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Some older gay men date younger partners – but the reasons are more complex than you think

Oscar Wilde and Simon Amstell are among those who have tried to explain the phenomenon of age gaps between consenting adult men. But there’s still so much to learn

Adam Bloodworth
Friday 21 February 2020 12:46 GMT
Oscar Wilde spoke of relationships between younger and older gay men during his testimony in a trial for gross indecency in 1895
Oscar Wilde spoke of relationships between younger and older gay men during his testimony in a trial for gross indecency in 1895

“It is intellectual, and it repeatedly exists between an older and a younger man,” began Oscar Wilde during his testimony for gross indecency in 1895.

“When the older man has intellect, and the younger man has all the joy, hope and glamour of life before him. That it should be so, the world does not understand. So the world mocks at it.”

Over 100 years on, it is still largely true that “the world does not understand.” So much so, these very words by Wilde are used in the context of contemporary queer cultural discussions today.

Queer Lives at The Tower, an immersive LGBT+ theatre show at the Tower of London, which draws historical parallels between the misunderstood lives of queer figures in the 12th century and those of us born today, quotes it this month.

Despite our continued struggles, here in the UK we are proud of our LGBT+ rights and advocate for equality. Yet there are still a disproportionate number of homeless LGBT+ youth and LGBT+ people with mental health issues; those minority groups are the symbols of the homophobia that lurks persistently across our society.

As Wilde alludes to in his speech, one major misunderstanding about queer culture that persists – still, to this day – is a misunderstanding about male-male attraction between men of different ages.

While we celebrate media personalities like Phillip Schofield for coming out in their later years (it’s never too late!) the public can be guilty of expecting queer people to act like their straight counterparts when it comes to relationships when of course queer relationships are different.

Statistically, many more people that define as queer have been through trauma than straight people. This might take place in the playground or the workplace, or with family or friends and has drastic knock-on effects for queer relationship-building.

Science tells us that trauma is often carried with us for life and can lead to complicated repercussions when it comes to sexual attraction. One resultant effect is that gay men are far more likely to fetishise body image and form deep sexual attractions to certain types of men – such as an insistence on dating particularly masculine, particularly feminine or particularly old or young men – and are likely to carry those image obsessions with them throughout their lives.

It’ll help to humanise all this. The comedian Simon Amstell, 40, still says his “type” is an 18-year-old guy. His rationale, which he speaks about in more depth in his autobiography Help, is that he never got to experience being romantic with an 18-year-old when he was young himself, due to challenges around his own sexual identity and dealings with shame and trauma which forbade him from experimenting as freely as he’d have liked.

In his autobiography, Amstell recalls his own struggles as a teenager. “When I was 18, it seemed impossible to just accept who I was and have some fun with another 18-year-old,” he writes.

“And this was one of the key revelations from therapy – [throughout my life] I kept being drawn to these young, vulnerable men in an attempt to save the 18-year-old in me, who wasn’t saved. Poignantly, he adds: “You may prefer to think of me as a pervert… but this is an official medical diagnosis.

“That vulnerable 18-year-old boy, even to this day, is my type.”

So it’s important that before we criticise queer men for having a preference, we try to understand the experiences that may be the root cause for those feelings.

The challenge for men like Amstell is finding the right romantic and sexual partners without exploiting any power dynamics that might spawn from wide age gaps. It goes without saying that upstanding older men yearn for balanced and healthy relationships like the rest of us, so for that to happen with an age gap, they'd need to consider that the emotional maturity and motives of younger men match their own feelings and desires and that no one is ending up being exploited.

Naysayers may argue that older men acting in this way are being superficially driven and inconsiderate of the feelings of younger men, who are arguably – perhaps stereotypically – more vulnerable and more malleable than older men. And there's perhaps the idea that older men “should know better” and “date their own age”.

But these are toxic sweeping assertions about gay culture that enforce stigmas and demonstrate a lack of understanding about the complexities of male-male relationships and the psychological and emotional reasons why they happen in the way they do.

Luckily for older men, there's a whole other set of younger men who specifically like to go older (that's a whole other article...). So with the right search, perhaps using the right LGBT+ dating apps, men with specific age desires needn't be alone.

And they needn't suffer from stigma either. Let’s honour Wilde's legacy by erasing ignorance and spreading understanding about the nuances of male-male romance. With a century's worth of psychological gains at our disposal, we have a better understanding of the complexities of human behaviour than we've ever had before, and that means we also have the power to stop toxically judging people we may not instantly understand.

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