shedding some of the toxic ideas you absorbed as a child. Some said their views of older gay men had been affected by the wild theories their families had concocted about their own coming outs. Richard*, a gay software developer in his late 20s, says that when he told his mother he was gay, her first question was whether he’d been molested. No wonder that, later, he recoiled from the attention of older men while out in the Castro. Another friend was asked by his mother if perhaps he’d been sexually abused by his own father. (He has no memory of abuse.) It’s telling that thoughts about sexual predators would be first to flash in a mother’s mind after a boy reveals his sexuality. Is it really a surprise that a gay kid would later end up with hangups about the ages of his partners?

Reviewers of Call Me by Your Name haven’t shown much interest in playing sex cop between a 17-year-old and a man in his 20s, and fans of the film have fought back against charges that the film’s relationship is in any way predatory. When the conservative actor James Woods tweeted “24-year-old man. 17-year-old boy. Stop. #NAMBLA,” many rallied around the film’s co-star Armie Hammer’s pithy comeback. But if the movie ends up at the Oscars, which it very well may, this could just be the beginning of the backlash.

It’s hard not to worry that something could get lost in this noise — that the gradations of affairs between older and younger gay guys could be painted with sweeping brushes, or that a vividly rendered account of post-pubescent attraction could spark a sex panic. There’s still so much that we don’t seem to fully understand or accept about adolescent sexuality in the U.S. — gay or straight — and nothing seems to stoke hysteria quite as effectively as the gays. We’re in a wildly fragile moment for sex abuse victims, and for auteurs looking to expand our definition of adolescent sexuality.

Let’s hope we can continue to keep the two separate.