It’s not judgemental to admit that age gap relationships involving teenagers are gross

An adult dating a teenager is always gross

Rather than empowering adult men to date teenage girls, we should be calling these predatory relationships out

26th October 2017

Child brides make us feel hella uncomfortable. Though weirdly, that the bride is a child isn’t what makes our skin crawl – we never feel a shudder when we see children play “weddings” or have a “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” in their class. In fact, couples who met and fell in love in childhood and are still together 20 years later are generally considered super cute.

The reason child brides feel inherently grim is the creepy and harmful power imbalance. It’s an adult man with a young girl. We know that’s fucked up. When one partner is more naive and has considerably less life and relationship experience, there is nearly always a power imbalance. One person’s “teaching”, “guidance” and “knowing what’s best” is another person’s manipulation and pressure.

It’s unsurprising that multiple studies have linked this kind of power imbalance to abuse and violence. In fact, the more vulnerable the girl is, the more likely this is to happen. For example, relationships with large age gaps are also more likely to occur where the individuals are poorer and less educated. Teens who were survivors of sexual assault are also more likely to date older men, according to US reproductive rights group the Guttmacher Institute.

But when it comes to the entirely fictional trope of the confident, sexually-aware teenage girl who thirsts after middle-aged men – something perfectly deconstructed in this piece by Anna Leszkiewicz – we have a huge societal cognitive shift. As soon as we get a hint that the girl is aware of her sexuality, we so often perceive her as having the wisdom and authority of a grown woman too; as if the minute you notice you have breasts, you become magically impervious to manipulation.

Paedophile characters

As a society, we’re more aware of child molestation than ever before and yet in 2017 we’re still subjected to these misogynist, one-dimensional characters. In (the allegedly problematic) comedian Louis CK’s film I Love You, Daddy, Chloë Grace Moretz plays a 17-year old temptress. Meanwhile, Woody Allen, who is still inexplicably making films, is currently filming A Rainy Day in New York, in which middle-aged Jude Law has sex with a 15-year old girl. I hope the character will be exposed as the paedophile he is but, knowing Allen’s own history of (at the very least) fetishising children, that seems extremely unlikely.

Age gap relationships where one person is a teenager are not healthy. Even putting aside relationships where the girl is under the age of consent, it’s dangerous to normalise these large age gaps as these films do.

I was the 17-year old mistress. The temptress. The concubine

I know this because when I was 17, I had a relationship with a man who was nearly 40. The man was married with young children. In fact, I was closer in age to his 10-year old son than I was to this man. I was the 17-year old mistress. The temptress. The concubine. In some ways I was mature for my age, while in others very immature. I’d never had a relationship with a boy and I was just starting to recover from crippling self-esteem problems that had prevented me from socialising a lot in my early teens.

In my case, going out with this man allowed me to get into bars, where he’d buy me lots of drinks because he was a GenX adult with two decades of career progression under his belt, and I worked Saturdays in a shop for £3.65 an hour. When the younger person is a teenager, it’s basically unavoidable that there’s going to be an imbalance in financial power.

I hadn’t had any practice with the complexities of relationships

I was a mardy teenager and intellectually superior to him – I was well-read, well-educated, while he wasn’t. This gave a false sense that our relationship had a level power dynamic. But I was also a people pleaser, I didn’t know my “worth” and I hadn’t had any practice with the complexities of relationships.

Power

I think I was drawn in because I didn’t have much in common with boys my own age and felt flattered to be considered sophisticated enough for a grown man to be interested in me, but even to this day I’m still not sure whether I was really making decisions or they were being made for me. His decades of experience allowed him to coerce and manipulate, testing my boundaries. Guilt trips were something he was an expert in and he’d pressure me into spending time with him when I wanted to do my schoolwork or hang out with friends. He’d routinely come and meet me at the end of nights out or while I should have been at school, whether I wanted him to or not.

I won’t go into too much detail about how we got together – only to say that I realised many years later that I had been tricked into sharing a bed with him in a move that had been carefully, insidiously planned among his friends, some of whom were men I trusted who were much closer to my own age.

The strange thing was, during the entire, nearly year-long, relationship, I neither fancied him, nor did I even like him as a person. He was embarrassing, pathetic and physically unattractive (despite also being incredibly vain). I knew it even back then. But I didn’t know what to do about it. Unless you want your parents to find out, you’re going to keep this kind of relationship more or less a secret. This leads to a whole lot of isolation and an absence of people to confide in. Your friends are just as young as you, so they don’t know what a healthy relationship should look like either.

Disgusted

As it happened, all my female friends at school were confused but accepting, because I surrounded myself with mature, loyal and broad-minded girls. But the boys were openly disgusted. They were kind-hearted, smart boys – and I wish I’d have realised at the time that their reactions weren’t only based on jealousy. On the other hand, the man’s friends seemed to think it was great (their eyes were wide when we met and I could practically see them salivating, which freaked me out, even then), though admittedly he probably only introduced me to other borderline paedophiles.

It was preferable for him to think I was attracted to him, in love with him, even

There are a lot of age gap relationships where the older person knows they’re manipulating the younger one. I’m not sure that was the case for me. It was preferable for him to think I was attracted to him, in love with him, even. But whether he was manipulating me deliberately or not, he was still doing it, and it wasn’t an accident that I was so young – as I discovered when I found out about other relationships he’d had with girls my age.

As a teenager, the future seemed such a jumble. At 17, you simply cannot picture 15 years because your memory doesn’t really go back that far. You can’t picture 20 years, because you’ve never experienced it. In fact, at that age, swelled with new found rights and privileges, I felt like I was the same as every other adult. Now aged 30, time has become significantly less plastic and I feel a gulf between my adult self and today’s young people. Graduates seem like teenagers, students like children, and teenagers like babies. The idea that people my age and older are interested in having a relationship with someone this young would be laughable, if it didn’t make me shudder. Some psychologists say it takes until about the age of 20 for the brain to be able to understand the full complexities of adult relationships, which wouldn’t surprise me at all.

Teenage girls in relationships with adult men are more likely to have sexually transmitted infections

Most of the research that’s available about the impact of teenage girl and adult man relationships is from the US. Planned Parenthood, the American Journal of Public Health and the Journal of Adolescent Health have all published data showing teenage girls in relationships with adult men are more likely to have sexually transmitted infections (STIs) and get pregnant.

Prey to predator

It’s not patronising or ageist to warn girls about adult men. Seeming to have some level of maturity or confidence doesn’t negate vulnerability. In fact, it’s sometimes the most vulnerable girls who look the most in control. That’s exactly what went wrong and is still going wrong in Rotherham, when police and social services decided these outwardly confident girls didn’t need protecting from sex offenders. It’s no different when girls are over the age of consent either. There’s no switch that gets flicked on your 16th birthday that turns you from prey to predator.

This relationship still affects me years later in ways I don’t expect or anticipate

While I was generally unharmed emotionally (I wasn’t beaten, I didn’t become pregnant or get an STI), this relationship still affects me years later in ways I don’t expect or anticipate; I burst into tears halfway through American Beauty when I watched it for the first time a few years ago. These days, if someone says the title of that film now or I see the iconic poster parodied, I get a sudden knot in the pit of my stomach.

I can always be thankful that my experience was relatively fleeting. I’ve never felt I was robbed of my teenage years, but there are plenty of now adult women who are unable to say that.

Instead of normalising and glamourising the behaviour of child molesters and predatory adults, we need to start to see the reality of these relationships through the eyes of the teenage girls, who so often don’t get a voice.

26th October 2017