‘My babyface was so obviously underage’: what I learned about men and power before I could consent

The way one of Russell Brand’s accusers – the pseudonymous Alice – described him asking her out when she was 16 felt eerily familiar to me and other women I’ve spoken with. It wasn’t after an hour of electric eye contact over easy conversation about shared worldviews. No, he spotted her going about her business and plucked her from adolescent obscurity. For their first date, Alice duly slunk into a red wiggle dress and platform shoes but, as she recalled in the Dispatches programme: “I didn’t look like a woman by any means. I was a child that had got dressed up for dinner.”

Alice feels Brand groomed her for a controlling relationship that ultimately ended in sexual assault, and her story got me thinking about those good-looking men I was deliriously happy to get attention from – DJs, models, a pop star – when I was 15 and bursting with hopes of finding love and a place in the world outside of home and school. I thought I was streetwise because I avoided the obviously creepy old letches, but I was blissfully unaware of how ripe I was for being plucked from my own sense of teenage obscurity, instructed and moulded.

Alice has since mooted the idea of staggering the age of consent in the UK to make it a criminal offence for a person over the age of 21 to have sex with someone under the age of 18. A very small Ipsos survey rushed out in the wake of this found that twice as many men as women think it’s acceptable for men of 30 – as Brand was when Alice was 16 – to have sex with 16-year-old girls (31% versus 15%), with 48% of people supporting raising the age of consent to 18 and 40% behind staggered consent. It comes as no surprise that Alice’s suggestion has sparked a national debate, as my private conversations with women have revealed that so many of us learned as girls about sex and relationships from men often a decade or more older than us. Like salaries, people prefer not to talk about this in public, but as these buried, hazy memories of youthful adventures now surface, we look back aghast at what children we were, and reassess the ethics and impacts.

In fact I woke up this morning thinking that dating men as a girl must have been key in conditioning me for patriarchal life. It’s not that any of them physically hurt me, or did anything to me after I had told them no, but sometimes – not always – I didn’t even feel I could say no. I wanted their attention, I wanted to be out in the adult world and I wanted their acceptance. The power imbalance was staggering.

I found these men attractive – they looked gorgeous and held all the mysterious freedoms of adulthood: work, independence, money, social ease, romantic nous – but I loved them more in the safety of my imagination than in real life, where everything moved too fast and the mismatch was embarrassingly obvious. Being with them didn’t reward me with pleasure or love and I grew to think this must be normal. I never showed my disappointment or hurt, but instead tried to act unaffected and knowing. It all felt like an experiment in yearning and hard lessons I was compelled to complete.

There were the sexy DJs who shared a flat together and invited my friend and I – conspicuously wide-eyed and self-conscious – back a few times when we were fresh blood on the club scene. Just getting into the club was a dream come true, and now we were allowed to loiter after closing to hang around waiting for the DJs to pack up. We each fancied one of them, and having got together with our faves the first night, we hoped they’d be our boyfriends. I longed to have a boyfriend and go on the pill, in the same vague way I had longed to need a bra when I was 12 – like an accoutrement of being the fully grown person I was impatient to become. But the next time we went back they tried to swap, making stealth moves when my friend and I weren’t in the same room.

When I met the pop singer, he was in his late 20s and all my new clubbing acquaintances gave him a hero’s welcome – he was the life and soul of the party, which I saw as impressive rather than a red flag. I got a bit drunker than usual (it didn’t take much), and we chatted more easily than I could with most adults. I felt like Mrs Cool because I thought his pop act was a bit of a joke – his only celebrity credential that secretly piqued my fascination was that he used to go out with a model I had a massive girl crush on. He was so sweet and such a good kisser and once we started we couldn’t stop, but the swirl of romance came to an abrupt end when he swept me into a toilet cubicle, guided my head downwards and I felt an unfathomable mixture of disappointment and nerves and eagerness to get it right. “It wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought it would be,” I wrote in my diary, trying to keep things scientific and upbeat.

I never accepted an invite back to his flat after a night out, but I did finally go round there the second time he called me up on a Sunday evening – I suspect he needed comforting after a bender. I felt so awkward and tongue-tied and babyish as he tried to make chitchat about homework and school, and I was relieved when he didn’t expect me to go “all the way”. In fact, just one of the men I kissed when I was 15 tried to go all the way (and I think he was only around 20). I have often wondered whether it’s because it made the situation feel less criminal (it’s not) or exploitative. Or perhaps experience had taught them that young girls were less likely to say no to the other things.

The singer called a taxi to take me home at the end of the evening because he didn’t want me to get the tube alone. This felt kind, protective, infantilising and, as a skint teen more used to blustery bus stops, a little bit glamorous.

I later heard from a friend that he had been breaking a self-imposed no-more-teenagers rule with me

He didn’t pursue me after that but remained friendly; I always had the sense he was a fundamentally nice person. I later heard from a mutual friend that he had been breaking a self-imposed no-more-teenagers rule with me, and he was messed up about it all, while also addicted to promiscuous hedonism.

To fully illustrate the nonsensical behaviour of a 15-year-old out of her depth, I ended up spending one bizarre night with a club promoter to whom I had never been attracted. I’d gone out alone and he had taken me under his wing for the evening, like I was his mascot. I felt special when he asked me back – I thought it would be an afterparty but it wasn’t. As we got into bed, I gave off innocent sleepover vibes, willing him not to make a move on me because, as ridiculous as it sounds, I might have felt obliged to have sex out of misplaced politeness or obligation. That, I assumed, was what the other, less shy girls at the clubs did. He asked my turned back if he could “be naughty”, before quietly relieving himself. He didn’t touch me and for this I felt actual gratitude.

Clearly, I was naive, but I thought I knew it all and was racing ahead of my school friends who were still hanging around with immature teenage boys. I clung to this attention from men as a sign that I had enough precocious sass to be fast-tracked into sophisticated adult life, despite looking younger than most of my peers. I was no cocky extrovert, nor was I tall or busty, and my heavily painted babyface was so obviously underage. The first time the lovable bouncer at one of my favourite clubs in London saw me, he laughed in my face at how preposterously young I was, until the promoter told him I was on the list. His visible alarm was matched only by my swelling pride as I sauntered past.

Reading my diary from that time, I wondered whether I had been particularly immature. Not all girls became obsessed with clubbing (although it was an epidemic at my school at the time). Meanwhile, other girls I saw out at night seemed to be able to pull off fitting in with the adults with far greater aplomb. But talking to friends now, and hearing Alice’s account, I can see that I was probably fairly typical. In the past decade or two, neuroscience has shown us that “everything is not fully cooked until about 25 to 30”, says the clinical psychologist Abigael San. At 15, I may have had hot pants, a handbag and a bottle of Coco Chanel, but my mind still had at least a decade’s worth of growing up to do.

As all good sex and relationship therapists will tell you, we unconsciously seek to replicate what is familiar to us from our formative relationships. So these early encounters can set the bar for future sex and relationship dynamics. A friend said the other day that her experiences with older men negatively skewed her sex life for years. And some women struggle to go on to have relationships with men their own age because, as the psychotherapist Lindsay George told me, “This massive difference in sexual repertoire and experience becomes your norm.”

I didn’t choose where we went, what records were played; little was up to me. I couldn’t have been further from a state of relaxed and happy agency

The norm that was set for me wasn’t sexual violence, but that the men dominated sexually, financially, generally. I didn’t choose where we went, what records were played; little was up to me. I couldn’t have been further from a state of relaxed and happy agency when I was with them. I would go so far as to say that the insidious indoctrination of sexism throughout my girlhood peaked with the older man dynamic. I deferred and watched and learned, and something George said to me sticks in my head here: “We will chase the same feeling and therefore repeat that pattern, even if it’s detrimental to our mental health.” Time and time again, I hear accounts of smart women who have somehow twisted themselves into pretzels to placate, please and fit in with a male partner, and I can relate.

This is not to say that teenage boys are a safe proposition – far more traumatic encounters came with boys my own age, when I was 17. In some ways, being 15 was one of the best times in my life, and those club nights mostly felt like secret lands of sweet, sweaty, innocent freedom with my friends and a revolving cast of creative loons. You can’t stop teenagers from following their noses or being guided by their hormones, but I hope the conversation Alice has started will at least make it socially unacceptable for adults to become sexually involved with teenagers.

It will come as little surprise, in the spirit of repeating those patterns ingrained at a young age, that I ended up living with a man 20 years older than me in my early 20s. He was wonderful, treated me with respect and was not controlling at all. It was only when we socialised with his friends that I clammed up and felt the bimbo impostor again, with little to offer other than youth. How I hated that powerless, empty feeling. Even now, a few decades later, it still comes to visit.

• Information and support for anyone affected by rape or sexual abuse issues is available from the following organisations. In the UK, Rape Crisis offers support on 0808 500 2222 in England and Wales, 0808 801 0302 in Scotland, or 0800 0246 991 in Northern Ireland. In the US, Rainn offers support on 800-656-4673. In Australia, support is available at 1800Respect (1800 737 732). Other international helplines can be found at ibiblio.org/rcip/internl.html