What Is the Romeo and Juliet Law?

young couple at the beach
Romeo and Juliet laws relate to the age of consent.
Last modified: January 25, 2023

The age of consent in the United States varies by state, ranging from sixteen to eighteen years. Age of consent laws are designed to ensure men and women go through puberty before they can engage in sexual activity.

But there have been some efforts to reform the age of consent laws, especially as many people might be more open to sex than others. These people may also be in genuinely positive relationships.

The rise of Romeo and Juliet laws has helped allow for some exemptions where people who are close in age to one another can engage in sexual relationships.

Romeo and Juliet laws allow people who are legal minors to have consensual sex with older persons as long as the two people are within a particular age gap. This law style has allowed people more freedom in sex, but every Romeo and Juliet law is different.

The Concept of the Romeo and Juliet Law

A Romeo and Juliet law states that teenage couples who haven’t reached the age of consent can partake in sexual relations without the risk of a statutory rape charge so long as the right parameters are adhered to.

kissing couple ornament
Romeo and Juliet laws provide some leeway around age of consent legislation.

In a normal situation, an older person who engages in sexual intercourse with a minor can be charged under statutory rape law. But a Romeo and Juliet law ensures the older person will not be charged with this sex crime if the minor is close to that person’s age. 

The law typically works only in cases where the sexual activity is consensual between both parties.

Why Is It Called a Romeo and Juliet Law?

The Romeo and Juliet law name comes from William Shakespeare’s play of the same title. 

Romeo and Juliet balcony
Romeo and Juliet laws get their name from Shakespeare’s play of the same name.

In the play, Juliet is thirteen years old, and Romeo is considered sixteen or seventeen. 

This age gap between the characters has influenced the gap between romantic partners in Romeo and Juliet laws.

Where Are Romeo and Juliet Laws Implemented?

In 2022, 26 states had Romeo and Juliet laws. Each state has its own age of consent, and the states with Romeo and Juliet laws allow for sexual relationships with minors if the older person is two to four years older. 

teenagers
Over half of the states in the United States have Romeo and Juliet laws.

For example, people in Minnesota and Washington State can have sex with persons with a two-year age difference. In Tennessee and Pennsylvania, that gap increases to four years.

Some states have more substantial rules. In Florida, minors older than 16 can have sex with partners up to 23 years old. In Utah, the age gap is ten years.

Among the places where Romeo and Juliet laws are not in place include California, Georgia, Illinois, Ohio, and Virginia. 

There is always a potential for these states to add new laws, but the stigma people have over these relationships may still be substantial.

City of Columbus
Ohio does not have a ‘Romeo and Juliet’ statute.

Considerations For Romeo and Juliet Laws

There are a few additional factors to review surrounding Romeo and Juliet laws. Every state’s law will vary:

  • Since there is an acceptable age gap between the two parties, the minor must not be below a certain age. For example, Texas has an age of consent of 17 and a three-year gap in its Romeo and Juliet law. In this case, the minor must not be under 14.
  • All sexual contact must be consensual between both parties.
  • Incest laws still apply concerning sexual relations. The rules for what constitutes an illegal incestuous relationship vary by state.
  • In some cases, the older person must not be someone who has been legally required to register as a sex offender.
  • Anti-bigamy laws may also apply. Consensual sexual relations should not result in two people marrying one another if one of those two people is already married to a third person.
Oklahoma City University School of Law
Romeo and Juliet laws allow for an affirmative defense.

The Affirmative Defense

Romeo and Juliet laws also allow for an affirmative defense for people charged with certain activities. 

An affirmative defense involves a series of facts that, when proven, can eliminate the legal consequences of one’s actions, ensuring charges are dropped.

In the case of a Romeo and Juliet law, the small age gap between the two parties in a consensual sexual relationship will be the affirmative defense. The person acknowledges engaging in consensual sex with a minor, but it will be within the law. 

Lady Justice statue
Lady Justice.

The affirmative criminal defense could also work in situations where the two parties started their sexual relationship when they were both minors, and one has aged out of the legal definition of a minor first.

What If a Charge Is Still Intact?

Sometimes a person might still face a criminal charge for having sex with a minor. But a Romeo and Juliet law could allow the charge to be lesser in severity. For example:

  • Instead of being charged with a felony, an older person may be charged with a misdemeanor. Penalties are reduced in this situation, and the criminal charge will not see the offender lose their civil rights.
  • The guilty person may not have to register as a sex offender. In some cases where a person still has to register as a sexual offender, that person might only appear on the sex offender registry for a limited period.
  • The charge can be expunged from a person’s record after a certain period. Expungement means the record of criminal sexual conduct is destroyed.
Young couple
Romeo and Juliet law are crafted to ensure that young couples in well meaning relationships do not suffer undue punishment.

A Final Note on Romeo and Juliet Laws

Romeo and Juliet laws are designed to allow for sexual relationships with minors as long as the age gap between parties is minimal and the sex is consensual. 

These laws ensure that well-meaning relationships are kept intact and that a person will not be subject to significant charges. 

Not all states are on board with Romeo and Juliet laws, but the fact that over half of all states have is a sign that the stigma of these relationships is lessening.

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