We’re on a dirt road in the cotton fields, sitting in the back of his Plymouth. It had been my idea to stop and look at the sky, and it doesn’t come off like a sneaky move now, because the moon is full and bright and gorgeous. I’ve been playing along but I wish he would make his move. This is the part that’s always kind of boring. He’s nice, though, and good looking, maybe around 35.
It’s a balmy Louisiana night in 1975. And I’m fourteen years old.
Everything goes as planned, and he gets me home on time so no one suspects. But he was a lot more nervous about it than I was.
And that was the routine during my teenage years. I had given up trying to mess around with other boys because it took forever to talk them into anything and I didn’t want them to freak out about it. So, I got involved in community theater productions during the summer, playing bit parts or working the spotlight, just to be in the company of gay men. Then it was just a matter of getting some time alone with them.
My strategy for getting laid worked with some regularity, and it never occurred to me there might be something inappropriate or perverse or even criminal about it. At least, it never occurred to me.
People tell me the criminal ramifications most certainly occurred to them. They say I was molested or abused, and that it was the very definition of the word “statutory.” They say I was dealing with adults who had the capacity to know better. And, most bruising to my ego, they tell me that my seductive charms were irrelevant, and that perhaps it was they who were doing the manipulating.
Now, forty years later, I wonder if my teenage memories are trustworthy, and if it set the stage for an adulthood in ways I’ve failed to acknowledge. Before I became a man, before the failed relationships and the sexual compulsions and the drug addiction, there was an adolescent who traveled side roads with strangers and took dangerous walks in public parks. And it is that boy, not the legion of adults I encountered, who fascinates and saddens me.
Was my fate sealed in the cotton fields of Louisiana?
The men I coaxed to those dusty roads aren’t villainous to me, and I still can’t allow them to be left dangling in guilt and shame. I won’t reduce them to simple pathology.
I met Jim in August, right before my freshman year in high school. The summer musical was 1776 and I was a stagehand. It was practically an all male cast, so it was a busy summer.
After a matinee performance one afternoon, I asked Jim for a ride to a pool party someone was throwing for the cast and crew. Once inside his car I told him I forgot my bathing suit and could we stop at his place so I could borrow one? What followed was a pitiful half naked fashion show in his bedroom, and a brief, awkward encounter between us.
Afterwards, I happily got back in the car but Jim wasn’t talking much. He had become really quiet as soon as we were done.
We had driven a few blocks when Jim let out a kind of cough, like he was trying to stifle something and it burst out anyway. I looked over and his whole face was wet.
“What’s wrong?” I asked. I had seen men in some personal situations, but I had never seen one cry.
He pulled the car over and turned it off. Suddenly, everything felt quiet and important.
“What is it?” I asked in a careful voice. “Am I in trouble?”
He was searching the car console for something and found a packet of Kleenex. He held it in his lap and started to speak while he opened it.
“I’m twice your age, Mark,” he said into his lap. His eyes were little cups of water, spilling. He turned to me. “You’re fourteen years old. I’m twice your age. Twice.”
His mathematics meant nothing to me. His expression toward me, sad and quizzical, felt like he was trying to read my mind. It made me uncomfortable. I didn’t know what he wanted. I sat there and said nothing.
He turned away and gulped back more tears. And then he asked the most mysterious question of all.
“Don’t you… just want to be fourteen, Mark?”
I had no idea what the man was talking about. I sat staring at him with my mouth open. I was completely stumped. Seconds went by and the car was silent.
My confusion seemed to disappoint him, because he shook his head slowly and looked back out the window. He was still very upset.
He wasn’t simply crying out of guilt, they tell me now. They insist he was deflecting his own criminal behavior by blaming me for not acting my age. They tell me that he was the one who had trapped me and I didn’t even know it.
Either way, I think Jim got more than he bargained for. I think he was a little frightened by the manipulative and unemotional fourteen year old sitting in his car that afternoon. And I think it saddened him because he cared about me.
And yes, I felt trapped all right, if only because I felt trapped in his car in this moment, where things were not going as planned, because after ten minutes we’re still parked on the side of the road and Jim won’t stop crying. I am staring at my shoelaces because I can’t imagine a grown guy would want anyone to see him like this. He must be so embarrassed. And I wish he would start the car, because the party is going on and there’s probably lots of people having fun around the pool and I really want to be there.
I finally look over at him and he’s blowing his nose. Maybe that means we’ll get moving again, I’m thinking. Jim doesn’t say anything else but he does finally turn the ignition and the car rumbles to a start.
I’m so relieved. I really want to see what’s happening at the party.
My own views and memories on this topic remain conflicted, but I certainly do not intend to minimize sexual abuse when it does occur. If you are are trying to overcome childhood abuse, please consider contacting the Adult Survivors of Child Abuse (ASCA). — Mark
I applaud you for writing this interesting piece.
I have strong opinions on this subject, as someone who had similar experiences at a 14 year old. My belief is that there are two things going on here. Whether Jim meant to do something with a child is one issue. The other, though, and the one that interests me more, has to do with what you did.
To my way of thinking, what you did was a natural reaction to something that was missing in your life. Is it normal for 14-year-old boys to go after men more than twice their age? Probably not. Does that mean it’s shameful? No. In my experience, I was doing that because I needed something (affection from an adult) and that was the best way to find it that I could come up with at the time. This need merged with my very powerful sexual desire, which is a very normal part of being 14.
I don’t think you were a predator. I think you were a wonderful, creative, precocious boy. But I also think that damage comes from these relationships. For me, these relationships damaged me emotionally and sexually. I was a boy. Jim was right; didn’t we want to be 15? We may not have understood what we were doing in that respect, but those relationships took our innocence from us. Just from reading this piece, I can feel that loss of innocence.
I was that same boy. Like you, I am in recovery. Is that a coincidence? I am guessing it isn’t.
Just my opinion. Take it or leave it!
God bless, my friend. You’re amazing.
At 14, the oldest of five kids, I was much more mature than my age and knew what I wanted and went after it. I looked and acted older (and we are talking about 50 years ago) and my father was in the navy and brought me a fresh supply every week, though he didn’t know. These older men had much to teach me and I was eager to learn and share. Still, under social pressure, I did marry and had a daughter and although I will love her to my dying day, I wonder what life would have been like if I hadn’t married.
So true.. I was felt exactly the same a 14 year old. even as a 11 year old.. but never actioned it..
Hey Mark, i really enjoyed reading this article.. it resonates with a similar emotional muddiness i’m trying to clarify in my own life right now
there is a nice thread of discussion of it on my FB timeline post, if you have any interest in hearing me hash out the intricacies of my perceptions about it vs other people’s triggers and misconceptions.
thanks for posting
14? Hell, I was doing it much younger than that! No older man ever took advantage of me. It was I who took advantage of many of them. I rare saw many of them more than once or twice, but some I had short affairs with when I could manage it. Strangely enough, (or not) I never lost my taste for older men, which now that I’m 70 is getting difficult! But I certainly was never forced to do anything, I just knew what I wanted. And when I became an adult I was shocked anytime I heard about an adult forcing a child of either gender to have sex with him. That’s rape and rape isn’t about sex, it’s about control. When I was a young fag, I was the one in control. No question about it.
This really touched me. I am 17 and I’ve been into older guys for a few years now… As I have gotten older I look like I am 22 now. That’s why they never question it. I’ve had to lie and scheme my way into a few mens pants and I feel like an absolute monster sometimes. I love that I read this. But, I feel dirty for being so young but so naughty. I’m talking to a 30 year old now and we are thinking about settling down here soon … I’m just happy I am gonna be 18 in a month. Thank you