Asking for It?


By Sam Lansky

A consensual relationship with an older man seemed thrilling and adult — but now, it only creates gaps for self-doubt.

Illustration by Nick Lu

When I was a teenager, nothing frightened me more than being ordinary. I shouldn’t have been so worried, since I was already crazier than most of my friends — bright but narcissistic, sexually precocious, and emotionally high-strung. I was too loosely supervised by my well-intentioned but distracted parents, who gave me too much freedom after I came out unusually early, at age 11; I think they confused being overly permissive with allowing me to be myself, or maybe they just didn’t know how to control me. I had emotionally fraught relationships with boys who were still in the closet, smoked a lot of clove cigarettes, and wrote maudlin poetry with titles like “Your Bulimic Girlfriend” and “Semi-Meaningless Physical Manifestation of Loneliness” and, during a brief and ill-fated period of experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs, “I Am Writing This on Acid.”

Like a lot of millennials who grew up in the first chapter of the Internet era, I spent a lot of time — certainly too much time — online, in chat rooms and on sites like LiveJournal, where I documented my life in exhaustive detail. I was already practicing for the memoir I wanted to write someday; I loved pulpy personal narratives, stories of trauma and dysfunction, and I was captivated by the idea of writing about my own experience. But I was certain that the quotidian drama of being a high school student in crunchy Portland, Ore., wasn’t compelling enough, and I craved the source material for stories that would make my story debauched enough to document.

The relationship I had when I was 14 with an older man named Jim certainly qualifies. For a while I said that I was “predated upon,” because that felt softer than the word “rape.” Mostly, I think that’s because saying that I was raped divorces me from a sense of my adolescent precocity that I am frightened to relinquish, and I would rather be someone who was inexplicably damaged than identify as a dumb kid who thought he was smart and got in over his head. In the writing I did during that period, I told the story of myself as a self-conscious boy Lolita who seduced an older man as a conquest. Those entries are maddeningly self-aggrandizing, full of references to brand names that I thought would make me sound adult and sophisticated and big words that I thought would make me sound smart; they’re also sometimes heartbreakingly self-aware.

I first corresponded with Jim the summer I was 13, in a chat room where I whittled away hours talking to gay strangers, looking for attention. My profile probably said that I was 18; I probably told him that I was really 15. He was a graduate student at a local university, 24 or 25, and although our conversations were flirtatious, they also felt fraternal. I had the sense that he wanted to mentor me or something, which frustrated me because I thought he was handsome — his pictures showed a man with sparkly eyes and stubble — and I grew obsessed with the fantasy of being with him sexually, how very “adult” the experience would feel.

I met him at a coffee shop in downtown Portland, and we sat on a bench and talked while I drank a chai latte. He was shorter than I expected, and more handsome, with a penetrating stare that made my palms sweat. Nothing sexual happened, but we talked about my experience coming out, how my parents were supportive but gave me too much independence as I was sorting through my sexual identity, how I felt isolated and lonely.
“I was wearing my red-and-white striped rugby polo that made me look like a candy cane,” I wrote in my diary. “The first thing I noticed about him was the 5 o’clock shadow creeping up his face.”

We met again, perhaps a month later, and went to a sex shop together. It was probably my suggestion. He should have known better.

“We made a quick trip to Spartacus and examined porn before I got carded,” I wrote. “It was pleasant, and amusing, and less jarring than the last time.”

The thrill of sneaking into this very grown-up space with this attractive older man was exhilarating, drug-like, and I remember going home with that warm secret humming in my chest, of this new friend that I had made who was guiding me into adulthood.

If I flirted with him — and I feel certain that I did — he didn’t seem interested in me that way as we continued talking through the spring. But by the summer something had changed, although I didn’t understand it at the time. I wrote about the encounter in a post dated from July. My writing is laboriously linear — I think because I was savoring the experience of recounting it, imagining that the people who read my work would be riveted and maybe a little horrified.

“He is pale but not pasty,” I wrote, “and there is a dark V-neck tan at the top of his chest. He grins at me, his shorts are up. I sit down on the futon and put on music. He sits next to me.”

It’s stomach-turning to think about the music that I would have thought was appropriate to play — probably something a little bit twee, like Belle and Sebastian, or maybe Rilo Kiley. When no one was around, I listened to Dashboard Confessional, but I would never advertise that.

“There’s Jim,” I wrote, “naked, resplendent in pseudo-intellectual grad-school glory, standing expectantly in front of me… He walks up to me, so close that I can see every pore on his face, the 5 o’clock shadow and the Cheshire Cat eyes, and I am suddenly shocked by his audacity, his nudity, his very existence here in the kitchen of my home when he should be, I dunno, writing a thesis or doing whatever 25-year-olds are supposed to do. He grabs my hand and pulls me into him and I can feel his weight.”