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


Michelle Oberman is Professor of Law at Santa Clara University ( This article lived in me for several long years, during which time I was fortified and buoyed by many colleagues and friends. In particular, I thank Anne Coughlin for her comments and insights and the growth they inspired. Thanks also to my many readers: Kathy Baker, David Ball, Pam Cohen, Steve Cohen, Kyle Graham, Larry Marshall, Mike Newdow, Hanna Oberman, Ariella Radwin, Ticien Sassoubre, Bob Weisberg, Stephanie Wildman, and my teenagers, present day and former, for commenting on various drafts. Many thanks to Susan Messer and the reviewers at Law & Social Inquiry for their superlative assistance. Thanks to participants at Southwestern Law School Faculty Colloquium, Stanford Law School's Law and the Biosciences Workshop, and the University of California at Santa Cruz's Graduate Workshop in Psychology. Enormous thanks to Jessica Harkins Brown, Santa Clara University School of Law, J.D. 2012, and to Jennifer McAllister, Santa Clara University School of Law, J.D. 2011, for fabulous editing and research assistance.


Laws governing adolescent sexuality are incoherent and chaotically enforced, and legal scholarship on the subject neither addresses nor remedies 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 adolescent sexuality from both the academic literature and the adults who control the criminal justice response to such interactions. This article presents an in-depth study of In re John Z., a 2003 rape prosecution involving two seventeen-year-olds. Using this case, I explore the implications of the prosecution by interviewing a variety of experts and analyzing the contemporary literature on sexual norms among youth. I also relate a series of interviews conducted with the major players in the prosecution. Examining this case from a variety of perspectives permits a deeper understanding of how the law regulates adolescent sexual encounters and why it fails.