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Why Do Teen Magazines Idealize Underage Girls Dating Adult Men?

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Magazines like ‘Seventeen’ and ‘Teen Vogue’ don’t just normalize couplings involving underage girls — they make them seem downright aspirational.

There’s a clip on YouTube that shows part of a 1958 television interview with Jerry Lee Lewis, then 22, and his wife, Myra Gale, then just 13.

In the video, Gale looks very much like the child she is. She’s tiny, barely coming up to Lewis’s shoulder, has a baby face, and is wearing a sailor dress. As Lewis talks, Gale chews gum and fiddles with her sunglasses; at one point, she puts them in her mouth. When the interviewer finally asks her a question — “Were you there [at the London concerts], Mrs. Lewis?” — she hides her mouth behind her hand as she answers quietly, “I was there, but I wasn’t at the shows.” The next question — “When were you married?” — leads Lewis to wrap his arms around Gale as she looks away. “We leave personal questions out of this,” he smiles.

Although the video is disturbing, the interviewer is doing the best he can to normalize the “relationship” between an adult man and a girl barely in her teens. Even though this coupling was so scandalous, it would prove disastrous to Lewis’ career, it still garnered positive coverage like this — the result, it would seem, of Lewis’ bright star power.

Fifty years later, not all that much has changed—the relationships between celebrities and the much younger women they date are still normalized and even presented as aspirational. And troublingly, it’s online and print publications targeted to teens that are doing the most to idealize these couplings.

Stories about teen women dating older men inevitably leads to fraught conversations, tapping into debates around female autonomy and consent. But when there is ample research revealing the dangers of such relationships, it’s worth asking what the media can — and should — be doing differently.

In 2015, Seventeen published an article called “8 signs Kylie Jenner and Tyga are totally dating.” The article documented the evidence — paparazzi photos of the pair holding hands, social media pics with romantic messages — but failed to mention the reason why the pair had not yet gone public: Jenner was 17 and under the age of consent, and Tyga was 25. And their relationship may have been romantic even earlier: They’d been publicly spending time together for years, since Jenner was 14 and Tyga was 21.

A few weeks after Jenner turned 18, Tyga released a song about having sex with her while she was underage, complete with a music video showing the couple kissing, and lyrics that went, in part, “They say she too young, I should have waited / She a big girl, dog, when she stimulated.” The Seventeen writeup of that video begins, “It’s no secret that Kylie Jenner and Tyga are totally official, but they’ve still kept the PDA to a minimum — until now.” Again, there’s no mention of either partner’s age, their age difference, or age of consent laws.

According to Hearst, Seventeen reaches “more than 15 million readers in print and online every month.” That’s a lot of teenage girls who are learning that it’s cool and romantic to date an adult — instead of learning that, in fact, such relationships can be dangerous.

Scarleteen, which describes itself as offering “Inclusive, comprehensive, supportive sexuality and relationships info for teens and emerging adults,” spells out the problems with teenage girl-adult man relationships in a 2008 essay called “Why I Deeply Dislike Your Older Boyfriend”:

“I feel like he knows — and enjoys — that he has more power than you do right now due to his age or gender, and that rather than seeking to share it, or helping you nurture and own your own power, he wants to keep his power, and take yours from you to have it all for himself.

And I know that he knows that age matters, despite his telling you, or agreeing with you, that it doesn’t.

He knows that because he’s been your age before, and knows that things are different for him at the age he is now. When you’re his age, you’ll know that, too, but he also knows you don’t know that yet.”

That Scarleteen article was published in December 2008, when I was 18. I first came across it a year or two later, and I remember being astounded by it. It was the first time I read something that said, blatantly, that there’s something wrong with teenage girl/adult male relationships.

The article cites the National Institute of Justice, the Journal of Adolescent Health, Planned Parenthood, and other sources that say that relationships between teenage girls and adult men have a power imbalance that leads to an increased risk of STIs (due to pressure not to use a condom), pregnancy (ditto), and domestic violence for the teenage girls involved.

A Guttmacher Institute study found that pregnancy rates for teens with partners more than six years older were 3.7 times higher than those for teens who were dating someone two years older or less, and they were more likely to carry that pregnancy to term. They also found that teens dating a partner more than six years older were less likely to use contraception than teens dating a partner close in age, and that teens who were survivors of sexual assault were more likely to date an older partner.

Researchers were unsparing in their assessment of the dangers of such relationships:

“[W]hen adolescents younger than 18 are involved with men who are substantially older than they are, differences between partners in such factors as maturity, life experience, social position, financial resources and physical size may make such relationships inherently unequal, and the young women may therefore be vulnerable to abuse and exploitation by their partners.”

This is not to say the issue is always a clear-cut one; some in the feminist community have argued that dictating norms around age of consent can infringe on female bodily and sexual autonomy, and the Scarleteen article is careful to note, “By no means do I feel it is impossible for any man to be a good guy in relationships with an age gap.”

Additionally, while a case like Jerry Lee Lewis and his 13-year-old bride is blatantly problematic, the parameters aren’t always so easily delineated. Some, for instance, have argued against legislating consensual sex between two teens, even if one of those teens is under the age of consent, on the grounds that this constitutes a more power-balanced relationship.

Pregnancy rates for teens with partners more than six years older were 3.7 times higher than those for teens who were dating someone two years older or less. Click To Tweet

Because the lines aren’t easy to draw, in the U.S., age of consent laws vary by state, ranging between 16 and 18. Some psychiatrists say that young people under “19 or 20” should only date within a few years of their own age. These arguments are based on brain development, which happens rapidly in adolescence; however, in the past few years, new research has shown that this rapid brain development continues longer than previously thought: into a person’s twenties, even as old as 25.

In a paper discussing neuroscience and age of consent laws, Jennifer Ann Drobac writes, “Let those people who would hold juveniles as competent as adults prove that the myelination of the fibers of all needed synapses has occurred.” (She puts this as in the “early twenties.”)

A complicating factor is that teenage girls who date adult men are unlikely to see these relationships as harmful until much later. In a study conducted in collaboration with Planned Parenthood in 1997, feminist academic Lynn M. Phillips interviewed “a racially and socially diverse group” of 127 teenage girls in teen-adult relationships, and women who had been in teen-adult relationships in their own teens. The teenage girls overwhelmingly said that their adult partners were responsible and trustworthy; but the adult women, looking back, said they felt “manipulated, dominated, or cheated out of their youth.”

When You’re On The Autistic Spectrum, Consent Is Complicated

What about teenage boys who date adult women? Certainly many of the same arguments about brain development and power differentials apply, although — with cis couples — the risks of reproductive coercion and pregnancy do not. But relationships between adult women and teenage boys are a whole lot less common than relationships between adult men and teenage girls — unsurprising, given that in opposite-sex couples across all ages, it’s much more common for a male partner to be older than a female partner (the average is that the man is two years older than the woman for their first marriage).

And while I can think of many examples of teenage girl/adult man celebrity couples, I can only think of a few teenage boy/adult woman celebrity couples, and just one with a male under the age of consent — then-17-year-old Harry Styles dating 32-year-old Caroline Flack, a relationship that led J-14 to proclaim, “AGE IS NOTHING BUT A NUMBER: Older Women You Won’t Believe Harry Styles Dated.”).

I’d argue that teen media should take care in the way they cover teenage boy/adult woman couples, too. But considering how much less common these relationships are — and that teenage girls make up significantly more of teen media’s readership —they present less of an issue.

Which brings us back to the question: How should magazines like Teen Vogue and Seventeen handle celebrity pairings involving an adult man and teenage girl?

Most importantly, they should stop being so glowing in their coverage of teen girl/adult man relationships. One wonders how much of this is rooted in celebrity infatuation, and if teen pubs would be so quick to condone a similar relationship if, say, it involved a teacher and student, or someone they knew personally.

Indeed, Kylie and Tyga aren’t the only celebrity couple Seventeen has fawned over while one member was under the age of consent — they began covering Lily-Rose Depp and her boyfriend Ash Stymest when she was 17 and he was 24, for example (“we have major heart-eyes for them,” they wrote in 2016).

Seventeen isn’t alone, either. Teen Vogue, to be fair, published an essay criticizing “Stimulated” that noted, “Tyga is justifying — and possibly even glorifying — his illegal relationship with an underage girl” and explained, “There’s a reason why your mom doesn’t want you to date a dude who’s seven years older, especially when you’re still in high school: according to science, mental — and sexual — development matures a whole lot through teenage years.” But this approach didn’t last.

Although it links to the “Stimulated” essay, a Teen Vogue article published just three months later — about Tyga and Jenner’s breakup (they got back together not long after) — has a tone similar to Seventeen’s pieces. “Love was always dead. Love was never alive. If these two can’t make it, who can?,” it reads, jokingly. Jenner’s age is mentioned in the article, but Tyga’s is, conspicuously, not. Even J-14, purportedly courting a significantly younger audience than Teen Vogue and Seventeen, has normalized the Kylie/Tyga relationship.

A snapshot from ‘J-14′

I could go into countless more examples of underage girl/adult man celebrity couples that have been treated blithely by the press — from the ones that we as a culture now widely condemn (27-year-old R. Kelly and 15-year-old Aaliyah in 1994; 24-year-old Elvis Presley and 14-year-old Priscilla Presley in 1959; 38-year-old Jerry Seinfeld and 17-year-old Shoshanna Lonstein in 1993) — to the ones that unsettle us when we remember how they began (people tend to forget that Don Johnson started dating Melanie Griffith when he was 22 and she was 14; the late Paul Walker began dating his wife Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell when he was 33 and she was 16; Wilmer Valderrama dated Mandy Moore, Lindsay Lohan, and Demi Lovato when they were all under the legal age of consent).

Oh, and here’s another one. In 2004, when I was 13, Hilary Duff — then 16 and the star of Lizzie McGuire, a show I loved — began dating Good Charlotte singer Joel Madden, then 25. In 2015, Duff told Cosmopolitan that she lost her virginity to Madden, saying, “I had a 26-year-old boyfriend. So everyone can make their own assumptions about what I was doing.”

In response, Paper published a great piece titled “Why didn’t we have a bigger problem with Joel Madden dating a teenage Hilary Duff?” I wanted to yell that, at 13, I did have a problem with it — it’s just that none of the media I was consuming did.

To be fair, there are evidently some parameters in place at teen-oriented publications. Teen Vogue seems to have taken the approach of not covering a couple at all while one member is under the age of consent — they have noticeably not covered Lily-Rose Depp and Ash Stymest’s relationship, though they have written many stories on Depp’s fashion sense, and adult Vogue has mentioned Depp’s relationship with Stymest, albeit briefly.

Certainly this is preferable to Seventeen’s fawning coverage of the same couple, and other couples with one member under the age of consent. But there’s some cognitive dissonance when a couple with a large age gap (like Tyga and Jenner) is criticized or not mentioned at all while the younger member is 16 or 17, but as soon as the younger member turns 18, the couple is all of a sudden portrayed as #relationshipgoals.

Covering adult-teen relationships responsibly might simply mean mentioning the celebrities’ ages and sticking to a just-the-facts tone, making sure to avoid presenting the couple as aspirational. Or even better, writers could name the age gap more explicitly, perhaps linking to an article or study on the potential dangers of teen-adult relationships.

Covering adult-teen relationships responsibly means making sure to avoid presenting the couple as aspirational. Click To Tweet

A recent Teen Vogue post about Chris Brown commenting on Rihanna’s Instagram includes a noticeable aside: “Chris, who pleaded guilty to accusations of domestic violence against Rihanna in 2009, popped up in the singer’s comments yesterday, using just the eye emoji in his message.” What if all articles about Jenner and Tyga had similar asides — “Tyga, who began dating Jenner when he was in his twenties and she was under the age of consent”?

The difference in the way teenage girls and adult women perceive adult-teen relationships means mainstream teen media has a responsibility — or at least an opportunity — to do some good. Phillips writes:

“If we are to develop educational strategies aimed at discouraging teen women from becoming involved in potentially exploitative relationships, those strategies must speak to young women’s lived realities…this requires an understanding of their understandings and a respect for the priorities they bring to their own decision-making.”

Teen media is uniquely positioned to do this — to speak to teens about their own realities, in a voice that teens just might listen to.