This week, an 18-year-old socialite was photographed by paparazzi enjoying a night on the town with her 25-year-old boyfriend and no one freaked out.
The socialite in question was Bella Hadid, daughter of “Real Housewives of Beverly Hills” cast member Yolanda Foster and sister of model Gigi Hadid. Her boyfriend is the singer The Weeknd, whose real name is Abel Tesfaye. The two reportedly began dating in May.
Somehow, they have eluded the scrutiny and controversy that has followed another Hollywood couple sporting a nearly identical age difference: Kylie Jenner and her rapper boyfriend Tyga. Jenner and Hadid are friends — Hadid even attended Jenner’s 18th birthday party — but the reaction to their respective relationships could not be more different. Hadid’s coupling was met with a shrug and a few items on the gossip blogs, while Jenner’s has prompted scolding, handwringing and backlash.
It started in February when Amber Rose, ex-girlfriend of Kanye West (Jenner’s brother-in-law), and friend of Blac Chyna (Tyga’s ex with whom he shares a two-year-old son), slammed the “Rack City” rapper in an interview on New York’s Power 105 radio show “The Breakfast Club.”
“She’s a baby, she needs to go to bed at 7 o’clock and relax,” Rose said of Jenner. “That’s ridiculous. [Tyga] should be ashamed of himself. For sure. He has a beautiful woman and a baby and left that for a 16-year-old who just turned 17.”
The legal age of sexual consent in California, where they all live, is 18. The conflict spilled into an ugly Twitter war with Khloe Kardashian, who defended her sister.
In a later interview with “The Breakfast Club,” West gave his take. “I think that uh, I think [Tyga] got in early. I think he was smart,” he said. “… They closer in age than a lot of relationships that I know. I knew Tyga was smart.”
West’s comments only served to fuel fodder that Tyga was taking advantage of Jenner by dating someone potentially more mentally pliable than a woman his own age, and that the ease with which she could be manipulated was Jenner’s chief appeal.
“Adolescents are more complicated,” said Deborah Stearns, a professor of psychology and human sexuality at Montgomery College. “At some point, somebody does become knowledgeable enough about sexuality that they can make reasonable consent although we still have issues of power differential. So part of this might be about, well, one of these people is older enough that we consider them having more power, more authority, that the younger person, although may be able to make some sexual decisions, maybe shouldn’t be making sexual decisions in this relationship because of the age differential. That has been less clear. Culturally, I don’t think we have a consistent response.”
We don’t have uniform rules about when we find this objectionable and when we don’t. Elvis Presley began dating Priscilla Wagner when she was 14. Courtney Stodden, now 21, married Doug Hutchison when she was 16 years old in 2011. Hutchison was 50 at the time, and her mother granted permission for Stodden to marry him, a move Krista Stodden says she now regrets. Jerry Seinfeld famously dated Shosanna Lonstein when she was 17 and he was 38.
Our reactions tend to vary from couple to couple and our age of consent laws vary from state to state. While some states are like California and note the legal age of consent as 18, it’s 16 in Georgia and 17 in Illinois. The statutes only get murkier once allowances for four-year age discrepancies are factored in.
“I think we’re a culture that’s deeply ambivalent about sexuality and so it’s hard to have honest conversations about sexuality,” Stearns said.
One of the things we do know about cognitive development is that the brain of someone who is 17 years old is different from the brain of someone who is 25. Recent research has indicated that the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for impulse control, planning and organization, continues to develop until around age 25. It’s also indicated that female brains develop about two years earlier than male ones, starting around age 15.
“Even though there is continued development of that part of the brain — the prefrontal cortex — after age 18, research shows that the parts of the brain that are important for abilities that are relevant to being able to give consent are developed by the time people are 15 or 16,” said Laurence Steinberg, a professor of psychology at Temple University and author of “Age of Opportunity: Lessons From the New Science of Adolescence.” “People haven’t done research on kids’ abilities to consent to sex, but they have done research on their ability to consent to other things like medical procedures or being participants in a research study. Once you get to age 15 or 16, you’re able to do it just as well as an adult, so I would not be concerned about the age difference between a 25-year-old and an 18-year-old. … It doesn’t make me queasy. You’re talking about a seven-year age gap. There are plenty of married couples where the age gap between husband and wife is seven years.”
Even if the relationship began when Jenner was 17, Steinberg doesn’t see any need for concern. Though California law says she was unable to consent to sex, science suggests otherwise.
“It does give some people pause to think about a 24-year-old or a 25-year-old dating someone who’s still high school-aged, but in terms of brain development — there may be other reasons to be concerned, but brain development isn’t one of them,” Steinberg said.
That may be why reaction to the announcement of Hadid and The Weeknd’s relationship has been mostly unremarkable. Their media strategy, inasmuch as they had one, did not consist of deliberately antagonizing the public with a troll-y song and music video called “Stimulated” in which Tyga raps, “They say she young, I should’ve waited/She a big girl, dog, when she stimulated.”
Hadid and The Weeknd, on the other hand, didn’t even release a statement confirming they were dating. They were simply papped holding hands outside of a nightclub.
“I do think the issue of when is this a freely consenting, well-informed, fully agentic sexual decision is actually a really complicated question,” Stearns said. “It’s being hyper-accentuated by the high level of celebrity around these people. Kylie’s relationship with Tyga is going to be the feature of the next television series so I think they’re probably turning up controversy on purpose.”
There’s something very visceral about reaction to Jenner and Tyga’s relationship. What is it that gives us the squicks?
“The one thing I wonder about what’s going on here is how much the racial element is part of it,” said Jeffrey Jensen Arnett, a research professor in psychology at Clark University and author of “Emerging Adulthood: The Winding Road from the Late Teens Through the Twenties.” “I mean, people object to this relationship. It’s no longer really considered acceptable to say ‘why is this black man dating this white woman?’ I wonder if it’s triggering that and people are using the age thing as a proxy for racist undercurrents?”
That’s possible, but no one seems to be displaying those anxieties toward Hadid and The Weeknd. No, this seems more singularly focused on Tyga’s appeal, or lack thereof. He has seemingly insisted on establishing himself as the Terry Richardson of rap. Thanks to Rose, we think of him as the guy who left his (adult) girlfriend and toddler to be with a girl who had not yet graduated from high school. He named fellow notorious celebrity and tattoo addict Chris Brown as the godfather of said toddler. He directed and appeared in a porn movie called “Rack City XXX,” though he didn’t, um, partake, per se. He’s widely believed to be cash poor, and he reportedly leased the $320,000 Ferrari he gifted Jenner for her 18th birthday, and placed the lease in her name.
Science may be behind him, but that doesn’t make the optics any less terrible.
“I think at 16 I was probably f—ing someone that was in their 20s, for sure,” Khloe Kardashian, 31, told Complex magazine earlier this year. “I wouldn’t say I was even dating, probably just sleeping with them. But again Kylie is not a normal 17-year-old. You’re not gonna say, ‘Hey, so what are you doing this weekend?’ and have her say, ‘Having a slumber party at my girlfriend’s,’ or ‘Going to prom.’ That’s not what Kylie does. Kylie is taking business meetings and bought her first house, or she’s going on a private plane with Karl Lagerfeld to take a meeting. That’s not even what people do in their 30s. It’s a rare circumstance, so let’s treat this as a special case.”
What Kardashian didn’t take into account, however, was the fact that Jenner has been, like many girls, sexually objectified from a young age — literally since her first appearance on reality television — and the effects that’s had on her.
“I think she’s an extreme representation of what we are doing to girls more broadly,” Stearns said. “Girls are sexualized at a very young age in our culture. If you look at the clothing that’s being marketed to them that sexualizes them as sexual objects, you look at the cosmetics, cosmetic surgery. It seems to me that … Kylie is just another story of how we’re encouraging girls to see themselves as sexual objects.”
On top of everything else, it’s worth considering that negative attitudes about Jenner’s relationship tend to be colored by a special level of contempt that’s reserved for the Kardashians in general. Yes, Bella Hadid is also a product of reality television, but she and her sister aren’t nearly as ubiquitous, for better or worse, as the Kardashians.
“I think that adolescents have a right to sexual agency,” Stearns said. “But I think we also have to recognize the limitations of age and understanding. Both are true. Is someone who is living the life of an adult the same as an adult?”