She was 16, but with her small stature, enormous brown eyes and eighth-grader’s innocence, she looked more like 13. He was 24. She was sure she loved him.
He had a job in a hotel. He was good to her, respectful. And it thrilled her when she’d hear him say, “No one will ever love you the way I love you.”
If they had been in El Salvador, the country where both were born, no one would have thought twice about their relationship; older men often went with women far younger. Girls routinely married at 14 or 16. But here in America, it’s different.
When the girl became pregnant last year, her mother turned in her daughter’s beloved to the Alexandria police. He was charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor. He faced jail time and a hefty fine.
Theirs is no “Romeo and Juliet” story of fresh, young love, explains Patricia Benavidez, a victim outreach specialist in the Alexandria commonwealth Attorney’s Office who, for confidentiality reasons, could not release the names of the couple. And it is a story that is becoming more common, though often kept secret in the Latino community here.
In Virginia, the age of consent is 18. Adults having sex with 13- to 15-year-olds may be found guilty of felony “carnal knowledge” and face up to 10 years in jail and steep fines. Adults having sex with minors 16 to 18 may be guilty of “contributing to the delinquency of a minor,” a misdemeanor that can carry jail time and a fine.
For the past five years, Lorena Escalante has worked with Hispanic sexual assault victims for the Alexandria Office on Women. In that time, she has seen the reporting of these kinds of cases rise, even though some parents and those involved don’t see anything wrong.
“Some parents don’t mind,” Escalante said. “If the guy is rich, has money or a job, it may be more accepted. But most of the parents I work with, they don’t want their daughter to get married or pregnant so early. They want her to finish high school and have more opportunities than they had. They’ll say, ‘You want to end up like me, cleaning houses?’”
In the past year, Escalante has worked with more than 100 victims of sexual abuse. Nearly one-quarter were young Hispanic girls having sex with older men. An “eye-popping” number were only 14 years old, she said.
Still, Evans has had some Latino defendants protest their convictions, claiming that their culture doesn’t recognize what they did as a crime.
For Benavidez, the task of convincing the Spanish-speaking community that these relationships are crimes has been difficult. In May, she will start giving workshops on the topic for schools and parents.
“It’s not just in the Hispanic culture, where dating an older person is okay,” she said. “I’ve seen it in Asian countries, in some African countries. Some cultures even encourage it. They feel better if an older, more mature man will help them finish the job of raising a young girl.”
In Virginia, girls as young as 14 can get married, as long as they have their parents’ permission. In the case of the 16-year-old pregnant girl and her 24-year-old lover, Benavidez said charges were dropped when the man said he would marry the girl. The girl’s mother relented because it was important to her that the man who took her daughter’s virginity also take responsibility for her. She gave her permission and agreed to drop the charges only when the man promised that her daughter could continue going to school.
The young girl had dreamed of going to college. But Benavidez doesn’t even know if she is still in school. She would be a freshman in high school now, with a new baby and husband. “I don’t know how the future can unfold for her,” she said.