Guest blog: The ethics of age gap relationships

Image by the fantastic Stuart F Taylor

Recently the fantastic writer @CoffeeandKink was chatting on Twitter about the ethics of age gap relationships, and I asked her if she’d be up for elaborating on her ideas in a guest blog. I’m really chuffed that she said yes! As well as writing her own amazing sex blog, she’s also guest blogged for me here before about orgasm denial, and she freelances on a number of different topics. Today she’s here to explain what ethical factors should be considered in age gap relationships…

The ethics of age gap relationships

In this post I am discussing age gap relationships between adults. Obviously when a person under 18 is involved, that’s an entirely different issue.

I’m in an age gap relationship. I am 28 years old and my partner of almost four years is fifty. When we first started dating, I expected that we would get tonnes of questions about and reactions to it. Surprisingly, though, that has only been the case on rare occasions – people are almost afraid to bring it up, as if they’d be pointing something out we didn’t know or hadn’t thought of.

I understand that desire to be polite and not come across as prying. But it’s a big part of my life, this relationship, and while the age gap doesn’t define us, it’d be foolish to pretend it had no impact. So I decided to write an FAQ about age gap relationships on my blog, and answer some of the things people are afraid to ask but which I have been forced to consider.

It might surprise you, then, to know that, ethically speaking, I do not carte blanche approve of all relationships with large age gaps. In fact, a lot of the time I side-eye them hard. So today I wanted to discuss the factors at play when looking at relationships with large age gaps and considering whether a given situation can be ethical or healthy.

One of the biggest factors for me is intent. Sometimes, two people meet and fancy each other and fall in love and there happens to be a lot of years between them. These two people get into a relationship, and figure out how to make it work with the difference in age and experience between them.

To me, this is an extremely different situation than an older person deliberately or exclusively seeking out somebody much younger. I often find myself attracted to older men and enjoy dating them, but I take their dating history into account when deciding whether I want to or not. If they’ve dated all over the age spectrum, then I consider that something of a green light – a clue, at least, that they’re after me for who I am and not for how old I am. If, however, their last five relationships have been with women young enough to be their daughter, then I start to wonder if there is some youth fetishising going on. There’s a reason that some men over forty think they can’t possibly fancy women their own age and exclusively chase the under-25 demographic. (I’ll give you a clue: it’s the patriarchy and ridiculous youth-focussed standards of female beauty.) Or, worse, a strong trend towards exclusively dating much younger can suggest that they’re doing it because they want to be manipulative and gross, and have learned that women their own age won’t put up with their shit.

The second factor that I think is tremendously important is power. There is a power differential in my relationship, for sure – my partner is older, male, and owns property, so that’s three axes of privilege I can’t access right there. However, he’s also showed me, in word and action, from the beginning of our relationship that he views me as an equal.

It’s important to look at not only whether or not power differentials exist (because they do, in some form, in the vast majority of relationships) – but to consider whether the couple have taken steps to mitigate their effects, and specifically whether the older person is working to ensure that the built-in imbalance of power is not being wielded as a weapon. If the younger person is dependent upon the older person for a place to live or food on the table, for example, the odds that there can be an equitable romantic and sexual relationship decrease hugely. And it should go without saying that if there is any further inbuilt imbalance of power (such as if the older person is the younger person’s boss or teacher,) they should go absolutely nowhere near the younger person in a romantic or sexual context.

The third factor is the relative life experience of the people involved, which is not necessarily directly correlated with age but in practice often is. Though I could have legally consented to this relationship at 18 (when my partner would have been 40,) the life experience – and again, power difference – would have been so huge as to make an equitable relationship all but impossible.

You don’t have to have the same experiences or the same degree of life experience, of course, but if one party is barely out of high school and the other is thirty years into a professional career, it’s wise to ask some questions about whether such a dynamic is ethical or wise. Though 18/40 and 28/50 is technically the same age gap, in real and life-experience terms it’s a different matter entirely. Someone with a few years of adulthood behind them is just more likely to know themselves and be able to hold their own than someone who is still a teenager and still learning how to be in the world as an adult.

In conclusion, there is no simple litmus test to determine whether a particular age gap relationship situation can be ethical or wise. People are too different and it’s too complex to make a blanket judgement of yes or no. But if you consider the factors of intent, power and relative life experience, that’s a good place to start from.

Tweet me your thoughts or questions about my experience in one of these dynamics to @CoffeeAndKink.

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