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Why the Age Gap Debate Is Getting Old

Why is the left parroting socially conservative ideas about dating and pedophilia?

Recently on Twitter, a viral thread explored a possible link between sex trafficker Jeffrey Epstein and “incredibly thin-skinned billionaire” Elon Musk. Ultimately, the author concluded little more than that Musk is a “soulless operator who doesn’t mind networking with a child rapist if he thinks it would help him,” but then made a strange addendum concerning Musk’s relationship with the musician Claire Boucher, aka Grimes. “It would certainly be far stranger if we had any indication that Elon sexualizes infantilism. Anyway, here’s an unrelated picture of him and his recent girlfriend,” the user tweeted, adding, “So I’ll let you decide if the weird billionaire who called a rescue cave-diver a pedo should be ridiculed about being a pedo.”

The photo, in which Boucher is seen wearing a girlish pink dress and pulling the sign of the horns, was introduced as though it bolstered the claim that Musk might be a “pedo.”

One complicating detail, though? Boucher is 32 years old.

The link was quickly dismissed as a reach, but comments like these crop up relatively often on Twitter, drawing comparisons between large age gaps in adult relationships and the sexual abuse of minors. Previously, for example, user @_jorts_ tweeted, “i am 26 years old and i personally think that if i were to date a 21 year old i should go to jail,” receiving an incredible 91,000 likes and nearly 10,000 retweets, and more recently, when a Twitter user attempted to establish a rule about how people in their 30s shouldn’t date college students, another replied saying, “Women in their twenties lack the ability to consent to sexual activity with men in their thirties. It can’t be genuinely consensual because men in their thirties, and especially their forties, have all the power. It is therefore a highly dubious almost pedophilic relationship.”

Twitter discourse does tend to devolve into absurd hyperbole, but it’s notable that these claims are coming from people on the left. “You can think of the Helen Lovejoy character on The Simpsons crying, ‘Won’t somebody please think of the children?,’ which was always a means of smuggling in social conservatism under the guise of protecting the vulnerable,” says Alex Hochuli, a writer and researcher who co-hosts the politics podcast Aufhebunga Bunga. “Except in this current guise, as advanced by cultural liberals or ‘wokes’ or whatever, the children in question aren’t even children, they’re fully fledged adults.”

The idea that women in their 20s are incapable of consenting to relationships with men in their 30s or older represents “a complete reversal of the feminist challenge to patriarchy, which is that women are capable,” Hochuli continues. “This isn’t only anti-feminist in that it casts women as hopelessly vulnerable and in need of protection, it can even fall prey to old forms of homophobia, like in the case of [Alex] Morse.”

Beth, a pseudonymous 30-year-old woman who dated two men at least 11 years her senior during her 20s, describes the idea that she was incapable of consenting to those relationships as “insulting” and “completely ridiculous.” “I know that I’m an adult and not a child,” she says. “To be reduced, just by virtue of the age gap, to somebody who doesn’t have autonomy, rationality and the ability to choose who I’m with feels kind of hysterical, actually.”

What’s especially condescending, Beth says, is the implication that she hasn’t thought critically about the wider social forces at play, and perhaps doesn’t even have the ability to. She’s acutely aware that men dating younger women is much more common than the reverse, for example, and that men of all ages are most attracted to women in their early 20s, whereas women are attracted to men their own age. “I think in the case of men in their 30s and 40s going out with very, very young women or even teenagers, it shows us something depressing, which is that men don’t necessarily want, in their partner, an equal,” she tells me. “They’re happy to be with somebody who’s beautiful, and probably a bit naive and trusting who’s not going to challenge them, and that’s quite depressing.”

But the root issue in that case isn’t age gaps, it’s sexism, and Beth wishes these wider social forces could be discussed without casting her as a helpless child and her loved ones as predators or even pedophiles. “Of course I recognize that this is symptomatic of inequalities between the genders and what society at large values women for, but I think that presents in all kinds of relationships, not just ones with an age gap,” Beth says. “And even if I’m making the choice in an imperfect social context, I’ve made a really conscious decision to be with these people. I really like them, I feel respected by them and I’ve chosen them in a way that’s very much deliberate.”

Obviously, no one is obliged to feel positively or even neutrally about relationships with large age gaps, and people who find them inadvisable, creepy, galling or even disgusting are entitled to their opinions. The problem lies in the attempt to turn those opinions into rules for everyone else, especially without establishing exactly why they’re needed. Of course, we do have rules in place to protect children from sexual predation, because unlike with adults, “children are developmentally unprepared to give informed consent,” writes Marie Doezema in The Atlantic, “and it can be extremely difficult for them to say no to people in positions of authority, or those they trust.” Practically everyone agrees that violating those rules is morally indefensible — and plenty would add that skirting gleefully near the line is, too — because the sexual abuse of children is a reprehensible act that causes serious, lasting harm.

Which is why it’s especially important that child sex abuse isn’t trivialized by describing men who date younger adults as “pedophilic” and “predatory” and their younger partners as “survivors,” and why we should resist the concept creep of useful language like “grooming,” which is when a child sex offender engages a child in a gradual process of sexualizing the relationship over time, not when a 40-year-old man tries to date women in their 20s.

Often, though, opposition to large age gaps in adult relationships is framed in milder terms, usually with claims that they involve a “power imbalance,” are inherently “coercive” or render the younger partner “vulnerable to harm.” Frustratingly, though, these critics usually fail to explain exactly what the younger partner is being coerced into doing, and how; or why a “power imbalance” in adult relationships necessarily leads to harm or poor treatment. Surely it’s possible, on the other hand, to imagine that a powerful person might treat their less powerful partner well, and we might wonder about the desirability and efficacy of a rule forbidding “inter-power” relationships. And what do we even mean when we describe someone as “powerful,” anyway?

“I feel like people often use terminology like ‘power imbalance’ or ‘vulnerable to harm’ without actually thinking about where power comes from,” Beth says. “When you’re talking about two adults, power doesn’t come from being the older party, it comes from being somebody’s professor or boss. Power is misdiagnosed a lot, and when people see age gaps, they see power differentials. I think at a certain point, that’s just not accurate.”

This failure to tease out the argument is a shame, because the questions get really interesting at this point: What are the ways we cause harm to each other in relationships, and what material factors make a person more vulnerable to that harm? Does having a significantly older partner make a person vulnerable, or are factors like financial dependence on a partner, an employment or immigration status that depends on a relationship continuing and the inaccessibility of mental-health treatment in relation to trauma, low self-esteem and historical abuse more relevant? How can we ensure that people are genuinely free to leave relationships they don’t want to be in? To what extent is being “vulnerable to harm” avoidable, and what kinds of harm is it appropriate to make laws, rules and policies about?

These are complex questions to work through, which is why it’s tempting to draw conservative lines in the sand and declare the debate off-limits (“If you are in your 30s, you should not be seeking romantic/sexual relationships with college students, and that should not be controversial”). Traditionally, though, that’s been the approach of social conservatives. So why are people on the left treating vulnerability as insurmountable, conceding that the status quo is inevitable and flocking to the rule book accordingly?

“Fundamentally, the boundaries of adulthood have changed,” Hochuli says. “There’s a growing infantilization of adults, such that people in their 20s aren’t [considered] fully fledged adults capable of rational, independent, autonomous choice and responsibility for themselves. And what’s at root of that infantilization is a sense that everyone might be vulnerable and prey to powerful people abusing them, which is interesting because that’s always been a socially conservative idea.”

Hochuli says this kind of mistrust and paranoia creates problems on an interpersonal level, leading to “a lot of repression, a lot of insecurity in relation to how we’re allowed to relate to one another.” But it’s also emblematic of what he describes as “the left’s complete retreat from any possibility of genuine social change.” “Rather than seeing vulnerability as a reality and something which should be overcome through challenges to the way that the world is organized, [the left] affirms vulnerability,” he explains. “There’s a kind of flight away from agency, from subjectivity.”

That the left is in this prostrate position is probably a more pressing political issue than whatever it is consenting adults are doing in their bedrooms. “The contradiction is very clear,” Hochuli says. “[The left] is supposedly the force for change, for people seizing control of their own lives and changing the world,” yet young people are being cast as “so vulnerable that they’d be unable to navigate a conversation with someone who’s older and who might be trying it on with them.”

“If they can’t navigate that,” he adds, “how can they possibly try to change the world?”

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