The curious case of the girl and the “glamorous” older man

I was 16 and doing my GCSEs when he complimented my maturity.

I was 16 and still getting used to the feel of my teeth without braces when he would take me to dinner after school.

I was 16, still working myself out, still deciding how much space to take up, when I was seduced by an older man.

The thing is, accepting affection from an older man is easy when you’re 16, because you can never quite believe they’re interested in you. They’ve seen it all, done it all, they drive and pay bills and don’t worry about getting into clubs, all of which just seem so glamorous when you’re 16. They could surely have any woman who enjoys all of this too, but instead they’ve chosen you.

And so it begins, that flattery which leads to dizzying infatuation. Okay, so do those seven years between you really mean anything? Sometimes you stare at the slight creases around his eyes, the kind of hands boys your age just don’t have, and you wonder what you’re playing at. But then a girl friend tells you there’s a whole ten years between her parents. She’s as caught up in the thrill of all this as you are. Plus, loads of celebs have age gaps, and they’re forever crooning to the press about their contentment, and that contrast between her youthful vitality and his nature of level-headed maturity which just makes them “work”.

Maybe it isn’t that odd.

You’re happy, sickeningly happy. He buys you gifts you could never afford and compliments you on features that 16 year old boys never seem to notice. You whine about the transition from GCSEs to A-Levels, while he complains about inflating rent and car insurance. You don’t know each other’s problems — it’s been a while since he was at school, after all — but you try to empathise anyway, because that’s what girlfriends do. Things seem perfectly normal, perfectly grown up, and you feel assured that there is nothing at all weird, here.

But something is weird, and there’s no hiding it for much longer. You sometimes catch other people staring when you hold hands in public. The late night tell-alls and manic giggles with girlfriends go quiet as they seem to clock that this isn’t just a brief affair. Why has he chosen you? You’re fairly plain, a bit awkward in your own skin, a bit unsure of yourself; hardly the strident, self-assured women a man of his age should go for.

Later, it becomes obvious these shortcomings were the whole point of “us”.

A year later, I pull the plug. I’m 17 now, and starting to feel a little bit more confident about who Floraidh Clement is shaping up to be. I realise he is holding me back from dancing with friends to Marina & the Diamonds and drinking in fields until I’m sick on my shoes. I want to spend my money on cheap booze and Primark sundresses, not trains to his house and the times I wanted to feel grown up enough to pay for dinners. I want to feel 17, gloriously, confidently carefree and 17 — not 17, resentfully, because I can’t have a wine with my 24 year old “boyfriend”.

Something just became obvious, in between those curious stares and the doubt which crept when he made our relationship physical, too soon. A penny dropped.

This man needed me. He relied on me and all my dizzy infatuation to feel good about himself. But I did not need him. I realised that when he sobbed as I admitted to needing out, already edging away, almost shaking with anticipation for starting the rest of my life.

Curiously, it wasn’t until a few years later that I became hung up on remembering this time in my teens. The memories began to traumatise me, and I agonised over making choices I wasn’t mature enough to handle, spurred on by his insistence that I was “special”. I wanted to grab my younger self from the past and pull her to safety, taking her as far away from him as possible.

Because I realise now that young women don’t need older men to feel special. They need Barry M nail polish, books, and other young women to laugh with and share Tesco own brand cider. They need the sports they excel in and the papers they get As on and that weird hobby nobody knows about but which makes them feel like the most accomplished woman in the world. They need gigs, Rupi Kaur, that satisfaction when they finally nail winged eyeliner. Lonely men seeking validation are simply unnecessary. The girls have got it covered.

Six years on, I am 22. I am 22 and working for an enterprise seeking to empower young women so they won’t feel how I did at 16. I am 22, comfortable in my skin, the woman I always aspired to be, and those memories he left never stopped it happening.