The problem with Elvis and Priscilla Presley – and what we have learned about power dynamics since

·6 min read

The new "Elvis" movie has revitalized interest in the legendary life of the King of Rock 'n' Roll. The 2022 biopic starring Austin Butler (in theaters now) chronicles his personal life and musical career, showcasing his early days as a rising starhis fraught relationship with a corrupt manager and the influence of Black musicians on his sound.

But there's one important aspect of the singer's life that was neglected: his controversial courtship with Priscilla Presley.

While viewers catch a glimpse of the couple's chemistry and are made aware of the 10-year age gap, "Elvis" mostly glosses over the bracing reality that the two met while he was stationed in Germany in 1959, when Priscilla was 14 and Elvis was 24. USA TODAY has reached out to Priscilla's reps for comment.

Priscilla Presley, left, and Austin Butler pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film "Elvis" at the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Wednesday, May 25, 2022.
Priscilla Presley, left, and Austin Butler pose for photographers upon arrival at the premiere of the film "Elvis" at the 75th international film festival, Cannes, southern France, Wednesday, May 25, 2022.

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There is growing awareness about sexual grooming and exploitation that follows most unhealthy power dynamics, making the details of Elvis and Priscilla's relationship unacceptable by today's standards. Legal and psychological experts agree it's important to discuss, rather than ignore, the potential dangers that come with maturity differentials.

"Societal norms have changed and are changing, and people are beginning to recognize things that we may have been OK with 30, 40, 50 years ago. But we're now re-evaluating that," says Elizabeth Jeglic, a professor of psychology at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice.

"We are recognizing now that adolescents really don't think in the same way as adults or view things in the same way as adults until well into their early to mid-20s. When somebody is an older adult in a relationship with a teen, there's a huge power imbalance and the ability to consent is compromised."

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Inside Priscilla and Elvis' relationship

Before their divorce in 1973, the two tied the knot in an intimate ceremony when she was 21 and later had one child together, Lisa Marie. In past interviews, Priscilla acknowledged their marriage was complicated, but she never claimed it was abusive and emphasized they did not have penetrative sex until after their marriage in 1967.

"He could have taken advantage of me. But he quietly said, 'No. Someday we will, Priscilla, but not now. You’re just too young,' " she wrote in a People cover story published in 1985. 

Elvis Presley and his bride, the former Priscilla Beaulieu, at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, after their wedding. Presley, 32, and Beaulieu, 21, both from Memphis, met while he was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army.
Elvis Presley and his bride, the former Priscilla Beaulieu, at the Aladdin Hotel in Las Vegas, after their wedding. Presley, 32, and Beaulieu, 21, both from Memphis, met while he was stationed in Germany with the U.S. Army.

Back then, experts say their courtship may have been considered less taboo in the 1950s South than it would be today. But still, some people expressed skepticism especially after the scandal surrounding singer Jerry Lee Lewis, who married his 13-year-old cousin in 1957.

In the case of Elvis and Priscilla, it's important to note that no laws were broken at the time if, as Priscilla has maintained, there was no sexual contact during the early stages of their romance. The age of consent in Tennessee at the time was 18, and 16 in Nevada.

Jennifer Drobac, a professor at the Indiana University McKinney School of Law who specializes in sexual harassment lawalso clarifies that "it's not very clear how much time they spent together alone when she was that young." In her cover story, Priscilla adds that despite moving to Memphis for Elvis, she lived with his father and was "always chaperoned" by adults.

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Not all yeses are the same: How a teenager's consent can be corrupted

Priscilla has made it clear that she and Elvis were in a complex yet loving relationship. But generally – as we know now – gray areas cloud relationships when it comes to teens and consent.

The ability for teens to make logical, educated decisions is muddied by an array of factors: their lack of life experience, their vulnerability to peer pressure and their underdeveloped brain maturity. Years of neuroscience evidence also support that their brains are wired to prioritize short-term rewards over long-term consequences and as a result, they are more likely to engage in risky behaviors.

Additionally, many teens often mistake confidence with competence. While they may feel empowered to pursue a relationship with an adult, the reality is "their actual skill level, when it comes to things like reading risk size or knowing whether they are actually ready to go into that relationship in a deeper or sexual level … are not yet developed," says Melanie Schilling, a confidence coach and former psychologist specializing in relationships.

"They might say yes, but the meaning behind it is not fully developed … and the psychological capacity to actually step into that relationship in a truly consenting way is not there yet," Schilling says.

Sexual grooming and power imbalance

Teens seek excitement and adventure, and they may think dating an older adult is electrifying at first. But experts warn there are serious consequences that come with an unhealthy power imbalance.

Adolescents are at higher risk of being conditioned, or groomed, by influential adults to perceive predatory behaviors as normal. Schilling says the manipulation process starts when "trust – based on a false sense of security — is established very quickly onto a vulnerable person." As the teen's defenses are lowered, "they become very viable, very malleable to requests" – including sexual ones.

Even years after an adult-teen relationship, Schilling says it's common for victims who experience grooming so early on in their development to experience serious mental health problems later in adulthood.

"A person who is groomed and taken advantage of early in their life can have a stunted development," she says. "That can include issues with trust, because they've been betrayed. It can lead to manifestations in their later adult relationships, whether they're becoming co-dependent too quickly because that's what they're used to, or being highly defensive with their walls up and they won't let anybody in."

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Though levels of maturity vary by individual, teenagers are rarely emotionally or cognitively equipped to assess the risks and dangers of sex with older adults, experts say.

"Adults tend to think that when a teenager looks mature, they are mature. So the fact that they have developed breasts and hips or facial hair or other secondary sex characteristics which indicate maturity … that means that they're mature," Drobac says.

However, research shows that the brain isn't fully developed until your 20s; more specifically, numerous studies have found that the prefrontal cortex, which is responsible for executive decision making and risk assessment, is fully matured at 25.

That's why Drobac says the burden to condemn these inappropriate relationships should be on adults rather than teenagers.

"We tell children to just say no, let's start telling adults to just say no."

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: 'Elvis' ignored his controversial relationship with Priscilla

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