Statistics, released by the US Current Population Survey in 2013, report that the accepted ‘norm’ is for relationships not to have more than a five year age-gap, with three-quarters of relationships falling in to this range. The unacceptable range was where the husband was 15 years older (2.5%) or the wife 10 years older (1.5%) totalling 4% of relationships that are seen by society as ‘odd’. The cultural shift is towards the man: one-third of all relationships include partners within 12 months of each others age, 13% have an older woman, and 53% have an older man. But are such ‘age-gap relationships’ really culturally or ethically problematic and, if so, why?
Other elements of this “age-gap” culture are accepted without people realising, like the common usage of terms such as ‘MILF’ and ‘cougar’. There is a difference though between desiring sex with an older/younger partner and desiring a relationship. It is plausible that while the former is popularly acceptable, the latter is not. Many sexual fantasies play on this idea of engaging sexually with the ‘experienced adult’ or ‘innocent youngster’. According to statistics released by Pornhub in 2015, ‘step mom’ and ‘teen’ were the second and third most searched terms respectively with ‘Step dad’ and ‘MILF’ also in the top ten. This seems to suggest that even if it can become a taboo, many of us have ‘accepted’ sexual fantasies that involve age-gaps. I would argue that these are not wrong. Sex, on this level, is about pleasure and exploration and so if age-gap sex is had for the purpose of enjoyment, or to fulfil a fantasy, then there is no real ethical problem.
So if age-gap sex is acceptable in terms of its popularity, and a very popular part of at least our online sexual experience, then why does this become unacceptable or seen as abnormal when projected into the sphere of relationships? Many psychologists suggest that this desire for older/younger relationships is part of our natural make-up, the ‘age differential effect’ – men are drawn to younger women as a sign of fertility and women to older men as a sign of better ‘resources’.
Other studies have suggested different psychological implications. Keelley’s research has suggested that when hypothetically rating dates by the experiments he conducted ‘men gave lower ratings to dates where the man was older’. There is a certain natural uncomfortability which is likely based on society’s perception of it being against the accepted norm of behaviour. A 40-year old woman dating a 20-year old man, like in the picture to the right, gives you an uneasy feeling. From this queasy feeling we then assign age-gap relationships some kind of ethical qualm.
To test out this idea, I did some research. Asking people to comment their reactions, I posted on Facebook, “A 40-year old man is dating a 20-year old woman.” Some people, as expected, gave the response indicating their unease and scepticism:
“She needs to get away from him because that’s terrifying. That’s too much of a gap” -Aislinn Hurst
“As someone who has a 22 year age gap with my father, it’s really weird” -Kaycee Hill
Katie Macdonald commented on the worry from the two families perspectives while David Allwright (Southampton University’s VP Welfare) saw the age gap as ‘potentially unbalancing’. A surprising number were actually happy with the idea, with 26 out of 50 people recording no issues. Most went for the “age is just a number” approach with my favourite being Phillip Ashton’s “Love is a chemical reaction, not a mathematical formula”. Others defended them on the grounds including the fact that we do not have the right to judge, and hedonistic pleasure.
Others were more suspicious. Many questioned motives, linking age-gap relationships to a worry that the love was not ‘true’ but just a guise for different intentions. James Paton branded her a ‘gold digger’ while Lee Adams suggested she had ‘daddy issues’. Others preferred to serve them the Spanish Inquisition:
“What’s his job? How much money does he have? Nice house? Famous? Popular?… He’s got something she wants” -Amy Harriet Knight
“Does she look old? Whats his job? Does he intend [on having]kids soon? How many times has he been married/in a relationship before? Does he look young?” -Leah White
There is a deep-rooted worry, exclusive to age-gap relationships, that the intentions of the mentioned relationship are far from genuine. The ‘father complex’ is generally seen as culturally inappropriate in a relationship. Equally, the assumed likelihood of financial intentions playing a role in the relationship massively increase, and this is ethically problematic. Love, as argued in my article on adultery, has a very special value which we should cherish. This type of relationship is an attack on that value as it presents itself as ‘love’ under the guise of less honourable intentions.
All things aside, if they are in a loving relationship, with honourable intentions and having answered any cultural scepticism, I cannot see anything wrong. Why do their looks or job prospects matter? Culturally we may frown upon it but, as a concept, this is a mistake. Ensuring the love is genuine, accounting for the type of problems these relationships can exclusively entail, there is no underlying cultural or ethical problem with age-gap relationships. It is often the case that we are too quick to judge and say that something is wrong, or ‘abnormal’. Essentially – qualms aside – there is no reason why its an individuals business to involve themselves in other’s relationships when the relationship in-and-of-itself ought to be acceptable. After all, you cannot control who you really fall in love with.