“It was nice. Nothing bad happened, and I kept my center.”
That’s how Isaiah, a 38-year-old New York City artist, describes an affair he had with a powerful 46-year-old man when he was only 18. (Isaiah is not his real name.) He was in Los Angeles, working an internship at the man’s company, and he and the other man hit it off. They discreetly started an affair.
“It was a secret relationship, and when we went out we would do it in groups, but people knew something was going on,” says Isaiah. “He’d give me the keys to his car so I could pick up my friends flying into LA. I knew what I was getting into.”
The relationship ended amicably after eight months, when Isaiah went to another city to finish college. “I said, ‘Hey, this is great, but I gotta get on with my life,’” recalls Isaiah. “He said, ‘You know you can come back here anytime.’ I got a lot of insider career advice out of the relationship, but I also got companionship and fun. From me, he got a piece of arm candy, someone to be off the clock with—to share dinners, travel, parties with. He was very respectful of boundaries, both sexually and at work. We’re still in touch.”
Isaiah knows that the age and power disparity of the relationship, on its face, might look exploitative and transactional, like some kind of gay version of an ugly, Harvey Weinstein-esque forced quid-pro-quo that the #MeToo era has so thoroughly exposed and condemned. But he doesn’t see it that way, mainly because he didn’t feel he wanted or needed anything from the older guy, and because the older guy never demanded anything of him.
“I felt like I had most of the power in the relationship, actually,” says Isaiah. “I could’ve done a lot of damage to him had I wanted to, but I don’t do stuff like that.”
Isaiah looks askance at younger people who he says get into such relationships of their own accord, then cry exploitation and harassment later. “In Hollywood, people may act naive, but they know what they’re getting into.”
This often-murky area of age and power in gay relationships is playing out in an extremely visible way right now in the 2020 U.S. election cycle. The drama started when the College Democrats of Massachusetts (CDM) wrote a public letter on Aug. 6 to Alex Morse, the gay, 31-year-old mayor of Holyoke, Massachusetts, who is challenging longtime incumbent Rep. Richard Neal in the Democratic primary for the state’s 1st Congressional District.
In the letter, the CDM alleged that Morse had texted area college students over hookup apps like Tinder and Grindr, and in some cases hooked up with those students—including some who attend the University of Massachusetts, where Morse lectured. Morse replied publicly by saying he was sorry if he’d made anyone uncomfortable, but stressed that all his hookups had been of legal age and consensual, and defended his right to have a sex life.
The Real Story Behind the Alex Morse Allegations
In the following days, it came out that the CDM had actually been conferring for months with state Democratic party leaders over how best to publicize the allegations. This led many to conclude that the exposure was an effort to sink the campaign of a progressive candidate in the vein of Sen. Bernie Sanders or Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez—a person who was threatening the long-held seat of a more establishment Democrat who takes money from corporations.
Additionally, nobody stepped forward with a tale of being taken advantage of by Morse. In that regard, the allegations largely sank; the primary, to be held Sept. 1, will offer more insight into whether they altered people’s voting preferences.
But even before the CDM machinations were revealed, the Morse affair sparked an online smackdown between two major groups: Those who felt that his texts and hookups were inherently inappropriate because they were with younger students, and those who felt that the interactions were perfectly fine because the younger students were of legal age, had given consent, and were apparently not direct students of Morse. This latter group accused the former of reflecting left-wing “victim culture” puritanism and age-old homophobic tropes depicting older gay men as predatory creeps.
Not surprisingly, battle lines were often drawn between establishment Democrats and progressives, as conservatives watched the center-left dust-up with undiluted glee.
All of which leads one to ask: When it comes to legally of-age and consensual gay relationships between older and younger men with a power differential (yes, for story purposes, we’re limiting the focus to relations between largely cisgender gay men, although we realize the question applies elsewhere), what is OK and what is wrong?
Shades of Grey in Junior-Senior Gay Relationships
Most reasonable folks would agree that a liaison is a no-no when the senior partner has direct power or influence over the junior partner, such as being his teacher or work supervisor. “When someone is a boss, that’s a pretty cut-and-dry abuse of power, whether the situation is gay or straight,” says Stephen Lugar, Psy.D., a gay San Francisco psychologist and author of Father Figure: On Dangerous Daddies and Cross-Generational Desire.
But Lugar admits that things get less clear-cut when, say, the senior and junior partners are in different departments at a massive workplace or school, such as the University of Massachusetts, whose main Amherst campus enrolls more than 20,000 undergrads.
“That gets more complicated, but the onus should be on the older person to make sure that rules are being followed,” he says.
In the wake of the Morse situation, UMass said that it “strongly discouraged” professor-student relations but noted they were outright banned only if the professor is directly involved with the student’s academic or post-academic career.
Sometimes these degrees of grey can get mighty fine. Take Angelo, for instance, a 45-year-old Brooklyn dancer and teacher. (Angelo is not his real name.) When Angelo was 37, he was in charge of hiring, supervising, and training 33 dancers for a short-term project—and he ended up having a secret fling with one of them, who was in his mid-20s.
“He wasn’t the most talented person in the room, but I ended up favoring him because I was attracted to him,” Angelo admits. “We hooked up. He didn’t have a place to stay, so I gave him keys to my house. I don’t think he was that into me, because I wasn’t his type, but I think he was into the idea of dating his boss. Once I developed feelings for him, he got distant. A few weeks later, I found out that he was hooking up with another guy in the company.”
But before that, says Angelo, “I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit, this is wrong. What if my boss finds out?’ But a lot of couples came out of that company, gay and straight. In the dance world, you’re spending a lot of time together, holding each other, sweating, showering. It’s almost inevitable that those things are going to happen.”
Angelo adds that “I probably would avoid a situation like that today. I think you should avoid casual hookups with people you work with. Don’t shit where you eat and all that. But something about being his superior made it enticing, the power dynamic. If I hadn’t been his boss, maybe he wouldn’t have even slept with me.”
From Prada to Nada
On the other side of the power dynamic, José (not his real name), 39, a Latinx New York City grad student, remembers when he first came to the city at 19 from a foreign country with only a tourist visa—meaning he could only work for people who were willing to pay him off the books—and ended up in a complicated friendship/sexual liaison (partly because they both had boyfriends!) with a white man a decade his senior who employed him, allowing him to save money to go to school.
“It all got really murky,” says José. “When he opened his own business, he expected me to go and work there, and I did because I felt like I owed him. I definitely felt trapped at the time.” And that included putting out for sex. “If my birthday were coming up and I pointed out something I liked from Prada, he’d say, ‘Are you gonna put out? ’Cause if not, you’re going from Prada to nada.’”
José laughs. “We joked, but he was totally serious.” Still, he says, looking back, he doesn’t feel taken advantage of—not only because “there was a reciprocity to it,” but because he genuinely liked the older guy as a friend. “I did the best I could with the cards I was dealt. I had a good time with him. But I was also afraid of losing him as both a job source and a friend.”
He says he wouldn’t necessarily advise against such relationships, but urges the senior partner in such scenarios “to give as much as you can without expecting something back or starting to feel resentful.”
José also says he thinks that there is a tradition in the gay world of younger men learning from older men how to navigate things—such as gay social circles, sex, intimacy, career, and simply being a functioning gay adult—that they do not learn from their own fathers or other traditional adult figures, who can be distant or hostile, and that sometimes this mentor-protégé dynamic includes sex.
“It’s that Greek tradition,” he says. “I learned everything from him, including a trade.”
Is It Possible to Truly Be Equals?
Lugar echoes José’s conclusion. What some would call the current gay craze toward “daddies,” he suggests, is really about how the removal of the fear of AIDS—thanks to effective HIV treatment, undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U), and pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP)—opens younger gay men up to an older generation, much of which previously was wiped out by the epidemic.
“There can be extremely beautiful and positive relationships that occur across generations,” Lugar says, “but there have been these societal prohibitions against it. That goes for both gay and straight people; but for gay ones, it’s been exacerbated by these tropes of older gay men being predators.” (Certainly, such tropes flourished online in the initial wake of the allegations against Morse.)
Lugar, in turn, is echoed by Los Angeles–based freelance writer Steven Blum, 33, who tackled this issue in a Medium piece devoted partly to recounting his own sexual relationship with a 19-year-old man when he was 14. In the state he was in at the time, it’s illegal for someone over 18 to have sex with someone younger than 16, even if the sex is consensual.
“I thought of myself as equal to him at the time, even as the pursuer,” he says, “but looking back now, I think it was inappropriate, even if I don’t feel like I was abused. I didn’t really think about it until I told my first real boyfriend, who was horrified.”
Still, he says, “It’s complicated, because there are all these myths about the gay predator that you have to disentangle from your own narrative. Some gay men, when they come out, their parents’ first thought is, ‘Was he sexually abused?’ That ties your sexuality to this stigma.”
But, like Lugar, Blum agrees that even in consensual, legal-age situations, such as those ascribed to Morse, “If you’re the one who’s pursuing, you have to acknowledge the power differential.” For Morse’s part, even while he admitted no wrongdoing, he tweeted that he would be more mindful of his power status going forward.
The Dangers of Wielding Relationship Power
Of course, junior-senior relationships, as often as they work out, can also backfire, often hardest on the younger partner. When New York City dancer and writer Juan was 20 (he’s now nearly 40), he had an affair with his dance teacher, who then was 35. “He treated me very well and was openly affectionate, and others at the dance studio were like, ‘Oh my god!’ We’d go to events together. I loved it and encouraged it.”
But once the older guy broke off the relationship, things got weird, with him not talking to Juan at school—and even asking him not to take his class anymore. Then, says Juan, school administrators “pulled me aside and say, ‘Hey, we’re going to need you to stop sleeping with the teachers.’” (The older guy was, in fact, the second teacher at the studio Juan had slept with.) “I was like, ‘Wait, how about you tell your teachers to stop sleeping with me?’”
Looking back, says Juan, “Morally speaking, the teacher shouldn’t have had sex with me. I would tell my own students to never have sex with anyone with authority over you, because it will always come back to hurt you.”
Still, he says, “I’m OK with older and younger people having sex. It’s only wrong if someone is wielding power over the other.”
As for Isaiah, the New York City artist who had the affair with his internship boss so long ago, he feels the same way. “I’m with a 56-year-old guy now,” he says, meaning that there is an 18-year difference between them. “It’s interesting that an age difference can raise an eyebrow with so many people.”