The Ethics of Age Gaps

“The first man I became romantically involved with was 19 years old when I met him.” / Published in the April 2019 YM Issue

“The first man I became romantically involved with was 19 years old when I met him.” / Published in the April 2019 YM Issue

The first man I became romantically involved with was 19 years old when I met him. I had freshly turned 15 at the peak of our relationship, and to make matters worse, he was my theater camp counselor. 

When I met Andrew* in July of 2015 I was enamored with the attention he gave me. I wasn’t used to any boys—let alone grown men—showing romantic interest in me. I fell for Andrew in the way only an emotionally-undeveloped teenager can—I became completely infatuated with him.

At the time, I did want to be romantically involved with Andrew, so I thought that meant I was consenting. What I didn’t consider was the ways he took advantage of my immaturity. He would ghost me for days, leaving me desperate to hear anything from him. When he would call me days later in the middle of the night to profess his love for me, I was so happy, I thought of it as “romantic.” These were red flags I didn’t notice because of my emotional immaturities as a 15-year-old—which Andrew took advantage of.

From talking to young women I know, I’ve noticed a pattern of girls feeling the need to date as early as their pre-teen years. It’s a pressure put on us by adults in our lives, by other girls our age, and by the relationships we see on social media. 

Freshman Kaitlyn Fehr spent her free time as a 10- to 11-year-old talking to teenage and adult men on websites such as Facebook, Omegle, and other online communication forums. 

“I thought to myself at the time, ‘You know what? I want male attention. I’m going to talk to men online.’ So I made a Facebook because I felt like I needed to be in a relationship,” Fehr says. “We place such a high value on women being in relationships, even at a really young age.”

Societal pressures can cause teenagers to develop warped concepts of the types of relationships that are healthy to have at a young age. Dr. Anne Gehrenbeck-Shim, a psychology professor at Emerson with a PhD in clinical psychology, says teenagers receive mixed signals from what adults tell them is appropriate for their age versus what they see on social media. 

“There’s a split between what’s shown on social media as what you’re supposed to be doing, yet at the same time I think most 15- and 16-year-olds don’t have that level of emotional maturity, wisdom, and life experience to be jumping into same age relationships or relationships with someone much older,” Gehrenbeck-Shim says. 

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Gehrenbeck-Shim explains that the frontal lobe of the brain—specifically the prefrontal cortex located at the front of one’s forehead—controls executive functions such as decision making, planning, and problem solving. She says medical research indicates this section of the brain isn’t fully developed until far past one’s teenage years.

“The frontal lobe is not fully developed until 25 to 30 years old depending on the view of different researchers. There’s still a lot of brain developments happening in the late teens, early 20s, and well into the 20s,” Gehrenbeck-Shim says.

Looking back, I recognize I was being taken advantage of by Andrew. I didn’t realize this at the time, but Andrew was leaps ahead of me in maturity. This is a result of not only my brain being less developed than his, but also a disproportion in life experience. He owned a car, had many previous romantic partners, and worked multiple jobs. Meanwhile, I was too young to have a driver’s license, never had a boyfriend before, and had no clue what future I imagined for myself. 

This is precisely the problem I have with relationships where an adult is dating someone in their teens—there’s an inequality of intellect occurring in most cases. In many circumstances, such as my own, the older person in the relationship is well aware of the other’s naivety, and uses it for their benefit. Perhaps there are some cases where a teenager may be “mature” enough to consent to a relationship with an adult—but is the rarity of this circumstance worth the risk of a teenager being taken advantage of?

I feel lucky my relationship with Andrew only lasted a couple months. We never had sex, so I’m grateful I didn’t lose my virginity in a context in which I couldn’t consent to. There are countless women I’ve encountered who weren’t as fortunate as me. 

Freshman Kelleigh Levesque lost her virginity when she was 15 to a 19-year-old man who she met through her part-time job at McDonalds. Levesque says she believes his intentions were to convince her to have sex with him because she was an easy target to manipulate.

“I was hoping for someone to love me and wanted to feel loved, so I did whatever it took. I think he just wanted a girl he could easily have sex with,” Levesque says. “It ruined sex for me for a while. By the time I was going to have sex again a few years later, I was terrified.”

The years before one turns 18 are so crucial to the way one develops into an adult. It took me years to realize my relationship with a 19-year-old man left me emotionally damaged and with an unhealthy view of romance. Although I regret my involvement with Andrew, I refuse to let the manipulation I fell victim to define the woman I’ve become today.

*The actual name of Andrew has been changed in this story for privacy reasons