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There doesn't seem to be a week that passes at Scarleteen where we're not helping a user who is in some kind of crisis -- and often a whopper -- with an older male partner: pressured sex or a sexual abuse, a pregnancy scare (usually due to the guy having any and every reason why other guys can use condoms, but he's the great exception to every rule), a newly-acquired STI (again with the condom refusals, sometimes paired with lies about testing and sexual history), an abusive relationship (and often combined with a pregnancy scare, pregnancy or STI), isolation from friends or family (often because said boyfriend is doing the isolating), or trouble doing things that enable life goals like getting through college or finishing an important project because Mr. Wonderful sabotages those efforts.
I'm aware -- including in my personal life, having been in more than one healthy age-disparate relationship with an older partner -- that not every older boyfriend is abusive, exploitive or a waste of breatheable air. Your older boyfriend may be someone who is a stand-up guy, who is aware that age does matter and treads lightly to avoid exploiting you in any way. He may be someone who does care deeply for you, has all the respect in the world for you, and demonstrates that clearly and consistently in your relationship.
By no means do I feel it is impossible for any man to be a good guy in relationships with an age gap. If I thought men were simply incapable of being decent human beings at any age, I'd probably be a lot less pissed off at the guys who aren't, because it wouldn't be a choice. But it is, and some make the choice to be much less than decent.
So unfortunately, I'm also all too aware -- as is every single reproductive health and teen advocacy group in the nation -- that the rule, rather than the exception, is that your older boyfriend is more likely to be bad news than good. And the younger you are, the more statistically likely it is that your older partner is going to spell major league disaster for you.
It's my responsibility to manage feelings I experience when doing my job. There are times when working in this field leaves me feeling sad, troubled, worried, irritated or steaming mad, and I do my best not to dump those feelings unto those who talk with me or vent them inappropriately. But I also think it's my responsibility to earnestly treat you like the mature person I think you are or can be, like the adult you are becoming. Sometimes that means, as we do with people we care for and respect, saying things I feel need to be said which might not be what you want to hear, and which also may arise out of some not-so-pretty feelings working as your advocate and ally can leave me with.
So, your older boyfriend who isn't the exception to the rule? Or the one you think is, but for some strange reason no one else seems to think so, and all the parts of your life he has his fingers in seem to keep running amok?
Yeah, that guy.
As of late, I have to admit that I am becoming seriously pissed off at that guy, for a whole lot of reasons I want to tell you all about.
I feel like he chose you because he thinks you can be convinced he's as good as you're going to get: when the truth is that you are the one who is as good as HE is going to get. I feel like dating someone as smart, gorgeous, fabulous and awesome as you are is something he does in part to make himself feel more important than he actually is. I feel like he thinks it's okay to use you to make others think better of him than he actually deserves. I feel like he chose you because he thinks "getting" you is an achievement all about him, not a partnership about both of you.
I feel like he chose you because he thinks that he can be held to lower standards by you than someone closer to his age would hold him to. I hear you when you tell me that you value his picking you, that someone older and wiser choosing to be with you makes you feel important, but I don't understand why when he doesn't act like someone older and wiser. I know he tells you how mature for your age you are, and how your maturity puts you "on the same level." The part he always seems to leave out is that if you are on a similar level of maturity, it's only because he is immature for his age.
I feel like he chose you because he thinks you're stupid. Which particularly sucks because you're not.
But why else would he tell you things like how different from other girls you are, like that he's sterile -- and isn't it wacky that so many guys who are apparently sterile are ALSO the guys who refuse to use condoms, or who don't want you to have any sexual boundaries? (Isn't it even wackier still how many of those apparently sterile guys wind up miraculously getting girls pregnant?)
Why else would he tell you you're the first girl he really liked when you aren't, or you're the first person he's done this or that sexual thing with when he's done it with others before? Why else would he tell you that your friends and family aren't thinking in your best interest when they point out crummy things to you about him which he knows are true? Why else would he tell you that guys your age can't do the things he does when many of them can... and then some? Why else would he tell you he's thisclose to getting a job, thisclose to getting his own place, thisclose to paying you back the money he owes you when he's not gotten off the couch and logged off World of Warcraft for days or given you five minutes of guilt-free time with your friends to even be within a 50-mile radius of those things?
Why would he tell you any of these things and earnestly expect you to believe them if he knew you were smart? And I feel like he doesn't care one whit when he lies to you, because it seems worth whatever it gets him.
I feel like he chose you because he thinks you'll never amount to much. Enough, perhaps, for him to enjoy the fruits of your efforts or labors, but not enough for him ever to feel like you're his equal or that you might surpass him in any way.
I feel like some of why he chose you is because you're isolated in some way, feel a bit like an outsider, or are without enough support in your life from others. I've watched him choose you because you belong to more than one oppressed group, and thus seem easier for him to lord over: because you are female, because you're of color, because you are poor, because you haven't completed your education, because you have an addiction, because abuse has been your norm, because you are an immigrant, because you are already a teen parent.
I feel like he chose you because he sees or senses something in you that makes you more vulnerable to his bullshit: like that your parents aren't around, seem to be clueless, or set their standards for themselves so low that they also have low standards for you. Like that you're already wounded in some way that makes it tougher for you to recognize danger when it's whispering sweet nothings in your ear. Like that you think you aren't thin enough, pretty enough, sexy enough or aren't enough of anything at all, not even enough for a jerk like him, so you feel lucky he chose you while he's busy making you unlucky as hell. Like that you're in one of those states of limbo we often find ourselves in in our teens where we get lost for a while and have trouble with school, family or our own goals and dreams. Like because he knows someone younger has limited life experience which makes it harder to see when something or someone is bad news.
I feel like he chose you because he thinks that the biggest rebellion you have in you isn't changing an unjust rule or law, fighting for the rights of people who need a voice, advocating for yourself when no one else will, winning something everyone said you couldn't, or telling the whole freaking world to piss off when that's what needs to be said, but... just dating some creep who will irritate off your parents.
I feel like he knows -- and enjoys -- that he has more power than you do right now due to his age or gender, and that rather than seeking to share it, or helping you nurture and own your own power, he wants to keep his power, and take yours from you to have it all for himself.
And I know that he knows that age matters, despite his telling you, or agreeing with you, that it doesn't.
He knows that because he's been your age before, and knows that things are different for him at the age he is now. When you're his age, you'll know that, too, but he also knows you don't know that yet.
Me, hopping mad.
One reason I get so deeply angry is that I am tired of watching your "mature" boyfriend turn you into a statistic, like one of these:
- Nearly one in five adolescent girls reports having sex with a partner three or more years older. These girls are at increased risk of acquiring a sexually transmitted disease because they are less likely to use a condom — possibly a result of unequal power dynamics in these relationships. This power imbalance might also increase their risk for violent victimization by older partners. (National Institute of Justice)
- Teenage girls with older partners are more likely to become pregnant than those with partners closer in age. (Planned Parenthood, 2004) Further, girls who get pregnant are more likely to have the baby rather than get an abortion if their partners are older (Alan Guttmacher Institute, 1994). 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). When the age separation of the male is at least six years older, the 15 to 17 year old female is almost three times as likely to be one of those who later became counted as a teen pregnancy (Family Planning Perspectives). Teens who date older partners have a lower likelihood of consistent contraceptive use. For each year a partner is older than the respondent, the likelihood of always using contraception decreases by 11 percent. (Child Trends, 2004)
- Younger and foreign-born teens, with lower parent education, with older friendship networks, and attending a school that spans multiple grades, had greater odds of having a first sexual experience with an older partner than with a similar-aged partner. Hispanics and premenarche females had lower odds of having an older sexual partner than of abstaining from sexual intercourse. In contrast... lower parent education, nonintact family structure, less connection to parents, substance use or having peers who used substances, and having older peers were associated with increased odds of having sex with an older partner, compared with not engaging in sexual intercourse. (Risk and protective factors associated with the transition to a first sexual relationship with an older partner, Journal of Adolescent Health, 40(2), 135 - 143)
- Ten percent of females and 2% of males has had early sex with an older partner. These females were more likely to acquire an STD as young adults than were those whose riskiest relationship was before age 16 with a similar-aged partner (odds ratio: 2.1) or at age 16 or later with a similar-aged or older partner (2.4 and 2.6, respectively). (Perspectives on Sexual and Reproductive Health, 2008, 40(1):17–26 )
- Data from a 1993-1994 survey of 150 black and Hispanic teenagers were used to examine differences in HIV risk-related behavior between young women who have a first sexual partner three or more years older than themselves and those whose first partner is their age. Compared with teenagers whose first partner had been roughly their age, the 35% of adolescents with an older partner had been younger at first intercourse (13.8 years vs. 14.6) and less likely to use a condom at first intercourse (63% vs. 82%). They also were less likely to report having used a condom at last intercourse (29% vs. 44%), having used condoms consistently over their lifetime (37% vs. 56%) or in the previous six months (44% vs. 66%). (Family Planning Perspectives, 1997, 29(5), 212-214) Nearly one-third of black female teens with older partners are more likely to report low rates of contraceptive use and high rates of pregnancy and childbirth.
- Women with older partners were more likely to have reported that they had been forced to have sex at some time in their lives and that they had first intercourse in more casual relationships rather than long-term relationships (e.g., going steady or engaged). The researchers also found that Hispanic women and women who dropped out of school were more likely to have older partners. (Darroch, Landry, & Oslak. (1999). Age differences between sexual partners in the United States. Family Planning Perspectives, 31(4), 160-167) Young women who had ever been forced to have sex were twice as likely as those who had not to have a partner who was 3-5 years older.
The reason I feel so angry, and dislike him so, so very much is that time after time after time, I watch him put all of you in the same textbook places. I tell you I see this stuff every day but his slick manipulations tend to carry more weight than the truth. I watch him give you a pile of excuses as to why he won't use a condom. I hear him explain away how having sex with you isn't his selfish pleasure (even though he usually gets off and you usually don't), but an expression of a love he isn't even capable of feeling. I talk you through the STI he gave you, after he told you he's had no risks (often because he's only "slept with virgins") or gets tested religiously (and often has never been tested even once). I observe him convincing you that, at 14 or 16 you should really have a baby with him even though he can't even parent himself yet and is not going to help you co-parent, no matter what he's telling you now. I see how he isolates you from other people who truly care about you. I hear him say he's all about making you feel great out one side of his mouth while the other side assures you feel lousy enough to stay with the likes of him. I try and support you when he has belittled or usurped your goals and dreams -- finishing school, going to college, pursuing your art -- and try and replace them with himself as your only dream.
I get so angry with him when I see what he puts you through: I feel so tired of the endless pregnancy scares due to unprotected sex and all the ways he convinces you to have it. I'm tired of watching you race to the doctor for birth control or infection treatments when he won't do the same. I'm tired of hearing you be the one worried that when he chooses to break the law by having sex with you, it's your responsibility to protect him somehow by keeping what he's been doing with you secret -- even when that puts you at risk of dangers -- rather than his responsibility to be the adult that he is and be responsible for himself and his own choices.
I am tired of listening to all the excuses you make for him and the ways you defend his behavior even though there is no excuse for what he does, and even though he'd be unlikely to defend you if you treated him the same way. I get angry with him when I see you do everything and anything to love him as best you can, when you make huge sacrifices for him, and all for someone who either can't or just won't do the same for you.
I get angry with him when you tell me the way he guilt-trips you into thinking he'll kill himself if you leave him (he won't), that despite being the one with more agency, he's unable to take care of himself without you (he's not), that all the crap he does is not because he's an rat, but because you don't do enough for him (you do too much by even giving him five minutes of your time). I get angry with him when, in those moments you have felt able to voice feeling lousy because of the things he does, or state you need a change, he says anything and everything he possibly can to convince you that it's you to blame for everything he chooses to do or not do (it isn't), and that you just need to lower your expectations to his level (you don't).
I get so angry with him because the way he treats you hurts you so much and leaves you feeling so bad.
I get so angry about him because I know you deserve so much better, and I know he's nothing close to as good as it gets for you: not in a partner, not in the sphere of the whole of your life, and all your life could offer you, especially when you're not held back by some jerk like him. I get so angry with him because I know that you're so much more than someone's status object, or something that can get a guy a high-five from his friends. I get so angry with him because I know you are deserving of, and entitled to, real love, not the empty platitudes he's convinced you love is.
I get so angry at him because I don't think you're stupid: I know you're not stupid at all. I get so angry because I hate seeing you lied to so that he can get what he wants, at your expense, and with you often paying the biggest price. I get so angry because I resent anyone using your love and need to be loved as a way to pull the wool over your eyes for their own personal gain. I get so angry with him because I am a person of maturity who recognizes that you are, too, and who is mad as hell that someone so utterly lacking in maturity targets your need to have that recognized and manipulates you with it.
I don't think you're a piece of crap. I don't think that you won't amount to much. I think you have a bigger, more powerful rebellious energy than just picking a guy to be with who is 24 and still lives in his parent's basement.
I get so angry with him because that he seems to think so very much less of you than I do. The reason I get so angry with him is that sometimes, I think he sees exactly the kind of potential in you I do, but rather nurturing it to help you thrive and grow, he wants to squelch it to convince you to put all that great energy into him and him alone, in part so that he doesn't have to do it for himself, and have to improve himself to be worthy of people like you.
The reason I get so angry with him is that I think he's idiotic for thinking your power, might and value is so small that he's the best you can do, and for keeping you, and the rest of the world, from all the amazing stuff that you've really got in you. The reason I get so angry with him is that I know you're going to be far more powerful than he is, and I also know you're going to use your power for incredible, wonderful things, not for manipulating people who allow themselves to be vulnerable with you.
The reason I might even feel angry with you is because, deep in my bones, I know, without doubt or question, that if you could just get the heck away from guys like him, you'd get to the place where everything I'm saying here is obvious and move on to the kind of life, and real partnership with people, that is worthy of you. I know that you can and will find the kind of big, real love that makes what this guy have to offer you look like the raw deal that it is.
Here's what I want to ask you.
Do you think he sees you like I see you? Not just now and then, not just when who you are fits with what he wants from you, but all the time? If he does, why on earth does he treat you like you're someone else entirely -- someone less powerful, less talented, less smart, less amazing, less worthy of respect and real love?
Do you think that if someone who thought and felt the way I do about you were to walk up to him and make him face up to some of these things he's done or is doing, and the crummy ways he thinks about and regards you, that he'd take responsibility and do everything in his power to make radical changes? Or would he make excuses or denials, try and be cute or perhaps even just toss you over for another young girl without someone to have her back, who's a lot less trouble because she's got less to lean on?
Months, years or even decades from now when you look back on this relationship, how do you think you're going to feel about it, especially if it left you with an unwanted pregnancy, an STI, an abiding sense of distrust, sex you didn't want, self-esteem you had to reconstruct, friends and family you had to try and repair relationships with, abuse or just a pack of lies and betrayals? If it -- as these tend to -- tossed one or more areas of your life into total disarray or put big things you wanted on hold, if it caused you to miss valuable opportunities, do you think you might wish then that you ditched this dupe earlier? Do you think that, at that point, were you able to reach back in time and talk to the you-of-now, you might not want to grip your shoulders and say "Wake the heck UP, girl!" as loud as you could?
I say some of these things because I feel you are my sister, in the capital-S way, and I care about you a whole lot, in the way a Sister does. Which begs this question: is this guy the kind of guy, is this the kind of relationship, you'd want for your sister? It's sure not what I want for mine.
All of this leaves me with the other thing, the bigger thing I want to ask you.
Do YOU see yourself like I see you...or do you see yourself like he sees you? Do you WANT to become the kind of person he sees you as, or the kind of person I see you as?
Would the kind of powerful person I see you as -- who you and I both know you really are, even at times when some fool manages to convince you you are not -- give a dude like this even two minutes of her time? For real? Which idea of you -- which reality of you -- do you think is going to result in your having an amazing life?
You're more powerful than you know, and it's time to find that out.
Age alone does not determine how much power or empowerment we do or don't have. For sure -- particularly because of the way the world is structured in terms of privileging older people with rights and agency not given to younger people -- someone older than you is usually going to have more power than you in that respect. But that alone doesn't leave that person with all the power and you with none, because you've got other powers, some of which he may also have, many of which he probably does not.
You have your power of reason, for instance. You have power you can derive through the people who love and care for you and have your back, unconditionally. The power of your goals and dreams, the power of knowing the you you were so looking forward to growing up to become when you were a little girl. The power of your own unique talents and your own unique beauty, inside and out. The power of your own self-esteem. The power of your intuition, the things you deeply know. The power of your own two feet, and how they can walk away, in firm steps, from things that are beneath you. Aw hell, the plain power of knowing -- and you know some part of you you have buried away does -- that this guy and this relationship are just plain crappy, and most of the efforts you put into him are leaving you with less of yourself, not more, and are making you less of the person you are and wanted to be before you had the misfortune of meeting him.
I'm writing all of this to you, rather than him, not because all of this is your responsibility or fault, but because I'm afraid there's just not a darn thing I can do to change your older boyfriend's mind. All the more since a hard truth is that, right now, there are too many other young girls out there just like you he can prey on, and he'll find them.
My lousy opinion of your older boyfriend isn't set in stone, or based on me or you. It's all about his behavior, his actions, the way he chooses to view and treat you. If your older boyfriend, say, just forgot to use a condom on accident once, or didn't realize that one time he was pushing for sex that he was being pushy, or has had such low self-esteem of his own that he hasn't able to see how that's playing out in his relationship to you, and when limits are set, the mistakes he's made stated and acknowledged, he accepts responsibility for them and does all he can to make a big change? I might feel very differently.
But you know what? He knows what he's doing: he's the older and wiser one, remember? And he probably won't change one bit, especially if there are folks available to him who'll put up with the craptastic louse he chooses to be.
Some of why he's choosing to be with someone who is not closer to his same age, nearer to his same place in life is so that he doesn't have to change. The way he acts and the things he does might hurt you, and your age difference and the dynamics being played out in all that may well be doing you real harm. But, the thing is, in order for him to change he'd have to want to do that work, and to want to do that work, he'd have to care at least as much about you as he cares about himself. And chances are good that he just plain doesn't. I know that hurts like hell, but I also know that so much of why it hurts is because you're still trying to get blood from a stone rather than kicking the empty rock that he is aside and saving your love for the care of someone who earnestly wants to care for it. They're out there, I promise: but they are not this guy. Changing this can't rest on him, because he's just not going to do it.
He may be older but he's not wiser, and he's not acting like a grownup. He doesn't want to grow up, which is part of why he's dating people he perceives as not grownup themselves. He also doesn't have the bad stuff that happens to you because of him happen to him to make him want to change: if he was in your shoes, he'd ditch him in a heartbeat.
This rests on you. Because so many of these guys are so irredeemable, changing what's going on all seems to boil down to cutting off their resources: in a word, you.
Changing this rests on you because it benefits him for things to stay exactly as they are. What benefits you is to make damn sure that they don't.
So, it's on you to be every bit of the kickass person you are and aim to be at your very best, so much that you dislike like your older boyfriend even more than I do. And the next time he sees you coming? He's not going to smile, wink, pat your head, try to soften you up with lines that feed all your insecurities, or see in you the opportunity to get everything while giving absolutely nothing. Instead, he's going to get one look at that powerful look in your powerful eyes that tells him you know better, you ARE better, and he's going to run like hell because he knows you see exactly what he is and knows that the few years he has on you isn't anything close to enough to overpower the power that you are.
On you to dump these chumps, and ideally, never get involved with them in the first place. On you to be the mother, the sister, the teacher, the ally, the best friend to some other girl and be able to look these guys straight in the eye and say, "Don't even THINK about it. I KNOW what you are, and I've got her back."
On you to get as deeply, righteously steaming mad at these guys as you need to in order to make it as obvious as the sun in the sky to them that they're just no match -- not at 19, not at 25, not at 50 -- for the likes of you.