Statutory Rape of 15-Year-Old by 18-Year-Old

The Huffington Post has an article titled, “Kaitlyn Hunt, Florida Teen, Faces Felony Charges Over Same-Sex Relationship”; Opposing Views picks it up as, “Florida Teen Kaitlyn Hunt Arrested, Expelled Over Same-Sex Relationship”; Examiner.com, which is linked to by the Huffington Post piece, has the headline, “Florida teen fights expulsion and criminal charges for same sex relationship”; Think Progress has the headline, “What’s Next For Kaitlyn Hunt, The Teen Charged With A Felony For Same-Sex Relationship With Classmate.”

Except that, as the bodies of the articles indicate, the charge isn’t “same-sex relationship” — it’s the non-sexual-orientation-specific statutory rape statute, Fla. Stats. § 800.04, which says, in relevant part,

A person who:

(a) Engages in sexual activity with a person 12 years of age or older but less than 16 years of age …

commits lewd or lascivious battery, a felony of the second degree ….

Kaitlyn Hunt, who is now 18, is continuing a sexual relationship with a 15-year-old girl; that seems to me to be a pretty clear violation of the statute. And while statutory rape laws are notoriously underenforced, I would imagine that it would be hardly unheard of for an 18-year-old boy in Florida to be arrested and expelled for having sex with a 15-year-old girl. The ThinkProgress article states, “Kaitlyn’s father suggests his daughters arrest — and the substantial sentence sought by the prosecutor — are motivated by anti-gay bias.” (The proposed deal from the prosecutor was, “She could plead guilty to child abuse, a felony, and spend two years under house arrest. The judge would determine if she would have to register as a sex offender.”) But are Florida prosecutors really materially more lenient when the parents of 15-year-old girls complain about 18-year-old men having sex with those girls? I’ve heard nothing suggesting that this is so.

The story alleges that the 15-year-old girl’s parents are upset about the same-sex nature of the relationship, so it’s possible that their motivation in complaining to the police relates to that. (I’m not certain that this is so, since it’s quite possible that the parents would also be upset about their 15-year-old daughter having an opposite-sex relationship with an 18-year-old man, so the same-sex nature of the relationship may not even be a but-for cause of the complaint; but let’s set that aside for now.) But the police and the school can’t just say, “Your motivation for the complaint is hostility against lesbianism, so we’ll refuse to act on the complaint, even though this is a crime that we’d take seriously if we thought your complaint was motivated by general disapproval of sex between 15- and 18-year-olds.” And absent some evidence that Florida authorities turn a blind eye on parental complaints about 18-year-old men having sex with 15-year-old girls, I don’t really see this as a case about “same-sex relationship[s]” as such.

Now this having been said, one can actually make a rational argument for treating lesbian relationships less severely than opposite-sex relationships. Lesbian relationships can’t lead to unwanted pregnancy, and, to my knowledge, are much less likely to spread the most serious sexually transmitted diseases. And while they can involve lies, lead to heartbreak, leave one or both members with a sense that one has been emotionally mistreated and taken advantage of, and so on, one can imagine a parent who can reasonably think “Phew, better that my daughter is having sex with a woman than with a man.”

One can even imagine legal rules that draw this distinction, and constitutional rules that uphold such a distinction. Michael M. v. Superior Court (1980) upheld a sex-specific statutory rape law, which punished only males and not females, on the grounds that the law reflects real sex differences, including differential susceptibility to pregnancy. That argument would be even stronger as to a distinction between women-women relationships and other relationships, even given that sex classifications are subjected to heightened constitutional scrutiny (see Michael M. itself), and even if sexual orientation classifications come to be subjected to heightened constitutional scrutiny as well.

But such an approach, while not irrational, is certainly not the law in Florida, and it’s far from clear that it is correct. The risk of emotional harm to 15-year-olds — harm that they may be even less prepared to deal with than older people are, and harm that they can’t reasonably be seen as consenting to, given their immaturity — remains in lesbian relationships even if the risk of pregnancy is removed and the risk of disease is very low. And in any event this is not, I take it, the argument being made by the articles I cite.