'My Teenage Relationship With An Older Man Still Haunts Me Now'
The Debrief: As footballer Adam Johnson is found guilty of sexually touching a 15-year-old fan Are young women being educated enough on what a healthy relationship looks like?
I was 16 when I met Jon*. Me and my mates had snuck into a nightclub with the help of some dodgy ID, and I was buying a WKD blue at the bar when we got chatting. He was absolutely gorgeous, and seemed like the coolest person I’d ever met. He also happened to be 27.
'I want you as my girlfriend, 'he said, after about 15 minutes.
If a guy did this now, I’d be running in the opposite direction. But at the time, it seemed like the most romantic thing ever. This gorgeous older man who, I figured, could probably have his pick of any girl, had chosen me – me – out of a crowd. I must be so special!
Fast-forward a year and he had completely taken over my life. I barely saw my friends; I couldn’t wear certain outfits, and he regularly marched me out of public places when he decided other guys were looking at me. I was even in trouble at school because he encouraged me to bunk off to spend time with him. My lack of experience, plus the automatic power imbalance that comes from such an age difference, meant controlling and manipulating me came easily.
But my story is hardly unique. From the ‘baby groupies’ of the 60s and 70s to the 15-year-old in the Adam Johnson court case, teenage girls are easy prey for older men who wish to feel powerful. Society’s message that your value is based on men’s views of you, and that having a boyfriend is a symbol of success, makes young girls vulnerable to seemingly-flattering attention. Mix in a lack of awareness about what makes a healthy relationship, and you have a potent cocktail for easy exploitation.
It’s something Lauren*, now 28, can relate to. She met her ex when she was 15 and he was in his early 20s. 'I was a bit of a late bloomer and no boys in school were ever interested in me,' she recalls. 'He was the first guy to actually fancy me, and it was so flattering.'
'I come from a small surfing town in Devon, where these kind of relationships were normalised. Lots of girls in their mid teens would date guys in their 20s. It was almost like a status symbol. It felt cool when he picked me up in his car.
'Now, I strongly feel that any relationship where one person has no experience and the other has lots can never be equal.'
For me, having an older guy take interest in me was, at first, the biggest self-esteem boost ever. It felt like an automatic passport to womanhood, when in reality he was robbing me of my independence and the opportunity to experience normal rites-of-passage.
Another risk factor in these situations is the lack of education on offer as to what healthy, loving relationships consist of. Once you’re an adult it’s easy to see how a creepy grown man is for pursuing teenage girls, but adolescents just don’t have the tools or experience to identify these dangerous relationships. And they’re not being given help to acquire them, either - the Government recently made personal social and health education (PSHE) non-compulsory.
'Teenage girls can’t look out for abusive situations, because they have no idea what they look like,' Alice Stride of Women’s Aid tells me. 'They will often mistake controlling behaviour for romance.' It’s a lethal combination that has made 16-19-year-old girls the group most at-risk of domestic abuse in the UK.
This lack of awareness also leads to girls experiencing victim-blaming when they do eventually reach out for help. 'Teenagers will usually open up to their friends first,' explains Doireann Larkin of Tender, an organisation that uses theatre to teach young people about healthy relationships. 'But if their friends haven’t received the right education either, they may react by blaming the girl.'
One teacher tells me that the results-orientated nature of schools today makes it tricky to engage pupils in any kind of personal education. 'PHSE is seen as an add-on,' she explains. 'The kids don’t take lessons seriously if they’re not going to help them get into university.'
Although attitudes do seem to be changing – Adam Johnson was sacked by his club, Sunderland while he was still awaiting trial, a rarity for footballers accused of sexual misconduct – there can be a tendency to view these relationships as silly misdemeanours rather than the damaging situations they are. 'It can take a long time to re-build your self esteem after leaving an abuser,' Alice explains. 'Many girls suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder and panic attacks.' I personally still suffer nightmares about Jon. I’ve also carried a lot of guilt and shame over the years about how my ‘first love’ wasn’t really loving at all.
It’s clear that education – from as young an age as possible – is the best way to help teenagers avoid damaging relationships. Personally, I believe I’d never have got involved with Jon if I’d been able to recognise how dodgy the situation was. But although there are great regional schemes, such as Tender and SpeakOut in Bristol, it remains vitally lacking from mainstream education.
Meanwhile, we’re still feeding girls the myth that it’s important to have a boyfriend; that all male attention is good attention, and that it determines their worth. Until this changes, then sadly these stories will carry on being repeated.
*Names have been changed
If you or someone you know is experiencing domestic abuse, ring the Women’s Aid national helpline on 0808 2000 247
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Follow Jessica on Twitter: @jessicabateman
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