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the pain gap
on dating, maturity, & the benign psychohorror of womanhood
tw: discussion of toxic relationships
immediately after i turned eighteen, i started going on a lot of dates with men in their early-to-mid-twenties. this is one of those things that doesn't seem like a big deal when you're eighteen but the second you become not-eighteen you’re like what the fuck!!! the distance between eighteen and everything else is perilous and insurmountable, but nobody tells you that until you’re twenty.
at the time, though, i was not yet not-eighteen, and so i remember feeling a buried sense of pride at the fact that i was dating real guys, with real jobs, who had lived big, expansive lives beyond my reckoning — surely it implied that there was something real and big inside of me too. i was certain that i was mature enough to handle it, or at least certain that i wanted to be and determined to learn through experience (there is a sickeningly pervasive idea in our culture, by the way, that a young woman can only become interesting and complex by experiencing untold quantities of pain — and so we seek this suffering in an attempt to become artistic, but only end up learning that we were operating from a flawed premise in the first place. pain is nothing but pain).
by the time a couple of years had passed and i’d learned just enough to realize how little i actually knew, i began to look back at the person i was when i was freshly eighteen in the same way i looked at my baby photos. i loved her, and i saw myself in her, but i couldn’t remember exactly how or why she made her decisions — she was a child, naive and flawed and pathetically transparent in her bids for worldliness. i wondered, for a while, how the men who dated her didn’t see a kid playing dress-up when they looked into her eyes. it was only recently that i realized that they did.
throughout these situationships with slightly older men, there always came a point where i’d catch myself making a fatal mistake: i’d get too attached, i’d reveal too much, i’d draw a boundary too quickly or not draw it quickly enough, and it would betray a side of my naïveté that we both tried to pretend wasn’t there. often, when the men i dated would end our relationships, they’d cite my immaturity, and i remember always feeling a bit cheated, like they'd changed the rules of the game halfway through — i remember thinking, hey, wasn't that supposed to be kind of the whole point?
i was confused, maybe even a little vindictive — why the fuck else were you going out with me? twenty-four-year-old men rarely date teenagers for the conversation. i talked about high school and kurt vonnegut books, i gasped in amazement at their shitty apartments, i blushed at their stories of sexual conquest. the problem was not my immaturity, because that’s why they wanted me in the first place — the problem was that eventually, it began to require more from my partner than just knowing smiles and pats on the head. the wide-eyed senselessness that was once my principal appeal became unbearable once it started to betray need.
men will often tell you they wished you were more mature, but this is a lie so thinly veiled that i doubt even they believe it. they crave your immaturity, your smallness, the ease with which you are controlled. they desperately want you to smile a little and say you've never given a blowjob before — they want this so, so badly, and they keep wanting it right up until the moment when they start wanting a blowjob instead. they want a woman who looks like a baby but knows not to cry; a girl who’s mature enough to date older men but not mature enough to know why she shouldn’t. they want you to be cloyingly, lovingly childish until, suddenly, they don’t.
a man once told me he had slept with over one hundred women after guilting his way into my college dorm. a man shoved his fingers inside me as i yelped in pain, stopping afterwards to tell me it was my fault that i wasn’t experienced enough to take it. after days of conversation, a man responded to my needy question about his interest in me by saying i looked like a schoolgirl.
none of these men broke the law, and i don't think their actions conveyed malignant evil, either — it all lacked the cut-and-dry simplicity that i’d been taught by rape seminars and after-school television to expect. there were supposed to be good men and evil men and it was supposed to be easy to tell them apart. it’s comforting to parse your way through an idea of the world where everything wrong is against the rules, but like many of the things you encounter when you’re eighteen, these interactions all occurred somewhere inside the terrifying chasm between what is legal and what is right.
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the problem with dating men is that there is often no smoking gun — no terrible crime, no obvious transgression, no moment that you can use to justify the enormity of what you feel to yourself and others. i wasn’t groomed by any of the older men i dated; none of them ever advanced past the point where i said “no”. i chose, willingly and often enthusiastically, to enter those relationships and to stay in them. sometimes, in the small, secret part of myself where i tuck away my worst impulses, i wished they had gone just a little further, wronged me just a little bit more clearly, because maybe then i wouldn’t feel quite so crazy about hurting so much. without laws broken or lines crossed, women’s pain is madness.
and the letter of the law exists not to enforce what is moral or good — rather, it exists to provide men with a line to toe. it functions not to ensure that men don’t do heinous things, but to make sure they can get away with heinous things by learning the cheat codes: fuck her on the day of her eighteenth birthday, make sure she can sit up straight before you take her home, guilt her until you get the "yes" or only date girls too nervous and unsure to think of saying no in the first place.
i didn’t gain any remarkable insight when i turned eighteen. nobody flipped a switch to make me wise or strong or good at relationships. but once a woman is of legal age, we throw her to the wolves. the autonomy politics that were supposed to be a cornerstone of our liberation become weaponized against us: we chose this, we’re grown women now, we shouldn’t infantilize ourselves by implying that some boundaries shouldn't have been our responsibility.
and this isn’t untrue. i don’t think the men that dated me were necessarily bad people, and i certainly wouldn’t imply that they were pedophiles or de facto abusers — the fact is, simply, that i should have known better. but i do wonder about the ways in which we frame guilt. when the question of this grey zone is brought up, scrutiny almost always falls upon the woman; we wonder why she entered the relationship, why she chased older men, why she didn’t listen to her gut. by admitting hurt, she becomes guilty until proven innocent; men, on the other hand, are exonerated by their nonchalance. we rarely question whether they should have had the foresight and discretion to make a better choice. in a twisted way, men are the ones infantilized in this process: we see them as incapable of restraint, victim to the woman acting upon them, helpless to draw a boundary or, even better, to critically analyze their desires. our impulse to blame teenagers for not knowing better in their relationships with adults is the result of a uniquely insidious form of weaponized incompetence: one that allows men to act as unknowing bystanders while simultaneously holding all the cards.
and this brings a more personal and far more pathetic thought to my mind. for every ten-minute taylor swift song, there is a jake gyllenhaal confused by all the fuss around a decade-old fling; the worst kinds of pain are rarely mutual. there is a palpable, cosmic injustice in the fact that a relationship, particularly one with an age gap, can change a woman’s psyche while barely even inspiring the man to change his communication style (this experience isn't exclusively gendered this way, of course, but it's the result of a power imbalance that commonly plays out in older man/younger woman dynamics). there would be a quiet dignity in the knowledge that those who wronged us feel guilt, that they hurt as we hurt, but i am absolutely sure that the men whose actions i think about to this day never think of me at all.
in my mind, i refer to this as the pain gap. it’s a touchier, more nebulous type of inequality. suffering is a difficult thing to define and an even harder thing to prove. but it strikes me as a remarkably defeating final blow that when we are hurt, we not only hold the burden of proof to the outside world — we hold it, quietly and intimately, against ourselves.
EN: after the publication of this piece, it was brought to my attention that the term “the pain gap” has been previously used by the author Anushay Hossain to describe the dangers faced by women and people of colour while navigating the medical system. this overlap was, of course, coincidental — and her usage is far more meaningful and well-researched than mine! i encourage you to purchase Hossain’s book about the pain gap here.
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