Kaitlyn Hunt is a Florida high school senior who has emerged as the face of a massive social media campaign after she was expelled from high school, arrested, and charged with two felonies as a result of a sexual relationship she had with a 15-year-old female classmate.
More than 107,000 people have signed a petition asking for prosecutors to drop the case against Hunt, and more than 30,000 people have joined a Facebook group called "Free Kate" in support of the young woman.
Hunt, 18, is facing two counts of felony lewd and lascivious battery on a child between the ages of 12 and 16, for which she could face 15 years in prison and be required to register as a sex offender, according to the New York Daily News.
It’s a harsh penalty for a high schooler, and it’s one that has inspired anger at the State Attorney’s office in Indian River County, which brought the charges against her after learning of the encounters between the two teens, both of whom maintain it was wholly consensual.
The anger at law enforcement over its treatment of young people who cross the boundaries of consent (the age of consent in Florida is 18) can be justified, and it certainly may be in this case as Hunt is barely 18 and the charges were reportedly not brought until shortly after she turned that key age.
But there is another side of the story being touted by many who are outraged over this case, and it is one that should be stricken as irrelevant from the important conversation about how the law treats young people exploring sex.
It is despicable that the case against Hunt was apparently brought about as a result of her freshman classmate’s parents discovering that her daughter was engaging in sexual acts with another girl, which they allegedly found unacceptable because of the homosexual nature of the interaction.
“When the girls' basketball coach found out that two of her players were dating, she kicked Kaitlyn off the team and informed her girlfriend's parents that their daughter was in a same-sex relationship,” reads a description of the scenario posted on the “Free Kate” Facebook page. “The parents then conspired with police to entrap Kaitlyn and press charges.”
Even worse, Hunt’s father, Steven R. Hunt, Jr., wrote on Facebook that he believes the reason why the younger student's parents were offended was because of the concept that their daughter could be gay, and that their efforts to get law enforcement involved were driven by that fact.
“The girl’s mother found out about the relationship, and, as the track coach and criminal justice teacher told me, the girl’s mother said that there’s no way her daughter could be gay,” Hunt alleged. “The mother then took reigns and is now attempting to place felony charges upon my own daughter.”
It’s a terrible situation, but it is not unique to young people across the nation engaged in same-sex relations. It is entirely possible to make a strong case for reducing penalties for teens engaging in sexual conduct that may appear to be innocent or consensual.
But as the law stands, the age of consent is 18 in Florida, and anyone who violates the two-year buffer zone in that state can be -- and often is -- charged with a felony or felonies because of the legal concept that a 15-year-old cannot consent to sex with an 18-year-old, as provided in the following Florida statute:
“An offender 18 years of age or older who commits lewd or lascivious molestation against a victim 12 years of age or older but less than 16 years of age commits a felony of the second degree.”
The case of Hunt has disturbing undercurrents of homophobia, but the concept that the parents of a 15-year-old would want criminal charges brought against an 18-year-old who engaged in sexual activity with their child is not a novel one, and it is not one that is limited to same-sex relationships.
The alleged homophobic comments and motivation of the 15-year-old’s parents are shocking and sad, but they are not what allowed Hunt to be charged with these crimes.
She broke a law -- albeit one that may need to be revisited in order to allow young people engaging in what can be perceived as innocuous behavior to avoid criminal records -- and she is being charged as countless 18-year-old men who have had sex with 15-year-old girls have been in the past.
In fact, many such cases result in harsher penalties for the male perpetrators, but there is a reverse gender bias going on in the case of Hunt, in that because she is a young woman, she is perceived by many as less threatening than a man of her age may be seen.
The reason for the age of consent is the concept that a person under a certain age cannot consent to sex with a person of a certain older age because of a variety of factors.
It’s the reason why professors are not allowed to have sex with their college students; they are in positions of authority and their students are often in awe of them, ostensibly setting up an unfair balance of power between the two parties that should not be exploited.
In the end, the case of Kaitlyn Hunt is a sad one that could lead to the destruction of her future, even if she accepts a plea deal reportedly on the table (one that many young men in similar situations are not offered) that would allow her to plead guilty to felony child abuse and spend two years under house arrest while a judge would determine if she had to register as a sex offender.
The alleged homophobic comments by the 15-year-old’s parents are deplorable, and deserve the response they are generating from people across the globe. But the crux of the anger about the charges against Hunt should not be directed toward the parents’ homophobia and the perceived unfair treatment of two students involved in a same-sex relationship.
It should focus instead on an examination of whether laws governing sexual relations between teens of disparate ages warrant revisiting across the board.