Taylor Swift's 'All Too Well' Is an Excellent Critique of Men Dating Younger Girls
Some age-gap romances can be highly predatory
A couple of months ago, Taylor Swift's 'All Too Well' was re-released in a 10-minute version. It included extra lyrics and an accompanying 14-minute short film, telling the story of an age-gap heterosexual relationship.
While the song - originally published in 2012 - has long been rumored to be about Taylor's relationship with actor Jake Gyllenhaal, the new version all but confirms the singer wrote it after they broke up in 2011. Still, the music video starring actors Dylan O'Brien, 30, and Sadie Sink, 19, has got many people talking.
At the time Taylor and Jake were together, she was 20, and he was 29. They dated for three months from October 2010, splitting just after the singer turned 21 that December.
But relationships with a nine-year age gap or more are nothing new in the world of the rich and famous. Or outside of it. Older men dating much younger women rarely raises an eyebrow these days - it has become generally accepted within society.
Is that necessarily a good thing, though? Can age-gap romances where one person is significantly younger ever be based on equality?
And why is it more common for men to date younger women than vice versa?
'All Too Well' made many of us reassess age-gap relationships
The short film for the extended version of 'All Too Well' - both written and directed by Taylor Swift - really puts into perspective how exploitative and manipulative age-gap romances can be. And it seems to suggest that the singer looks back badly on her relationship with Jake.
Not surprisingly, after the video was released, #JakeGyllenhaal began trending on Twitter. And many women took to various social media platforms to reassess their past relationships with older men and share their experiences. Many talked about unequal power dynamics. Emotional abuse. Gaslighting. Manipulation. Older men's obsession with virginity.
And sadly, I've been there, too.
When I was 16, I dated a man who was in his mid-30s. Yes, that was legal. The age of consent in my home country - like in the vast majority of other European countries - is 15. I even remember reading about it to make sure. In hindsight, if you have to google the age of consent, you should probably just walk away.
Especially since, at 16, I had very little in common with a grown man - almost nothing. I was a teenager in high school. I had practically no real life or dating experience. I didn't know what I wanted from life. Or from a partner. All of which made me quite naive and easily impressionable.
Anyone even slightly older than me seemed to have their life together. Even if, in reality, they didn't. And that guy I dated - certainly didn't. He was not only as far away from a functioning adult as possible, but he was also basically a walking red flag.
And I completely ignored that.
Because the thing about red flags is that if you look through rose-colored glasses, they just look like flags.
The reason why men date much younger women
And I was never good at telling jokes, but the punchline goes, 'I'll get older, but your lovers stay my age.' - Taylor Swift, All Too Well
After dating Taylor Swift in 2010, Jake Gyllenhal went on to date a variety of women - most of which were younger than him - and he currently dates a 25-year-old model Jeanne Cadieu.
But his dating history isn't that different from many other Hollywood men who keep on trading in their girlfriends for a younger model practically every season. Even though some female celebrities date younger men - like Madonna or Priyanka Chopra - it is a way more common thing the other way around. And not only in the world of celebrities.
On average, women are younger than their husbands or male partners across the entire world. Why is that?
Some people claim that the reason men choose younger women as partners is rooted in biology. I've already written an article addressing this claim, so I won't get too in-depth on it now. But if there is one thing I've learned from various studies on the topic, it is that biology isn't a driving force behind men's attraction towards younger women. There isn't enough evidence to support this. It's just one of those misogynistic claims rooted in pseudo-scientific myths about men's sexuality, fertility, and response to visual stimuli.
The reason why it's more common for men to date younger women than vice versa is because they have social permission to do so. And it's not only seen as normal but even desirable.
A young woman is a prize. An arm candy. She is more pliable and submissive. She hasn't been 'broken' yet by the knowledge that romantic relationships with men aren't a necessity. And she doesn't have much experience dating other people either.
How much easier is it to be an impressive man when your partner has no one else to compare you with?
Of course, some young women actively seek older men, too. They want to be loved by them because they've been socialized to believe that a man's love makes girls valuable in society. Even more so if they have the experience, status, and money that they usually don't yet possess.
But it's precisely this unequal power dynamic that makes younger women so vulnerable and easy to manipulate.
Is age really 'just a number?'
You said if we had been closer in age, maybe it would have been fine. And that made me want to die. - Taylor Swift, All Too Well
In the video for 'All Too Well,' we see a heated argument between the fictional couple, in which O'Brien's character belittles Sink's character and manipulates her feelings. Their relationship is clearly characterized by unequal power dynamics. And that age gap starts feeling really predatory.
Some relationships with a significant age difference can make for a hotbed of lying, gaslighting, and other forms of manipulation. Especially if they revolve around a dynamic in which the older partner takes the lead, and the younger one has little experience in the dating game. Because that makes it harder for them to spot red flags. Pick up on toxic behavior. And be able to stand up for themselves. A considerably older partner could see that as a weakness and take advantage of it.
Looking back at my relationship with an older man, what seemed like fun at the time now feels creepy or even exploitative. I should've known better, but I didn't. And what makes it worse is that he was most likely looking for someone much younger on purpose. We met in a club that was a well-known spot for teenagers and students. Why else would a 30+-year-old man go there?
Although that's not to say that all age-discrepant relationships are marred with deceit. Not all men pick up younger girls intending to exploit their youth and naiveté. But judging from all the stories I read lately, way too many of them do.
Of course, it's not only people in age-gap relationships that can experience this kind of unequal power dynamic. It can happen in any relationship where one partner has substantially less experience, regardless of the age difference. But the circumstances in relationships with a large age gap make it more likely for such a situation to occur when an older - and particularly unsavory - partner has the upper hand.
And while some of these relationships can and do work, especially in later adulthood, statistically, relationships with a significant age gap don't have an optimistic future. A study published a few years ago found that married couples with a smaller age gap overall reported more marital satisfaction than those with a larger gap. Another study found that as gender equality increases in a given country, men tend to express less preference for younger women. Consequently, the difference in the preferred age of mates became smaller.
Age might be just a number, but an age difference can sometimes be tricky - or even problematic - when one person is in a different life stage to another. And we simply cannot ignore that dimension of interpersonal relationships, especially when discussing gender equality.
We're treated like women when we're still little girls
Men like O'Brien's character in Taylor Swift's short film want to date young girls who act like women yet get irritated and angry when they fail to live up to this expectation. Because even when girls seem 'mature for their age,' chances are they really aren't. The latest research on brain development confirms that most people don't reach full maturity until 25.
Yes - 25, not 18 as we once thought.
And no - girls don't mature faster than boys. The expectations of maturity are just placed on them at a younger age. In reality, we're just as immature and confused as boys. But the difference is, we're not given the space to be children without criticism like boys are. And conveniently, this narrative also creates an excuse for older men to prey on younger girls since they are viewed to be 'more mature' than their age. But they aren't.
Society makes us women when we are still supposed to be little girls.
And this idea that we're fully grown women when we're clearly not only contributes to over-sexualization and exploitation of young girls - many of whom are underage - but also perpetuates the narrative that women expire at a certain age.
We hit 35 or 40, and suddenly we can be discarded by society. Suddenly our value within a patriarchal society diminishes drastically. Even though we're not even middle-aged yet. In hindsight, that explains why I was getting way more attention from older men as a teenager - even when I was as young as 12 - than I do now in my late twenties.
If that doesn't highlight how disturbingly disgusting and predatory this mentality is, I don't know what will.
We're still living in a world where gender inequalities creep their way into practically everything, including interpersonal relationships. And while there might be nothing wrong with many age-gap romances, the prevalence of older men dating barely legal girls should make us all question why we allow it to continue?
It surely doesn't bring us any closer to achieving gender equality. And it doesn't help in the fight against predatory sexualization of young girls.
I'm glad my age-gap relationship didn't last longer than a few months. Even at 16, I could feel something didn't feel right. But not every girl in the same situation does. How many more have to suffer abuse and exploitation and be scarred for life before anything changes?
If we know now that maturity isn't fully achieved until the age of 25, it could be time to raise the age of consent, especially in those countries when it's still 15 or less.
Just because something is legal doesn't make it right.
This story was originally published on Medium.