Paul Walker might have died in a tragic car crash Saturday, but that hasn't stopped gossip media from printing salacious rumors about the actor. Just two days following his passing, The Daily Mail published a story about how Walker's girlfriend, Jasmine Pilchard-Gosnell, is coping with his loss. But the most stunning part of the story was buried in the details: Walker, who is 17 years older than his girlfriend, has reportedly been dating Pilchard-Gosnell since 2006, when she was just 16 years old.
The report from The Daily Mail (an often unreliable source) stems from a 2009 article in Star (an even more unreliable source) that claimed Walker and Pilchard-Gosnell had gotten engaged after three years of dating. (A rep for Paul Walker denied that the engagement rumors were true, but did not deny Walker was dating Pilchard-Gosnell, who was 19 at the time.) Though the rumors might be false, they do bring up an issue that is all too ignored in Hollywood: Male celebrities whose illicit, and potentially illegal, relationships with underage girls are ignored, and often celebrated.
First off, let's get the details out of the way: The statutory age of consent in California is 18, meaning that anyone in a sexual relationship with a girl younger than 18 is committing a felony. (The law is different if the couple is married, which is sort of screwed up in its own regard.) Still, male actors and musicians have a long history of dating (and marrying) women who are much, much younger than them. It's a relatively unknown factoid today, but, in the 1950s, singer Jerry Lee Lewis made headlines for marrying his 13-year-old second cousin. The backlash likely ended Lewis’ atmospheric rise to fame, but other celebrities haven't been hit nearly as hard. Robert Kelly, famously known as R. Kelly, married now-deceased singer Aaliyah when she was 15 and he was 27.
Then there’s the recent and now-infamous courtship: the relationship between LOST actor Doug Hutchinson and aspiring singer and model Courtney Stodden, which arguably helped both of their careers, despite how skeeved out we all were by it. Stodden, who was 16 when she married the 50-year-old Hutchison, saw her inappropriate photo shoots regularly make headlines, and though Hutchison's film career isn't quite as illustrious as it was prior to his marriage, he still scored a starring role in a reality show, Vh1's Couples Therapy. Their marriage might have ended earlier this year, but here's betting their careers haven't.
Not one of these men faced any kind of legal repercussions for their actions. Stodden’s parents gleefully signed off on her marriage, and a lot of fans just kind of pretend that the whole R. Kelly/Aaliyah thing never happened. (And don't even get me started on that Woody Allen business.) There’s always criticism of these relationships, but relatively little legal action.
There was just a discussion on Twitter about Kelly's behavior and the broader issue of sexual assault against black women and girls using the hashtag #fasttailedgirls. Created by Mikki Kendall and Jamie Golden-Nesbitt, many women who grew up in Chicago shared their stories of seeing R. Kelly hanging around junior high schools (and, of course, the young girls that attend them). There is much knowledge of this predatory behavior, but little consequence.
The young women who enter into relationships with male celebrities face a different kind of scrutiny, though. Stodden was called a “golddigger” and a “slut,” even though her 50-year-old husband was the one with all of the power. Sure, everyone was skeezed out by Stodden's stripper-wear and childlike coo, but Hutchinson's character emerged relatively unscathed. That's just how it goes in Hollywood.
But while these celebrities might claim age might be just a number, power differentials are very real. The public would absolutely balk, and has absolutely balked, at middle-aged teachers engaging in a relationship with a teenaged girls, and not only because it is illegal. Most of us realize that there is a distinct power dynamic between a teacher and student, making the relationship inappropriate. When it comes to actors, though, we seem to forget the power and influence that a celebrity can exert over a teenage girl.
Frankly, what young girl wouldn’t jump at the chance to be with someone like R. Kelly? He's rich, handsome, and famous — three traits most teenage girls would like to have in a partner. And the response? Well, many think these young girls would be lucky to attract the attention of someone in the entertainment industry.
The problem is exactly that though — whether this behavior is distinctly predatory or just a one-off case of "young love," it's not okay. Even less acceptable is Hollywood's (and the media that reports on the entertainment industry) failure to do anything about it. Please remember that these are the same people who awarded Roman Polanski an Oscar and came to his defense as he fled the country to avoid being charged with sexual assault of a 13-year-old girl.
Power, money, and fame, according to the dominant narrative, make it possible for men to sleep with any woman they want, but what happens when the women they want are still in high school? Apparently nothing.