It's Time for Romeo and Juliet Laws

Old image of a highschool production of the play Romeo and Juliet, specifically the balcony scene where Juliet asks "Where for art though Romeo?"

According to The Guardian the state of Queensland intends to introduce laws to identify juvenile offenders. This is a big deal for a handful of reasons but I want to just leave it where it is and use it as a reason to explore something else for now; Romeo and Juliet laws. Australia must draft and pass a bill to enact them because we have failed in other regards.  The remainder of this article will talk about sex and children and there's not much reasoned discussion that goes on about either of those things in Australian social discourse and nearly none that goes on about both. If you are uncomfortable about these topics of conversation there's an X on the top right of your browser window, or if my site analytics reports are to believed it's a red dot on the top left.

Reasonable people understand that the engagement in sexual conduct as part of a romance is something that occurs in teenage relationships. You don't have to like it, you can argue that it doesn't happen much and should happen less, you may be the parent of a teenager that insists they don't do it. None of this does much to obviate the fact that it does happen and has happened for the entirety of human existence. When this happens it's possible that either party to the relationship may not be of an age where the legal jurisdiction they are in recognises their right to enter into a fully informed consensual sexual relationship with somebody and this places the other party to the relationship in an awkward position. The type of awkward position that requires legal advice. Effectively all countries set age limits on sexual conduct and Australia is no different, and this gives rise to a natural legal problem that when teenagers are under the age of consent, even if they want to be in a sexual relationship with each other, they can't consent to the standard required by the legal system and therefore they make the other party to the relationship a sex offender.  In some jurisdictions each party to the relationship makes the other prima facie guilty of unlawful sex.

In the city of Sydney sexually based crimes are especially heinous; Australia's laws around sex are some of the most confounding that exist. The standards for a thing to be child pornography here are any  depiction (however realistic) of any person who appears  to be a young person (even if they are not) which is offensive (regardless of whether it's offensive for sexual reasons). This allowed Queensland grandfather Chris Illingworth to be charged with child pornography related offences in 2009 for being the whistleblower who drew attention to a video of a clothed baby being swung by its arms.  Is it an offensive depiction of a child? Then it's kiddie porn. Regardless of whether it is what people are thinking of when they hear that horrible turn of phrase or not.  The Internet has suddenly made it astonishingly easy to create images and content which runs completely afoul of Australian law, and the offences are committed by children.

So if a natural legal problem exists where humans having sex with each other (or producing racy photos of each other or themselves with their smartphones), and if Australia's insane laws exacerbate the impact of them, what do we do?

Romeo and Juliet laws exist to produce a legal protection and reduce or eliminate the criminal penalties associated with circumstances where a relationship would be consensual if the participants in it had the only opinions that mattered and there wasn't additional legal aspects to consent. The laws vary depending on where they are implemented, but typically they seek to do things like rephrase the definition of criminal offences like "sex with a young person" to exclude situations where the difference in age between the participants is less than a few years (even if both of them are under the otherwise legally sanctioned consent age) . Some implementations keep the offence but mandate privacy around the conviction or don't record it, and automatically commute the sentence to community service or some other trivial punishment.  Some Romeo and Juliet laws allow the penalties to be much the same as if the laws didn't exist, but set aside the modern trend towards recording offenders who commit sex related crimes on formal registers and requiring them to register life events like moving house with authorities.

If Queensland goes ahead with its proposal to name juvenile offenders and we don't have an overarching framework of exceptions that makes up for the several decades of moral hand wringing about sex and who is having it, we will create a situation where;

  1. Australia has the most inexplicably stupid sex laws of any contemporary western democracy provided we don't look too closely at Texas in the United States
  2. The natural circumstances whereby teenagers feel each other up and send each other naked iPhone pictures makes them guilty under Australian law of a range of offences starting with creating and distributing child pornography or possesion of child pornography
  3. Our tough-on-crime legislative changes publicly identify children as sex offenders, ruining their ability to engage meaningfully with society forever

It's time to change. It's time to realise that we've got ourselves into an unworkable mess with the way we treat sex, and if we can't commit to reasonable reform then we need to create an out so children aren't registered as being rock spiders. 

Image:  BiblioArchives / LibraryArchives