Do age differences always create power imbalances in relationships? The answer is: ”Yes, asterisk,” says Olivia Harris, executive director of Speak About It, a consent education nonprofit. “It’s complicated.”
Asking complicated questions about age, power, and consent is part of Harris’s job. As a consent educator, she regularly talks to young people about sexuality. One question Harris’s students almost always ask is when an age difference in a relationship is acceptable. Considering our culture’s often-conflicting messages about gender, age and sexuality, that makes sense.
Harris replies that some things are illegal and plain wrong. And most other things…well, that’s when things get messy. “When we talk about age,” says Harris, “the issue at hand is actually about power.”
The truth is, birth dates are just one part of how we perceive and experience power differentials in relationships with an age gap. Stereotypes about gender, desire, and power also influence our thinking—and the ways we interact in love and bed. Beyond a point, there isn’t a concrete rule to determining when an age difference is too much (apologies to “half your age plus seven” adherents). “The solution is not the math of age and consent,” says Harris. “It’s to learn about sex and sexuality and to figure out mutual desire.”
At best, the very process of thinking through age differences helps us better understand power and consent—and ultimately helps us clarify who we want to be and what kinds of relationships we want to have.
Brain Development Matters
In the world of sexual ethics, there are few hard and fast rules. But here’s one we can all agree on: Don’t have sex with kids.
Legally speaking, however, that’s a bit more complex than it sounds. That’s because we don’t actually agree on the age of consent. In some states, a 16-year-old can consent to sex with an adult. In others, the age of consent is 18.
It’s not that a teenager can’t reason. It’s that they tend to prioritize short-term gains and rewards over long-term consequences.
“How is it that a teenager in Colorado is so much more mature than a teenager in California?” asks Jennifer Drobac, a law professor at Indiana University and author of Sexual Exploitation of Teenagers. “That’s ridiculous. They’re not.”
This discrepancy arises from the fact that, for the most part, age-of-consent-laws aren’t based on any kind of rigorous ethical or scientific system—they’re the result of legislators’ intuition. Drobac says that’s the wrong approach. Instead, she argues, we should focus on the science of adolescent brain development to understand what kinds of decisions kids can healthily make. Research tells us that, while most teens are beginning to establish a stable sense of identity by age 18, their brains still aren’t done maturing. “Cognition continues to develop into the early 20s,” Drobac says.
That doesn’t mean that 18-year-olds shouldn’t be “allowed” to have sex with people older than them—they’re legal adults, and deserve bodily autonomy. That does mean, however, that even older teens lack the cognitive skills to make sexual decisions on equal footing with adults much senior to them.
Context matters. Factors like flattery or peer pressure can all blur a young person’s ability to consent. This, too, has to do with brain development. Research shows that adolescents make the same decisions as adults when they’re in “cool” situations: when they have all the facts, aren’t under pressure, and are emotionally even-keeled. In “hot” situations, however—ones that are high-stress, peer-pressured, or when they’re feeling a strong emotion (like horniness)—these decision-making skills go out the window.
“It’s not that they can’t reason,” says Drobac. “It’s that they tend to prioritize short-term gains and rewards over long-term consequences.” That’s why, says Drobac, it’s important for teens to learn sexual decision-making through consensual experiences with other teens—not through questionably consensual sexual experiences with much older adults.
It’s About Power
What about when we’re all consenting adults?
By the age of 23 or so, our brains have fully matured. At that point, other factors—like gender, life stage, and material power—become more important than straightforward neurological development. Ironically, the lack of clear-cut, brain-based differences can make parsing power and consent even trickier.
“Age of consent isn’t a box that you check,” says Harris. “Just because someone is over the age of consent technically doesn’t meant that consent is implied or that a relationship is okay or healthy.”
We have to consider age as one factor within the relationship’s “ecology of power.”
This is particularly relevant in situations where an older adult may have a supervisory role over a younger adult (a boss or mentor), or when an older adult has access to substantially greater resources than their younger lover (a wealthy older boyfriend). It’s also relevant for adults who need physical care, in which case the younger partner may have more power than the older person they are caring for.
That’s why, instead of thinking of age differences as a math problem, Harris says we have to consider age as one factor within the relationship’s “ecology of power.”
A phrase from domestic violence activism, “ecology of power” encompasses the dynamics that surround two people’s intimacy, the emotional equivalent of a rainforest or desert ecosystem. This ecology is made up of all the factors that affect how two people relate, from age, gender, and workplace relationships, to race, income, sexuality, and disability.
Cultural stereotypes about sex and identity can affect ecologies of power. These are the beliefs that censure older “cougars” who date consenting younger men, while victim-blaming teenage boys whose assumed sexual precocity is used to justify their abuse. These also, says Harris, include the racist beliefs that long portrayed people like R. Kelly’s victims, mostly girls and young women of color, as unworthy of social protection.
There’s no magical equation that gets us out of the hard work of creating egalitarian relationships. We can only commit to showing up, to questioning our own privileges and motivations, and to having conversations that might be uncomfortable, but will in the long run ensure everyone is consenting in a deep way.
Decide Your Values
Age differences require each of us, particularly when we find ourselves with younger or less powerful partners, to decide and act on our own values. “People want a quick solution,” says Harris. “We need to do the much harder work of questioning power.”
For both Drobac and Harris, that means shifting the onus of affirmative consent back onto the older or more powerful person, rather than scrutinizing younger or less powerful people for “letting themselves” be taken advantage of. The thirty-year-old who wants to date a twenty-year-old, the professor who wants to date a grad student, the boss who wants to date a subordinate: They should be the ones primarily grappling with the potential negative repercussions of their desire, not the person who has more to lose.
That doesn’t mean never dating someone who is younger than you, or over whom you have some kind of privilege. It does mean, however, that we should prioritize our desire for egalitarian intimacy over our desire to get laid.
Sure, it can be patronizing to tell another, albeit younger, adult that they’re “just too young” to be in a relationship with you. But at the end of the day, it’s not a question of whether the other person is “truly” ready to date you. You can’t know that; only they can, and often only in retrospect. It’s a question of who you are, what your values are, and who you want to be.
We can’t decide how we’ll fit into someone else’s life story, and we shouldn’t avoid intimacy just because it brings with it the risk of inequality. But we can decide to openly and empathically explore power differentials when they do come up. And we can decide that there are some roles—creepy teacher, manipulative older boyfriend, or lecherous boss—that we don’t even want to try out for.
Reina Gattuso is a feminist journalist covering food, sex, and politics.