I think we all remember Omegle. For most of us, it was a late night sleepover secret. For me, when I was 14, I moved school districts and started cyber school. I knew no one, and I had no friends in my new city.
There was one foolproof way of human contact: Omegle.
I could find strangers and have engaging conversations for hours. The concept of Omegle is interesting, and perhaps, it was even beneficial to me to have some of that outside contact.
However, what was lurking was much worse.
I would talk to anyone who was willing to hold a conversation, and often, it ended up being with an older man. Most of them were normal enough. We'd have a chat and go our separate ways, but there were some who took a real liking to me.
Being an unusually awkward teen girl, I was flattered.
Then, I was hooked.
My blurry webcam and a little makeup could give me a long night of compliments. I recall specifically one drunk man. He was 26. He said he couldn't believe how young I was. He was shocked. He said I acted so much older; I looked so much older.
Most of all, he couldn't believe that I was single!
He told me when I got to college, all those older boys just won't be able to contain themselves. The thought of that attention made me flush with happy anticipation. He came and went as fast as the click of a disconnect button. They all did.
Except for who we'll call Jay.
After two years of this on and off time spent with Omegle, I randomly connected with an attractive boy I talked for hours with. We exchanged Skype names, and before I knew it, I found myself in a strange, whirlwind romance that transcended state lines. He lived in Texas and went to college in Utah.
He was 20. I was 16.
This whole time, I just thought I liked older boys. Jay understood me and appreciated me in a way the immature boys my age didn't. He didn't look at me and see a strange wallflower -- I was cool and new. I was a pretty, fresh face. That feeling of him lusting after me was enough for me to believe that it was something, and that something was worth fighting for.
Quickly, he became something I wanted close to my chest. As someone who had never experienced love before, I suddenly felt longing. I wanted to be there with him. I wanted him to see me and call me pretty while we were standing face to face. I wanted him to call my accent funny and hold me.
I projected that same feeling onto his thoughts about me.
Jay wanted to keep us a secret. He told me he felt strange about how young I was, that he didn't know if he could "wait three years" until I graduated high school. I didn't like that, but I felt there were no options if I wanted him still.
We talked nightly for hours. I was starting to miss school because I would stay up all night to spend time with him. I was sacrificing my life for what felt like romance; a long distance love story against all odds that he would stand up and tell at our wedding one day. He always emphasized we could never really date though. That he would still continue relationships with girls in his real life.
He told me he didn't "do long distance." I naively hoped he would change his mind one day.
Don't discount me, I knew something was wrong. What I didn't understand was exactly why. I had a horrible feeling that my parents would somehow find my Skype information and confront me and I'd never have access to privacy again. I uninstalled Skype several times.
Without fail, I would always end up downloading it again. The thought of Jay on the other line somewhere in Utah wondering where I went was too much to bear.
I spent nearly a month running home to catch a message or a call. The rush his words gave me was nothing like I'd ever felt before. Someone wanted me. They wanted me so badly that they would continue a secret Skype relationship! Just for me!
Then, the calls became less frequent. I started to get anxious.
Was I not enough?
Was I doing something wrong?
I would ask him constantly, and he would tell me no. I would fall asleep with him next to me on the other side of a screen, hoping he hadn't hung up on me by the time I woke up. I wondered what he was doing in his free time.
I worried I couldn't compare to the girls his age. I imagined he would flirt with them after lectures and in the dining hall. I wondered if he was seeing someone else. I couldn't get mad, though -- I had agreed to it.
He was fading away and it terrified me. I had put so much time and energy into our relationship, and I thought he was willing to do the same.
The one night was particularly cold. I wasn't getting anything but one word replies. I told him I was worried. He proceeded to tell me I was too much. I thought too much. I ask too many questions. I didn't have a panic disorder -- I was too stubborn and I wouldn't calm down.
I had never seen that side of him. He was cold and angry.
I was scared.
I don't know what came over me, what higher power gave me the strength, but I uninstalled Skype for the last time. I blocked him on everything.
I took a deep breath, and I walked away.
Jay was a few months from being able to legally drink, and I had never tasted alcohol before. He had a car, and I was still a month away from being able to take my driver's test.
I hadn't yet lost my virginity, and in a sick way, that was part of the draw. One would think that bad experience would be the end of it, but my yearning for that feeling of romance again was too strong.
Not a year later, I downloaded Tinder. I was 17 and in 10th grade. The amount of men who didn't care about my age was flattering yet again. I must've been so mature and attractive that they were willing to bend laws for me.
No. I was being preyed on. The cycle continued for years. It took me almost a year of therapy to break off the most toxic, codependent relationship I had ever been in.
Yet, I'm still struggling with what I lost out on as a teenager because these men wanted control.
What these men failed to understand (or understood too well,) was that the power dynamic of the relationship was unbalanced. If an older man dates a girl in high school while they themselves are in another, later stage in life -- they are not on the same page.
The men who thrive in this power play are more mentally developed. With a snap of their fingers they can manipulate, gaslight or downright abuse a hopeless romantic girl in need of attention -- a younger girl who wants so desperately to feel connected to someone.
A relationship with this intense power imbalance can only cause damage. If that relationship ages, the younger girl will become attached in some way. She may and likely will become codependent, but it can turn much worse. Some women are financially dependent. Some have children with the person.
I'm absolutely not talking about every situation -- I couldn't possibly be. There's always exceptions and things that end right but this still deserves needs to be talked about. There are men out there right now waiting for the next doe eyed child (let's call it what it is, these girls are children still,) to stumble into their lives.
Hopefully, my generation learned something through these men grooming us on the internet. Maybe we can have productive talks with our children about the dangers of relationships with age gaps, and especially the danger of strangers; they could be anybody under a mask.
Hopefully, we can foster enough love to make sure it never happens to our children again. Hopefully, our daughters won't have to seek out a connection to feel loved -- they'll love themselves.
We need to open this conversation before it's too late for the next victim.