What's Age Got to Do With It?
There are a number of studies out there regarding relationships with large age differences that have drawn some not-so-positive conclusions. According to studies by the Guttmacher Institute, women under 18 with older male romantic partners are more likely to engage in sexual activities and less likely to use contraception when doing so, putting them at greater risk for both STIs and pregnancies. We know that with “teen” pregnancies, more often than not, while the mother is a teen, the father is often an older teen or a legal adult. Today, about half of the births to teen mothers involve men ages 20-24, and an additional one-sixth are over age 25.
In 1999, a study about young women in the United States concluded that “[a]lthough the proportion of 15-17-year-old women who have a much older partner is small, these adolescents are of concern because of their low rate of contraceptive use and their relatively high rates of pregnancy and birth.” A recent study found that 6.7 percent of women aged 15-17 have partners six or more years older. The pregnancy rate for this group is 3.7 times as high as the rate for those whose partners are no more than two years older (Planned Parenthood 2004; Darroch et al., 1999) Another study in 2002 determined that “[y]oung adolescent females with substantially older partners are much more likely than their peers to have sex with their partner.”
ETR Associates also reminds us, via more data from AGI, that a substantial percentage of younger teens who have had sex have been forced. "Some 74% of women who had intercourse before age 14 and 60% of those who had sex before age 15 report having had sex involuntarily," as do 40% of those who had sex by 15, and 25% by 16 also reported, the Guttmacher Institute said. "Sex among young adolescents is often involuntary; it frequently involves a man who is substantially older than the woman, which may make it hard for the young woman to resist his approaches and even more difficult for her to insist that contraceptives be used to prevent STDs and pregnancy" (Alan Guttmacher Institute 1994, pp. 28, 73-74).
Those are some pretty sobering conclusions.
When looking at your relationship, ask yourself some questions: do you feel rushed, pushed, or pressured into sexual activities that you’re not interested in doing (be it at that moment, or ever)? Do you feel able to still have a relationship and a sex life that feels right for your age – not just your older partner’s, or the age you’d rather be -- and in some alignment with your peers’ experiences? Do you feel overwhelmed or overly impressed by their sexual experience? Does your partner express interest in your reproductive health? Are they willing to get a full STI screening, or better still, have they already been an adult and taken care of those screenings every year without your urging? If male, is he willing to voluntarily wear a condom?
An older partner will most likely be more experienced than you, sometimes much more so- it’s important that the two of you discuss this difference in both age and sexual experience both frequently and frankly.
Have they told you about their own adolescent experiences, relationships and worries, and asked you about your own? Have they expressed an interest in going at your own pace and talked about the ways age does make a difference rather than quipping the old-hat line “age doesn’t matter?” What about the things you’d like to try and are interested in doing- have they asked you about those?
This seems like a whole lot to talk about with someone- and it is. But, considering the statistics regarding sex in relationships with large age differences, making sure that you’re feeling comfortable, making responsible reproductive choices, and simply being happy in bed is crucial. If your partner isn’t interested in discussing these things and doing all they can to make them happen, do they really care about your sexual health and happiness?
All that Glitters…
It’s true what they say: power can be sexy. Often those older than us seem powerful in many ways: they may have (or seem to have) more money and freedom, more authority, more life experiences, more sexual experiences, and more knowledge.
It’s easy to be dazzled by those things, but behind all of them is a person, flaws and all. If someone appears flawless, it’s probably just that: an appearance- and anyone insisting on their own perfection is no doubt lying. You want someone to like you for you: it’s essential to return the favor. Be sure to see the entire person, not just the shine of someone older and (supposedly) wiser.
And, of course, make sure that they’re seeing the real you, too, not just someone who’s younger. Do they tend to seek out younger partners, or partners their own age? Why are they in a relationship with you? Is your partner supporting your life goals and interests, not just how you might fit into theirs?
If your boyfriend of girlfriend is telling you that age doesn’t matter or make any difference…well, they’re mistaken. Two people at two different times in their lives will always be different, and that difference will always matter: someone unwilling to discuss or even admit this is doing you a great disservice. Relationships built on false foundations will crumble eventually.
Partner or parent?
It’s not something that we always like to think about -- particularly when we're sick to death of waiting to be a full-fledged adult -- but there’s often a perceived (and actual) imbalance of power between a teenager and someone older, even when both people are supposedly on equal footing.
Think about it: up until now, all (or just about all) of the older people in your life were in positions of authority: teachers, parents, bosses, coaches. It can sometimes be difficult to switch to seeing someone older as your equal when just about everyone else older has been someone in a position to guide, instruct, or lead you.
Sometimes it’s this “default” inequality that draws people towards relationships with large age discrepancies. Emotionally or sexually, the idea of being lead or even controlled can be appealing. On the other side of the coin, the idea of being a leader- or controlling- can be appealing to someone, enough so that they may seek out a younger partner. One other factually accurate reality we do know is that commonly, teens in relationships with the largest age differences will be teens who have been without one ore more parents, who DO feel a strong need for adult guidance and care more than for a bonafide partnership of equals. If you really want a real partner -- not a parent or a teacher -- then you're going to want to be sure that you and the person you're dating both like one another for more than just your age. And as a young person in the world who has to deal with all manner of age discrimination, you probably also want to be with someone who respects you for who you are, rather than sees you as someone they can easily impress or manipulate to make themselves feel important or powerful.
Most people don’t want to be controlled- it can be difficult to accept that someone may be with you because they believe that you’d be easier to control, but not everyone has, consciously or no, an completely innocent intent when it comes to relationships.
A relationship may also develop into more of a mentor-pupil one than boyfriend and girlfriend (or boyfriend and boyfriend, or girlfriend and girlfriend…); while you and your partner might be alright with this, it’s critical for the two of you to realize that you always have the final say when it comes to what you will and won’t do, be it sexually or otherwise.
There are some people who enjoy sexual relationships that involve something called power exchange, which is when one person in the relationship pretends to dominate while the other pretends to submit. People for whom this kind of sex appeals to may find themselves, intentionally or not, with a partner older or younger than they are.
In both these and other “unequal” relationships, it’s best to discuss, honestly, if this kind of relationship is one both of you want to be in, and, if so, negotiate terms in order to make sure no boundaries are crossed and everyone is equally respected.
Where and When
Okay, you say- your relationship is balanced, sexually healthy, and you like them how they really are. So, everything’s good, right?
While everyone grows and changes at their own pace, a 15 year old simply won’t be in the same place in life as a 25 year old (and, frankly, if a 25 year old was, I’d want to know what they were doing for the past 10 years!). While not every relationship between two people in different stages of life is completely and utterly doomed, the fact that this difference exists has to be acknowledged and accepted.
How well does your life merge with your partner's? Can you hang out with their friends, and vice versa? Does their family know about you- and does your family know about them? If you’re not part of each others lives outside of sex or alone time, ask both yourself and your partner why that is. Do you live in the now, or do a good deal of your plans begin with “One day…” or “In the future…”- and if it’s the latter, do you want to really spend your time living in the future, or living right now? Are both of you okay with the fact that one of you may easily outgrow the other, or that the differences in your wants and needs due to age may result in a more temporary relationship than you'd like?
Age, Consent…and Rape?!
Before you read any farther, stop and make sure you know the answer to this question: is engaging in sexual activity with your boyfriend or girlfriend legal? If you are under the age of 18 and having sex with someone who is a legal adult, it’s possible that such activity could be considered statutory rape.
Statutory rape is defined as sex where one participant is considered not old enough to consent to sexual activity- even if both people say “yes” to sex, they must also be at or above the age of consent in order to have sex legally. The age of consent varies from country to country and state to state. A list of global ages of consent can be found here. However, please keep in mind that age of consent laws frequently change, and this chart may not be up to date.
Depending on the local laws, pressing charges in a case of statutory rape may not be up to you: it may be up to your family, your teacher, your doctor or to law enforcement. The results of a conviction can be prison time and/or (depending on whether this is in practice where you live) being placed on the sex offender registry- a searchable list of sex offenders that is accessible by the public. A conviction can limit where someone is allowed to live or the kind of job they can get: it’s something that drastically changes someone’s life for the worse, often forever.
An adult is responsible for their own actions and being aware of the possible consequences: there is no reason for them to decide to engage in behavior that could result in a rape conviction, not only for their own sake, but for yours as well. Someone who cares about you wouldn’t want to risk putting you through the stress and trauma of dealing with being involved in a rape case- they should be willing to wait and spare both of you such dramatic, troubling consequences.
A side note: there are types of relationships that, while not illegal, can result in one person (generally the older person) losing their job (like a teacher-student relationship, for example). These relationships, too, are wise to avoid.
So, Can It Work?
By now you’ve torn your hair out and concluded that a relationship with an age difference can never work, I’m sure. Is it possible? The answer: well, maybe.
The thing to remember is most relationships don’t end in “happily ever after”: they simply end. A relationship that doesn’t end in marriage or last for years and years, however, is not necessarily a failure. You can create a bond with someone that enriches your life and makes you happy- even if that bond breaks or changes it’s still something to treasure. While an age difference is most certainly something that can get in the way of having such a relationship, it’s not an automatic death sentence.
Some steps you can take towards building a successful relationship include:
- Talking about age- yep, that’s right, age! The two of you are already very different because of your ages: explore those differences by talking about past experiences, what it was like when they were your age, and what you think you’ll be like when you’re older. Acknowledge those differences and find ways to bridge gaps by talking about them honestly and realistically.
- Discussing sex and sexual health, and taking care of your reproductive health- and that goes for both of you! Get STI screenings and discuss birth control options as well as your sexual limits and boundaries. Make sure that one of you isn’t taking all the responsibility for those discussions or those behaviors.
- Find some common ground- or make some! Share each other’s favorite music, books, and movies. Introduce each other to new favorite foods, or savor your love of pepperoni pizza together.
- Take it outside! Meet each other’s friends, go to movies together, museums, family gatherings, work or school parties or even just the food court at the mall.
- Be your own person, and spend time alone- yes, alone! It takes two people to make a successful relationship: make sure you don’t lose your individuality, and that you continue to grow as your own, unique person. You will probably grow and change faster than your older partner will- and that’s okay.
- Read more of Scarleteen’s articles! Pretty much every article on this site about enhancing a relationship applies to you- and you’re already here: you might as well take a look at them while you’re at it!
Let’s face it: sometimes, the reason we like someone and they like us back isn’t about age difference, in the same way that mutual like or love isn’t always just based on being the same age. Sometimes, we just like someone for who they are and because we get along well, and vice-versa. And just as with other kinds of differences – like those due to differing religions, differing economic statuses, living in different places – sometimes we can make our differences work together and have a healthy relationship.
In the end, it’s up to you to evaluate your relationship and determine if it’s the right one for you, right now, even with a potential stumbling block such as an age difference. Take a long look and decide for yourself.