A couple of weeks ago, social media platforms exploded due to an alleged relationship between 31-year-old rapper Drake and an 18-year-old model, Bella Harris. Photos also circulated of the two hanging out backstage at the American Music Awards when Harris was only 16. And in September, there was speculation about Drake’s friendship with Millie Bobby Brown, the 14-year-old star of “Stranger Things,” after the teen mentioned text message conversations and dinners with the rapper in an interview.
I call attention to these relationships because they have pushed forth a conversation about something our culture largely ignores — when are these large age-gap relationships inappropriate? This is not to accuse Drake of being a predator, since these speculations are just that — speculations. However, these situations bring up two important conversations: a dialogue about these “legal” yet creepy, at best, relationships, and the concept of “grooming.”
I’m going to get personal for a second. When I was 17 — the summer before my senior year of high school — I became friends with a 24-year-old man with whom I had to interact with fairly frequently. Pretty quickly, what started out as just speaking casually and taking the train together became somewhat romantic in nature. At the time, I was flattered that I must have come off as mature and interesting enough to keep this man’s attention. At the time, I thought it was fine because, if the situation were to progress, the age of consent in New York is 17. It’s legal, so there’s nothing wrong, right?
But it didn’t feel right, and I didn’t exactly understand why. Nothing ended up happening because we both recognized that it was a strange situation. However, that doesn’t negate the fact that this 24-year-old person, who already graduated from college, was showing romantic interest toward a soon-to-be high school senior. We were at completely different stages in our lives in every sense, and that plays a big role in why relationships like that aren’t healthy.
When we’re young, we simply don’t know better, and that makes it easier for us to be groomed. I don’t know that the man I’ve been referring to was maliciously targeting me, but either way, he did take steps to build my trust so I wouldn’t feel weird about the relationship. Grooming is the process by which a sexual predator targets a child — which I was at the time — for sexual purposes, and relies on the imbalanced power dynamic between adult and child in order to manipulate and coerce. Predators can identify who is vulnerable and slowly build trust until they can take that step into inappropriate territory without the child realizing the nature of it.
I was vulnerable: I was an attention-seeker with low self-esteem and had family problems. I was groomed: We bonded over similar music tastes and we were both interested in politics. I think a turning point was that around this time, I was stalked by a man on the subway and that made me afraid to take the train alone, and I shared this information with him. The next time I had to take the train home alone, he offered to give me a ride instead. Right there, he exploited my fear of traveling alone while simultaneously building my trust in him. On the way out of the car, he hugged me, establishing physical contact that we hadn’t had before. I felt protected and special.
Instead of feeling flattered, I should have wondered why that man was pursuing me. Think about it: There must be a reason why he wasn’t looking to date women his own age, or couldn’t get women his own age to date him. Looking back now, it’s clear to me that he probably preferred to date someone he’d have power over. A 17-year-old girl doesn’t have the same development, experience and tools she would need to navigate a relationship with someone seven years older than she is.
This is all to say that legality doesn’t always equal morality. As college students, we’re kind of in this weird middle age: not quite adults, but not teens, either. However, we’re still in a completely different phase of our lives than someone in high school. The bottom line is a predator isn’t just the middle-aged dude hanging around schoolyards; he’s also the guy in his mid-20s dating a teenager.
Sarah Molano is a senior double-majoring in English and philosophy, politics and law.