When we published ‘Bitter Fruit’ in July this year, we received an overwhelming response from readers, many of whom reacted with painful familiarity to the themes at hand – namely older male tutors and lecturers at university grooming and harassing younger women. This essay is written partly in response to that work, and speaks to the manifold, complex range of responses we’ve been receiving. It also builds on the themes of ‘Bitter Fruit’, asking in particular, when the dynamics of power and consent of such an encounter are messier, and don’t fall simply into one category, how can they be written about, and how can they be lived with?
“I just want you to know”—he’s zipping up his fly, post shower and pre going back home to his wife—“that I didn’t say any of that stuff about your writing just to, you know.” He gestures, with a nod, at my crotch.
I’m nodding and he’s nodding and I’m confused and I think he is too – it must be the first time he’s, you know (had sex with a former student, had sex with someone less than half his age, cheated on his wife – I don’t know which, maybe it’s all a first).
“If anyone finds out this is happening,” he says, “I will lose my wife and my career and a lot of my friends.”
“I won’t tell anyone.”
I call my best friend as soon as he’s walking out the door.
Later that week at work, I mentioned in the office that I had kept in contact with one of my male tutors, and that he wanted to help me with my writing – had even offered to help me find a publisher, if I came up with a book manuscript.
A (female) work colleague’s immediate response was: “Does he want more from you?”
I just nodded.
“Ugh, the exact same thing has happened to two of my friends,” she said. “Do any of these creeps actually think that shit’s ever going to work?”
I read the anonymous piece ‘Bitter Fruit’ here on this very website the other week with mixed emotions. I watched from the sidelines as the large number of reactions and responses rolled in on social media – so many young women who had been hit on by their teachers, tutors, lecturers, mentors; so many who had lost their jobs, their professional contacts and their confidence, all as a result of rejecting unwanted advances.
I was grateful for the piece because I am a human being and a woman, and a friend of several young women who have been sexually harassed, assaulted or taken advantage of. To feel proud was perhaps greedy, given neither the story nor the courage it took to tell it belonged to me, but I did feel proud – proud to be witnessing it, and proud to be human and female and angry.
But I also felt ashamed. I identified with the story of ‘Bitter Fruit’—the grooming via praise of my work—right up until the author’s mentor actually made a pass and she fled, repulsed. My experience was different in a significant way: when my mentor made a pass at me, I let him.
I think my experience has given me some insights into this phenomenon that maybe other people don’t have; insights into why and how men try to navigate sexual relationships with young people they’re supposedly mentoring. I’m confused by and ashamed of the part I played in the experience, though; and that makes the story hard to tell.
As the door shuts my friend answers the phone, and I tell him the sex was good.
I talk to a different friend a few days later and tell him it was the worst thing I’ve ever done, and that I’m racked with guilt.
A few days after that I accidentally reveal the incident to a third person, and we laugh about it like it’s one of those stories I’ll tell my grandkids about the crazy old days.
I am rewriting the story, reframing it and reworking it and rewording it, trying to get it to make sense – trying to find a version I feel like I can live with.
I met him after I went back to university at the beginning of last year, having taken a year off. The subject this man was teaching was the class I was most looking forward to.
Here’s a blanket statement that I’m reasonably comfortable making: women always know when men are interested in them. Hyper-vigilance of this kind is a survival skill that most women I know have learned by their early teens, if not earlier.
Looking back, I can now say that the writing I did for that subject was pretty mediocre. But I was articulate enough in class; I’m quick on my feet, I’m pretty intelligent. I remember making students in the class laugh once or twice. I could tell he was more interested in me than in the other students, but I wanted to believe it was because he thought he’d found the next Helen Garner.
On the last day of class, he brought in some of his books “just in case” we wanted to buy them. In the interest of networking, I bought a couple. He signed one, adding a note to say that I should keep writing and stay in touch. He spelled my name wrong. But that was okay, a lot of people do – it’s a name you can spell a lot of different ways. And he’d get it right eventually, because of course I was going to stay in touch. I had a lot of ambition and no contacts in the industry, and here was a writer who thought I was the most interesting student in his class.
We caught up early the following semester at a café, and he told me I should write a book and that he wanted to act as an agent for me.
I called my dad after that meeting and told him that my writing tutor thought I should write a book! I was good enough to write a book! I was going to write a book!
“Who is this guy?” Dad quizzed. “How old is he? Why does he think you should write a book? Did you meet him in a public place? Sounds a bit suss to me.”
I was furious. Didn’t he think my writing was good? Was it so bizarre for me to merit non-sexual interest from a tutor? Outrageous! So unsupportive! Etc.
But I knew. At one point during our catch up at the café, he had made a sexual comment (about his wife) and then went red and couldn’t make eye contact with me for a few minutes. I wanted to pretend I didn’t know what was going on, but I absolutely did – like I said, women always do. And even though I wanted to believe my writing was good enough to merit his attention, there was also—and I am not proud of this—something gratifying in thinking that I was attractive enough to merit the other kind of attention, too.
The second time he contacted me about a catch up, I suggested we meet in the city on a particular day. His email back said he was really busy during that day but he could come around to my apartment during the evening?
I distinctly remember, at this point, commenting aloud to one of my houseplants: “That’s interesting.” I’m so tempted to remember this part differently: to claim that at this point I still had no idea what his intentions were. But I still have that houseplant – it sits on my desk and watches me while I write.
I said yes to his suggestion, but it ended up falling through. We tried for another time and he still really couldn’t meet anywhere but my apartment, for some new reason. So my apartment it was.
I told myself it was just a mentor thing. Writers, real ones, probably met up all the time at each other’s apartments. I wouldn’t know.
Before he was due to arrive, I showered and shaved my legs.
He’d brought beers and we talked about writing for a bit. Then he said, “You have a balcony.” I already knew this, the balcony being a permanent fixture to my apartment. I also knew that in order for two people to fit on the balcony, you have to stand very close together: a lot closer together than we were, sitting on separate couches.
We smoked on the balcony for a bit. He made it obvious very quickly that he was attracted to me – and eventually, after dodging clumsily around the point for a while, he came straight out and said as much.
I told him that I was attracted to him too. Which was true – at least, it was true in that I was attracted to the situation he was offering. Not only was I—like most young writers in the early and uncertain stages of their careers—unsure of my writing ability, but during my year off from uni I’d had an operation that had left my torso scarred. I was freshly unsure of myself in terms of my body, and of my identity as a sexual being. The prospect of having a sex partner who was older—to whom, I knew, my body would still seem ‘young’—was very appealing.
I am not trying to justify my complicity in what was a hugely inappropriate situation. I am not trying to insinuate that what happened was beyond my control, I am not suggesting that I wasn’t fully aware at the time that it was the wrong thing for me to be doing; I knew he was married, that he had children. There is no way of twisting the account to frame it as morally sound, and I’m not trying to. I am just trying to make sense of it; to tell the story straight.
To have someone—especially an older man—interested in me sexually, and to have him tell me that I was intelligent and talented, that my work had potential to be successful, hit me in all the places I felt most vulnerable. He kissed me and I let him. I kissed him back. He put his hands down my pants and I let him. Etc.
A few days after this encounter, I texted him telling him how guilty I felt, and that it couldn’t happen again. He called. I was in class; I had expected him to just message back.
I answered the call in the corridor outside my tute, a little irritated and jarred. I should have seen the phone call as a warning, I guess – him overriding boundaries I tried to set for our conversations turned out to be kind of his shtick.
He told me over the phone that he disagreed with me that what we’d done was ‘wrong’. He assured me that if anyone got hurt it wouldn’t be my fault. I insisted that it absolutely was wrong, surprised that point was even in contention, and that it shouldn’t happen again. He said that he guessed he just had to respect my decision, even if he didn’t agree with it.
We texted back and forth throughout the week, him gently trying to convince me that there would be nothing wrong with it happening again. I felt very confused and conflicted.
We met up again at my apartment at the end of the week. He read me some of his poems, he played me some songs he’d written. He told me, in detail, about his marital problems and his history of depression and his history of cheating on his wives. I was confused—still turned on by the previous flattery, still feeling guilty—and now it was also slowly (finally) dawning on me that none of this was about me at all.
He said things like, “I know that if we had sex again today, you would be worried about me afterwards.” (Had we had sex that day, I would have been worried about quite a few people, but he wasn’t one of them.) He tried to position me as sympathetic to him simply by telling me that I was. Because we’d had sex once, he assumed that I was dying to listen to all his problems, and that I had time and energy to expend on being a nurturing, understanding, doting young stand-in for his wife (who was “taking him for granted”). The expectation of post-coital emotional labour is a gendered phenomenon, one that I have encountered time and time again, but in this instance it took me by surprise. Wasn’t he married? Wasn’t he more than twice my age? How had he come to the conclusion that I was an appropriate person onto whom he could deposit his emotional baggage?
After he left my apartment that second time, I sent him a (this time much firmer) message saying that I wasn’t going to have sex with him again. I said that the things he was going through in his marriage were so far out of my sphere of experience that I was ill-equipped to support him through them, and that I felt completely in over my head. He responded with messages which, retrospectively, I can only assume were attempts at sexts – messages describing the softness and smell of my skin, the colour of my eyes. Telling me that he was touching me, stroking my face.
Alarmed and spooked, I called one of my friends and read the messages to him.
My friend said, “That’s fucked.”
I pointed out that I had walked straight into the situation. That I had encouraged him, that I had been completely complicit. Plus, I said: the man was sad.
My friend said, “No. That’s fucked.”
“Should I reply to him?”
“No fucking way.”
So I didn’t. I deleted them, because each time I looked at them I started to get the unsettling feeling that I was in a situation over which I had zero control.
I continued to get messages from him fairly regularly. If I replied at all I was civil but brief, in an attempt to get my point across without hurting his feelings. A couple of times, when I took too long (24 hours) to reply to his texts, he sent me passive-aggressive messages (“I guess I took a long time to mark your papers”).
Once or twice, I tried to steer the relationship back into a professional sphere. At one point I contacted him in a professional capacity to ask him if he had any contacts I could use for a task I was doing at work. Rather than simply responding with a few names, he took it upon himself to contact people directly, telling them he was working in an ‘advisory role’ for the company I work for.
Throughout our drawn-out Facebook Messenger conversations that afternoon about the ‘work’ he was doing on my behalf, he dropped a couple of suggestive hints. When I tried to deflect these hints, he responded saying that he still found me attractive, that I was gorgeous, and that since I’d ended the physical relationship he was “a combination of hurt and smitten”. I didn’t reply, and his next message was to tell me that he’d gone over my head and emailed my boss at the company directly.
I was fairly livid. I felt undermined and belittled and used and embarrassed. Convinced that the only reason he’d done it was to get a response from me, I also felt manipulated.
I was realising that the appeal of our relationship for him—whether it be personal or professional—was the status it gave him as the more experienced one, the more skilled one, the one whose career was more established. I strongly suspect that for many sexually predatory or manipulative men who mentor younger women, the mentor/protégé relationship isn’t merely a means by which they have access to those women – the skewed power dynamic is a turn-on in and of itself.
Soon after, he told me he’d written a story about me, “to help him process.” It was a “fictionalised version” of our encounters.
“I’ve written it,” he said, “from your perspective.”
I shouldn’t have said that I wanted to read it, but curiosity trumped any interest I might have had in trying to re-establish boundaries. He emailed me the story.
It was outrageous. He had literally written me out of the story and replaced me with someone completely different. The interactions we’d had were recorded verbatim, but in my place, living my life, was a ditzy, flustered girl who worried about not having read Lolita in preparation for a sexual encounter with a married man. Her poetry was “not that great”. She “shivered in his arms”. She “squealed” instead of speaking. He as a character, on the other hand—told from ‘my’ character’s perspective, remember—spoke with a “voice full of two marriages” and had a “ridiculously taut body for his age”. And “a thick cock”.
As I read, I felt shocked and humiliated, and slightly amused. When I told him there was no way he could send it anywhere to be published—and that, by the way, I didn’t recognise myself at all in the character he’d based on me—he told me my reaction was ‘cute’, and that he’d expected a response that was “more objective – less about u”.
I re-read it, closely, a few days later, and this time I was properly angry and insulted. There was plenty in there to take offence at, but what struck me the hardest was that the character based on me had been completely stripped of agency. She seemed so overwhelmed by the male character’s “taut body” and “wonderful poetry” that she was barely accountable for her own actions, always seemingly bewildered by the situations in which she found herself.
If he’d written a version of me that shouldered all the blame and painted himself as a helpless victim, I still would have found it infuriating, but definitely less sinister – for at least, in that scenario, he would have demonstrated awareness that I was a person with autonomy and the decision-making faculties of an adult. What he did write was, I think, much more damning than that – and scarily revealing about exactly how younger women are viewed by many older and more powerful men: as disempowered, as impressionable. As easy to take advantage of.
After this second reading, I sent him a very blunt and angry message. I told him in no uncertain terms that I wasn’t attracted to him, and that I was extremely insulted by his piece.
He said my reaction was exactly why he’d been hesitant to send it to me – because it wasn’t about me. He said I wasn’t the reason he’d written it – he wrote it to understand himself better. And, he said, it was fiction! The way the male character felt about the female character in that piece wasn’t how he felt about me (or my writing) at all.
He was both totally wrong and accidentally right, I think. It was about me, because you can’t co-opt someone’s narrative and then say it’s got nothing to do with them. But he was also right – because it was about him. It was about rewriting his cock to be thicker and his body to be tauter; it was about seeing himself through the warped lens of our fucked-up power dynamic. It was an exercise in wanking, in ego-stroking. He was rewriting a messy story, reframing it and reworking it and rewording it, trying to get it to make sense – trying to find a version he felt he could live with.
My version of the story—this version—is about me. It’s about reclaiming my own experience. Because I was not flustered, because I have read Lolita, and because I did not and do not ‘squeal’. I was—and am—composed and self-aware. I made some terrible decisions, and I was fully cognisant that I was doing so.
We do not have to be blameless in order to be angry. Our experiences do not have to be morally unambiguous in order for us to talk about them. We do not have to be palatable protagonists in order to have our stories heard and respected.
I’m telling this story here and now, even though it scares me shitless to do so. Even though I fully expect it to rouse some slut-shaming trolls from out of their swamps and onto their keyboards. Even though I fully expect the man involved to read it – and even though I have no idea what he might say or do in response. I’m telling this story, even though it is messy and embarrassing, and even though I still haven’t fully made sense of it all. I’m telling it because it’s my story to tell.
Recently, as I felt my own ego returning to its former health, I found myself indulging the thought that maybe the whole situation had been about me after all – maybe he really had been ‘a combination of hurt and smitten’. My rage had dulled enough for me to feel curious, and I went back and re-read his last message.
To send it, he’d had to pull up my name in Messenger. It’s now been over a year since we met. We’ve had sex. He’d sat on my couch and told me at length about his marital problems. He’d said he was ‘smitten’. He’d said he was going to help me publish a book.
He still spelled my name wrong.