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November 07, 2006

Comments

AmyF

May not be the best example here, but I just wanted to share another story and another point of view:

I'm 27 now, and when I was 20-22 I had a serious relationship with a man 13 yrs. my senior. I justified it by telling myself that we were in the same place in life: both undergrads (he was returning to school full-time), both with extremely limited funds, neither of us had past marriages or children. It turned out that we were in different places in ways I couldn’t have predicted, due to my relative lack of experience. Honestly, it was a good relationship overall (we had many good times, we had lots of common interests and great conversations) but I ended up leaving him because of the age difference. Basically, we were both intent upon doing age-appropriate activities and I was frustrated that he was so uninterested in hanging out with young 20-somethings doing crazy 20-something activities. He knew this and tried to be understanding, but I really wanted a boyfriend that would hang out with my peers as well as with me alone. Fortunately it wasn’t an exploitation scenario, and I think I was lucky in that respect. Early on he expressed concerns about what our relationship revealed about him: he wondered if there was something wrong with him, whether he was immature, because he liked someone so much younger. He was worried what other people thought (that he was being exploitative). And I talked him out of it, saying that he just walked to the beat of a different drum and that we really did connect well, until I realized that age mattered after all. We remain friends to this day, and I must say that’s a better situation for the both of us.

AmyF

I guess what I meant to illustrate in that rambling post above is this: most 34-yr-olds want a different kind of life than most 21-yr-olds, and that doesn't make for a great relationship of equals no matter how hard you try or how much you care for each other.

And if any "safe" older man in my life had ever hit on me as a teen, I would have been seriously, seriously disturbed and disgusted by it. Ew.

K

"what seemed exciting and fulfilling at 19 may seem hurtful and exploitative at 29."

This is a sad quote, but doesn't it describe a lot of what people do when they're 19? Couldn't you get similar quotes about joining the Marines, getting a tattoo, majoring in PolySci and being unemployable, majoring in engineering and missing out on college fun, having sex, not having sex, etc.?

And what should immature / inexperienced men do?

Is it possible that different men have different intentions in these relationships?

K

Amy, do you feel scarred or exploited, or did the relationship just not work out?

Don't relationships between people the same age often not work out due to interpersonal differences?

Hugo

K, adult men have no business telling 19 year-olds whether or not to get a tattoo. But they do have a choice whether to take them to bed. If the man is older ("larger", as Mara put it), he has the responsibility to consider the long-term consequences for his young partner. Simply taking her yes at face value isn't enough.

And yes, the same would be true for older women in relationships with younger men.

Reb

I'll definitely look back through those posts; this is a subject that I find interesting but also that I struggle with to gain some perspective. My parents have a vast age difference between them -- they got together when my mother was 20 (a junior in college) and my dad was 40 (working at the college, though not anywhere in her department). He had been married twice before, and had two kids, the older of whom was 14 when he and mom got together. Yet my folks got married and have been relatively happy together for 29 years now. Most of the problems they've had strike me as fairly normal marital problems, not anything resulting from their age difference. I've always been very defensive of their relationship, and by extension, of relationships that span huge age differences; the attitude my mom always had was that he makes her happy, and it would have been stupid of her to resist a relationship with him just because of the age gap.

But at the same time, I recently learned that one of my high school teachers had a relationship with a student teacher and they've got a kid together. I was pretty disturbed -- he's in his late 40s, and she's about my age (since I assume she was in college when she was student teaching, and I was also in college at the time). It freaked me out on a number of levels. And more recently, a friend of mine (28) has started dating a younger acquaintance (20). I know she's not that much younger than I am (about three years, almost four) but I look at her and can't help but notice how young she seems, and then when I see them together I have a gut reaction that something isn't right about it. Which goes against everything I believed growing up with my parents.

I know my parents are an exception and not the rule, and I can definitely see the dangers of cross-generation relationships. I suppose like any relationship, if people get into it for the right reasons, it can work; if not, then it's going to have problems (and potentially very hazardous ones). I'm just trying to get past my immediate reaction of telling people they're wrong when they say the relationships are unhealthy or can't work -- they can, but it's very, very rare.

(Sorry this was slightly pointless musings; I think I was trying to come to a conclusion and never quite got there. I'll definitely think on this further, though.)

mythago

You can know your dad enjoys seeing you in your bathing suit and you still feel safe

Um, WTF?

Sarah

Hugo,

Thank you for this series. I was 18 and dating a 44 year old. I thought I could handle it and I still think there was a lot in the relationship that was good for me in the long run, but it was fundamentally unhealty. All the power imbalence issues you hit on in these posts were there in spades. I wanted a wisdom and experiance in him that I didn't have. I emphatically insisted it was consentual at the time, and it was.... but it was not really informed or rational consent. It was a consent based on feeling flattered and sexy for the first time.

Laura

Yeah, I'm seconding that WTF...

Hugo

Sorry, I quoted from a longer piece in a letter that included an incident of molestation at the hands of her dad.

ks
And more recently, a friend of mine (28) has started dating a younger acquaintance (20). I know she's not that much younger than I am (about three years, almost four) but I look at her and can't help but notice how young she seems, and then when I see them together I have a gut reaction that something isn't right about it.

I started dating my husband when I was 20 and he was 27, we got married the next year after I finished my undergraduate degree. We've been together 9 years and so far, it's been a great relationship, and as equal as any marriage can be in this society (which is, compared to most of the marriages I've been around, more equal than most). But a lot of our compatibility, at least earlier on, came from the fact that I was never really interested in doing much of the typical, young 20s, wild partying thing that most of my peers were in to and he'd been past that stage for quite a while as well. We also had, and still have, a lot in common and quite enjoy each other's company. I've also always been a pretty assertive person and I don't take well to people trying to control me in any way. So I guess what I'm saying is that although wide age gaps, especially for younger adults, in general probably aren't the best idea for healthy relationships (and I would agree that in many cases it does make for a very unequal relationship and probably also at least a little exploitative), it can vary quite a bit among individuals.

Ampersand
In the wonderful collection New Versions of Victims: Feminists Struggle with the Concept, psychologist Lynn Phillips (who also wrote the magisterial Flirting with Danger) has the essential study on just this topic.

Hugo, do you know how the sample for this study was gathered? If it's a random sample, great; but if it's a snowball sample or something that was somehow self-selected, then I think we have to be very cautious drawing conclusions from the results. (Especially since the results are so supportive of what I tend to think anyway.)

Hugo

I'll have to find my copy again and look at the methodologies she uses.

Ampersand

Thanks! I appreciate it.

Mr. Bad

Amp said: "Hugo, do you know how the sample for this study was gathered? If it's a random sample, great; but if it's a snowball sample or something that was somehow self-selected, then I think we have to be very cautious drawing conclusions from the results."

Anybody want to bet that it was a non-random sample?

Also, Hugo, I'd like to know if it was peer-reviewed and if so, what journal it appeared in. Not only does peer-review matter - a great deal - but not all peer-reviews and/or journals are equally rigorous. A proper citation would settle this matter in short order.

Broce

Sorry, Hugo, to blow the theory here. I'm 48. As a teenager, most of my relationships were with men considerably older than I was, anywhere from 22-32.

In all those relationships I did act from my own agency, and I look back on them with great fondness. I learned a lot about men, a lot about myself, and a lot about life in all of them. In none of them was I exploited or taken advantage of. Did the relationships last? No, but then relationships with men my own age didnt last either. I tend to think most teenagers aren't likely to form lasting relationships, and the smart ones realize that the guy they think of as perfect at 15 won't seem that way at 30, regardless of *his* age at the time.

Generally speaking, there is a huge possibility for exploitation in any relationship between a teenager and someone much older, but it does not *have* to be that way. I wouldn't recommend a 16 year old date a 30 year old, but it doesn't always have to be exploitation, it doesn't always have to be negative, or even a bad choice.

Hugo

Broce, exceptions do not disprove rules, as we well know. The full name of the article which appeared in New Versions of Victims is "Recasting Consent: Agency and Victimization in Adult-Teen Relationships". I'll find more about her research methods.

Col Steve

Dang Hugo..first you tell me I'm over the hill since I'm past 38..and now you are making my fond "Bull Durham" memories of a very "attentive" local community sponsor when I was at a military academy turn into the notion I was merely a doorstop for her to delay quietly closing a door..

And Mythago..having a daughter closing in on teenage status, that line creeped me out too..

Mara

Be safe for your daughter and you won't have to worry about it, Col Steve. I sent that email to Hugo and I was describing my own experience.

Katherine

Just a further thought - my feeling is that age differences get smaller as people get older, if you see what I mean. My husband is c.5 years old than I am and now we are 30 and 35 that doesn't seem so big. When I look back at when we started our relationship and realise that I was 24 and he was 29, and I look at the 24 year olds that I know now, it seems a much larger gap. And since my mother now has a partner 20 years old that she, with whom she is the happiest and healthiest I have ever known her, I have to think that 56 and 76 is not so outlandish.

I think also that it is fairly normal for people in relationships with large age differences, who have parents in those situations, to feel a bit defensive about it. The negative voices all seem to be saying that it's a bit, well, icky and it's a fairly natural response to take umbrage when someone seems to think your behaviour, or the behaviour of those you love, is disgusting in some way. Not that I am taking umbrage on behalf of my mother, or suggesting that you, Hugo, are calling relationships with a large age gap disgusting, merely trying to explain what I think may be the feelings of those people above who have protested at your post.

Hugo

Indeed, Katherine. I am writing in reference to the sexualization of women in their teens and early twenties by significantly older men. I am not suggesting that a large age gap is as damaging when the younger partner is older. 18 and 30 is infinitely more problematic than 40 and 52.

Sara

When I was a teenager, I dated (and flirted with) a lot of older men, and it didn't seem odd at the time. I still feel like some of the relationships were pretty legitimately based on mutual attraction between two healthy people, but that's definitely the exception. What I find most striking looking back on it was how many men would mistake me for being older, when now I can see just how young a 17-year-old looks - and acts. I do think I was pretty mature and articulate and intelligent for a high school student, but you'd think all the talk of my teachers and my parents would tip people off. That a guy in his twenties would be interested in dating 16 year old me indicates that he is either no more mature than a high school kid or that he doesn't think of women as people at all. I ran into both types of men, and am glad that I got through the whole thing pretty much unscathed. My first boyfriend ever was 22 when I was 15, and while he wasn't exactly scary, he was obviously very lonely and emotionally needy and basically in the same emotional space as a 15 year old. My parents kind of knew we were dating, but I think they felt so sorry for him that they invited him over for dinner a few times and just tried to keep us from disappearing into some sort of weird relationship. (And it pretty much worked, by the way - things stayed pretty platonic between the two of us.)

labyrus

Is the the interpretation of the 30-year-old looking back automatically more correct than that of the 19-year-old? If so, why?

I think that this study says an awful lot about how we construct memory, but it certainly does not say that these relationships are neccesarily exploitive (although I think we can all agknowledge that they can be and often are).

I mean, a caution to people going into these kinds of relationships that they might regret it later is certainly in order, but young women aren't "flattering themselves" by claiming agency - they have agency, and sometimes it involves making mistakes.

I've known a few OM/YW couples, some have seemed quite health and happy, others creepy and exploitive. But regardless, as someone who isn't in such a relationship, I don't know. I DO know that relationships are unique, and not every one that fits into a certai catergory will be the same.

Hugo

Labyrus, to quote Joan Brumberg, the "agency of the young is oversold if not illusory." And the wisdom of the older fella lies in not taking advantage of a false sense of autonomy on the part of a young woman barely out of (or, God forbid, still in) puberty.

labyrus

Hugo, I'm not sure if I agree with you about agency of the young, but I do agree that for older men the wisest course is to avoid those types of relationships. At best those older men who seek out younger women are sleazy (and also, compelling examples that age doesn't always bring wisdom) - but I really dislike the idea that young women lack the agency to make the choice.

Making an incorrect choice and regretting it is NOT the same thing as being coerced. That isn't to say that coercion doesn't happen, but I think a relationship without coercion in spite of the age difference is definitely in the realm of the possible.

For the sake of disclosure: As a fairly young person myself (20), the discussion of the ethics of older men seeking out younger women is mostly academic for me. Although I do sometimes travel in younger social circles (my band plays all-ages shows and such), the idea of dating someone who's 16 is wholly unapealling to me.

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