Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Power Dynamics in the May-December Romance: Jenny Trout's CHOOSING YOU

One day over lunch, a work colleague/friend and I were exchanging "first time" stories. I remember feeling so shocked, and not a little confused, after my friend revealed that her first lover had been a man much older than her mid-teenaged self, and a teacher of hers to boot. My friend was so well-adjusted, so normal, with a long-time boyfriend her own age; how could she have experienced such a traumatic sexual coming of age without it having done her irreparable damage?

My assumption that such a disparity of age between two lovers must signal a negative, exploitative experience stemmed from many different sources: my reading of 1970s and 80's young adult problem novels; the fairly recent cultural openness surrounding childhood sexual abuse; feminist discourse surrounding unequal power in male-female relationships, an inequality compounded when relationships of authority (such as student/teacher) also come into play. Never mind American cultural suspicion of teenage sexuality in general.

Yet my friend calmly stated that her relationship with an older male teacher had been an entirely positive one. With his greater sexual experience, he was more confident, and more attentive to her needs, than a teen her own age would have been. Neither one became obsessively attached to the other, and when the relationship ran its course, they parted amicably, still friends.

The memory of this conversation kept popping back into mind as I read Jenny Trout's New Adult novella, Choosing You. Its first-person protagonist, white American twenty-year-old Madison Lane, arrives in summertime Wales, eager not only to begin her class on Arthurian mythology, but also to nurse her crush on its teacher, 38-year-old Welsh professor Thomas Evans. When Thom runs across Madison a few days before class starts and invites her for breakfast, Madison can't but dream a little about what it might be like if her handsome teacher liked her just a little bit, too.

When Thom responds to Madison's verbal sparring by asking "Are you flirting with me?" Madison realizes her relationship with her teacher is on the verge of change. Even knowing how awkward it would be if Thom responds with the "I'm flattered, but..." talk, Madison decides to take a risk: "Yeah. I am. A little bit." (Kindle Loc 266). Thom acknowledges his own attraction, but takes care to point out that Madison is his student. "I don't want you to think I asked you to take this course so that I would have a chance to..." he tells her, a worry that Madison eagerly, and confidently, dispels:

     "I don't think that at all." And I really didn't. "I have a freaking amazing GPA and I'm an English lit major. You apparently loved my final paper, you practically drew hearts in the margins—"
     His embarrassed laugh interrupted me.
     "Trust me. I don't have any suspicion that you were trying to perv on me by inviting me here." Partially because I hadn't wanted to get my hopes up. Which I wasn't proud of; I knew I shouldn't view classroom favoritism as proof of some deep emotional connection. My education was worth more than that. (277)

Flirting leads to exchanging of truths, which leads to kissing, and later, to sex. Their first time together is revealing, not about their own relationship, but about cultural expectations that leave young women ready to accept, even to expect, sexual experiences that are less than satisfying. As Madison tells Thom, she's had intercourse with a few other young men her own age before, but none had focused much on meeting her sexual desires. She never reached orgasm with any of them; none ever even went down on her ("My last boyfriend thought it was unhygienic," she tells an amused Thom [866]). Significantly, her thoughts about her lack of orgasms focus not on her own dissatisfaction, but, as good girls are taught, on how her boyfriends might have felt: "I always felt so bad for the guys when I didn't come. I didn't want to make them feel bad about their skills" (876). Because she's been taught by the movies that "people just had crazy, fulfilling sex without talking about it. In the heat of the moment, they just knew what to do," Madison never communicated with her partners about her own likes or dislikes, never even talked with them about why she wasn't reaching orgasm (significantly, not a problem when she was by herself).

Thom, with far more experience, and a far more mature approach to sex than any of Madison's previous lovers have had, introduces Madison to the pleasures of mutually-gratifying sex. As Thom croons while kissing her, "There comes a time... or there should come a time... in every man's life... when he realizes that what he's seen in magazines and pornography... isn't necessarily required for good sex" (886). Further, he tells her, "Let me know what you like, and what you don't. I want this to be good for you" (895), modeling for Madison the idea that communication between partners is the cornerstone of fulfilling sexual relations.

Guinevere, Lancelot, and a (jealous?) Arthur
While sex between Madison and Thom proves far better than anything she's experienced before, over the course of the summer Madison gradually begins to realize that "besides fucking and talking about mythology, what is there?" Though Thom is no jerk, Madison is quick to reassure her fellow classmate and friend Zoe, "there's just no spark, personality wise, between us.... It's like, are orgasms enough?" (1284). Class debates about the ethics and feminism of Guinevere's love for Lancelot, as well as her own attraction to a hot young man her own age who works at the pub below the room she's rented for the summer, lead Madison to think not just about Thom's needs and desires, but also her own. And to make choices about her life, and her relationships, accordingly.

I can't say that I would be very happy if I discovered my own mid-teen daughter was dating a man far older than herself, especially a man in a position of authority over her in some way. Yet the memory of my friend's experience, as well as Madison's, make me wary of assuming that every such relationship must and will inevitably lead to trauma. If, instead of casting all teenagers in the role of potential victims, we accept that some teenagers are able to make wise, informed decisions about their own sexual lives, we may be able to acknowledge that some May-December romances may be less about abuse of power or the creation of permanent emotional damage than about a positive opportunity to learn and grow.

Choosing You

(originally published as "A Choice Fit for a Queen"
in the anthology If Ever I Would Leave You)

self-published, 2014


  1. Really interesting thoughts. I must admit that while I share your feelings on crazy cultural panic about normal teenage sexuality and so forth, and while I do agree that - in theory - it should be possible for age differences not to be a big deal, I also have some feelings about "Yikes" when I think of very young women and much older men in real life.

    I think I also have some hangups about men over 35 being involved with Distinctly Young Women that I could stand to unpack and scrutinize.

    A book I read recently and found surprisingly good was Beautiful Player, about a graduate student in her early 20s and a man who's about a decade older than she is. I thought the age difference was well-handled - she's pretty grown-up and there's no manipulation, and the hero (I thought this was deft) seems to feel his own discomfort that he's so attracted to someone in such a different life phase. I generally avoid New Adult, but this book was mostly quite good... except when the story would stop so the hero and heroine could hang out with people from other books in the series.

  2. When I was a teen, I had a brief romance with an older man. No sex was involved but I remember thinking what was it about me that attracted this man because it just seemed creepy (for a lack of a better word). I hadn't blossomed sexually so I was still in that innocent phase but it would be interesting to hear the older partner's story - what is it about their youth that is appealing. I have a teenage son and have met his friends and I cannot understand why any woman in my age group would find that attractive, maybe early twenties when they get out of that yuck stage but even then, I'm thinking just listening to them talk would be all I could do not to scratch their eyes out.

  3. I remember a similar experience when I started reading stories by gay men (not necessarily romance.) The older man/younger man relationship was often seen as a very positive one by young men who felt isolated and needed help coming out. (These song lyrics give s a good example: http://www.metrolyrics.com/family-of-lovers-lyrics-romanovsky-and-phillips.html). It's a real culture shock when you've been brought up to find such relationships skeezy.

    I confess, I am sometimes kind of drawn to young guys (college age!) who remind me of my husband when we first met, or other guys I once had crushes on, so I wonder if some of the appeal is nostalgia. And of course, our culture glorifies youth. But I matured physically much younger than emotionally, and I was never remotely interested in older guys who were interested in me (other than being flattered) so I often have trouble relating to younger women/older men stories.

  4. I think that it's significant that in Choosing You, even though Madison's relationship with Thom is good for her, it only lasts one summer. Contrast that with High Risk by Vivian Arend; there, we have a woman in a relationship with a guy who used to be her mentor -- still is, really -- and the author insists that they'll be together forever but I really don't think it works. I kept thinking she needed to grow beyond this guy. Yes, he's been good for her but it didn't seem like forever would be right. Too bad for him, because he's doing well together with her, but I say he still needs to let her go -- he says he'll do anything she needs to grow as a person, follow her wherever she goes for her career, etc. and the one option neither he nor the author ever suggests is that she needs to grow apart from him.

  5. May-December romance is one of my favorite things. Well, it would be considering my husband is ten years older than I am and the man I was with for five years before that was twenty years older. For the record, I'm 36 and a ten year age difference is nothing now. We never notice it. 20 years was a bigger gap and influenced why we broke up. But...I get it. So I'm coming at this from a slightly different perspective.

    Anyway, sometimes power differentials in romance don't work for me and sometimes they do--just like in real life. I just finished Charlotte Stein's Forbidden, which didn't work for me as well as Jeffe Kennedy's Under His Touch. They both featured power gaps, with Kennedy's also featuring an age gap. The difference seems to be the level of reluctance on the part of the more powerful partner. The more reluctant the powerful partner, and the more convincing the less powerful partner has to do, the better it works for me. Oh, and this is all het romance. Though I recently beta read an m/m with an age gap and the same dynamic seems to apply for me there too. Not a particularly profound comment, but just something I've noticed about my own reading patterns.

  6. IMO, this dynamic revolves more around him being her professor (and their having nothing in common outside of good sex and an interest in mythology) than on an age gap or May-December romance. Ask yourself how different it would have been had he been five years older (and possibly a grad student instead of a professor) instead of seventeen.

    While I am usually squicked out at power imbalances like this (teacher/student, employer/employer) -- those years of working in a law firm that, among other things, defended against sexual harassment claims take their toll --- sometimes they take place happily and noncoercively, though I still have a problem with the teacher or professor grading someone they're having sex with -- if they're ethical, they'll be harder on them than anyone else, and if they're not, they'll give them grades they don't deserve.

    Like Willaful, I've seen references by gay men to relationships with older (though not significantly older) men when they were at the same age as your friend that were freeing and affirming because those relationships gave them a venue to explore what being gay meant with someone who wasn't also finding it out for himself. Pioneering gay writer Victor J. Banis mentions one in his autobiography.

    On a related note, I just saw that Harvard instituted a policy against professors sleeping with undergrads and only permitting it in other cases if the student is not being taught, supervised, or evaluated by the professor or grad student and was shocked, as I'd thought most colleges and universities had those in place already. There was a professor at college in one of the disciplines I majored in that was known for dating students, but as far as I know, he didn't date current students. I got the impression there was some mental side-eyeing about it, but no overt confrontation. These days, it would be frowned upon if not outright banned.


  7. Thanks, everyone, for sharing your thoughts. Lots of different experiences, and different povs, on the issue of age gaps in romantic partnerships/liaisons. Will be keeping my eye open for other romances with this theme in future...