Columns / Discourse / November 13, 2019

Pillowtalk: “What’s the etiquette for age gaps in college?”

Dear Pillowtalk,


I’m attracted to a first year, and I’m a junior. I know that we’re all adults here, and I remember feeling okay about it when I was a freshman, but it still makes me feel weird. What’s the etiquette for age gaps in college? How do you make sure it’ll be okay?


College is annoying as hell for a lot of reasons; one of them being the sense of permanent liminality. We’re caught in the in-between.

In high school, freshman are 14-ish and seniors are 17-ish. We can have endless conversations about whether sexual or romantic relationships are okay in that context; I’m not going to get into the morality of age gaps, especially when it comes to minors.

Legally, we’re all adults. Developmentally, we’re all still adolescents (until around the mid-20s). Experientially, there can be a big difference between 18 and 20. There can be a big difference in maturity. There can be a big difference in intent. Problem is, there can be big differences in all of those areas regardless of age.

Being 20 might give you some vague social power over someone who’s 18, and being a junior might give you some vague social power over someone who’s a first-year. Again, though, there are plenty of social power dynamics that operate regardless of age.

My answer for you, unfortunately, is “it depends.” Just like any sexual or romantic relationship, it’s about compatibility and context. Does it really matter if you’re not as mature as your older partner, if you’ve explicitly said that you both want this to be a one night stand? I don’t think so. Does it really matter if you’re 3 years older than your partner, if you’ve found yourselves to be compatible? What about 10 years? 30 years?

You might say 18 is significantly younger than 20, that you were a different person then, that you were damaged by a similar age gap. But then, was it about age? Or was it really about an abuse of power, or manipulation, or differing expectations, or differing maturity levels? Age can facilitate these things, but it does not define them. Age is more than a number; it does mean something. It just doesn’t mean everything.

I bet you know adult couples who have a decade (or more) between them. As we get older, as we move further from adolescence and closer to adulthood, age starts to matter much less. While we operate in that intensely liminal space between the two, the waters will always be muddy. Do we conform to the view of age gaps that we used in childhood, or do we progress to the view that adults assume? Or do we settle into that in-between?

For you, my advice is this: examine your intentions, take note of the context and keep being careful. Be careful to respect the growth and boundaries of those who are younger than you are, and beware of your own advantages. Ask some trusted friends if they’d be comfortable with it. Then, go forth: have fun, be safe and please use lube.



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Elleri Scriver

Tags:  advice age gap campus culture power romantic relationships

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