Abstract: From Lover to Exploiter: Adolescents' Perspectives of the Older Person Following Sexual Relationships with Adults (Society for Social Work and Research 26th Annual Conference - Social Work Science for Racial, Social, and Political Justice)

577P From Lover to Exploiter: Adolescents' Perspectives of the Older Person Following Sexual Relationships with Adults

Sunday, January 16, 2022
Marquis BR Salon 6, ML 2 (Marriott Marquis Washington, DC)
* noted as presenting author
Ortal Wasser, MSW, PhD Student, New York University, New York, NY
Dana Lassri, PhD, Lecturer (Assistant Professor), The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel
Dafna Tener, PhD, Lecturer (Assistant Professor), Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Jerusalem, Israel
Background and Purpose: In many societies, sexual relationships between a minor – usually a young adolescent – and an older person are considered statutory relationship/rape, forbidden by law. Regardless of the young person’s willingness to participate, these relationships are criminal for the adult involved. There is a consensus regarding the potentially negative consequences of these relationships on adolescents’ health and wellbeing, however, very little is known about how adolescents perceive and construct them. To fill this gap, the current exploratory study examined how individuals who have experienced sexual relationships with an adult while growing up perceive the older person, and the meaning they ascribe to the relationship’s age gap.

Methods: The sample for the present qualitative study consisted of 28 Israeli adults who have experienced sexual relationships with an (at least 2-years) older person during their adolescence. In-depth semi-structured interviews were conducted, audio-recorded, and transcribed verbatim. The interviews were analyzed based on a qualitative thematic analysis approach, which included several interrelated phases: familiarization with the data, generating initial codes, searching for themes, reviewing themes, defining and naming themes, and collating themes into a report.

Results: The image of the older person as viewed by the participants seemed to range along a continuum: romantic partner; sexual partner; authority figure; complex/unstable figure; and exploiter. Subsequent analysis, focusing on the role participants assigned to age when describing these different images of older persons, shed additional light on their subjective perceptions; namely, for each image, age had a particular meaning. For example, age was seen as a significant factor when it came to the exploitative or authoritative image, where the older person was perceived as much more mature and powerful, taking advantage of the younger person. Yet it was deemed insignificant in the romantic partner image, where participants described the relationship as mutual.

Conclusions and Implications: This paper may contribute to the understanding of individuals’ experiences of sexual relationships with an older person by emphasizing the complexity of such relationships, as reflected in the participants’ construction of the older person’s image, potentially providing important information that can inform best practice for professionals working with this population. The broad range of perceptions that vary by the nature of the relationship perceived demonstrates how contextual factors play a significant role when it comes to the meaning of the age gap. Despite the tendency of many professionals to presuppose that such relationships are harmful, our findings suggest that they may have a variety of subjective meanings, and that although these may change in the transition to adulthood, they may actually remain stable thereafter. These findings highlight the need to address diversity and ambiguity rather than the uniform dichotomy that characterizes the legal framing of automatically constructing these relationships as statutory rape.