“Ask Kai: Advice for the Apocalypse” is a column by Kai Cheng Thom to help you survive and thrive in a challenging world.
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We’re a gay male couple, aged 23 and 45 years old respectively—call us Chicken (the younger guy) and Hawk (the older guy). We met on Grindr a couple years ago.
Hawk: I make a very solid salary as a marketing director, and I’m supporting Chicken financially as he goes through university. We also live together in my condo. I deeply, truly love Chicken, and I want nothing but the best for him—I know our age difference is fairly wide, but I feel that we are soulmates. I would never want to take advantage of him, and I’ve let Chicken know that he should never feel that he “owes” me anything just because of our financial situation. I have never been happier in my life, but some of my friends are reacting quite badly to our relationship—they say our age difference makes them uncomfortable and that I’m cradle-robbing, so to speak. One friend has even dropped me over it. I’m quite hurt about that, honestly. When I was in my 20s, it was quite common for younger men to date older guys, and we even used to joke and laugh about it. Love is love, isn’t it?
Chicken: Not much to add here! (Writing this was Hawk’s idea.) All I can say is, Hawk is my best friend in the world and I love him, too—plus he’s hot AF, haha. I’ve talked to some of my friends about our age difference, and most of them agree it’s a little weird, but if we’re both into it then that’s what matters. There are a couple of friends who really freaked out at me, though. They said I was being “abused,” which like, wtf? I’ve lived through real abuse, including from my parents, who literally threw me out for being gay when I was 17. Sure, Hawk takes care of things money-wise, but he’s never been a jerk about it, which is more than I can say for my family. Without Hawk, I wouldn’t be in school right now–I’d be working some dead-end job, probably. I’m not a kid, and I can make my own decisions. Other people can just butt out, tbh. Anyway, I’d like to hear your opinion.
Dear Chicken & Hawk,
What a story the two of you share—the May-December romance between older and younger gay men is a tale as old as time, though it has become decidedly more controversial in the current day. As you have already discovered, significant age gaps in romance are a highly sensitive issue in contemporary society, and I would argue that this has become increasingly true over the past decade as expanded notions of sexual consent have become more prevalent in mainstream culture.
Let me begin by affirming that from a legal standpoint, the two of you are both adults and have the right to choose your own romantic partners. When it comes right down to it, your feelings and opinions are the ones that matter most, and no one gets to define whether or not you are “really” in love. However, I do also understand the concerns that have been raised in your social circle, and I share some of them. This isn’t to say that I think your relationship is necessarily wrong—at the end of the day, only the two of you can really know whether it is or not—but I do see the dynamic between you as quite imbalanced, which in turn creates a rather high level of risk.
All relationships contain a power dynamic, regardless of age: Money, education, class background and many other factors all play a role in defining the balance of power between two people. However, a wide age gap can dramatically increase that power differential, especially when the younger partner is still in young adulthood while the elder is in middle age. (And an age gap any wider would immediately render the relationship unacceptable, in my opinion.) The power dynamic between you, Chicken and Hawk, is also greatly enhanced by the one-sidedness of your financial situation, though I appreciate that it hasn’t felt uncomfortable to either of you as of now.
Unfortunately, part of the risky nature of power imbalances is that they are indeed often very attractive–right up until something goes wrong. Indeed, for many people, nothing is sexier than a power imbalance! Power is, arguably, the basis of the majority of common sexual and romantic fantasies: Our erotic selves thrive on the edge of risk and reward, that place where we feel most alive. On this edge, deep and powerful intimacy can be found, but so too can serious harm. This complex paradox is precisely what makes sex such a confusing and provocative issue, and why sexual mores have so radically evolved over the years.
So all that said, I believe you, Chicken and Hawk, when you say that you are in love, and I recognize the beauty and depth of your story. My concern is that such stories can turn into something quite ugly, and in ways that you may not expect.
Chicken, I get that you’re not a kid. Given what you’ve lived through, I would imagine you had to grow up pretty fast in some ways. When I was in my early 20s (which was just a hot second ago), I also dated older men. One of my most important relationships was with a 32-year-old I met when I was 22, and to tell the truth, I’ve never really felt that the age difference was particularly hurtful. Yet I also know that my perspective has changed a lot over the past seven or eight years, and I wouldn’t date someone 10 years younger than me now.
Yes, you get to choose who you date, and people shouldn’t freak out about it or try to convince you that you are being abused when you don’t feel that way. But I do think that the older folks in your community owe it to you to make sure you know that there are risks that come with being much younger than your romantic partner, and that goes double when your partner is paying your bills. It’s also important for you to hear that the way you feel about something in your early 20s is not necessarily going to be the way you feel about it in your 30s—as we get older, we often start to realize the ways in which we were more naïve than we thought.
Here are some things I wish that my community had told me when I was in my 20s, dating men much older than me: If your partner is much older than you, then it’s their responsibility to make sure you talk about the age difference and how it might be affecting you. It’s also their responsibility to actively think about the power dynamics in the relationship and take steps to make sure you feel good, respected and empowered to make your own choices—even when you’re in a fight. Your partner should not be in any way controlling or possessive, and being given gifts or money should never, ever feel like pressure to do anything you don’t want to do.
If you are financially reliant on your partner, then there should be room for you to discuss in advance what will happen when you break up (and if your partner is significantly wealthier than you, it is fair to ask for transitional financial support after you break up). A partner who really cares about you is a partner who will want you to succeed even if the relationship ends, and is 100 percent okay to ask a much older, wealthier partner to talk about this in explicit terms (yes, in writing, too!).
As for you, Hawk, if you’ve read all of the above paragraphs addressed to Chicken, then you probably know my position already: When it comes to matters of the heart, there are rarely black-and-white answers, but complexity does not release us from our moral obligations. When a much older and wealthier person chooses a younger partner, I think it’s essential that one asks oneself some hard questions: Why am I with this younger person? What are the possible risks? What can I do to mitigate those risks? Is this enough to justify continuing the relationship? How do I know that the younger person is making choices based on full consent? What will I do if the younger person feels that they have been taken advantage of later on?
If there are any doubts about the answers to the above questions, my personal belief is that one should not move forward with dating younger—and that we should always err on the side of caution. However, real life is always messier than our ethics are in theory, and of course, you are already in a relationship with Chicken.
You will have to use your own judgement here, but my suggestion is that you dive deep into those questions, to the point of actually writing your answers down. If you are going to continue in this relationship, and seems likely that you will, you need to have a clear understanding of how you are going to pursue your romance ethically. This is different from dating someone of your own age, who is financially independent from you. In this case, you have a greater responsibility, because any serious conflict in your relationship could result in you inadvertently causing great harm.
What will happen to Chicken if someone cheats, or if you decide to break up? When you take on financial responsibility for someone, that responsibility extends beyond the good times with that person. You need to make sure that Chicken’s economic situation is secure if you ever decide to end things—and you need to find a way to make sure that financial dependence never becomes a barrier to Chicken’s consent and freedom of choice.
To the both of you, I would suggest making sure that you talk to trusted friends about your relationship as well as each other – your thoughts and ideas about the age and financial dynamics, what is going well and what isn’t. The potential for abuse thrives in isolation, and developing a strong social circle that is capable of providing you with honest feedback will help you to clarify your thoughts and develop perspective on your relationship. Engaging the services of a relationship counselor isn’t a bad idea, either. If you feel that you can’t talk about your relationship with even your trusted friends, my guess is that this would be a sign that something serious is going wrong.
Yes, Chicken and Hawk, love is love—and love can be tricky, confusing, complex, messy as much as it can be wonderful and miraculous. To do love well, we must take the time to ask the hard questions, have the hard conversations, and face the hard truths. We have to be brave, when it comes to love, and wise enough to know when love means holding on and when it means letting go.
Need advice in a hurry? In our video series “Ask Kai: Quick Tips for the Apocalypse,” Kai Cheng Thom offers concrete suggestions to help keep your relationship happy and healthy in these harrowing times. Watch the episode below.