Saturday, May 25, 2013

Kate Hunt and Age of Consent Laws

It's not particularly often, but sometimes there is a cry of "homophobia!" from the queer community that leaves me with an unusually sour taste in my mouth.  So Kate Hunt is being criminally charged with statutory rape because she is 18 and having a sexual relationship with a 14 year old girl.  Kate's parents have been leading a fight claiming that these charges are due to homophobia, and there have been people proclaiming that this would never have happened had it been a heterosexual relationship. While I somewhat understand the knee-jerk reaction, it's extremely inaccurate.  This stuff happens with heterosexual couples all the time, usually involving a 17 or 18 year old male being branded a sex offender for having an underage girlfriend.

There was a similar situation with a somewhat smaller age gap at a place I worked at years ago, between I believe a 19 year old and a 16 year old in which one was fired.  Again, people were making the case that had the 19 year old been a man they wouldn't have cared.  This was even more bizarre because at a similar workplace down the street the exact same thing happened with a heterosexual couple involving a 20 year old male and a 17 year old female.  The hetero situation made the news, the lesbian one did not.

Where I live, there are no Romeo and Juliet laws*; if you just turned 18 and have sex with a 17 year old just a month or two younger than you, that's considered statutory rape.  Whether it's enforced or not is contingent on several factors (such as how supportive your parents are), but the law remains the same.

In fact, hundreds of boys have been charged with this same crime, so the assumption that this was only a result of homophobia is ludicrous and actually kind of offensive.  There is a major double-standard when it comes to these relationships.  If a man has a sexual relationship with an underage woman, he's a deviant creeper, but if a woman has a sexual relationship with an underage man, he's a stud.  Surely you've heard of this.  There have been terrible movies made about it.

That doesn't mean Katie doesn't deserve an outpouring of support--the parents who accused Katie may very well have been acting on homophobic impulses--but we're talking about a youth sexuality issue that extends far beyond one lesbian couple.  In fact, back before things like marriage became a concern, age of consent was a prominent queer issue.  This was because there have been and sometimes still are disparities between the laws (and enforcement of laws) between same-sex and opposite-sex couples.  In the UK, for instance, the age of consent for heterosexual couples was 16... for same-sex couples it was 21 (I always think of this song when I remember this).  In Nevada and New Hampshire the age of consent is 16 for opposite-sex couples and 18 for same-sex couples.  In some countries, age of consent was or is determined based on particular sexual acts, which wind up creating a distinction in age of consent between female-female couples, female-male couples, and male-male couples based on the type of sex they are likely to have.  With anal intercourse involving the highest age of consent, male-male couples wind up having to wait longer than female-male or female-female couples.

While people are railing against this case due to perceptions of homophobia, what they should really be railing against is the current age of consent laws.  They are inconsistently applied, unrealistic, anti-sex, and make teenage sex into something inherently deviant, which it isn't.  The real problems that arise with underage sexuality have to do with lack of sound sexual education and/or exploitation by people in positions of power--teachers, relatives, caregivers, and so on--which is something that can happen regardless of age.

So yeah, this is an issue concerning to us as queer activists, but maybe not for the reasons people automatically assume.

* -- These are laws in some states and countries that have fewer or no penalties for somebody at or above the age of consent having sex with somebody below that age if the age disparity is not great.