For too many girls, teenage years are a time of unwanted attention from older men

·5-min read
<span>Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo</span>
Photograph: Alamy Stock Photo

At first the girl is animated and fast-talking, gesturing with her hands as she speaks to the camera. She’s wearing a tie-dye shirt that hangs cavernously around her thin frame; her long blond hair is stick straight. She speaks with the unrestrained enthusiasm of a kid. Later, I learn that she is 18. When the man approaches her, just out of frame, at first she thinks he just wants to take one of the empty chairs that is at her table and drag it away somewhere else; she’s in the courtyard of the motel where she’s staying with her mom, and she’s sitting at one of the outdoor tables alone. But he doesn’t want to take the chair, he wants to sit down in it. The man never enters the frame, but we can tell he is older, and he must be much bigger than she is: the girl, still seated, cranes her face to look up at him. The calm confidence behind her large glasses snuffs out; her shoulders tense up, rising toward her ears. He’s trying to sleep with her. Off camera, the man can be heard commenting on the girl’s visible discomfort. “I see your hesitancy,” he says. On the screen, the caption the girl eventually added to the video reveals that she has given him a fake name. Eventually, she reveals to him that she is taping. “I’m just doing a live and talking to some people,” she says, and glances towards her phone. That’s when he finally leaves her alone: not when he notices that she’s uncomfortable, but when he realizes that he is being watched.

The video (in two parts), posted to TikTok by the teenage user @maassassin_, immediately goes viral. Women, young and old, saw in the exchange a microcosm of their own experiences of being young girls, and of being approached, harassed, groomed or merely leered at by older men in ways that scared them at the time, and which they only later learned to put into context. The video blasted into the public consciousness on the heels of two high-profile cases of sexual misconduct by adult men towards teenage girls: first that of the Florida congressman Matt Gaetz, who allegedly paid a 17-year-old for sex, and second that of Blake Bailey, the Philip Roth biographer who is accused of paying untoward attention towards his middle school students, and of sexually assaulting some of those students, as well as another woman, after they became adults. Gaetz and Bailey both deny wrongdoing.

The incidents have prompted a miniature reckoning, with women reflecting on how much of their teenage years were spent navigating the sexual attentions of men many years their senior – and what it means when teenage girls’ experiences of male mentorship, early romance, and their own emerging adulthood is filtered so heavily through the lens of male desire and power imbalance.

Those early experiences of male sexual aggression are maybe one of the most reliable rites of passage for female children

Male attention creeps in at the edges of a young girl’s consciousness before she quite knows what it means. For my own part, I have a vivid memory of my mother dragging me out of a corner store after a man had been following me up and down the aisles; I was maybe 12. Before that, a different man once approached me in a bookstore, where I was hunched over a book about a girl wizard, and asked if I wanted to take a walk with him. I was nine. Neither of these men had been confused about my age: once I had been accompanied by my mother, the other time I was sitting in the children’s section of a bookstore. Like the girl in the TikTok video, my youth wasn’t a deterrent to their sexual attention, but rather part of its appeal: it signaled ignorance, naivety and insecurity, the kinds of things that men like in women because they make us easier to control. By my teens, comments and approaches from grown men had become a regular condition of being in public. Now, in my 30s, I have long since aged out of the demographic whose appeal to these men is extreme youth, but I still can’t always leave my house on a sunny day without a male stranger informing me that I have a big ass.

Those early experiences of male sexual aggression are maybe one of the most reliable rites of passage for female children. It’s more common than any of the other rituals that signal impending adulthood, more universal than the bat mitzvahs, or quinceañeras, or sweet sixteen parties, or proms. By the time a girl reaches any of these milestones, she has likely already developed a skill set for navigating the unwanted attention of adult men, and started to learn the delicate balance of signaling their own lack of interest, or of curtailing men’s interest, without escalating. Sometimes mothers will speak to their daughters about these incidents and how to defuse them, but more often girls are told to understand the approaches as flattering, or left to navigate them with little more than their own instincts and the commiseration of their similarly young and confused friends.

The message that all of this sends to young girls is that womanhood is a state that consists largely of receiving unsolicited male attention, much of it benign but much of it threatening, exploitative or hostile, and that their ownership over their own bodies, their ability to peacefully occupy public space, and their right to be perceived as the children that they are can all be abridged by the whims of a man’s desire. When the Florida politician Joel Greenberg discovered that one of the women he and Congressman Matt Gaetz were allegedly paying for sex was not a woman but a girl at 17 years old, Greenberg, according to reporting by the Daily Beast, told the girl that she was at fault. “She apologized and recognized that by lying about her age, she endangered many people,” Greenberg wrote. This, too, is one of the surest signs that a girl is becoming a woman: suddenly, she finds herself being held responsible for men’s actions.