WARNING: This article discusses child sexual abuse.
The state of California could lower the penalties for an adult who commits certain sex acts with a teenager if Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom signs a bill passed in the state legislature last week. The proposal would give a judge discretion over whether to add some people convicted of statutory rape to the sex offender registry.
Senate Bill 145 sparked immediate outrage and concern. Social media posts declaring California had legalized pedophilia garnered thousands of views. One post inaccurately claimed a 21-year-old could have sex with an 11-year-old without landing on the state’s sex offender list.
Critics say the bill will leave children unprotected and open the door for judges to make unwarranted exceptions for sex acts between adults and minors.
“I cannot in my mind as a mother understand how sex between a 24-year-old and a 14-year-old could ever be consensual, how it could ever not be a registerable offense,” said state Rep. Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat and chairwoman of the California Assembly Appropriations Committee.
Under California law, anyone under the age of 18 may not legally consent to sex. If an adult is convicted of having heterosexual intercourse with a minor 14 or older and the adult is within 10 years of the child’s age, a judge has the discretion over whether the perpetrator must register as a sex offender. However, certain sex acts other than intercourse between the same minor and adult would require automatic inclusion on the registry. SB 145 would eliminate that discrepancy and give the judge sway over all sex offender registrations in such cases.
The bill’s author, state Sen. Scott Wiener, a Democrat and an openly homosexual man representing San Francisco, argues the law should treat all forms of sex equally. His spokeswoman, Catie Stewart, said Wiener intended the bill to decriminalize a hypothetical sexual relationship between a 17-year-old and a 20-year-old, not to promote pedophilia: “Those are the situations where the judge will use discretion.”
Since introducing the measure, Wiener has received “hundreds, if not thousands” of death threats from QAnon followers, according to Stewart. One of the conspiracy theories of the cultish internet phenomenon claims many Hollywood celebrities engage in child sexual abuse, and they cite this bill as evidence of their efforts to legalize the practice.
If enacted, the bill would overturn a 2015 California Supreme Court ruling that upheld a long-standing legal separation between heterosexual intercourse and other sex acts. The court ruled that since only one sex act can result in a pregnancy, it is not discriminatory to treat those offenses differently—such as allowing a father an exemption from the sex offender list to improve his chances of getting a job to provide for his family.
Patrick Trueman, president and CEO of the National Center on Sexual Exploitation, argues that the bill would further protect adult offenders, not minors.
“If the concern is a one-year difference between an 18-year-old and a minor about to become an adult, then the law should be confined to that situation, not the extreme situation that the 10-year window provides,” he said.
Samuel Dordulian, a civil attorney in Glendale, Calif., relies on the sex offender registry as a tool to track and eventually sue abusers on behalf of victims. If convicted offenders violate legal restrictions or fail to re-register, police have grounds to arrest them. The list can help get sex offenders off the streets in instances where one of his or her victims is afraid to file direct charges against them.
“We’ve made slow progress toward helping victims to come forward,” Dordulian said. “SB 145 is not going to help that process. … At the end of the day, there will be more child molesters on the street if this passes.”