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.