Let’s time travel to the year 2005: I was 15 years old and a freshman in high school. It was a Friday, and I had just stepped off of the bus at my designated bus stop. The stop was no more than a five-minute walk from my house. As my sister and I walked home, there was a gray truck going in the opposite direction that pulled up beside us. A man honked his horn at us, and yelled something out of the window and then whistled. I remember feeling annoyed as hell, and I looked at my twin sister and she looked annoyed as well. We continued walking home and talked about how the dude was a weirdo and how annoying it is when grown men yell out of the window of their cars at teenagers. We were a few steps away from our house when I saw that same car coming up our block. The man had obviously made a u-turn so that he could drive past us again!
That man sat in his car and watched us until we got inside. I never saw him again, but I did have other similar experiences with grown men while I was a teenager. Many teenage girls have been traumatized by being harassed and cat-called by older men. I was fortunate enough to have been taught that the man’s behavior was predatory, but what happens to the girls who haven’t been taught?
This is how it all starts. For centuries, older men have approached and showed interest in dating teenagers. Fast forward to 2019, and I found myself working as a therapist at a high school in Philadelphia. I would leave work and see men lined up outside, waiting for the students to get out of school so they could harass and approach them. I have heard all sorts of stories regarding 15-19 year old girls dating men who are 25-35, sometimes older than that, and none of the stories have enjoyable moments for the girls. Yet, this is not some phenomenon that started in 2019, at least not in the Black community. Also, ephebophilia takes place in not only heterosexual but homosexual relationships and it is just as traumatic and swept under the rug. Ephebophilia has been documented since the early 1900s.
Webster defines ephebophilia as: “The primary sexual interest in mid-to-late adolescents, generally ages 15 to 19. The term was originally used in the late 19th to mid 20th century. It is one of a number of sexual preferences across age groups subsumed under the technical term chronophilia.”
What makes one an ephebophile is having a sexual preference and a desire to date within this age group. It’s not merely just the attraction to teenagers, it’s acting on the desire and preference. Most of the world knows about pedophiles, which are those who show a sexual preference for prepubescent children, but ephebophiles are rarely (if ever) discussed because they can hide behind the “She looks grown,” or “18 is legal,” statements. Yet, ephebophiles run rampant in not only the Black community but in all races.
We have seen it in the entertainment industry for decades: Elvis Presley dating 14 year old Priscilla, R. Kelly allegedly dating 15 year old Aaliyah, 39 year old Jerry Seinfield dating a 17 year old, 32 year old John Mayer dating 19 year old Taylor Swift, 24 year old Tyga dating 16 year old Kylie Jenner, and Russell Simmons dating a 17 year old Kimora Lee. The list goes on. So after hearing the news about R&B singer Marques Houston being engaged to a 19 year old, I felt it was time to have a discussion about ending ephebophilia and its traumatic impact on relationships.
Well, just like Kanye told Sway, I don’t have the answers. I don’t specifically know how we can end ephebophilia, but I do know that bringing awareness to this problem is a start. During my grandparents’ generation, it was common for 13 year olds to engage in intimate relationships and have children by men in their 20s and 30s. It has been over a century since the 1900s and ephebophilia has been kept alive so long because we have refused to discuss it. No one is brave enough to say that a 15 year old dating a 25 year old is disgusting, or even an 18 year old and a 30 year old. It’s believed that some teenagers are just mature or girls mature faster than guys. But there is this thing called grooming that takes place in relationships where the parties are in significantly different stages in their lives, i.e. 5-10 years apart.
Grooming is what makes ephebophilia so traumatic, and that is why it should be ended.
Grooming is most commonly recognized as a tactic used by predators as a form of manipulation. According to survivorsUK.org, “Grooming can happen when there is a power differential within a relationship, which the abuser exploits for their own gratification.” Ephebophiles seek teenage love interests because the age difference is the power imbalance. Money and social status can also be a form of power, and the entire relationship revolves around power and control. This is the recipe for a relationship full of emotional and mental abuse. What we are seeing presently is the cycle that ephebophilia can create, and once we become more comfortable with discussing these experiences we will see change.
The cycle looks like this: a 15 year old boy engages with an older partner, and when he is 25, he engages with a 15 year old girl. When she is 25, she engages with a 15 year old boy, and so on. Within that cycle, nobody receives therapy or is scolded about their behavior because it is more than likely kept a secret. Secrecy has kept ephebophilia alive. Perhaps we can create a safe space for victims and ephebophiles to have a discussion about how they became involved in these relationships and how we can prevent these situations from happening going forth.
This is not meant to bash the victims or those doing the approaching. Victims and predators need to speak up because some predators were once victims who have never shared their stories. Some men were seduced by older women while they were teens.
Hopefully we can create dialogue where men can understand that regardless of how mature she may look or seem, she is still a teenager.
She deserves to live the life of a teenage girl, and not be pressured into sex or a committed relationship. Her brain is still developing, she is still exploring, and is still figuring out who she is. NO ONE should be robbed of that.
Hopefully others will be inspired to have these difficult conversations with those around them and in their communities. We can ask men and women what barriers and challenges they face that may turn them to preferring teenagers. Maybe they don’t feel successful enough to date people their age. Maybe they feel emotionally stunted. Maybe they were molested as a teenager and holding on to that trauma caused them to be emotionally stuck at that age. These are the questions we can ask so that we can weed out those that need help and want to help end ephebophilia versus those who don’t. We can ask victims whether or not they want to become activists against ephebophilia, and if so, how we can make them comfortable enough to share their stories. It may not bring an end to ephebophilia but it will bring an end to the lack of awareness of it, which will fuel the necessary change.
Written By: Kahina Ray
Follow Kahina on Instagram: @soulchild_kay