Several years ago, when I was still playing dance games at arcades and going to tournaments and such, I got to know someone who was a registered sex offender here in Ohio. When he was nineteen years old he had a consensual relationship with a woman who was seventeen; the age of consent here in Ohio is sixteen, but the penalties for being convicted of raping a sixteen- or seventeen-year-old are much more severe than those for raping someone older. When the woman’s parents found out, they took him to court over it. Rather than risk a long prison sentence, he decided to instead take a plea deal where he agreed to register as a sex offender for ten years. He wasn’t predatory in the slightest, and he went on to marry his next girlfriend; I haven’t spoken with either of them for years, but I understand they’re still quite happy together.
This is one of those problems that we Americans don’t tend to talk much about because of the uneasy feeling many people have about discussing sex, a lingering byproduct of the cultural conservatism that’s already done so much harm to our nation (and the world as a whole). As a society we do need to define a “not ready for sex” line, and even though using age is fraught with a number of problems, it’s the best choice out of a number of bad options. When society treats a consensual sexual relationship between two young people only a couple of years apart with the same brutality that it (rightfully) treats sexual predators who prey on the young, though, there is something fundamentally wrong with these laws and how they are applied. Throwing teenagers in prison, or putting them in the same registry with rapists and pedophiles, over consensual sexual relations with other teenagers ruins lives before these young people even get a chance to show all the wonderful things they are capable of. It strains prisons already overcrowded with other non-violent offenders, it destroys families, and it reinforces social conservatives’ attempts to regulate everyone’s sexual activity.
Kaitlyn Hunt is certainly not the first young woman to have been targeted for this kind of treatment, nor is hers the first case where, at least according to Hunt’s mother, the parents of the other girl pressed charges because they thought the older girl “turned their child gay.” It won’t be the last, either. Why Hunt’s case has received this kind of attention while others have not is one of those questions I can’t even begin to answer, but we are here now, and Kaitlyn Hunt is to be commended and lauded for her courage to refuse a plea deal that would have made her a convicted felon confined to her house for two years, even in the face of a possible fifteen-year prison sentence for “lewd and lascivious battery on a child 12 to 16.” Try applying those words to a relationship between two high school classmates, teammates on the school’s women’s basketball team. You can’t. (Don’t even get me started on how this continues conservatives’ tactic of trying to depict all non-heterosexuals as predatory pedophiles.)
Last month there was a news story about a “conversion camp” that promised to “turn” gay teenagers straight in South Africa where three gay teens reportedly died as a result of systematic physical abuse, a story that didn’t get as much attention as it deserved. The “ex-gay” movement is often the target of laughter and derision for a lot of good reasons (among them the fact that the whole “ex-gay” thing is a load of gobbledygook; if you haven’t watched the documentary One Nation Under God yet then you really should), but that laughter all too often masks the struggles that young non-heterosexual and non-cisgender people face at the hands of people who believe this nonsense, especially if those people happen to be their parents. There’s been more talk in recent years about the bullying these young people face in school, but we don’t talk enough about the bullying they could face at home from their parents. Lest we think that the “ex-gay” movement is so far on the fringes of the far-right of this country that we don’t need to give them serious consideration, let’s remember that the husband of Minnesota congresswoman Michele Bachmann, who was at one point the frontrunner for the Republican presidential nomination in 2012, runs a clinic that uses so-called “pray away the gay” practices to try to “remove” homosexual feelings from young people.
My own teenage years were marked by revelation and resentment over not just how I was treated as a know-nothing who needed to be “protected” from my own “stupidities,” but how young people in general are treated that way by their parents, by their teachers, and by American society at large. As a teacher of eighteen- and nineteen-year-olds, I am constantly confronted with products of this kind of treatment; I’ve lost count of how many of my students have essentially said to me that I was the first adult in their lives who actually cared about how they felt and what they had to say. It’s one of the most depressing aspects of my job as a teacher, but it’s also one that fuels my passion for teaching and gets me up in the morning, now matter how tired or lousy I feel, because if I don’t provide open ears and an open heart to these young people, then who will?
If you, as a parent, are so intolerant of your own child’s sexual orientation that you would punish your child for something they can’t control, let alone ruin another young person’s life to “get back” because you somehow think that young person “turned” your child gay, then you have pretty much lost all moral rights to make decisions for that child. Our first task, legally, as a result of the Kaitlyn Hunt controversy should be to change our laws so that they differentiate between consensual sexual relations between two young people on the one hand, and truly predatory sexual behaviour on the other. I hope, however, that this case will also draw attention to the problems young non-heterosexual people face at the hands of intolerant parents, and that we can also pass laws to enable those young people trapped in homes with intolerant parents to have a way to escape to a better living situation. All too often in cases like this, the accusing parents can use the threat of kicking their child out of their home to force the child to testify that the sexual activity wasn’t consensual, making the child choose between lying in court or living on the street. Let’s not forget that Kaitlyn Hunt’s young girlfriend, even if she’s not the one facing fifteen years in prison, is also a victim in this case, a victim of her parents’ bullying and prosecutors’ willingness to wield the law like a cudgel to placate these parents, even if they shatter a young girl’s life in the process.
American justice, unlike what the Lady Justice statue depicts, is clearly not blind. It cannot be blind when rich white people just have to check themselves into drug treatment centres when they get caught with drugs, but poor people and minorities face crippling mandatory minimums. It cannot be blind when mega-corporations don’t get laughed out of court for trying to do things like patent genes and trademark centuries-old folk tales. It certainly cannot be blind when a law meant to keep young people safe from sexual predators is used to turn a consensual sexual relationship between two young people into a felony punishable by up to fifteen years in prison.
I’m of the opinion that people (of any age) who engage in sexual activity without serious consideration of its ramifications are usually more than punished enough by the consequences that result from their actions, so I think the charges against Hunt should just be thrown out, rather than dropped to a misdemeanor as many have argued. At the very least, though, I hope fair-minded people can agree that Kaitlyn Hunt having to live with a felony conviction and two years of house arrest, let alone fifteen years in prison, would be so ludicrous that the word “excessive” doesn’t even begin to describe it. I applaud Kaitlyn for her courage to stand up to her girlfriend’s parents, and I can only hope that both she and her girlfriend escape being victimized by not just those parents, but the “justice” system as well.