Not just a number: age, power and abuse

[Warning for discussion and description of abuse of intimate partners.]

I’m thinking about a longer article about women who abuse women they’re in relationships with, but it might take a while.  In the meantime, I wanted to get some thoughts that I’ve been having about age out of my system.

Age is a characteristic which affects how much power you have in society, and how much power you have in relation to any partners you might have.  It’s a bit different to several other characteristics that kyriarchy uses to allocate power, because it changes constantly.  Unlike gender, for instance, where the messages we’re given in childhood are different depending on whether adults think they’re teaching a boy or a girl, we’re all socialised as children, and the powerlessness that is enforced on children.  And most of us, hopefully, make it to old age, and the loss of power that is then enacted on us.

However, I want to talk about age differentials in between, and at the upper end of childhood, and how that can affect relationships where abuse is obvious, and where power and control are much less.  Being older than your partner contributes to your having power over them, to a greater or lesser extent depending on the size of the gap, your actual ages, how much your social circles and society values age, and what other power dynamics are going on.

Some brief bits of evidence from other people, for anyone feeling skeptical:

When professionals are trying to assess the risk of serious violence and murder in domestic abuse cases, a ten-year or more age gap, in same-gender relationships, indicates higher risk. (Found here (PDF))

This big study on teenagers’ experiences of dating abuse found that for girls with male partners, having a boyfriend even a year or two older, while it brought financial and status benefits, also significantly increased their risk of sexual and other abuse.

[I hate the work risk when talking about abuse.  It makes it sound like a storm or something uncontrollable, unaccountable.   Abusers choose partners who are younger than them because it gives them greater power over them.  That’s a better phrasing.]

So how does this work?  There’s nothing intrinsically powerful about being older.  Here are some example of how society enables this tool.

  • Via stereotypes and prejudice.  E.g., it’s easier to see young people as crazy, as flakey (unreliable), as rash, as violent.  As unwise, naive or stupid: they don’t know what’s best for themsleves, sometimes they just need some firm manipulation guidance.  They are especially clueless sexually, both about how to behave sexually, and their own sexual desires and preferences.  They’re just discovering themselves, after all.  So they need to be pressured taught about these things.
  • Via money.  Due to age-based oppression in the workplace, older people are likely to be earning more, and they’ve probably been earning for longer, so may have savings.  Financial power has huge impacts on personal relationships, especially sexual ones.
  • Via external social power.  Older people are more likely to have more powerful friends, more sources of support.  Things in their life are seen as more important because they’re older, and because their age allows them to access things coded as important: better jobs, housing, marriage, mortgage, parenthood.  They. their choices, desires and lives are seen as worthy of more respect.
  • Via internal social power.  All of these ideas are likely to have been internalised by both parties, such that they both may also believe that the older person knows what’s best for the younger, or that their desires are more important, or that they’re more worthy of respect.  These beliefs can impact hugely, changing the levels of entitlement, self-esteem, self-blame, and accountability that people bring to the relationship.
  • Via insitutions and structures.  If the people share an institution of any kind (school, university, workplace, religious organisation, etc) chances are, that instiution has a hierarchy based largely on age, or which at least reflects age.

There are probably other ways that society creates and bolsters age-based power – feel free to add comments.

So, how might this power be used in a sexual relationship?

  • I’ve already mentioned how age-power can enable sexual abuse.  The idea of the more experienced person quite coercively initiating the less experienced (usually a man initiating a woman, but there are prominent gay and lesbian versions too) is so enshrined in our cultures as a positive, sexy thing.  This can be backed up by sexual emotional abuse based on greater knowledge and experience, like “if you were really in love with me/straight/not frigid/lesbian/kinky/submissive/a woman/poly then you would want to ____”, or based on age-related entitlement, like “I’m a man of the world, you’re not adventurous enough for me.”
  • Financial and related control, such as monitoring their spending, withholding money, making them ask for money or putting them on an allowance.  More subtly, it can involve presuming that the older person’s career or education should be prioritised.
  • Isolation: ensuring that all of the couple’s friends are the friends of the older one, or at least of that age group.  [Side note: isolation can be achieved in quite subtle ways, such as kindly advising them that a certain friend/group is not a good influence on them, or saying that a certain hobby or interest annoys them or is inconvenient, or making certain things a secret so that they can’t talk about the whole relationship with their friends.]  The isolating effect of secrets is particularly useful in relationships affected by other age-related power differentials, such as an older person having an affair with a younger one, or a boss having an affair with an employee.
  • General entitlement and self-esteem: especially if the older person is bringing more money and status to the couple, they may feel that this and their age entitles them to have the final word, to contribute less in other ways, be respected more, to teach/advise the other person, to generally be in control.
  • Accusing the abused person of abuse: see the stereotypes paragraph above.  It’s easier to believe that a younger person is violent, uncontrollable etc, and actions taken by a younger person against an older person are more likely to be seen as bad, disrespectful, and not how things should be.

So that’s why it really pisses me off to see articles like this one at Autostraddle that celebrates relationships with a big age gap without mentioning the power imbalance or the potential for abuse.

Again, I’m sure that there are lots of other ways age-based power can be used – if you’ve got any ideas then do comment.  If anyone would like to share their own experience of abuse and/or shitty partners, then I promise not to approve (= publish) any comments which don’t treat those sharing with anything other than belief and respect.

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4 responses to “Not just a number: age, power and abuse

  1. OK, yes, as long as we acknowledge it goes two ways. As a younger partner (14 years difference) I can run and leap; my partner walks. I climb trees; s/he sits in the shade. And yes, suppose I could slow down, but I don’t want to. Dammit. I’m very much aware that my speed and stamina are more than hers and my strength will surpass hers before too many more years.

    I was having babies while she was having grandchildren; I still might have another child. I’m very much aware that for the last part of her life I may be supporting her; that is, she’ll be supported by me, she’ll be my dependent.

    Yes, older men have more wealth than older women, but I wonder whether or not class impacts this a lot. At some point the scales tip; when the younger person is still working while the older person’s just got a social security check, for instance.

    • feministplus

      Yes absolutely – past certain points, the social privileges and powers bestowed according to age are taken away again (depending on class, gender etc and which powers we’re looking at), and physical health starts to intersect more and more.

      In some relationships, though, the dominance established when the age gap was in the older person’s favour can continue even when age ceases to give that advantage – hence cases where an older man is abusing his wife even though she is his carer and he depends on her in many ways.

      But yes, I agree.

  2. hectocotylus

    I’d like to point out that, although I don’t know that “power” is an accurate way to frame it, when it comes to May-December relationships in which the younger party is under 23-25, there are intrinsic factors contributing to the dynamic in a way that could well work against the younger member. The human brain – specifically, parts affecting ability to manage risk and project outcomes – is not generally fully developed until one’s mid-twenties.

    Sources: http://www.hhs.gov/opa/familylife/tech_assistance/etraining/adolescent_brain/Development/prefrontal_cortex/index.html
    http://www.dartmouth.edu/~news/releases/2006/02/06.html
    http://www.americanbar.org/content/dam/aba/publishing/criminal_justice_section_newsletter/crimjust_juvjus_Adolescence.authcheckdam.pdf
    http://www.news-medical.net/news/20110923/Human-brain-development-does-not-stop-at-adolescence-Research.aspx

    The same is probably true for the older member re: senility and other age-related lapses in cognitive functioning, once a certain age has been reached.

    • feministplus

      Thanks, that’s fascinating. Yes, I can imagine an older abuser exploiting some of those listed in the first link.

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