By Emily Osborn
This article contains mentions and discussions of grooming, which is a very sensitive topic for some people- please consider skipping this article if you feel it may cause you to feel hurt or upset.
To quote Foucault, power is everywhere; romantic relationships being no exception. In the media and amongst the general public, there is an idea that relationships that have age gaps are inherently bad or dangerous, often attributed to the power imbalance between the two ages. For celebrity couples such as Florence Pugh and Zach Braff, googling their names will automatically suggest “age gap” as a popular search term. For better or for worse, people are intrigued by age differences in romance. For most of our lives, our social circles tend to be composed mostly of people who are similar in age. Perhaps it’s this shared life experience that causes people to feel that relationships with large age gaps are somewhere outside of the societal norm. Social media has also hardwired our minds to think that youth and vigour are the pinnacle of beauty, to the point where most people cannot even fathom a person being attractive past the age of 30.
The existence of age gaps in relationships is, oftentimes, totally healthy. An ‘age gap relationship’ is generally defined as a relationship with a gap of 10 or more years in age between all parties. Many people reading the title of this article may think; “but my parents are 10 years apart in age, and they’re totally fine!”. To clarify, two consenting adults who are in an emotionally fulfilling and healthy relationship, no matter what the age difference, is totally wonderful for them, and the power dynamic in these relationships is generally completely healthy. Unfortunately, however, young people in relationships with large age gaps can be predisposed to experiencing unhealthy behaviours, and this is largely due to the power dynamics at play. Others, however, believe that criticising age gaps within relationships is outdated and unjustified for many reasons.
To give an example of the darker side of age gap relationships, grooming is the act of lowering the inhibitions and confidence of a person, young or old, to make it easier for the perpetrator to coerce them into a relationship- an act made possible by the existence of a power imbalance between the perpetrator and the victim. Grooming has been around a long time and can often unfortunately present itself within age gap relationships. While this doesn’t just apply to minors, young people are especially susceptible to this. Young love is powerful. I think very few young people escaped the mortifying ordeal that was having a crush on a 6th year in their school while they were a 1st year. The allure that came with being an adult, to the teenage mind, was totally mystifying. Attractive, even. Teenagerdom is a time when everything around you is constantly changing, and if your prospective romantic partner is older and has survived adolescence, it can serve as a powerful influence over your life. For many teenagers, including my younger self, being told that you are ‘mature for your age’ was an ultimate compliment, giving a sense of superiority from those around you. This is often a major contributing factor for these relationships forming. These relationships for young teenagers have the potential to be extremely toxic. There is nearly always a power imbalance between two people of different ages, and romantically, when one partner is considerably younger and more naïve than the other, it can cause a lot of pressure on the younger party to perform and act in ways that they are unsure of, particularly in the area of sex. The age of consent can mislead, as although the law states that a person is legally allowed to do something, it doesn’t automatically mean that the person is emotionally ready for it. Being in a relationship where one person has a lot more sexual experience than the other can often cause the other party to feel inadequate. This can strengthen the unhealthy power dynamic, as feelings of inadequacy in the bedroom may cause the younger party to be more likely to be coerced into doing things that they usually would not do, in fear of letting their partner down. On the flip side, however, others in age gap relationships may find the age gap to be a major turn-on with many people engaging with kinks such as ‘age play’ in the bedroom.
The effects of a power imbalance within these relationships can be different across all genders. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in the majority of age gap relationships, the older party identifies as a male. For young women and teenage girls, being sexualised from a young age is often, unfortunately, the norm. Young girls are often unsurprised by getting catcalled in their school uniform, as the ‘sexy schoolgirl’ trope is alive and thriving. This can lead to a learned acceptance of this treatment from older men. Young people are also influenced by everything they see around them, including online. In the age of internet romanticism, age gap relationships are painted as sexy, dangerous, and totally fulfilling. The idea is that these relationships are normal and healthy for young teenagers to engage in, that “age is just a number” and that being in a relationship of this sort means that you are wiser, and more mature than your peers.
Age-gap relationships are often portrayed in the media in extremely unrealistic ways particularly for young girls. Shows like Euphoria and before that, Pretty Little Liars portray these inappropriate relationships in a far rosier way than is the norm, and often portray the young women as weak or naïve, with the older male figure serving as a protective force. Young girls can be indoctrinated by all of this to think that engaging in relationships with age gaps at such a young age is okay. Conversely, for young men in age gap relationships, it can be extremely hard to voice concerns about their relationship to their peers. In the media, there is the idea that a young man dating an older woman is somehow aspirational, and the man should feel ‘lucky’ to be in such a situation. This can be an extremely damaging narrative as it forces young men into silence about potentially harmful behaviours within their relationship, and if they do choose to speak openly, they are often shamed to the point of them wondering if the problem was ever there in the first place.
However, while these situations occur, there are many tropes and stereotypes associated with age gap relationships that may make people unjustifiably wary of these types of relationships, even when there is no need to be. To give some examples, the ‘trophy wife’ iconography, for example, paints younger women in these relationships as manipulative gold diggers, whereas the ‘cougar’ or ‘milf’ image suggests that older women in these relationships are seductive temptresses- both stereotypes which are far from reality. Gigi Engle, a sex educator, argues that every single relationship, whether there is an age gap or not, has a built-in power imbalance. No two people are the same, life aspirations and wage packets differ, and for this reason, power imbalances in relationships can seldom be the result of age alone. Many people in age gap relationships often resent the idea that their relationship could be defined as unhealthy. One person I spoke to while writing this article noted that they felt the age gap within their relationship made them a wiser person and offered them a different perspective on life.
While the discussion around age gap relationships is slowly changing over time, it is still met with disapproving looks for many. But as long as both parties are consenting and happy, does the power dynamic, or the how’s and the why’s even matter? Maybe, maybe not- but age gap relationships will be something that we will continue to see in real life and in media for a while to come, and eventually perhaps articles such as this discussing and scrutinising the age dynamics of couples will be a thing of the past.
If you’re worried about any of the issues mentioned above, here are some resources to help-