Two Truths and a Lie: In re John Z. and Stories at the Juncture of Teen Sex and the Law

85 Pages Posted: 27 Feb 2011 Last revised: 1 Sep 2011

See all articles by Michelle Oberman

Michelle Oberman

Santa Clara University - School of Law

Date Written: February 25, 2011


Laws governing adolescent sexuality are internally incoherent and chaotically enforced, and legal scholarship on the subject ignores the core problem of addressing and remedying adolescents’ vulnerability in sexual encounters. To posit a meaningful relationship between the criminal law and adolescent sexual encounters, one must examine what we know about the nature of adolescent sexuality both from the academic literature on the subject and also from the perspective of the adults who control the criminal justice system’s response to teens’ sexual interactions. This essay illuminates the intersection between coercive adolescent sexual encounters and the criminal justice system via an in-depth study of In re John Z., a 2003 rape prosecution involving two seventeen year-olds. Using the case as a map, I explore the broader implications of the prosecution by interviewing a variety of experts and by analyzing the contemporary literature on sexual norms among youth. Against this backdrop, I relate a series of interviews conducted with the major players involved in the prosecution: the prosecutors, the defense lawyer, the trial court judge and both appellate lawyers. Examining this single case from a variety of perspectives permits a deeper understanding of how the law endeavors to regulate adolescent sexual encounters and of why it fails.

Keywords: criminal law, criminology, law & psychology, law & society, sexuality & the law, women, gender & the law

Suggested Citation

Oberman, Michelle, Two Truths and a Lie: In re John Z. and Stories at the Juncture of Teen Sex and the Law (February 25, 2011). Law and Social Inquiry, Forthcoming, Available at SSRN:

Michelle Oberman (Contact Author)

Santa Clara University - School of Law ( email )

500 El Camino Real
Santa Clara, CA 95053
United States

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