3 min

Shifting vulnerability

I watched in amaze-ment the other night as a much younger guy hit on my fiftysom ething friend. How could he do something like that, hit on a frail elderly man like that? Doesn’t he know the old are vulnerable, less quick to shake off the ravages of objectification? The older you get the greater the love you need, opined Leonard Cohen, channelling some Buddhist gent.

If the old aren’t quite as vulnerable as the young, it’s because they’re not quite so horny and hence not quite as likely to do something utterly stupid. But you get more emotionally vulnerable as you get older. Not to mention more bored.

I’ve always been amazed at age of consent debates and the incessant implication that the young are always the most vulnerable party. Depends on how you define “young,” I suppose, but the reality is often something else.

More often than not the young hold all the cards. They may not know it. It may take them a while to figure out how to play them and by the time they do it may be too late but, for a few short years, they have all the power in part because they haven’t yet been hurt themselves and so don’t care too much about hurting others. That gives them a certain freedom. At least for a while.

Sometimes, in fact, I think there should be a reverse age of consent. No sleeping with anyone over 40 unless you first get the consent of the old guys’ friends or guardians. Just to make sure you’re not taking advantage of the oldster, using him for his pension, literacy or superior sexual skills.

But the larger point here, the point within the joke, is that power isn’t always where you expect to find it.

So many of the debates around sexuality assume a rigid power dynamic where one person has it and the other doesn’t. Whether it’s age of consent or sex education or the pro-abstinence movement or the individual’s responsibility for HIV transmission, the assumption is always that there is hunter and prey, taker and loser, someone with power and someone without.

People are attracted to these rigid dichotomies. They like to know where they stand even if they stand at the bottom of the heap. How else to explain the recent popularity of such rigid roleplaying as top and bottom? If nothing else, it gives you a clear sense of where your particular power lies.

Yet power is a tricky thing and prone to surreptitious redirection. It flows in several directions and slips away at the most inopportune moment. (See for example Stephen Harper and the mysterious case of the missing minority government.)

For straight women in traditional relationships power can seem dreadfully predictable: Men have the power and they don’t. But for gay men and many contemporary straights power can be harder to locate. It ebbs and flows depending on who wants what from whom yet we continue to talk about it as if it were stable and predictable.

Take the whole idea of losing your virginity. (Take it, please, as Henny Youngman might say.) The renowned Hollywood smoothie George Hamilton apparently lost his at 12 — to a stepmother more than twice his age. It said so in The Globe and Mail so it must be true.

But what concerns us here is not the naughty context of his deflowering, grotty though it may be, but the idea of his having lost something. What the heck did he lose?

When I had sex for the first time I didn’t lose anything. I gained a new view of the world, a view that was only amplified a few weeks later when somebody pointed out that a guy was cruising me and that he wanted to go to bed with me. With that knowledge, deployed extensively ever since, came power.

If I lost my innocence at any point it wasn’t when I first had sex but when I first had to pay rent. That was a real blow.

People are acutely aware of power during sex mostly, I think, because it’s the one time that we are literally unguarded. Not just emotionally but physically too. Personally I’ve never forgotten the scene in the 1980s gangster flick the Long Good Friday where a naked gay gangster got knifed while cruising the showers at a local swimming pool. Talk about a metaphor. Now that’s being vulnerable in love.

But just because we’re unguarded in love doesn’t mean we have to play out the roles of either victim or oppressor. Maybe I’m a Pollyanna but most of the time I don’t think other people are trying to use me. Baffle, bore and irritate me maybe, but not overpower. Unless, of course, by request.