An old column by Dan Savage got me thinking about the eroticization of power today. In this column, he wrote (as he has in many columns) about how he doesn’t think that relationships with large age differentials are necessarily bad. He endorses the “campsite rule” when it comes to younger lovers: leave younger lovers better than you found them. Make no babies, transmit no STDs, tell no lies, and break no hearts. (Not a bad set of rules for most relationships, really, although ‘make no babies’ is sometimes negotiable.)
I know a few people in relationships with partners who are more than fifteen years younger or older than they are. I know younger partners who entered these relationships when they were eighteen, when the differential wasn’t just large in terms of years, but enormous in terms of experience. I also know older partners who have chosen to date younger people and acted as mentors and guides for them, as well as lovers. The relationships I have in mind have not only been successful on their own terms, but also provided safe places for the younger partners to explore sexually and to continue maturing as adults. Some of these relationships aren’t just short term — which Savage suggests older/younger pairings always are — but long term commitments edging past years and into decades.
On feminist grounds, I think large age differentials can add a tricky extra layer of power to relationships which it can be hard for people to navigate, particularly if they aren’t used to thinking about the effects of power on intimate relationships. Younger partners, being more naive, have more at risk in these encounters. Still — it’s obvious that people can, and do, navigate the risks to create happy, safe relationships.
When it comes to accepting sexualities that are considered risky in our culture, I’m pretty radical, even for liberal feminists. But when age difference meets teacher-student relationships — well, my third-wave sex-positive wishy-washyness goes out the window, and my prudishly frowning super ego comes out to wag her finger.