Romeo and Juliet laws at Role/Reboot

Happy Groundhog Day! 25 years ago this morning, I tumbled down a flight of stairs after leaving a German literature class in Dwinelle Hall on the Berkeley campus and ended up in the hospital with a severe concussion. Any February 2 since that doesn’t involve an ambulance ride is a fine one, regardless of what that groundhog sees.

I have a column up at Role/Reboot today on statutory rape and age-of-consent rules: Is Age Ever Just a Number? Teens, Sex, and Romeo & Juliet Laws. It was inspired by this piece by my Jezebel colleague, Erin Gloria Ryan.


It’s impossible to write age-of-consent laws in such a way that they take into account the maturity and experience of every individual adolescent. As with legislation about drinking and voting, society needs to set a cut-off point—even if that point seems arbitrary and unfair. Where we draw those points shifts as cultural mores shift. (When I was born in 1967, the drinking age was 18 and the voting age was 21. The reverse is true today.)

Though the law cannot be written to meet every individual situation, Romeo and Juliet laws do reflect an evolving and increasingly nuanced approach to teen sexuality. These laws are enforced by police, prosecutors, and judges, all of whom can use their own discretion when it comes to deciding whether real harm has been done. Even when the law says, as it must, that 14 is 14 and 18 is 18, those who apply it should do so with both common sense and an appreciation for the very real complexities of teen sexuality.

One thought on “Romeo and Juliet laws at Role/Reboot

  1. “These laws are enforced by police, prosecutors, and judges, all of whom can use their own discretion when it comes to deciding whether real harm has been done.”

    I don’t know whether to say you’re being naive, or if you’re treating your readers like idiots. Anyone with any brains at all (adult maturity not required) can see that this is a prescription for those police, prosecutors, and judges to let pass anyone they favor, and hammer anyone they don’t. “Discretion” means “discrimination” and I’m disappointed to see that you wrote that line above as if you hadn’t thought of any such thing.

    Another thing which you casually left out was that back in 1967, laws against statutory rape applied only to men and boys having sex with underaged girls. Now there’s some semblance of “equal protection under the law” and women occasionally get prosecuted. Is that right or wrong? I’d genuinely be interested to hear your thoughts on who needs equal protection and how it’s ever to be achieved.

    Something I learned recently was that in England, if two people close in age but under the legal age of consent have sex, they can both be prosecuted. In Scotland, neither can. In Ireland, only the boy can (heteronormativity noted). That’s a fine lot of consistency for a small area of the world!

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