Columnist

Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski is the founder and director of the Washington Health System Teen Outreach. She responds to 6–8 questions from young people daily and has written 'Ask Mary Jo' since 2005.

Q:How do you respond to a friend who keeps interacting romantically with and dating adults?

16-year-old

Mary Jo’s response: Friendship means so much in adolescence; I can imagine how troubled you must be to text me with this question.

Since I don’t know the ages of your friend or the adults, I’m going to guess there’s a large enough age difference to cause you concern. Every situation is unique. Is dating a 19-year-old at 16 a problem? I believe it depends on the maturity of each person. If a 16-year-old is involved with a 28-year-old, I’d wonder what drew such an adult to a teen.

Culture defines dating norms. My grandfather needed to be older than my grandmother in Italy (they married in the late 1800s). Women in their culture did not receive an education and didn’t work outside the home. Marriages were often arranged by parents and relatives; it was common for teen women to marry men at least a decade older. By the cultural norms of the times, the age difference was normal.

There are many reasons age differences can be a problem in today’s world. Let’s look at each one and consider the risk.

1. Goals: A young person in high school is growing and changing. Sharing goals with a partner can lead to a positive relationship. Parents may fear a teen will put aside personal dreams for education, entering the service, or even relocating to take a good job, for fear of breaking up a serious relationship. Adult partners are more likely to be in a different developmental place than teens. Young people may not be emotionally or developmentally ready for the type of relationship an adult needs and wants. Dating in high school should be fun. I think it’s a way to discover self and what is wanted in a relationship.

2. Power: One of the concerns raised when a teen dates an adult deals with power. The adult almost always has more. Adults typically have more financial power; they may also be connected to the young person as a co-worker or supervisor. The relationship needs examining. Dating between someone still in high school and a work supervisor, for example, puts all the power in the adult’s hands, and may not be legal.

3. Legality: Statutory sexual assault or rape is defined as sexual contact with a person who is below the legal age for consent. In Pennsylvania, the legal age of consent is 16. The Pennsylvania law can be broken down to:

a. Children less than 13 years of age cannot give consent to sexual activity;

b. Teens 13 to 15 cannot give consent to anyone who is four years older than them. For example, two 15-year-olds who are sexually involved won’t be breaking the law, but a 15-year-old and a 19-year-old will.

c. Young people 16 years old or older can legally consent to sex with any person they choose, as long as the other person does not have authority over them.

d. Sexual behavior that occurs between an adult with authority over a teen, even if the teen is 16 or older, is considered felony institutional sexual assault. These adults include teachers and coaches, and those who work in licensed facilities serving youth, group homes, or jails.

4. Relationships: An unequal relationship may be legal but still unhealthy. Is your friend keeping the dating secret from parents or guardians? Partners in healthy relationships do not encourage lying. Your friend should share what’s happening with trusted adults.

5. Love: Negating a friend’s feelings isn’t possible or empathetic. Feelings of love are real. One needs to consider if the love is mature or immature. Immature love is selfish and considers the needs of self over partner. Mature love can be other-directed. For example, someone who feels mature love wouldn’t pressure for sex or place the loved one at risk.

Finally, your question raises others. How much are we responsible for our friends’ behavior? How will your friendship be changed if you discuss this with your friend? These are tough questions. I suggest sharing your concerns with your own parent.

Good luck.

Peer Educator response: We’d try to talk with our friend. Help the friend examine why the relationship is important. Age of consent needs to be explained. If the friend is under the age of consent, which is 16 in Pennsylvania, some of us would share with our own parents. Others of us would mind our business and say nothing. It kind of depends on how close a friend it would be.

Have a question? Send it to Dr. Mary Jo Podgurski’s email at podmj@healthyteens.com.

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