Kaitlyn Hunt, an 18-year-old Florida student, is getting lots of sympathy after being criminally charged over her sexual relationship with her 14-year-old girlfriend. Hunt and the younger girl were basketball teammates. Hunt’s parents say the girl’s parents went to the police, “because they blamed Kaitlyn for their child's homosexuality,” as CBS put it. Hunt’s family put up a Facebook page called “Free Kate,” with links to T-shirts, bracelets, and a petition. More than 45,000 people have signed it. The Florida ACLU has spoken out on her behalf, saying this is a harmless, consensual relationship.
The mother of the younger girl, meanwhile, reportedly says that “she's just a mom protecting her daughter” and that this is not about gay rights. The prosecutors also see no shadow of homophobia. "The law doesn't make any differentiation. It doesn't matter if it's two girls or two boys, or an older boy and a younger girl or an older girl and a younger boy. Whatever the combination, it doesn't matter," State Attorney Bruce Colton said. His office charged Hunt in February with two counts of lewd and lascivious battery of a child. She has been expelled from school. Now she has to decide whether to plead guilty to lesser charges of child abuse, in exchange for which, Colton says, he’ll recommend a sentence of two years of house arrest. If Hunt goes to trial, on the other hand, she could wind up having to register as a sex offender (though she could also fight that outcome, under Florida law, because she and her alleged victim are only four years apart in age). Update, May 24: Hunt opted not to take the plea deal Friday. If convicted, she faces a maximum 15-year sentence.
It’s hard for me to see how you can take the homophobia out of this case. And if Hunt truly was having a consensual relationship, then these proposed sentences seem out of whack—and that applies to two years of house arrest as well as the sex offender registry. I’m struck, though, by the stark contrast between the support for Kaitlyn Hunt and the denunciation of various 17- and 18-year-old boys who have been charged with sex crimes because of their relationships, or encounters, with 15- or 14-year-old girls. Is this case really so different because its about two girls? Or does it reveal a larger problem with charging older teenagers for having sex with younger ones?
Compare Hunt to Genarlow Wilson, convicted at 17 of child molestation for having oral sex with a 15-year-old girl at a New Year’s party. Or consider the case of Marcus Dwayne Dixon, prosecuted when he was an 18-year-old high school football star for raping a 15-year-old girl who said he’d forced her to lose her virginity. The jury found Dixon not guilty of rape, but convicted him of statutory rape: The girl was underage, and she and Dixon had sex. Both Wilson and Dixon got mandatory 10-year sentences, and each served two years before the Georgia Supreme Court struck down the punishment as “grossly disproportionate” to the crime.
Does it matter that Wilson and Dixon are black? That the girl in Dixon’s case was white? That after their convictions, the Georgia legislature made consensual sex between teenagers a misdemeanor? My point is that it’s so hard to know which older teenagers are predatory and which are in love, or at least fond of each other, with younger teenagers who love or like them back. Kaitlyn Hunt’s parents are understandably complaining about selective prosecution. They are absolutely right that most of the time no one calls the cops when a high school senior has sex with a freshman. But if the uneven enforcement of statutory rape laws is a problem, then it’s also a problem for the rare boy who gets caught in a prosecutor’s web. Surely most of the time, it’s a call from an unhappy parent that prompts police involvement. Is that OK as long as the parent is protecting a daughter from an older guy, from not if the perceived threat is an older girl?
Weighing all of this a few years ago, along with research on the adolescent brain, my colleague Will Saletan proposed a sliding scale of consent to sex for teenagers. The states, meanwhile, are all over the map in determining at what ages, and with what age spans between partners, consensual sex should be treated as a crime. Some have passed “Romeo and Juliet” laws, which protect two teenagers who are only a few years apart in age from prosecution, or at least knock down the potential charges to a misdemeanor offense.
I don’t have an easy answer to all the confusion. I can see why a 14-year-old’s parents would be wary of her 18-year-old boyfriend. But if the law treats that boy as a criminal, then why not the 18-year-old girlfriend? Maybe the better answer is that parental wariness just shouldn’t translate into criminal charges in a case involving two high school students and a three or four-year age gap. Kaitlyn Hunt’s plight is about gay rights. But it’s not only about that.