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In defence of ageing twinks

It’s tough out here x

There is a spectre haunting the gay community: the ‘ageing twink’. He is an object of pity and scorn; tragi-comic and embittered, desperately clinging on to something, occasionally drug-ravaged or otherwise scarred by excess. There are countless Reddit threads where people discuss his unfortunate fate and how one might escape it: these conversations are staggeringly bleak, with some approaching the idea with vindictive relish and others, clearly anxious twinks themselves, engaging in something approaching digital self-harm; anticipating their own bodily decay and permanent banishment from the world of desire. The ageing twink is mocked in front-facing comedy TikToks: “one day, you’ll lose your charm, you’ll be a husk just like me” hisses one 29-year-old character, while another bemoans that “23 is 40 in twink years”.

This idea that there’s something pitiful about being an ageing gay man has a long legacy. Take Jacques, the middle-aged gay man in James Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room (1956): “In some ways I liked him,” reflects the narrator. “He was silly but he was so lonely; anyway, I understand now that the contempt I felt for him involved my self-contempt.” Perhaps the contempt some gay men feel for ageing twinks always involves a degree of contempt for themselves, too. In my view, the literary ageing twink par excellence is actually a woman: Blanche DuBois, the brittle, fading southern Belle in Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire (1947). “Oh, in my youth I excited some admiration,” she tells a potential suitor, batting her eyelids and making sure to avoid harsh lighting. “But look at me now! Would you think it possible that I was once considered to be – attractive?" Recently I was shocked to discover that Blanche – this icon of decline, dissolution and lost youth – is just 30 years old.

I wouldn’t classify myself as an ageing twink, because I’m not sure if I was ever a twink in the first place: while I was thin and possessed a stark, preternatural beauty, I also dressed like the bassist in a Sonic Youth tribute band. But if I wasn’t a twink, I was at least twink-adjacent, and I can relate now to the feeling of ageing out of a specific type of attractiveness (slim, pretty, very slightly androgynous). Today I continue to have an extremely boring dress sense, largely consisting of chinos and black jumpers, which means that no one can accuse me of clinging onto a youthful aesthetic. In this sense, by becoming boring, I have swerved one of the most common charges levelled at the ageing twink: the failure to relinquish the past in favour of more age-appropriate aesthetics and behaviours; being infantilised, frozen in time and still listening to the same Cheryl Cole songs that charted when they were young. The twink is ditzy, naive and carefree. While these qualities are seen as charming in youth, past a certain point there is a cultural imperative to grow up. The ageing twink who rejects this embodies Carl Jung’s archetype of the ‘puer aeternus’ (the eternal boy), the grown man who rejects the responsibilities of adulthood in favour of existing in a state of perpetual adolescence. This is usually viewed as a tragic condition.

“The harder you attempt to stay twinkish as you get older and the more you try to wind it back and cover up the ageing, the older and more desperate you begin to appear,” advises one Reddit commenter. I’d like to think this doesn’t apply to me, but in my late twenties I do occasionally feel like a depreciating asset. I’m in a long-term relationship, but I sometimes worry that should I become single again, I will myself longer be desirable to the same kind of 30-something men who I used to date, who will still be pursuing the same kind of 23-year-old who I used to be. It’s jarring to reach an age where a 30-year-old is no longer really “an older man”, a development that seems to require some degree of recalibration of my place within the sexual economy.

“People resent twinks for the exact same reason they desire them, because they are blessed with youth and attractiveness. To age is the comeuppance twinks face for once having been fresh-faced, slender and beautiful”

People resent twinks for the exact same reason they desire them, because they are blessed with youth and attractiveness. To age is the comeuppance twinks face for once having been fresh-faced, slender and beautiful. As they get older, the men they might have one day rejected can take comfort in their good fortune finally running out, their ill-deserved capital dwindling at long last. How else to account for the disdain with which people talk about them? What have these people done to deserve such contempt, beyond getting older than 25 – a fate to which most of us succumb? The word ‘twink’ implies a degree of femininity and, in a patriarchal society, femininity is a depreciating asset. It’s always devalued in men, but being young and good-looking can have a compensatory effect. Past a certain point, however, to be a feminine man is often viewed as pathetic or even grotesque.

As much as people like to joke about “30 being 50 in gay years”, the truth is that if you’re masculine, muscular and, ideally, rich, then your sexual capital remains high well into middle age. More feminine or sexually passive gay men aren’t so lucky; to be a 35-year-old faggy bottom is often seen as a more pitiful condition than being a masculine top of the same age. This dynamic mirrors the straight world, where older women are subject to far more ageism than men of an equivalent age. You can see this expressed in the phrase ‘mutton dressed as lamb’, and its implication that clinging onto a certain mode of femininity is, past a point, desperate and sad. The disdain which people have towards ageing twinks is an expression of this same misogyny, albeit in a roundabout way. It plays into some uniquely gay anxieties as well: some queer academics have suggested that the valorisation of the twink archetype in the 90s and 00s was partly a response to the AIDS crisis, with ageing being linked with death, the deterioration of the body and the HIV epidemic itself. Whether or not this association lingers, it’s clear that a fear of ageing is common among gay men, just as it’s an animating force in society at large.

In sneering at ageing twinks, we are reproducing the values of the dominant social order (or at least that’s what I like to hiss at 19-years-olds in clubs when they ask “aren’t you a little old to be here?”) This idea is explored in Edmund White travelogue of gay America, States of Desire (1980). It’s a fascinating book, published immediately before the beginning of the AIDS crisis and therefore documenting a culture that was heading towards a cliff. In a section that takes place in Kansas City, White explores a dynamic where twinks exclusively date older men, then find themselves discarded once they reach their mid-twenties. When this happens, their sexual options are sorely limited, while the older men who tossed them aside continue to date a string of 19-year-olds.

Reading States of Desire today, the dynamic being described doesn’t seem entirely alien, even if it’s no longer as common or rigidly coded. But crucially, White argues that it was already old-fashioned in 1980, a throwback to an earlier and more repressed era which, by then, continued to exist only in places untouched by gay liberation. In New York and other sophisticated cities, the new ideal was “the hot man of 35” rather than the pretty young boy, and men in their thirties and forties were free to sleep with one another. The twink-and-older-man dynamic is a “game in which everyone loses,” writes White. “The beautiful boy can look forward only to outgrowing his looks and his beauty. The older man retains his attractiveness by virtue of his power and position in the world – a precarious perch.” The idea that twinks must become masculine daddies in order to retain their desirability is, in White’s words, “especially cruel to the shy, sexually passive lad who is prized for these very qualities when he is young and spurned for them when he is older.”

But the valorisation of the “hot man of 35” above “the beautiful boy” is a gendered one, as well as being related to age, and plays into a cultural imperative that we still see today: the idea that the best way to avoid becoming an ageing twink is to become more masculine, hit the gym, invest in a MyProtein subscription, and maybe take up topping. But what if you don’t want to do any of that? Being desired in a way that you don’t want to be is sometimes just as depressing as not being desired at all. The Beauty of Men (1996) Andrew Holleran’s majestically sad post-AIDS novel about an ageing man in small town Florida, explores this idea:

“After 40,” Ernie told him, “all men are looked on as daddies. Your trouble is you don’t want to be a daddy.” Right, thinks Lark as he walks downstairs. The sight of a real child walking hand in hand with a real father makes me melt – but to impersonate a marine sergeant, a football coach, the pop they never had – forget it! I’d rather pretend I’m a German shepherd.”

“There are a number of theories about how you can escape the condition of being an ageing twink. You can transition into something else, shed your femininity and become a daddy, a bear, a dom top”

For Lark, the problem is not that he can’t find anyone to sleep with him, it’s that doing so would require him to occupy a role with which he doesn’t feel comfortable. This is a compromise he’s unwilling to make, even if the cost of his refusal is brutal loneliness.

There are a number of theories about how you can escape the condition of being an ageing twink. You can transition into something else, shed your femininity and become a daddy, a bear, a dom top. The Twink-to-Muscle-Mary pipeline is particularly well-established. You can make up for a loss of one form of capital – youth, good looks – with another – wealth, status, or muscularity,  although none of these things are easy to come by.  But you can’t escape the condition of ageing. You can’t escape the inevitability of death. In a sense, every living creature on Earth is an ageing twink. It would be better for us all if we rejected these frameworks entirely; if we could disentangle sex and romance from the cold logic of the market, if we could try not to see ourselves and other people in terms of capital and assets.

Let’s face it, he thinks, we are all packages,” writes Holleran in The Beauty of Men. “An assemblage of elements. The traditional three are youth, beauty, cock. When you have all three, you are a god. When you have two of the three, you still do OK. But when you have none, you are in trouble.” We don’t have to capitulate wholesale to this way of thinking. At any age, there are people who want to be with you simply because they like spending time with you. Not everyone is as shallow as imagined when we talk about people ageing out of desirability; not everyone is going to react with revulsion at the appearance of crow’s feet or the occasional crack of a knee. We are not reducible to the slenderness, or otherwise, of our bodies; the dewiness, or otherwise, of our skin.