I'm questioning the math skills of the author of the YA book I'm reading because she's trying to pass off a pairing between a 16 year old and 21 year old as non-creepy. I'm also not loving all the mangas I'm reading that have no issues hooking up young teens with people in their early twenties. But, as a teen, I vaguely remember being totally cool with this sorta thing, definitely in fiction and often enough in real life. And it's this realization that brings home just how predatory these relationships are.
At 14, I didn't think much about power differentials. When students dating someone older came up in a negative way, it was a young teacher getting freaked out about the expensive present a student gave him or older teachers discussing all the rules they had to follow for interacting with students. That friend with the older boyfriend? Any concerns anyone in our circle may have had were more of the "wait? you're MARRIED?" variety. No she wasn't actually married, just in way too deep.
But as an adult, 'specially the more years I teach teens and college freshman, the more aware I am of just how important it is to set really strong boundaries. I've known plenty of really awesome, confident, self-assured, rocking teens-but being someone slightly older then them, I've seen how much power a positive word or three can often have on them. That unspoken desire for affirmation that they're smart or confident or mature enough to be on the same playing field as an adult is also what makes them so very vulnerable. Any adult who honestly thinks that the teen is in control of the relationship is straight up delusional.
Many teens are the perfect victims precisely because they'll totally buy into the idea that positive attention from an adult means that they're somehow cooler than their peers. Chris Brown is basically the poster child for this sorta thing, but in essence, this is exactly why statutory rape laws exist-kids can't consent because they often don't totally grasp that they're being victimized in the first place.
On average, girls with older partners are more likely to have sex with them than girls with partners their own age-and the likelihood increases the younger the girl is. And of course it's not just about having sex. There's a body of work on how girls with much older partners are less likely to use protection (Senn and Carey, 2011) and are therefore more at risk for pregnancy and STDs (Kaestle, Morisky, and Wiley, 2002) And yes, the studies acknowledge that the relationship between age and risk might be correlational, but they also find that the girls most likely to have sex at a younger age are from traditionally higher risk populations-low maternal education, from disadvantage races/ethnicity, factors which Kaestle et. al. argue are really proxies for socio-economics.
Which brings me back around to my loathing at the positive portrayal of relationships between teens and adults in media aimed at teenagers. We're selling these inherently predatory set ups as a positive to the potential victims, fully knowing that the most vulnerable kids are the ones most likely to engage in these relationships. Apparently those parents who always warn their kids against having older partners are onto something.
Image via XKCD: Dating Pools