Age gap relationships through the looking glass

When I was in my teens, I found myself attracted to people who were 25 or, preferably, older. As I aged, the range extended up a little and, since I have been dating as an adult, somewhere around 45 is the age at which I become interested in a man. It has been this way since my twenties. At 33, I simply can’t find another 33-year-old man attractive. Certainly I can find his physical attributes pleasing, but I don’t want to get down with his physical features; I wanna get down with his older brother.

When young people take their first steps into the dating world, the age gap matters. Cognitive and social development happens quickly during the teenage years. On average, there is a significant disparity in power between younger and older teens, giving older teens an advantage. Even with good intentions on both sides, the risk is that a younger partner will be heavily influenced by the older one. Being pressured into sex before they are ready is just one of the possible dangers. 

In some states and countries, the law attempts to address this problem by making it illegal for most teens to have sex at all, using a blanket age of consent that generally kicks in at 16 or 18. But there are other states and countries that recognize the injustice and futility of criminalizing sex between teens who are at a similar level of development and maturity. In these places, the law allows teenagers to have sex before they reach adulthood, but only if they are close in age to each other. 

Once we reach adulthood, age gaps matter less and, rather than involving the law, we trust the partners themselves to be able to make their own judgment about whether or not a large age gap represents a concern for them. That’s what the age of consent means: once you reach it, you not only get to choose to have sex, but you also get to choose to have it with anyone else who has also reached that age, even if they reached it long before you did.

Although the logic of this seems simple enough, the social stigma surrounding age gap relationships persists, and it is often confused with the issue of child sexual abuse (as evidenced by claims of “pedophilia” commonly leveled against those in relationships with significantly younger adults). So let’s talk about why the age gap relationships are different from child sexual abuse, and why the difference matters.

The science of age gap relationships

When we think of age-related paraphilias (“chronophilias”), we tend to think only of those related to attraction to minors. However, science gives us a fuller picture. There are some strong arguments suggesting that specific attractions to any age group may be a form of sexual orientation. Newton’s third law states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction and, in a glib sort of way, it’s a good analogy for the world of sex. My third law states that there is a shoe for every foot… fetishist. For every attraction, there is someone who sees it from the other side.

Hi, I’m the other side of age-specific attraction.

Coined by Ray Blanchard in 2000, teleiophilia refers to an attraction to adults, which is more or less what we all experience upon reaching adulthood. Mesophilia, derived from the Greek word “mesos” or “intermediate”, is an attraction to middle aged adults. (It was coined by Michael Seto in 2016.) It’s a more specific term than teleiophilia. For as long as I have been aware of being attracted to others, I have been more attracted to older men, especially middle-aged men—which I suppose makes me a mesophile.

Why does all of this matter from the perspective of child protection? Because teleiophilia and mesophilia typically don’t manifest fully formed in adulthood. Based on our knowledge of how and when other chronophilias develop, and from my own personal experience, if you have a lifelong sexual preference for older partners, it probably began in your teenage years. Certainly, it’s developmentally common for teenagers to have short-lived crushes on adults, despite later settling into relationships with people of their own age—but that’s not what I’m talking about. It also sometimes happens that adults engage in grooming of children, which is a form of sexual abuse; however, that’s not what I’m talking about either. (I was never sexually abused as a minor.)

Rather, there is reason to believe that there are a third group of minors, of which I was one, whose preference for older partners isn’t simply a “phase” that they will outgrow, but rather a stable and persistent sexual preference. This phenomenon is little studied and often overlooked, but it’s important that we should acknowledge it—because teens who have this chronophilia may form a high-risk group for sexual abuse, since they are naturally likely to be more amenable to sexual attention from older partners, and they may even seek it out.

Holding a firm line

There is nothing shameful about a teen desiring an adult partner, since nobody chooses who they are attracted to. However, relationships with adults are for adults only, and it is always the adult’s responsibility to enforce this line. In fact, an adult’s failure to refuse a sexual advance by a minor teen amounts to abuse.

This should be done in a way that doesn’t reinforce sexual stigma about their feelings. Particularly if a minor does have teleiophilia or mesophilia, telling them that they are wrong for feeling an attraction towards adults is likely to have the opposite effect than intended. All that it is likely to do is to cause them to lie about their age or hide what they are doing from their caregivers.

Instead, the right message to send teens is the same one that I always give to young people who are interested in BDSM: Come back when you’re 18 years old, and here’s some reading material. As someone who has been in this boat as a young person, it would have helped me to know that I was normal, and that there were ways I could pursue my interest in older partners once I reached the age of consent.

Age gaps and abuse

I don’t believe it’s right to stigmatize teens who pursue sex or relationships with older people of any age. However, it is right to warn them about some of the struggles that they may encounter in adult relationships, some of which are heightened when those relationships involve an age gap.

The power imbalance between older and younger partners is the most obvious of these obstacles. When one partner is a minor and the other is an adult, there is a legal and moral assumption that a sexual relationship between them would be abusive. These risks don’t disappear when a minor turns 18, which is why it’s so important for sexual education to cover consent and healthy relationships.

The consensual kink community, in which consensual power dynamics are a common feature, has developed some of its own wisdom about how to ensure that the partners in such a relationship act mindfully about power imbalances. For example, kinksters emphasize open communication and regular check-ins by the dominant partner, and they recommend having the support of a broader community through online communities, offline “munches”, and events.

Age gaps and stigma

There will also be an ongoing stigma for the couple to deal with. Age gap relationships of all kinds come under undue public scrutiny the minute one is able to guess visually that there is an age gap. Assumptions are made about couples with a noticeable gap in their ages much in the same way that people make assumptions about roles in non-heteronormative relationships.

At my age, a lot of people don’t bat too much of an eyelash at me and my 45-to-50-year-old partners. I’m not young or conventionally attractive enough to be anyone’s trophy, so most people just think I’m older than I am. (This seems to make the picture work for them.) But whenever I am vocal about the age gaps that are characteristic of my relationships, I get questions—many of them overly personal, and some of them quite rude.

I think the most common questions are about the future and kids. My favorite to date is this: “But what will you do when he dies?” Duh, I’m gonna jump into the grave with him because obviously there is no life after a partner dies. It’s a pretty grim opening question, but I get it a lot. Don’t get me wrong: anyone who wants to be in a long term, stable, relationship, must think about the future. But all partners need to think about what happens if their partner dies.

Are my older partners a bit more likely to kick it before I do? My own health problems aside, probably. In any given relationship, barring something killing everyone at once, one person has to go first. Both partners should be prepared to be the one to go or the one to stay. That’s just good sense.

When it comes to dating people in their forties, it’s also a common truth that many of them have been married before. Many come with the baggage of ex-wives, kids, and whole adulthoods lived before you graduated from high school. So another very common and unwelcome question involves children. Questions such as “But don’t you want to raise children of your own?” or “Isn’t he too old to have more kids with you?” are super intrusive and super none of your business.

Conclusion

There is a lot that we still don’t know about the role of teleiophilia and mesophilia as a factor in sexual abuse against teens. For now, what we can do is to listen to teens who express interest in older people—without leaping to the assumption that their interest is necessarily the result of grooming or brainwashing. It could be that they have a sexual chronophilia such as mesophilia, and that they are naturally attracted to older people.

Although this is an under-researched problem, it’s not an entirely novel one. In fact it’s really the mirror image of the problem we face when adults have an unchosen sexual interest in teens or younger children. Having a primary sexual attraction to partners in another age group is not wrong, whether you’re the younger or the older partner. But when one of them is under the age of consent, the adult’s responsibility is the same: to neither solicit sexual contact nor reciprocate it.

It’s important to recognize that relationships between adults and children are wrong not simply because of the age difference between them; they are wrong because a child is emotionally and cognitively undeveloped. Abuse can still happen once a child has grown to an adult (no matter what age their partner may be) but we can’t continue to hand-hold our children through adulthood. The blessing and the curse of being an adult is that you have to take responsibility for your own decisions. In exchange, you also get to enjoy the rewards.

As a society, our basic responsibility is to ensure that, once they have grown up, our children have the basic knowledge about consent and relationships that they will need to make their own decisions (and also to make some of their own mistakes). This includes acknowledging the autonomy of every adult to choose who they want to date and have sex with.

Although they do pose some hurdles for both partners, there is nothing inherently abusive in relationships between an older and a younger adult, provided that participants communicate openly and respect the others’ consent. Indeed, despite the popular stigma against such relationships, research suggests that there is no significant difference between the relationships that women form with older partners and those they form with similar age partners.

I’m not promoting such relationships as a lifestyle choice—since the whole point is that my attraction to older people isn’t a conscious choice; it is a part of my sexuality. But I am promoting the idea that if you have the same feelings towards older partners, you don’t need to be ashamed of them. And if you are over 18, you don’t need to be afraid of mindfully acting on those feelings with a partner who respects you as a person.

Relationships are complicated. Relationships that feature a large age gap can be more complicated than most, but they can also be deeply rewarding and fulfilling—and for better or worse, they’re the only kind that works for me.

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