(Washington Post illustration/iStock)

The first time someone sexually assaulted me, I was 14. I was on the commuter rail headed into Boston for an art class. I convinced myself he had just lost his balance when the train swayed and grabbed onto something. But it felt deliberate: He scooped my butt in his hands, squeezed it and his fingers went a little too far.

When he got off at the Fenway stop, he smirked at me. I was paralyzed.

I didn’t think much of that incident at the time. I barely knew what sexual assault was, and I had certain ideas about it. Namely it only happened to girls. When I read about Anthony Rapp’s allegations that Kevin Spacey had made sexual advances toward him when Rapp was 14, that encounter on the train resurfaced in my mind.

When you’re young and gay, these situations with older men are as unavoidable as they are for young women. Someone grabs at you because you’re in a public space, or you assume a guy is just being friendly so you’re friendly back … and then it takes an aggressive turn.

When I was 18, I went to an 18+ night at a gay bar with friends. Not long after getting there, an older man hit on me. When I said I was just here to hang with friends, he shoved me and said, “you twink sluts are all the same.” He was probably just upset over being rejected, but it left me feeling as though I had done something wrong.

Occasionally when older men would flirt with me online or in real life I would find myself flattered. Especially if they were handsome, or interesting. Though at 18 I didn’t understand why they were interested in me. I might have been legally an adult, but I still looked like a goofy teenager. These men weren’t five or so years older, but often twice my age or more.

I figured these men must have somehow been looking past my youth, past my braces and cartoon T-shirts. Often they’d describe me as “mature for my age,” which seemed like a good thing. Clearly if a guy in his 40s who has his life all set is interested in me, I must be something special. I didn’t mind talking with them and even felt flattered at times. Still, my kindness was often confused for flirtation. Simply being young is read as “leading someone on.” Once a guy asked me for oral sex while I was on a break from work, because I had smiled at him as I handed him his receipt. That was all it took.

When I rebuffed these advances, I was deemed the bad one. Like I was some sort of temptress just for being friendly and personable. Which is a double-edged sword women are often in the midst of. You’re rude if you flat-out ignore someone, but a tease if you’re nice before turning him down.

In real life these incidents were scattered, though on dating apps I could guarantee dozens of messages a night almost exclusively from men in their 40s and beyond, who will also send unsolicited nude photos or promise money. “I love young, fit, masculine guys” is a constant sentence you’ll find on older men’s dating profiles. It makes it clear the interest is not in you as a person, but in your body.

I didn’t have as many of these problems with guys my own age. It was always with much older men, often acting as if I owed my existence to them. Being a younger gay I often feel a bit guilty that I grew up in a generation less closeted, and at times it seemed like these older men were playing off that. They lived through Harvey Milk’s assassination, the AIDS crisis, and a time when you could be fired for being open about your sexuality. Here I was, being handed everything they worked for.

These older men never seemed to be interested in conversation or in getting to know me. We had nothing in common. All of my Pokémon and Harry Potter references seemed to go over their heads, and when I found their eyes trailing up and down my body as I spoke, I just wanted to leave. “Why are you interested in me?” I asked once. “I like younger guys,” he said, not even adding anything he liked about me in particular.

If I told a friend, often around my own age, I was uncomfortable with these men staring at me like dessert, they would say I was “age-shaming” or “not being sex positive.” I was stuck in this dilemma of wanting to socialize, but not wanting to put my body up for grabs.

As I reach my mid-20s, I can’t help but wonder why anyone that much older was interested in 18-year-old me in the first place. I look at pictures of me, and I see a kid.

For so long, I thought these older men saw me as grown-up and mature, that they were looking past my braces and Super Mario T-shirts. Now I realize they were looking right at them. They saw a kid, too. That was what they were looking for.

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