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Social Construction of Gender in Teen Relationships

Teens holding hands

Photo Credit: Verywell Family

 

As all teenagers do, I rebelled. In my mind my high school sweetheart was perfect and I wanted him to be mine. He and I were two grades apart in age and started dating when he was fourteen and I was seventeen; for the two years we dated, he was a part of my identity. I did not care about how my parents, the law, or the Jewish community felt, and to put it lightly, they did not react well to our relationship. Although our relationship ended before college, this is something I spend hundreds of hours of emotional energy contemplating. Through learning about feminism, I have seen the gender inequality that occurred during this relationship and the stereotypes the social construction of gender has created for us to follow. Now that I have seen the way I could have and should have looked at my relationship I realize how unfair I was treated because of it and how my relationship not being ‘normal’ affected others.

When our relationship started it was immediately the talk of the town, everyone had an opinion about it. Everyone was calling me disgusting behind my back and my parents were completely embarrassed by me. Of course, His parents had no problem with this because their son wasn’t doing anything wrong. Since he is a male it wasn’t disgusting for him to be with me because I was considered a conquest. He could walk into school and puffed out his chest and look cool while I was stuck hiding in the shadows. My parents started digging into me that I was going to be breaking the law by being with him when I turned eighteen and started putting me on the phone with all the lawyers they knew. My mother constantly tried to convince me that he was too emotionally immature for me and I needed to find someone my own age. Yes, it would be just as frowned upon if I was the man in this situation so I am glad these rules exist so that if someone was actually in danger they would be stopped. In this situation, his parents were condoning it but my parents were getting the backlash since I was the older one. It’s funny because if anyone would see us walking down the street they would never know the difference. It is clear that my parents just wanted me to fit the mold of a common relationship where the man was supposed to drive, take me to prom, and be the decision-maker. This relationship will mean nothing to me in ten years but the lesson I have learned from it will be ingrained in me forever. 

My parents were too worried about how others viewed me to worry about my feelings or the positive relationship that was happening in front of them. Yes, my mom made the argument that he is immature but sometimes age doesn’t have anything to do with it. As I have moved onto my new chapter in life, I have met lots of men and they act the same way! At first, I thought this was his problem but it was mine. I was so used to being the dominant one in the relationship that I got used to that type of man. This made me think that it's not the man, it's me and my need to be in control. A women’s role in a heterosexual relationship is to be the caretaker and I even see this in my own parent’s marriage. My father is an amazing dad, husband, and provider as the man ‘should’ be but it is my mother that makes all social plans, is responsible for making him look good in public, and women take the emotional role so men don’t have too.. I am just one of many women who take on this societal role even though times have changed so much since women were homemakers. 

The key threshold concept of feminism that this relationship screamed was the social construction of gender. It made everyone uncomfortable that I, being the woman, was older than the man. It bothered others that I drove everywhere and I took him to my senior prom. Sadly society has constructed how our relationship was supposed to go. Of course, I had pushback from people in my high school as well, for example, they didn’t invite me to the prom after-party because of the age of my date. This concept also shined through because of his parents' reaction to our relationship; well, mostly his dad. Dads traditionally pat their son on the back when they FUCK a girl. They get the traditional good job son and this situation was no different. Especially since he is a privileged kid who always gets his way and his parents weren’t about to make their little boy unhappy. The social construction of gender approves of a father encouraging their sons to have sex with lots of partners but if a daughter would do this they would get the opposite reaction from their father. This was a personal choice that was nobody else’s business to make for me. If I wanted to be in control of the relationship nobody could tell me it was socially unacceptable except for me and my partner. As I compare my current relationships to my last one I can see that it just depends on the people involved and not age at all. Even a girl who is usually dominant wants to be taken care of now and again.

Another huge aspect of our relationship was the interaction of privilege and oppression that took place between him and me. He was the privileged one, he got all the clout in the relationship because it is seen as cool for him to date someone older but bad for me to date someone younger. He was thrown into a situation beyond his time, he was a freshman going to junior parties and advancing sexually as a junior instead of a freshman. Of course, this was seen as cool for him but I was looked at as taking advantage of him because of our age difference. I was instantly branded a cougar, a girl who goes after younger guys. A word does exist to define an older man dating a younger woman, a manther. I had to look this one up as society clearly does not use this word to describe that relationship since the discourse is more modern, but more and more people are recognizing how predatory it can be. Originally this appealed to me because I could take the relationship at any sexual pace I wanted to go. I was oppressed, I was treated harshly with lots of backlash. Going back to a pivotal turn in our public relationship was when my parents invited his parents over for their annual happy hour. This was the first time they were invited, I assumed it was a courtesy because of our relationship status. When we asked to leave my mother said no. She forced us to stay upstairs in our house because she didn’t want us to be alone or for me to drive him anywhere. She acknowledged our relationship by inviting them over but wanted to make it clear that there was a boundary that could not be crossed. 

An article by The New York Times titled, ‘For Would-Be Cougars, the Prom Is a Good Start’, talks about how a woman is experiencing her son dating an older girl in high school and her daughter dating a younger boy in high school. As times have changed, our parents don’t realize that things that were unpopular in their youth are more acceptable now. “Back in my prom days (when the big slow dance was still “Stairway to Heaven”), I went with a boy who was not just taller than me, but older as well. Okay, I was only a few months younger than him, but that still mattered to my friends and me. We would never have even considered venturing out to the prom, let alone the school parking lot, with a boy in a lower grade, unless we were babysitting him” (Jennifer Collin). 

This is a practical thought for the times, it reminds me of the 80’s movie Sixteen Candles when the freshman boy was hitting on Molly Ringwald on the bus and she blew him off because she didn’t want to be seen with a freshman. “A growing number of our teenage girls are unabashedly showing their preference for younger boys, saying they are not only more respectful than their older counterparts, but generally nicer to date.” (Jennifer Collin). 

“I think my relationship with Charlotte has made the kids in our two grades get to know each other much better,” Josh said, adding that he feels honored to be with Charlotte. “I really respect her. I am willing to admit that she is older than me and has more confidence and experience. I think I prefer dating a senior to someone my own age.” Said Charlotte about Josh, who is her first boyfriend: “I just feel so much more comfortable with him than I do around older guys. This feels easier as I can just be myself around him.” I feel like I've said the same thing, thankfully Charlotte’s friends approved of her date, unlike my high school friends. 

The gender dynamic here is also a girl that dated a younger boy in high school. Not that an older man is guaranteed to treat a woman of the same age badly, but when the man is younger there is a level of respect that is given since the girl is more mature than the boy. This dynamic also made it easy to fall into the mother/son relationship that he and I had. Since I was older I had more experience being in high school, sexually, and with relationships in general. My parents gave in to the stereotyping of gender roles and their actions came out as ignorance. 

Overall looking back at the experience definitely made it harder to have a relationship with him and not be judged by others. It definitely helped that we went to different high schools so nobody saw him on a daily basis. I genuinely think my decision of being with him limited my social circle at school. Unfortunately, you cannot control who you fall in love with. Maybe someday when we are older when it is more socially acceptable we will find our way back to each other but for now, I tell my story for the girls out there who want to be treated respectfully even if it’s from someone who is not their age. 

 

Sources

Launius, Christie, and Holly Hassel. Threshold Concepts in Women's and Gender Studies: Ways of Seeing, Thinking, and Knowing. Routledge, 2018.

Conlin, Jennifer. “For Would-Be Cougars, the Prom Is a Good Start.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 25 May 2012, www.nytimes.com/2012/05/27/fashion/younger-boys-more-respectful-high-school-girls-say.html.

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