When Shakespeare brought Romeo and Juliet to life, he was intentional in choosing two young characters as his protagonists. Then as now, two teens having consensual sex is understandable. But an adult molesting a child is reprehensible.
The difference between the two situations would seem obvious. But in many states in the U.S., legally speaking, there’s little distinction between Romeo and Juliet's mutual decision and the abusive actions of a child molester. An older teen who has sex with his younger girlfriend can be arrested, prosecuted, and jailed for the act. Even worse, he may carry the stigma of being labeled a sex offender for the rest of his life.
The problem typically arises when the male is 18 or 19, the female is between 14 and 16, and the parent of the younger teen presses charges. (Even Romeo would be labeled a sex offender today, as he was believed to be 16 and Juliet 13 when their relationship began.)
Consent and Advice
Though the age of consent (i.e. the age at which an individual can legally agree to have sex) varies from state to state – and often splits along gender lines – it is definitive in one aspect: it refers to sexual acts between heterosexuals. In over half the states in the U.S., sex between homosexuals is either not addressed by existing laws or is considered a crime.
Recent changes in the laws governing consensual sex between minors or an adult 18 years of age and a minor 14-16 years of age have acknowledged that this intimacy is not the same as molestation. The new laws, named “Romeo and Juliet laws” after Shakespeare’s tragic teenage lovers, attempt to correct overly harsh penalties and prison terms meted out over the years. In 2007, these laws went into effect in Connecticut, Florida, Indiana and Texas.
Accidental Sex Offender
In Florida, a 28-year-old man who’d been placed on the state’s sex offender registry was able to remove his name after passage of Florida’s Romeo and Juliet law in July 2007. At age 17, Anthony Croce began having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend; when he turned 18, the girl’s disapproving mother pressed charges and Croce plead no contest. He was then legally compelled to register as a sex offender.
Florida’s new law still regards underage sex as a crime, but a judge may now determine whether to strike the sex offender designation from those previously convicted. Cases that may lead to an overturned designation would involve a victim who is age 14-17 and has agreed to consensual sex; the offender would have to be no more than 4 years older than the victim and have no other sex crimes on his record.
Gay Bias in Rulings
For teenagers who are gay or lesbian and engage in consensual sex, the laws are much tougher. A 2004 case heard by the Kansas Supreme Court had civil libertarians and gay rights groups protesting the existence of a double standard. Matthew Limon was a mentally disabled 17-year-old when he had consensual sex with a 14-year-old boy. Under the Romeo and Juliet law enacted in Kansas in 1999, Limon would have been sentenced to 15 months in prison if the boy had been a girl. But because the law states that partners must be members of the opposite sex, Limon was given a 17-year sentence.
Papa Don't Preach - And Don't Press Charges
The Romeo and Juliet laws are frequently enforced unfairly says Mark Chaffin, a researcher with the University of Oklahoma-based National Center on the Sexual Behavior of Youth. "In many cases, they are enforced largely by how angry the parents of the younger party are."
Two-Year Difference = Ten-Year Sentence
One well-publicized case demonstrating the need for Romeo and Juliet legislation is that of Genarlow Wilson, a 17-year-old who was imprisoned for having consensual oral sex with a 15-year-old female. An athlete and honor student, Wilson was videotaped at a New Year’s Eve celebration engaging in oral sex and was sentenced to ten years for aggravated child molestation. After serving jail time from 2003-2007, the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that Wilson should be released; and this decision was followed by a change in state law that reduced consensual sex between teenagers to a misdemeanor with a maximum sentence of one year.
"Man shed sex offender status under new 'Romeo and Juliet' law" AP Report Tampa Bay Online 6 August 2007.
Gramlich, John. "New laws take 'Romeo' into account" Stateline.org 16 July 2007.
Reynolds, Dave. "Court to Decide on Discriminatory ‘Sodomy’ Law" The New Standard 1 September 2004.