When I was fifteen I struck up a strange friendship with a man double my age. At least once a week after dinner, I’d stroll around to see Des, who lived in a tiny flat a couple of blocks away from where I lived with my dad and little brother. I’d sit on his brown cord couch and smoke cigarettes while he did cash-in-hand computer repair jobs. We’d chat about Public Enemy, Nirvana and films showing at the nearby art-house cinema.
During one of my visits to Des’s flat, his friend Pete turned up. Pete was a 30-year-old electrician and mature age university student with long hair in a ponytail, black eyes, and olive skin. An alluring mix of bookishness and muscles, he was far more appealing than the skinny metalhead boys I sat next to in maths and geography. I told Des that I had a crush on Pete and rather than gently refocus my attention on kids my own age, he promptly facilitated a relationship between us.
At first Pete and I would make out in Des’s flat, but soon after my sixteenth birthday Pete took me to his St Kilda share house. After the briefest of internal conflicts rippled across his face, he fucked me. The next day over the breakfast table, Pete’s housemates (a mix of male and female artists in their thirties) asked me what I was studying at uni. I tentatively answered, ‘Ah, I’m actually in year 10 at high school’. Their stunned faces made it clear they thought any relationship between Pete and I troubling. As the conversation shifted awkwardly to which bakery the day’s bread should be purchased from, Pete looked – à la Anthony Kedis when questioned in 1994 by a Rolling Stone reporter about his then-18-year-old girlfriend – like he’d been busted with his ‘hand-in-the-cookie-jar’.
After that, Pete would tell his housemates that he was ‘off to see Jailbait’. I hated being called that. It depersonalised me, reaffirmed that I was only a plaything to him, and that he also viewed me as some kind of threat: I would get pregnant, dob him into my parents, and his whole life would be ruined. But I wasn’t actually jailbait at all: three years earlier the Victorian age of consent had been dropped from eighteen to sixteen, and Pete wasn’t in a position of professional authority over me.
I experienced the age gap as exhilarating. I was living out the romanticised popular culture discourse concerning cross-generational sex: when I was growing up, Benny Mardones’ ‘Into the Night’, Billy Idol’s ‘Sweet Sixteen’ as well as an odious mix of other ‘jailbait’ songs, movies and advertisements all glamorised sex between teenage girls and grown men (there were comparatively fewer concerned with young-boy-adult-woman relationships). ‘Much of our society seems tempted by the psychology of the child molester and voyeur – perhaps closer to “normal” than we like to think’, Julie and James Huffman wrote in their 1987 article about the ubiquity of the ‘jailbait song’ from the 1950s to the decade of my childhood.
In 1994 I presented as a mature 16-year-old. I looked older than my age, and I was sexually experienced (a ‘root rat’, as one classmate charmingly labelled me). Yet I was vulnerable and it was a terrible thing that Des and Pete could treat me so cavalierly. I hadn’t been raised in poverty or suffered discrimination, but my father was an alcoholic, my mother had been hospitalised with mental illness, and my family finally ruptured spectacularly while I was in the throes of puberty. In the debris of my parents’ divorce, I was given too much freedom and was able to blunder around the adult world without understanding boundaries. I was, to quote psychologists Elizabeth Cauffman and Laurence Steinberg in their work on adolescents’ decision-making capabilities, lacking ‘psychosocial maturity’. Des knew all this, and failed to see that the last thing I needed was a relationship with an adult man who would use me for sexual gratification. My initial confession to him of a crush on Pete should have gone nowhere. If a young troubled teenager now declared a romantic interest in one of my adult friends, I would ensure they never crossed paths again. I certainly would not hook them up.
Pete never quite broke it off, and would happily sleep with me whenever the chance presented, despite my stated ambivalence about whether the relationship – with its one-way adoration – was good for my wellbeing. I wanted him to love me and he didn’t. That he wasn’t concerned about whether he fucked me or not, I now view as a lack of integrity. Surely it was within his capacity to draw a final line in the sand, even after he had already broached a moral boundary of sleeping with someone so young. In the end, it was up to me to just move on.
And what of the bystanders? My parents never knew, my friends were worried that I was being used, and Pete’s housemates were probably relieved when the relationship puttered out and I stopped being a moral quagmire perched awkwardly at their laminex kitchen table.
And the facilitator? Looking back now, Des’s emotional and social maturity was stunted, which is probably why I got along with him so well as a young teenager. He had a ‘No Fat Chicks’ bumper sticker across his fridge door, but wondered why he couldn’t sustain a romantic relationship with a woman. A few years later he disclosed to an Age reporter his sexual abuse as a fifteen-year-old at the hands of a Catholic priest. He was rightfully enraged at the priest, and the socio-cultural circumstances that supported and hid such abuse. It is unfortunate that I stumbled into his world before he had confronted the harms that had been done to him, and realised that – like all adults – he had a moral responsibility to protect vulnerable young people, whichever side of the age of consent they hovered. Why, more than anyone, didn’t he grasp this?
Seeking to understand Lori Maddox’s highly positive memories of having sex with David Bowie as an underage groupie in the mid-1970s, Jia Tolentino recently wrote, ‘women have developed the vastly unfair, nonetheless remarkable, and still essential ability to find pleasure and freedom in a system that oppresses them’. I used to insouciantly wear my experiences with Pete like a jaded badge of honour: they were a crucial part of my rebellious, non-conformist adolescence. Now, in my late-thirties I know that I was very lucky to not have been hurt beyond a crushed heart.
In their 2014 study of the outcomes of adult-teen ‘romances’, Barbara Ouderkerk et al found that the adolescent partners of adults engaged in increased delinquency and substance abuse, as well as suffered sexual victimization, during the course of such relationships. Also, the wider the age gap, the less likely the teenager was to use protection against STIs and pregnancy. I didn’t fall pregnant, contract an STI, use more drugs or get pimped out. Yet, my immature adolescent sexuality was intolerably exploited. Yes, I sought Pete, but I didn’t know what I was doing. It was his responsibility to stop.