This is a purely subjective experience not meant to harm, discredit or disregard the experiences of others but merely to share my personal experience and what I have seen around me in the hopes to start a conversation.
One of the advantages of being in small towns and growing up there is that everybody more or less knows everyone else. Lisa’s mom is sort of like my mom too, so is ‘so and so’s uncle, little sister and brother. It’s all very tight knit and you grow up seeing the same faces.
As a little girl we all played together, the adults and older kids looked out for us and it was all very filial. When I hit puberty around the ages of 15-16 I noticed a change in some of the men and adults that were around me. And I think, if you’ve ever been a teenage girl you know what I’m talking about. I was no longer a neighbourhood little sister, all the people that looked out for me and chased bullies away suddenly felt I was a woman. But not “just” a woman. Some men thought all those years of care entitled them a ‘first pick’ at me. It suddenly wasn’t safe to greet them in the street, find myself alone with them or even be outside with them.
I quickly learnt that my puberty had placed a target on my back and while I thankfully had someone to tell me about these kinds of men and help me steer clear of them, not all teenagers were that lucky. These older men had tools like money, maybe cars, charisma and gifts they used to lure in teens like myself. And they’re protected by it not being a big cultural taboo for a 24-year-old man to pursue a 16-year-old girl. Additionally, the boys my age were also targeted and seeing as homosexuality was basically unheard of I don’t even know how much worse it may have been for them. Some of the poorer families encouraged these relationships, for financial gain or to improve social standing. Though I should mention that even the wealthier families chose to look the other way for fear of losing face just to mention one reason. Forcing these teenagers to grow at an accelerated pace; one can only wonder at the impact this had on their education and psychological development. One of my former schoolmates had this experience at 17 whereby her older boyfriend showed up at her house and beat her in front of her parents. Then again at school. We weren’t that close but I remember looking at her as she hollowly went to school with black eyes and bruises until the end of that school year and the entire school knew.
The Gauteng department of health reported that more than 23 000 girls aged between 12 and 18 had given birth between April 2020 and March 2021. 934 were aged under 14, an alarming trend of children being raped and the parent or care giver receiving a bribe to not go to the police or the police themselves facilitating these transactions. The reason I bring this up is to highlight not just the teen pregnancy problem in my country, but also to provoke the thought, how many of these came about from relationships with older men? How many of them ended in STIs, school drop-out and social shunning?
Allow me to add that over the past five or ten years there has been an uncomfortable increase in something we call “Blesser culture”. These are basically transactional relationships between older men who can financially maintain women by showering them with lavish gifts and lifestyles in exchange for companionship and sexual favours. <Here> is an article on blesser culture. This was also extremely popular around the time I was in high school, you were the 'It girl' if you had a blesser or an older man who gave you money. Occasionally men would park outside the school gate looking for girls.
I was afraid of these older men. One question that a good friend of mine had asked me around this time did the job. Making sure I’d never consider them or that path: “What’s so wrong with these men that the women in their age group don’t date them?”
The only answer I could come up with is that when women are allowed to grow and mature in their younger years unhindered and in spaces that support their growth, they learn how to naturally build their own boundaries and assert them. How to say ‘no’ to men and people in general when it goes against what they believe. But, that process takes years, is very delicate and requires teens to start learning about self awareness and their place in society. Consider the adolescents who are about to embark on this journey:
Throw in an older man who can’t get away with what he pleases as easily with the people in his age group as the women there know and stick to personal boundaries, he now has a chance to be a spanner in the works. Stunt this process where he sees fit, design basically an ideal woman for himself from a young age and that is why I believe older men do this. I’ve heard some of them confirm this by using phrases like “I’m raising her for myself” or “I want to teach her how to be my woman.” Of course, I do not know if this is the only answer, or if this is the case with all of these relationships. Cases like Celine Dion who met her late husband, Rene Angelil when she was 12 and they married when she was 26. He was a producer and manager at the time and as far as I can see they had a great relationship as an artist and producer and their romance bloomed later on in life, until they married and had three children to this day Celine says Angelil was the greatest love of her life.
When you consider the early sexualisation of women by the media, communities, schools and right down to the “Girls mature faster than boys” narrative. Pair that with a saying known in my culture “You can’t date someone the same age as you, you are bound to disrespect him.” It's not hard to see how others make the same connections as I did. Considering that being abducted and forced into marriage, human trafficking or slavery is quietly common in South Africa, these relationships are not seen as the worst thing that could happen to you, so they persist.
I know that this is a very monolithic view of these relationships which may not accurately reflect the big picture for many others. Allow me to also posit that women who choose to date older men, of their own volition are not strictly victims every single time. It would be patronizing of their own intelligence to say that they were always completely at the mercy of these unstoppable forces. Some go on to live happily with whatever age gap they choose. I am simply speaking from the stance of someone who has in their community witnessed the predatory and oftentimes deadly forms that these relationships take. I seek to raise the question and start a conversation.
I'm thinking also, beyond what is considered the legal age of consent as why I personally may not agree with these relationships. I was once only 18. Being 23 now, I can't say that just because I could give consent, that I was cognizant enough to make good choices. I’ve heard the “age is nothing but a number” and “the men my age are too immature for me” comments. I always think of who first inserted these ideas, I’ve found evidence for them in our history as Africans. Long ago, traditions stated that you had to have a certain degree of wealth, social status and age to marry. This was introduced by the fathers of many daughters. To ensure that the houses they married them into could sustain them, their future offspring and that the person they married was ready to settle and commit to a marriage; older was considered better in that case. Just like the tradition of a dowry, though in its now more convoluted form, has weathered so have the ideas of dating and even marrying older.
I’ve gathered here, some of the current characteristics of these relationships as they exist in my socio-economic landscape and the effects thereof. Again, these relationships are not monolithic and these issues may not exist in more developed parts of the world, but they are real, and they are problematic.
Power Imbalance: These relationships are often characterized by financial abuse. Again, you’re young, probably don’t have much money, or any assets. If they can introduce you to a particular lifestyle, one you can’t currently provide for yourself, or even stability like paying your bills, there is pressure to please them to keep these perks and often when you upset the older man, they will take them from you or respond with violence. This might pressure young women into sex, staying in abusive relationships, drugs, violence and choices one would typically not make. For example the problem of unprotected sex in Kenya noted by Longfield et al. (2004) in his journal article “Relationships between older men and younger women: Implications for STI’s/ HIV in Kenya.” They show that the men abuse their financial status and/or accuse their younger partners of not trusting them to have unprotected sex.
1.This unbalanced power dynamic where the man is older, more financially stable and mature may create a fear of abandonment in the younger woman. Who have become somewhat emotionally or financially dependent. Once the older man no longer sees any more value in her, he might discard her.
2. Stigmatization and the Romeo and Juliet effect. At this point I want to mention that what you are reading here is a rewrite. After hearing back from my publisher I sat down and really thought about the outcome. I concluded that the first version wouldn’t be able to do that. One of the major problems with these relationships is the heavy judgment and social shunning that these women and even the men might face, denying both parties the opportunity to engage in helpful dialogue or help the women escape a possibly toxic situation. I was guilty of that same shunning with that first piece and inflaming a phenomenon called the “Romeo and Juliet effect”. Here, because of the external judgments and stigmatization, it can actually make the parties involved rigid. That way fewer listen, even if the intentions of the external pressure are good. Words matter. The approaches to certain very sensitive topics matter.
3. The premise that older men can “teach you how to be a good woman/wife” is really fancy word play for manipulation and further stunting one's growth and development. If you’re already facing social stigma you’re more likely to play into it because the only open arms and encouragement you’ll be receiving are from the older partner. Often by the time these younger women are able to provide the stability and security or whatever else these older men give them, they stay. The only woman they know to be in some cases is that partner's woman.
4. The ego boost that’s involved for men. Since they are on the more experienced and presumably more mature side of life; young women will often admire them or look to them for guidance. Giving them a sense of pride. A friend of mine once disclosed to me that the older man she was seeing felt a need to parade her among his friends. As a status symbol, most of the gifts and the outings served a purpose. Dressed and adorned to be seen. She even said it was a plus for him that she was studying to be a doctor, as that was something he boasted about often.
5. Financially advantageous for the men. Since younger women are less financially stable and mature, they tend to make fewer financial demands to the man than someone in their respective age group. I’ve even heard this joke once made by an older man where he mentioned that he once gave a younger girl a thousand rand (around 67 USD) and it was enough for her to engage with him in a relationship. He said it was laughable because to him it’s peanuts and the women he knew wouldn’t even sniff at that amount. “Simple gifts” such as flowers or a nice dinner were all they needed to impress them. It is also important to note that these younger women are thought of as more physically able to satisfy the man’s needs leading to the many, many running jokes about the undesirability of older women and how they are “worn” out. As such it's thought that women, their attractiveness and prowess have an expiry date.
Now here is when I make an uncomfortable ask of you. Look around you. You have a brother, cousin, friend, colleague or it is even you personally who prefers to date much younger or much older. Can we please have these conversations, hold each other accountable and talk about the predatory nature sometimes found in these relationships even beyond that golden 18 where it’s no longer considered rape. I know it’s going to be awkward and uncomfortable and you may not hit the mark the first time like me, such is to be human sometimes.
And maybe you feel you’re much better off minding your business. But perhaps one day, what you let grow, may be the poisonous plant that comes into contact with you or those you love. The conversation is necessary, it is important and it will be uncomfortable. And this is not about passing judgment, it’s about the young futures and what might become of them. I think now, of all the girls I went to school with that came into contact with teen pregnancy, violence and abuse, low employment prospects because they didn’t finish high school, and HIV and other STIs that we need to talk to more of them. We need to protect more of them in our communities. I was lucky, I had a school girl crush on an older man but instead of him acting on it, he set me on a path to protect myself and was a mentor and a guiding hand. I want to make sure that in the future we have enough men and women like him. We need to even combat the stigma that this only affects women (I wrote about women as that is my experience but I know teen boys are not exempt) and build healthier, safer and brighter futures to help all the affected to break out of the poverty cycle.
Mother and police facilitating rape: https://zanewsonline.co.za/mom-accepts-case-of-beer-from-police-as-bribe-to-drop-charges-after-daughter-15-was-raped/
Sky high teen pregnancies during the pandemic: https://www.iol.co.za/news/south-africa/western-cape/shocking-stats-sa-report-shows-33-000-teen-mothers-in-2020-660-of-them-younger-than-10-years-old-ffbceb71-f44a-42c1-936e-0dfee472ed51
Teen pregnancies in South Africa jump 60% during COVID-19 pandemic: https://reliefweb.int/report/south-africa/teen-pregnancies-south-africa-jump-60-during-covid-19-pandemic
Relationships between Older Men and Younger Women: https://www.jstor.org/stable/3181140
About the author: I am a person of the world with a window that allows me many lives. Music and good food are why I'm still here. Apples are my arch enemy.
drawing by saucy