Elva dressed as a fairy

She thought she had found true love.

Adina, whose last name we’re withholding to protect her privacy, was 15 years old and in the 10th grade when she met the man who would become her boyfriend online. But underneath Adina’s surreal happiness was, in her words, “pure terror.” The guy was possessive, and she feared her family would discover the relationship she was hiding, because he was about 10 years her senior.

The pair started as friends. They exchanged messages and texts, quickly growing closer. Eventually the two said “I love you” and shared occasional sexts. Adina found herself living what she describes as a dual life, one where she communicated with the man she loved, and another where she kept her relationship a secret.

In videos and on social media, people will often use the term “age gap couples” to describe pairings between individuals where one is significantly older than the other. There are high-profile couples that fit the extremes of this mold, like rap artist Tyga. He was speculated to have started dating Kylie Jenner in 2014, when she was 16 and he was 24 years old. Jenner’s brother-in-law, Kanye West, was asked if he felt the relationship was inappropriate in a 2015 Breakfast Club interview. West said "I think that he got in early, I think he was smart."

But there really is only one way to see “age gap” relationships between young teens and adults that turn exploitative and/or sexual: as child abuse. That’s obviously the case for high-flying financier Jeffrey Epstein, whose arrest last year for trafficking girls as young as 14 sent shock-waves through elite America. But misconduct can also be subtle and slow-building. The National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children defines grooming as “when someone builds a relationship, trust and emotional connection with a child or young person so they can manipulate, exploit and abuse them.” These relationships involve an adult taking advantage of a child’s limited worldview to make themselves seem like the “shining knight” or ideal romantic partner for a child or teen — so that the interaction does not feel coercive, but idyllic.

“Despite his shortcomings, the man I was with took good care of me,” Adina wrote in 2017 of the guy she met online. “He had strong feelings for me just like I had for him.”

Adina’s parents didn’t see the relationship as she did. When they discovered that her boyfriend was almost twice her age, a legal adult, she said they reported him to the police.

“Fifteen-year-old me was very upset that my parents and scary adult authority figures were picking through my sexts and taking me away from the person I thought I was in love with,” Adina said.

At the time, Adina thought of herself as old enough to decide who and what was best for her. She saw her parents’ intrusion as a violation of her privacy and agency that was uncalled for and embarrassing.

From a law enforcement point of view, when sex is a factor, so-called age gap relationships can cross the boundary into crime. In fact, there are entire sets of laws created to deal with age differences in sexual relationships known as “age of consent” laws.

Carolyn Cocca is a law professor at SUNY Old Westbury. In her book, “Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape,” she tracks the history of statutory rape — or sexual relationships that fall outside the law. She says that the United States’ earliest statutory rape laws weren’t really about age but preventing out-of-wedlock sex. These laws, imported from England, focused not on rape but protecting the virginal status of young women who were seen as the property of men, specifically a father or husband.

Age of Consent Through the Years in the United States, 1885-2014

(Source: "Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States" by Carolyn Cocca (2004). Prof. Cocca provided updated 2014 data to YR Media directly.)

“So you could be old enough to get married and have sexual intercourse legally, but not old enough to consent to unmarried sex,” Cocca said.

Our understanding of consent laws didn’t change until the late 1890s, according to Cocca. That’s when a push was made to raise the age of consent to between 16 and 18 years old across the country. Male legislators claimed credit for protecting young girls by “saving them from their own ruin” and ensuring that they did not have sex until marriage.

Graphing Change in Age of Consent, 1885-2014

(Source: "Jailbait: The Politics of Statutory Rape Laws in the United States" by Carolyn Cocca (2004). Prof. Cocca provided updated 2014 data to YR Media directly.)

“It's around this time you start to hear the word jailbait,” said Cocca. “You know, like you could get in trouble if you're with these girls, even if they're willing. It's against the law.”

But these laws were flawed. For example, not all victims of statutory rape are women. In the 1960’s and 70’s, second-wave feminists and LGBTQ advocates worked to revise the age of consent laws, making them more inclusive.

“They wanted to make the laws gender neutral, so any person who has sex with an underage person is guilty of statutory rape. They thought that would take away the idea that this is something that males do to females,” said Cocca.

Our legal understanding of what the age of consent should be is shaped by the moral viewpoints on sexuality at any given time. Outdated concepts like the idea that statutory rape is only something men do to young girls have been swapped out in favor of the idea that statutory rape is something an adult does to a vulnerable younger person.

These protections have improved but are still far from perfect. It’s hard to say who’s vulnerable, when our ideas about age and maturity are subjective. For example, parents can leverage the current legal system to separate young people in relationships if one person is 18 years old and the other is underage. If the young person who is the “victim” in this case wants to stop a prosecution, they can’t.

“The state takes over once the case has started,” Cocca said. “So you can have a relatively young person in a consensual relationship being on a sex offender registry, which affects where they work, where they live. If they can go to a daycare, be near a school, all that kind of stuff.”

Advocates call for age of consent laws that don’t restrict young people’s sexual agency but also protect them from predatory adults. The criminal codes vary state-by-state and include an additional factor — age span between the two parties — that helps determine whether a crime has occured. For example, in a state where 16 is the age of consent with a two-year age span, someone who’s 15 can legally have sex with a 14-year-old but with a 17-year-old? No.

And beyond any one example, legality is hardly a barometer for morality or ethics. Take the term “jailbait,” for example. It’s survived in popular culture, but usually as a joke or cautionary tale. As a child, I remember listening to a song called “15 Will Get You 20” by R&B group City High. The message is: don’t have sex with kids, even though it’s understandable you may want to.

Compare this to rapper Drake’s behavior at a concert in 2010, when he brought a girl onstage, asked her age, and reportedly said "I can't go to jail yet, man! 17? Why do you look like that?" before kissing her in front of a full audience. Now 33, the rapper has recently been criticized for reportedly texting teenage starlet Millie Bobby Brown, who was 14 years old at the time, and Billie Eilish, then 17. Fans called out the rapper while Millie Bobby Brown defended Drake’s communications on Instagram, writing: "Why u gotta make a lovely friendship ur headline? U guys are weird."

Waiting for teenage girls to reach the age of consent is so commonplace in American culture, having fans who count down to a starlet’s 18th birthday is practically a marker of a certain type of fame.

Whether legal or illegal, the responsibility should fall on adults not to sexualize young people. Because if the only thing stopping an adult from lusting after a legal minor is the single day between 17 and 18 years old, there’s a moral deficit that goes beyond our legal system.

Adina agrees. She’s 19 years old now, and looking back on her 10th grade experience, she has a very different interpretation of age-gap relationships.

“I don't really think there's a way for it not to be exploitative. Even if the minor is consenting and loves the person a lot,” she said. “You're just not an adult yet, in your brain and your maturity. Your life experience is not on par with a grown person. So if you're going to be with a grown person, it's going to be exploitative.”

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  • Designer and Illustrator: Marjerrie Masicat
  • Developers: Radamés Ajna, Devin Glover
  • Editors: Francesca Fenzi, LaToya Tooles, Lissa Soep
  • Thank You: Carolyn Cocca, Dan Kopf
  • Photos: Getty Images