This is a topic of conversation that comes up time and time again. Just because it’s legal, does it mean it’s right? Where does grooming stop and consensual relationships begin? At 14, I briefly ‘dated’ a 19-year-old.
It wasn’t a sexual relationship and it ended because of this: I wasn’t ready, and he was pressuring me. I had older men tell me that they’d hit me up when I was 18, counting down the days. I saw friends being groomed by male friends of their families and teachers. If I’d been given a pound for every time a man approached me when I was underage, and on finding out my age said I seemed ‘mature’, I wouldn’t need to work right now. At 21, I went on a few dates with a 30-year-old, who told me he ‘liked them young’.
Back in 2019, I got myself into a Twitter spat over morality and age-gap dating. Leonardo DiCaprio was the subject of my frustration at the time. He met his current girlfriend, Camila Morrone, when she was just twelve years old (though there’s nothing to suggest it was a sexual relationship at that stage). Her former stepdad Al Pacino (Leo’s close friend) introduced the pair.
Camila is now 20, and Leo is 46 – so yes, this is a legal relationship, but for me, it felt creepy. ‘Men On The Internet’ disagreed, telling me I was just bitter that I’m no longer youthful enough to bag a millionaire (note to reader: I am 26) and that the age of consent in this country is sixteen, so it must be OK.
“I had older men tell me that they’d hit me up when I was 18, counting down the days. I saw friends being groomed by male friends of their families and teachers
So, this isn’t just happening to celebrities – but, as always, celebrity lives shine a light on issues we all face (if not glossier, richer versions). We’ve seen this with the Kardashian family, when the then 25-year-old Tyga dated then 17-year-old Kylie Jenner. On the flip side, Scott Disick, 38, is currently dating 20-year-old Amelia Gray Hamlin. His ex-girlfriend, Sofia Richie, was 18 when they started dating but they had known each other for several years before she was ‘legally’ datable, as she is a close friend to Kylie.
Natalie Portman has been vocal about her ‘relationship’ with Moby, who claimed in his memoir that they dated briefly when he was 33 and she was 20. Natalie had a very different recounting of this: “I was surprised to hear that he characterised the very short time that I knew him as dating, because my recollection is a much older man being creepy with me,” she also clarified that she was 18 at the time, not 20.
Just last week, the internet was alight with conversations about Millie Bobby Brown and Hunter Echo, because Hunter, 21, claimed he’d ‘groomed’ 17-year-old Millie (which she has vehemently denied). The evidence, to me, points that this is a gendered issue, steeped in sexism.
“The rebuttal when women say they find this phenomenon uncomfortable is that we’re wrong because it’s legal. But let me ask those in that camp this: when has legality been equal to morality, or even a sound gauge of right and wrong?
Now, before the Not All Men brigade comes for me, let me clarify some things: of course, not all men, but too many – and yes, there are examples of women engaging in this behaviour too, but those cases are rare. One study found that 7% of married heterosexual couples have an age gap of 10-years, and of that 7%, women are the older ones in old 1% of these couples. I date women and have never had a similar experience to the above with women. And finally, most of my female friends have a similar story, and we all had endless attention from adult men when we were teenagers. The men in my life don’t have similar experiences; adult women were not approaching them in a romantic manner as teenagers.
The rebuttal when women say they find this phenomenon uncomfortable is that we’re wrong because it’s legal. But let me ask those in that camp this: when has legality been equal to morality, or even a sound gauge of right and wrong? In the UK, until 1841, 12 was the legal age of consent. Marital rape was considered legal until 1992. It wasn’t until 1967 that homosexuality was made legal in this country. It took until 1928 for women to have the same voting rights as men. And only last week have some moves been made to criminalise street harassment and sexual harassment NDAs. When it comes to consent, the law is hardly a shining beacon of morality.
“Are these young women better partners for grown adult men because they don’t yet know their worth and are easier to dominate?
The crux of this issue and why it’s so hard to find common ground is because age gaps and dating are case by case, and there is a spectrum. Personally, I see no issue with a 40-year-old dating a 50-year-old. But a 16-year-old dating a 26-year-old? That doesn’t sit well with me, because the gap in maturity and life experiences is too large – it leaves too much room for manipulation and abuse and begs the question: Why can’t you find someone your own age?
Why are the Scott Dissicks of the world dating teenagers as grown-ass men? Is there some classic misogyny at play, that the older women get the less attractive they are deemed, and therefore traded in for ‘younger models’? Or is it more sinister misogyny? Are these young women better partners for grown adult men because they don’t yet know their worth and are easier to dominate?
Moralising about this is such a complex and grey issue because an older partner isn’t always predatory, and most age-gap relationships I’m sure are fully functioning and healthy. But don’t we have a responsibility to safeguard the young adults in our life, if they could be vulnerable? Because it’s not as clear-cut as saying that unless we’re told there’s an issue we should leave people alone to get on with their relationships.
As a teen, I was told to find the attention of older men flattering, that it meant I was mature for my age. I didn’t characterise a lot of these events as abuse or grooming until I was older, and in the instances I did feel uncomfortable, I certainly never called it out or told anyone. I wish someone had stepped in and warned me that older men probably aren’t interested in me because of my glowing maturity.