There has been a recent bit of uproar over the arrest of Kaitlyn Hunt, an 18-year-old high school senior charged with various crimes because she has had sexual contact with a 14-year-old freshman from her high school.
The 14-year-old in question is female, and that’s where things get really hairy.
Statutory rape laws make it clear: this is not okay in the eyes of the law, whether we’re talking about a heterosexual couple or a homosexual couple. At 18, though still very much dependent on her parents for support, Kaitlyn is being prosecuted as an adult, and it doesn’t seem there is a Romeo and Juliet law to save her from serving time.
Kaitlyn and her parents argue that the motivations of the younger girl’s parents are rooted in their alleged belief that Kaitlyn “turned” their daughter gay. However, no proof of this seems to have surfaced (as of yet, anyway), but I can’t help but wonder: what sort of precedent will this case set?
Certainly, as I said, laws were broken. If you look strictly at the age, this is no different to the law than an 18-year-old male having sexual relations with his 14-year-old female girlfriend, nor is it different than the case of Mary Kay Letourneau. But would the parents be pressing charges if Kaitlyn was male? If their daughter was their son? If Kaitlyn was of a different race than their daughter? And what part would the media play in all of this if things were different?
These are really uncomfortable questions, but I think that they are necessary. While we can’t prove the younger girl’s parents’ motivations, knowing them would change so much about this case. Or maybe it wouldn’t, if they would choose to press charges against a male of the same age. (Their lawyer has made statements that seem to indicate this is the case, but we really can’t know. Maybe they are savvy parents just putting out there what they know popular opinion wants to here.)
The younger girl seems to be indicating that their relationship was entirely consensual, and I can believe that. It wasn’t too long ago that I was in high school, and while I saw my share of dysfunctional senior-freshman relationships, there were a few that worked out just fine, too. At fourteen, some kids think they’re ready. Their bodies, if they are going through or done with puberty are certainly telling them that they are. I can’t be the judge of who is and is not ready, though. What I can say is that, under the eyes of the law, at least in the U.S., if you are under the age of consent, whether you are consenting doesn’t matter. The law assumes you don’t know better, or that you may feel threatened, or any number of other things that would make your consent void even if you were over the age of consent. Honestly, I’d rather have the law assume that, though, because there are a lot of coercive or forced relationships concerning kids who don’t think that they can escape, and that’s definitely not okay.
But, at the same time, I’d hardly consider Kaitlyn an adult. She is still very much dependent on her family for all support, and society doesn’t really expect her to be otherwise. I know I didn’t feel much like an adult at 18. No magical transformation happens overnight and suddenly WHAM! You can walk the walk and talk the talk and automatically lose all interest in anyone who isn’t an adult, so I doubt Hunt is a predator. I doubt she gave more than a passing thought to the “I’m over 18 and she’s not” factor because this is a high school relationship.
At this point, it seems like Hunt has given up. She’s not giving slimy-sounding protestations of how her girlfriend wanted it and acting smooth. She is acting traumatized, and I don’t think this is a façade. I thinks she is terrified, both for her own future and for the precedent that this might set if the younger girl’s parents’ motivation is homophobia: what sort of standard could that set for future cases concerning homosexual couples in high school?
However, I don’t know Hunt personally, and it seems like the media is polarized between keeping this case hush-hush (for whatever reason) and giving it all the attention it can get. It seems to be kept relatively quiet where I am, and so I haven’t seen or heard much in the way of testimony from the girls’ friends and teachers, which would probably shed more light on the situation.
The law is very cut-and-dry, very one-size-fits-all. It has to be, because there are a lot of cases that really are as simple as they seem. But we also need to examine individual cases. While none of us is free of personal bias (I’d bet that someone somewhere thinks Kaitlyn turned the girl gay, even if the girl’s parents don’t, and that saddens me.), it is worth making sure that things are the way they appear, no matter who’s involved.
One thing is clear to me: Kaitlyn and the younger girl screwed up. (Pun not intended.) They engaged in a relationship widely known to be illegal because it was sexual in nature, but it doesn’t seem that any harm was intended by it. Because of that, I’m not sure that the severity of the current penalties Kaitlyn faces is entirely warranted, and I’d be just as unsure if Kaitlyn was male. In my opinion, discounting any speculation about homosexuality, this case boils down to parents not liking the fact that there are teens out there who are having sex, whether they’re ready for it or not. That’s totally understandable. But I think we may need to start re-thinking consent laws around relationships that occur while both parties are in high school.
I’m not saying that we should just abandon all hope and flat-out encourage high schoolers to have sex; I’d say that a lot of them really aren’t ready in one way or another, and given the consequences sex can have (no matter the genders of the people engaging in it), kids really do need to be educated, and, in a lot of cases, strongly encouraged to hold off. And definitely told what’s what about coercion and consent. But that’s exactly the tricky crux of this case: How do we prove that this younger girl was or was not ready? How can we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that she’s telling the truth when she says she wasn’t coerced? If we could know these things with absolutely no doubt, that would set this case to rest, in my opinion, but we can’t, and so we need to figure out what the next best thing is. I’ll be honest: I don’t know what that would be, but I’m all for looking at options so that cases can be handled properly.