A paradox haunts what is known as the Romeo-Juliet law. Since 2007, certain countries formulated provisions to ensure that older teenage boys engaged in consensual sexual relationships with girls below the age of adulthood — 18 in some countries, 16 in others — were not prosecuted as criminals when the difference in age was three, four or five years, depending on the country. Shakespeare’s adolescent lovers came to a tragic end, but the aim of the Romeo-Juliet law is to reverse the bleak outcome by offering young people a close-in-age exemption. The age limit would bar sexual predators and exploitative sex while leaving teenagers free to explore growing romantic feelings and age-appropriate needs. Recently, the Supreme Court sought the response of the Centre regarding the implementation of a Romeo-Juliet law to decriminalise consensual sex between teenage participants. The Protection of Children from Sexual Offences Act, 2012 defines everyone below 18 as a child, and therefore incapable of giving consent. Older boys engaged in consensual relationships with girls below 18 are often prosecuted by the girl’s parents for sexual assault. The penalty for sex with a minor is severe; just prosecution itself can cause psychological trauma and damage a young man’s future.
In this situation, a Romeo-Juliet law could be of help. What needs to be considered, however, are the inequalities of Indian society and the diverseness of its many cultures. Countries that have adopted the law have suited it to their respective social realities. The states in the United States of America that have this law — not all do — have different ages of consent: for Texas it is 14, but for most other states and European countries it is 16, occasionally 15. The issue is delicate and difficult. Is it better to have overall, blind protection than allow for the realities of young people’s development? In a country where trafficking is a huge problem, where there is little or no sex education in class, where minor marriage persists yet where poverty forces girls to seek escape through relationships in the hope of marriage — a relationship would mean commitment for many — a Romeo-Juliet law may face untold complexities. Consensual sexual activity between teenagers certainly needs to be decriminalised. A Romeo-Juliet law is excellent in principle, but to be implemented in India, it would need careful formulation to suit the country’s diversities and problems.