BY LILY REAVIS ’21
When I was 15, a 28-year-old man tried to justify having a romantic relationship with me by citing the fact that, in a couple years, we would adhere to the “half plus seven” rule. This rule dictates that a man may date women younger than him, so long as they are at least half of his age, plus seven years. This rule encourages unhealthy, predatory relationships and justifies manipulative behavior toward young women.
While the dangers of age gaps are frequently discussed in the context of high school, college students often partake in relationships just as manipulative without any concern.
The “half plus seven” rule is often shared online and in entertainment, even in television shows such as “Parks and Recreation.” Its use on social media justifies creepy but not-quite-illegal relationships that could be harmful to college students. Relationships with large age gaps, especially while one partner is young enough to be in college, are predatory and manipulative, but the “half plus seven” rule paints them as quirky and original.
For example, in “Gilmore Girls,” Paris Geller dates a professor as an underclassman. The relationship ends with the professor’s death. Despite the 40-year age gap and obvious power imbalance, the relationship was never actually condemned by anyone working on the show.
In “Pretty Little Liars,” Aria Montgomery (Lucy Hale) tells her high school teacher and boyfriend Ezra Fitz (Ian Harding), that she wants to be single when she moves to college. This lasts for only a short period of time before Fitz shows up at her college and convinces her to go back to him. Montgomery realized that the relationship was predatory while in high school, but it became acceptable once she moved away.
The relationship between Montgomery and Fitz was so widely-supported throughout the show that fans cheered their continued romance and eventual marriage, despite the seven-year age gap. Relationships between older men and young women are continually perpetuated and fetishized by social media and entertainment. Liza Weil, who played Geller on “Gilmore Girls,” told Cosmopolitan that she is a fan of her character’s relationship with her professor, and hopes that Geller still has the professor’s printing press — which he left her in his will. Society accepts large age gaps in romantic and sexual relationships as soon as the girl can legally consent.
College is a time of continual growth and development, and students may be in different mental and emotional places. However, entertainment and media sources downplay the harmful effects of relationships with large age differences, especially if they take place while the younger partner is in college.
At Mount Holyoke College, there are countless rumors of student-professor relationships dating back decades. Students joke about the “hottest” professors every semester. While this is usually harmless, the importance of avoiding dangerous age gaps cannot be overstated. Mount Holyoke’s Handbook of Faculty Legislation states, “The relationship of teacher to student, while often friendly, personal, and intellectually intimate, is a professional one governed by norms of professional ethics. For a professor to become sexually involved with a student represents a prima facie violation of those norms. Because members of the College together constitute a community, these standards govern not only Faculty members’ relations with students they teach, coach, advise, or evaluate, but also their relations with all students in the College.” Sexual student-professor relationships can have severe consequences but are inconsistently discouraged, even at Mount Holyoke.
At Mount Holyoke, the unspoken “November Rule” aims to keep first-years safe from significant dating age gaps. The rule dictates that sophomores, juniors and seniors should not date first-years until November. Ideally, this allows new students to settle into college life and form friendships before they begin to date older, more established students. In recent years, the rule has become more obscure; many first-years don’t know it exists and many returning students go against it anyway.
At this point in my life, a relationship with a 28 year-old man would no longer be considered illegal, but the 13-year age gap would still make it predatory and manipulative. Relationships of this sort are continuously validated in the media, but they give the wrong advice to young women in college. Large age gaps should not be written off as quirky, loving aspects of a relationship.
Relationships with this sort of age gap are harmful to young people, no matter if they are in high school or college. The media needs to stop glorifying these relationships, and society needs to understand that young people are not ready to date older people as soon as it becomes legal.