Comedian Dane Cook and his wife Kelsi Taylor (Photo by Matthew Simmons/Getty Images for SBIFF)

Everybody I hate is a groomer

Hyperbole and hysteria in the rule of empire of online puritanism

Artillery Row

You’re a victim. Yes, you! Had a bad relationship? Poor fit, was it? Okay, but there’s no social cache in that. Have you instead considered posting a tearful instagram story about how you were groomed and an official capital “V” victim, because of the problematic two year age gap? Perhaps you slept with your boss. Stupid? Too much to drink at the office party? Actually, were you groomed by all the times he gave you bedroom eyes during the weekly all-hands? Are you currently about to marry the love of your life, but he earns considerably more than you? Call off the wedding — you’ve been groomed.

Am I making light of grooming? No, you are. Not you, dear reader, the collective “you” (American liberals would give it as “y’all”). Our culture has trivialised grooming to the point of absurdity. Those of you unfortunate enough to be online may have encountered something called “age-gap discourse”. Over-excited zoomers work themselves into a fit of moral dudgeon and fake concern trolling over typically famous couples with a significant age difference. I say “couples”, but I mean, inevitably, heterosexual pairs in which the man is considerably older. Nobody is obliged to approve of anyone else’s relationship, but once upon a time the sight of a flashy young woman on the arm of a sweaty balding executive meant someone was about to get taken advantage of, and it wasn’t the woman.

A recent example was the online furore over the marriage of American comedian Dane Cook (51) to Kelsi Taylor, a 24-year-old fitness instructor. The couple had been dating for six years, which drew the especial ire of the age-gap hysterics. Nobody is obliged to approve of such a large age-gap. You can find it gross, or think it unfair. Nonetheless, when there are women and girls being violently exploited in their millions in the most brutal ways imaginable, it’s hard to think of a young woman marrying a millionaire celebrity as a victim.

This is far from the only misuse of the term in contemporary debate. No less prominent is a right-wing phenomenon whereby every absurdity of liberal sex education is denounced as “grooming”. There are subtle and good arguments about why boundaryless and gender-confused social settings are a safeguarding nightmare, and how they leave children more vulnerable to being groomed. A strong case is often in practice trivialised and thrown away, however, in favour of a storm of undirected and fruitless online screaming about cabals of groomers secretly planning to molest your kids.

Equally, there are legitimate concerns over power imbalances, workplace relationships and large age gaps. Such relationships certainly have the potential to be abusive, but then so do even the most apparently equitable of relationships. What becomes truly disturbing about age gap witch hunts is that evidence is irrelevant: the age gap is the abuse for those who subscribe to the idea. Perhaps we will discover that Dane Cook’s relationship is not all it appears — but other than the age gap between the couple, no proof of this has been forthcoming, even as thousands baselessly smear him as an abuser.

Before we go any further, let’s be clear about what grooming actually is. It matters that we don’t casually throw the term around, even in reference to immoral, inappropriate or unwise behaviour. In Eastern and Central European countries, right now, there are young women, many of them teenagers, who believe they are moving to richer countries with their boyfriends. Their seemingly nice, charming boyfriends are actually people traffickers, who are planning to steal their passports and sell them into prostitution. That is grooming. In Rotherham and Rochdale, Pakistani men offered young teenagers rides and meals. They invited them to parties. They plied them with alcohol and drugs. Then they prostituted them, raped them and passed them around like objects. Not every case of grooming is so extreme, but they all share the same qualities of deep, cynical cruelty that preys upon naivete, innocence, and young minds and bodies that can be manipulated for the pleasure of others. In every university in this country today, at this very time of year, perhaps at this very moment, students are arriving in halls for the first time and encountering “shark week”. Teenage girls, often away from home for the first time, drinking heavily and surrounded by strangers, are targeted by older boys and men, who see a chance to take advantage of them. This, too, is grooming. Nor is every act of grooming sexual. Children are cajoled and threatened to hold weapons and drugs for criminal gangs; terrorist organisations persuade young men and women to isolate themselves from friends and family then strap on a suicide vest.

It’s not merely that “grooming” represents an extreme — it’s that it describes a particular evil. Not every murder is an assassination; not every betrayal is treason. Language matters. Grooming is not a generic term that can be applied to every power differential or inappropriate relationship. It refers specifically to forming a relationship with someone, typically (but not always) a younger person or a child, on the basis of false pretences. It can be an apparently authentic romance, a friendship, a mentoring relationship or a secret correspondence. The relationship appears to be one thing to the victim, but it is really a mechanism for the perpetrator to get what they want, whether it’s money, sex or power.

There’s something especially rage-inducing about the use of the term by would-be internet vigilantes obsessed with age-gaps, trying to elevate their own voyeuristic social media addiction to some kind of moral crusade against the groomers, as with the recent moral panic over Dane Cook’s marriage to a much younger woman.

They deny that women exploited by the sex industry have been groomed

If we pick at some of the beliefs and attitudes of those currently howling the loudest, we quickly discover inconsistencies. The age-gappers are largely young and very liberal, and they are often fiercely opposed to so-called “TERFs” and “SWERFs” (trans and sex worker-exclusionary radical feminists). In other words, they see women who choose to strip, film porn or sell sex as potentially empowered by these acts. They routinely deny that most women exploited by the sex industry have been groomed, whilst claiming that wealthy and glamorous celebrity women in consensual adult relationships have been.

There’s very little self-reflection. Many of the men who are declaring themselves to be creeped out by such relationships will be habitual consumers of porn — and, as we know, a vast proportion of porn features girls who are, or claim to be, teenagers. Likewise, I doubt that gender-bending David Bowie is going to disappear from pop culture despite his having allegedly slept with a 14 year old girl. He’s still regularly cited as an inspiration across the arts, including by the ostensibly feminist film Barbie — which was fitting, as a David Bowie doll was released by Mattel only last year, with the description praising him as a “cultural vanguard”.

Grooming is something that supposedly only happens to women and girls. No groomer discourse was unleashed when 43 year old British comedian Simon Amstell admitted that his “type” is 18 year old boys. Instead, this revelation (along with the well-established commonality of age-gap relationships amongst gay men) got a sympathetic write-up in the Independent, which noted that many gay men fixate on this type because of unrealised teenage desire. This may well be true, but there are also plenty of heterosexual men who don’t get to act out their adolescent urges — would we be equally comfortable with a 43 year old man saying that 18 year old girls were his “type”?

An age-gap does not render a relationship exploitative, but it is striking that a stable, long term heterosexual relationship is being denounced as “grooming”, whilst gay men who openly pursue teenage boys fetishistically are treated as victims of homophobic conditioning. In the shifting, slippery logic of fashionable opinion, very little makes sense, and disturbing echoes proliferate. Frustrated sexual desire is considered sacred to us in one instance, but it’s no less sacred to Humbert Humbert in the novel Lolita, who blames his fixation on underage girls on an unconsummated teenage romance. We are supposed to be “true to ourselves” and pursue our dreams, but many dreams are nightmares, and many desires are wicked. It’s a contradiction our world finds itself unable to reconcile.

In reality, heterosexual and homosexual men alike are attracted to younger partners — a fact of biology, not cultural conditioning. The cultural bit — needing a stable partnership, someone who can put down a mortgage, a person in the same stage of life who shares your habits of thought — is what sees the vast majority of heterosexual couples having relatively small age gaps. Couples like Cook and Taylor (the former is estimated to be worth $35 million) live in another world from the rest of us, and they are hardly representative.

Biology shadows this often absurd debate. The reaction to large age-gaps is often visceral rather than rational. People don’t find it immoral — they find it gross. It’s an interesting phenomenon. In some instances (and I suspect in this one especially), they protest too much — Dane Cook is handsome, rich and famous; the couple have an Instagram feed plastered with idyllic adoring images of their apparently perfect lives. Straightforward jealousy provokes people to find some imagined flaw that can mar the oppressively flawless image they project. Age gaps allow internet busybodies to play hero, whilst tearing down the glamorous couple.

Today there are far fewer acceptable objects of collective disgust

There’s also something more primordial going on. Gen Z loves talking about the ick, but in a world that has banished racism, sexism and homophobia as legitimate sentiments, there are far fewer acceptable objects of collective disgust. Mixed attractiveness couples generate a disgust reaction, usually along sex lines (generally speaking, men are grossed out by a handsome man with an ugly woman, but women aren’t, and vice versa). With notable exceptions, many mixed age couples are also mixed attractiveness couples. As people are often repulsed by the signs of age apart from general attractiveness, age will render a perception of one of the partners as more unattractive.

Under a false layer of concern, age-gap discourse conceals our darkest collective urges: our desire to judge, a sadistic glee in punishment and public humiliation, the impulse to control. In the online arena, all of it is, most poisonously of all, para-social. In other words, none of the people screaming know the couple, understand the true details of their life together, or whether the relationship is healthy or unhealthy. There’s a creepy glee in eager speculations that the couple can’t really have started dating when Kelsi was 18. They know the couple are lying — it was really 17. No — earlier, he first bumped into her at the age of 15 — he’s been grooming her ever since, just waiting to unleash his evil plan: marrying her for life.

It’s that last detail that really irritates. Marriage can sometimes be an outcome of grooming — if you’re a Pakistani child bride. Not so much if you’re a 24 year old woman, in the modern West, with a career, and your relationship is being acted out in the full glare of social media and the press. Groomers are not looking to form lifelong, equitable relationships. It’s insulting to compare consensual, adult relationships, regardless of whether you approve of them, with grooming.

Empowerment is a funny thing. Young women who are paid to take their clothes off for middle aged men are treated as powerful by fashionable opinion, yet the ones who marry them are considered victims. Feminism’s distinctive and challenging message was to reimagine the limits of women’s potential. The very earliest feminists, in fighting for women’s education and the vote, argued precisely that social constraints on the lives of women were infantilising — women should be liberated to take responsibility for their own lives and for society at large. Perhaps uncoincidentally, many early feminists in Britain were conservative with a small and a large “C”.

In a very different social media phenomenon, a video of a Mexican woman running with her hair loose was shared by a number of Arab language accounts. Hundreds of women in the Islamic world expressed their sorrow that such a sight is unimaginable in the Middle East with comments such as:

“I hope to feel this feeling.”

“She is living my dream.”

“Sad how I’m not allowed to do this.”

It’s depressing that whilst millions of women long to take charge of their own lives, the loud-mouthed Twitterati think women should go back to being sheltered victims, no longer accountable for their choices. There are, sadly, no shortage of women who truly are victimised, and their stories deserve to be heard. For goodness’ sake, stop worrying about the ones who are happy with their lives and choices.

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