Was Romeo a sex offender?

Under Florida law, if 18-year-olds have sex with 17-year-olds, they can be put into a database of sexual offenders.

Published March 13, 2007 5:16PM (EDT)

Man, sometimes I'm happy I'm not a lawyer. Consider this issue: How to draw the line between sex crimes and "Romeo-and Juliet" affairs between teenagers (that is, relationships where one person is over 18 and the other isn't). As the Miami Herald reports, "Florida's sex offender laws, designed to protect the public from predatory criminals, unfairly lump together sexually active teenagers and the man who raped a 9-year-old girl and buried her alive."

Right now Florida law dictates that if, say, an 18-year-old has consensual sex with a 15-year-old and gets caught, the 18-year-old's name can be placed in a database of sexual offenders. The database, searchable by law enforcement officers, can result in the 18-year-old getting banned from working in certain jobs and places -- in other words, being stigmatized for years for sex that might actually have been consensual. And according to the Herald, some legislators are even considering a bill to add the "sexual offender" label to people's driver's licenses (I'm guessing it'd go someplace near "organ donor").

The issue has stirred up all the usual debates about when teenagers should start having sex -- not to mention whether it's the state's business to get involved at all. But I find this one interesting because it brings together two separate issues: teen sex, and how to punish sexual offenders. In other words, in order to prosecute sex offenders, you need to be able to define what a sex offense is. If that depends on age, then teenagers are bound to get caught in the crossfire.

So what is a sexual offense? Does it require a particular age gap? (Some state senators are proposing a law that would allow 14-16-year-old minors to have sex with anyone less than four years older than they are.) Must it involve a particular behavior? (Raping a girl and burying her alive would seem an obvious qualifier, though there are certainly many situations that are more subtle.) Does it all come down to whether the interaction was consensual? How is it possible, in cases where the victim might have been pressured or intimidated (say, in incest), to determine whether the "consent" is genuine? In other words, how do you draw the line between a genuine sex offender and two teenagers fooling around? Turns out that it's a lot more difficult than it seems.

Also interesting (or disturbing, depending on how you look at it) is that even those pushing to exclude Romeo-and-Juliet cases from the sex offender database aren't trying to actually decriminalize sexual interactions between teenagers. That means, as the article points out, that "you can walk down a [school] hallway at any given minute and see sex offenses happening." To all the lawyers out there: Good luck figuring this one out.

By Catherine Price

Catherine Price is an award-winning journalist and author of Vitamania: How Vitamins Revolutionized the Way We Think About Food. Her written and multimedia work has appeared in publications including The Best American Science Writing, The New York Times, Popular Science, O: The Oprah Magazine, the Los Angeles Times, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Washington Post Magazine, Salon, Slate, Men’s Journal, Mother Jones, PARADE, Health Magazine, and Outside. Price lives in Philadelphia.

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