i mean this is a silly technicality but i'm 21 and my gf is 19, technically a teenager but we are both legal adults and more-or-less equally mature, so i feel the word ~teenager is a bit of an incorrect word in some very specific circumstances when used against underage relationships? obviously i'm totally against those, but yeah
Yes, it is complicated by the fact that 18 and 19 are years when you’re still a teenager but also a legal adult - and that many people in their early 20s are still in the last stage of adolescence. 21 and 19 could be problematic depending on the individuals involved or it could be perfectly okay (and I see no reason not to take your word for it). People understandably want a clear and distinct cut-off line to make them feel safer and avoid the risks of judgement calls, but applying such a line inflexibly or without nuance can be a mistake. “Adolescent” and “adult” are better terms for what I was talking about because they take into account that nuance rather than focusing strictly on numerical age and whether it ends in -teen.
Laws about specific ages like 12, 16 and 18 (in New Zealand law, sexual offending is categorised in these age bands - 12 is not an age of consent for anything, it’s just an indication that children under that age are considered even more vulnerable) draw a clear and distinct line because they need to do that to be effective as laws but of course can’t reflect the range of maturity, both psychological and physical, found in different individuals of the same age. Adolescents and children are not the same because they’re all not yet adults. Also a person isn’t dramatically different in maturity the day after a birthday than they were the day before it; a person may be 18 but not at all ready to be treated as a full adult. Here I am arguing not “Any teenager could be ready to date a twentysomething!” (which could swiftly get shady as fuck) but “We need to consider a person’s individual needs and not assume they’re ready to fend for themselves as soon as they pass a numerical milestone.”
I think a good general rule is that the younger the younger person is, the more an age difference matters, and age differences matter because of differences in life experience and social power rather than number of years lived. A 25 year old and a 30 year old are much closer to being equals in those areas than a 15 year old and a 20 year old, although they have the same numerical age difference. That’s not to say a 25/30 dating relationship couldn’t be complicated by differences in maturity and experience, but it wouldn’t automatically raise the same serious concerns about exploitation and abuse as a 15/20 one.
Adolescents have more agency and autonomy than children but are still more vulnerable than adults, and protecting their safety and well-being while also respecting their developing agency requires a nuanced approach for which age serves as a guideline. Adults should not be seeking to have romantic/sexual relationships with adolescents, that’s for sure, but where adolescence ends and adulthood begins as a legal matter (18) and as a personal truth (generally somewhere in the end of the teens and the beginning of the twenties) are two different things.