Two young women speak up about their experiences navigating age-gap relationships and how fiction strongly influenced their romantic ideals.

It was a cool November when Hana Ong, 21, walked into her classroom at Hiroshima University. It was the first day of a new programme. A fresh start.

She met a man that day. He was a Korean student dressed in a navy suit, and had taken an interest in her.

It was an innocent meeting at first, but the next thing Hana knew, he was in her bed, his hands where they should not be, becoming the cause of her deeply-felt trauma.

They talked a lot that day. Hana approached him and offered to speak in the little Korean that she could. He was impressed.

Soon, they were conversing on the entire hour-long train ride back home. There was chatter as they waited for the Sanyo Line at Higashi Fukuyama Station and Hana recalls him asking how old she was.

“I’m 20.”

“Oh my god, you’re 20.” 

He was 28.

A thought creeped up on her. “Oh sh*t, he’s eight years older than I am.”

Hana Ong, 21, student at Hiroshima University, Japan.

Hana brushed it off. She understood it was common in Korean culture to ask about age to establish how to address one another.

So they returned to their own world as they travelled from Fukuyama to Saijo. He gave Hana his number and they said their goodbyes.

“I feel like I met him out of chance,” Hana said. “I wasn’t expecting it at all.”

One day, things escalated. It was spring break when Hana realised that a large truck combined with her friend’s car was nowhere near enough to move her things out of her shared dorm.

All her friends were back home. Then, she thought of him.

He agreed to help, but not without proposing they watch a movie for Hana’s last night at her old flat. In gratitude, she agreed.

He came over that night with two large, silver cans of Asahi beer in his hands. Hana felt uncomfortable.

She barely touched hers, but he completely finished his.

Her room was nearly empty, other than her bed which was still covered with her cream sheets.

“At first it was going okay,” Hana explained. “I lay down on my side to watch the movie and he proceeded to slide behind me.

“I felt a bit weirded out, so I kept a distance from him. From there, he started to touch me. Extremely inappropriately. Under my shirt, touching my butt.

“I firmly told him no. It wasn’t a language barrier thing – I know how to say no in Korean. 

“I told him ‘no’, ‘stop it’, ‘don’t touch me’, ‘no I don’t want this’. He thought I was joking. I was pushing his hand away, basically grabbing it and pulling it out of my shirt. But he just kept touching me.

“I kept burying my head into the pillow and I wanted it to stop. But he just wouldn’t. Until I told him that I had to go to work the next morning,” Hana explained. “And finally, he stopped. It was really uncomfortable. The worst part for me was that he stayed the night.”

Hana thought of her friend staying only a few doors down, completely oblivious to what was happening.

“I wanted so badly to just get up and run to her room. But I just didn’t know what to do. I froze that entire night and it was impossible for me to fall asleep. I would keep waking up in the middle of the night. I was so scared that I couldn’t turn around. I just couldn’t face him. But he was sleeping completely fine next to me,” Hana added.

She lay on her left side the entire night until her arm was sore. After a painfully long time, not only did he leave, he also left behind a great deal of trauma for Hana to deal with.

“When I got back to my room, I was sitting on my bed for a while and I was like ‘what just happened?’ I went to work in a blur trying my best not to cry,” says Hana.

Hana told her friends. She cried to her brother. But she still sees him on campus pretending like it never happened.

“When I see him it makes my chest very tight. I can feel the fear and I don’t like that but I can’t help it,” she explained.

“After him, it made me think about how much of an age gap I wanted in a relationship. I used to say I don’t mind if he’s older than me. Seven, eight years. So what? But now the reality of that is just a no. There’s still quite a lot of self-resentment on that part.

“Why didn’t I think about letting someone, especially a guy, into my room when we’re all alone. That’s the part that really sticks with me and I still really blame myself for it.”

And age gaps aren’t uncommon – research showed that men are on average 4.2 years older than their partners.

ONS marriage data in England and Wales revealed that in 2019, married heterosexual couples were mostly the same age except for 5.3 per cent of couples who had a 10 to 14 year age gap.

For same-sex marriages, an age gap of one to four years was prevalent in 46% of marriages.

Where a 40 year age gap was involved, grooms were approximately 13 times more likely to be older than their brides.

“There are implications and stigmas attached to age gap relationships. Partly because there was something very creepy about them in the way they were portrayed,” explained Dr Audrey Tang, chartered psychologist.

“What you would see in the tabloids would always seem to be creepy old men with younger women. The implication there would be that he has money and power and she wants to start her career.

“In reality, many age gap relationships can work in a perfectly healthy way. In fact, they probably work better than a lot of similar age relationships. You might have the younger partner introducing the older partner to a very different world. At the same time, the older partner offers stability to the younger one which they may not have in their own friendships.”

Societal stigmas around age gaps concern ‘power imbalances’ where society perceives the older person as having the money, status and essentially ‘power’ which gives them the upper hand. However, Dr Audrey explains that this is a harmful view to have.

She said: “Age is not necessarily a factor in cases of coercive behaviour, abuse, gaslighting, or any of those sorts of things.

“People can be exactly the same age or similar and that sort of behaviour still occurs. There are some reasons why an age gap relationship may not be healthy, but it could be. It has nothing to do with age.”

Age gap relationships have become increasingly popular in romance novels and fiction with BookTok famous works such as Birthday Girl by Penelope Douglas or Twisted Games by Ana Huang.

The former is a story of a 19-year-old girl named Jordan and her love interest, her boyfriend’s 38-year-old father. The latter features a story of a relationship between a princess and her bodyguard 10 years older than her.

Book series’ such as The Lord of the Rings with characters like Aragorn and Arwen have hundreds of years between them. Yet, according to Dr Audrey, these relationships are hardly questioned due to the fact that the characters look the same age.

“It’s only when they look different that people start questioning.”

Dr Audrey Tang

Romance books have influenced Hana’s relationship ideals too. She said: “The biggest preference for me was dating someone who was older than me. It was definitely because of fiction. In a lot of the stories I read, the trope was that the guy was always older.”

Natalie, 21, UK university student and clinical intern, explained she too bought into the age gap trope in fiction.

“I’m a romantic at heart, and a bookworm too. I’ve come to realise how thick a pair of rose tinted glasses some authors have on age gap relationships, and how much I, like many others, had grown to romanticise them,” explained Natalie.

“I used to think that the protectiveness over the younger, often female partner, was so romantic.

“A perfect example would be the Twilight series. Edward is over a century old. Bella is 18. The issue has been staring us in the face, but was glossed over because it was ‘romantic’.”

With a seven year age gap relationship of her own as the younger partner, Natalie recognises that while people should be aware of those who use age as a “leg-up”, they should also understand that there are exceptions to the case.

“It is very understandable why there is a social stigma, especially with older men-younger women combinations,” said Natalie.

“In many of the videos I consumed, they stated the same thing: power imbalance. However, I came to realise that these are stated in generalisation. And generalisation comes with exceptions.

“The best word to describe my relationship would be ‘peaceful’. There isn’t a financial or life experience upper-hand on their part. Having had conversations about our ideas of a relationship very early on had solidified our foundations and we are on the same page on everything.

“In terms of struggles, I have not found any at the moment other than the hesitance in meeting their childhood friends, fearing they might think I am too young to be involved. It turns out, they were extremely welcoming. So in that sense, I think I have won the jackpot.”

If you liked this post then read It Ends With Us is being made into a movie, but why is it controversial? or Teacher-student relationships: Why this trope needs to stop next. 

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Dr Audrey Tang is a writer, broadcaster and chartered psychologist from the United Kingdom. After qualifying as a teacher, she spent four years as Head of Drama and then Head of Psychology prior to the opportunity to do a PhD on the emotional management expected of client-facing professionals (eg. Teachers and nurses etc) and how these demands could result in burnout if not supported by the organisation.

Shruthi Selvarajan

Shruthi Selvarajan

Shruthi is a journalism student with a passion for reading, travel, food and music. She likes to spend her free time at Waterstones or journalling whenever she can. She’s passionate about human connection and relationships in books, so that we can learn to better ourselves and how we communicate with others.

Favourite genre: Contemporary romance.