At some magical age, human beings cross the threshold from "children" to "adults."
One day before their 16th birthday, teens can be cited if found driving. On the eve of their 18th birthday, they still have many limits. But the next morning they can suddenly buy cigarettes and lottery tickets, and they can be drafted into the military — though they can't drink alcohol for another three years.
In the midst of these jumbled laws comes the matter of sex. At what point is a person old enough and mature enough to consent to engage in sexual activity? Is it before or after they are given control over a 2,000-pound vehicle?
The answer can be summed up in two words: It depends.
As if teens and parents don't have enough confusion, each state has different laws regarding the age of consent. If you live in Nevada, the age is 16. If you're across the border in California, you must be 18.
"I really assumed the laws would be similar, and they are not. There's an insanity to them," said Robert Epstein, a psychologist, professor and author of a number of books about teenagers. His latest, "Teen 2.0: Saving Our Children and Families from the Torment of Adolescence," will be released in April and includes a chapter on the age of consent.
Epstein noted that President Andrew Johnson was 18 when he married a 16-year-old, that Barbara Bush started dating the elder George Bush when she was 16 and got engaged when she was 17, and that Mary was in her early teens when she gave birth to Jesus.
Now, if you're 19, live in California and have a 17-year-old girlfriend or boyfriend, you could be prosecuted for statutory rape and even face the possibility of lifetime registration as a sex offender. Wait a little while, though, and if you're 45 and have an 18-year-old significant other, that's no problem.
Or, if you're 32 and strike up a relationship with a 17-year-old, you can be found out and prosecuted three years later.
That's what happened to Andrew Krienke, who lost his Lodi High School teaching job as part of a plea deal. He pleaded guilty earlier this month to statutory rape; in exchange, prosecutors dropped two other such charges, and he does not have to register as a sex offender.
Krienke is now 35. Three years after he started the relationship with a girl in one of his social studies classes, she is 20. They live together with their child, who was born last spring, along with a child she had from a previous relationship.
If they'd lived in a different state where the age of consent was one year lower, Krienke wouldn't have been prosecuted.
Different standard for teachers
Experts agree that the varying state laws are convoluted. They agree that people have different maturity levels.
One area where their opinions differ, though, is the matter of a teacher/student relationship.
In Indiana, teachers can be prosecuted for such relationships even if the student is 19, said Laurie A. Gray, deputy prosecuting attorney assigned to juvenile sex crimes in Fort Wayne, Ind. She was quite surprised to learn that California does not have a similar law.
The difference in ages between Krienke and his girlfriend doesn't bother Gray, whose own husband graduated from college the year she was born. She noted, though, that they met when both were well past childhood (both were practicing attorneys when they met).
Cultural backgrounds also play a factor.
Gray recalled a case that had landed on her desk: A 13-year-old girl was pregnant by a 16-year-old boy, which violated Indiana laws. The boy was from Mexico, where the federal age of consent is 12, though individual states can set older limits. The girl was from Guatemala, and her mother wasn't too upset because the boy intended to work to help support the baby.
Rather than prosecute the father-to-be, Gray's office referred the couple to a social service organization to make sure she received proper prenatal care.
Before she changed careers, Gray started teaching high school at the age of 22. She had 19-year-old students, and said she still believes it would have been wrong if she'd had any kind of relationship with them.
"From a public policy standpoint, you just can't send a message to teachers that it's ever OK to have sexual relations with your students," said Gray, herself a parent.
She saw no exception in the Lodi case, because Krienke was the girl's teacher.
Gray noted that most states have laws that bar adult correctional officers from having sexual relations with adult inmates.
"When you have a person with power over a captive audience, it is criminal for that person to use someone from that audience to fulfill his own sexual needs or desires," she said.
'Sometimes you just have a connection'
At a different end of the spectrum is Jennifer Leckstrom, who at age 17 took an internship at a TV station, in hopes of getting a jump start on her future career. There she met a man who was 42 — 25 years her senior.
They clicked, and started a relationship that continued throughout her time in college and beyond. Now about to turn 29, she has been happily married for six years.
Had they lived in California, things could have turned out differently.
But the couple lived in Pennsylvania, where the age of consent is 17.
"Is 18 the right age? That's hard to say, because certainly in other countries the age of consent is younger," Leckstrom said by telephone.
Leckstrom has a successful career in public relations, has two stepchildren, and has no qualms about age differences.
"We joke that we met in the middle — that we were both somewhere in our mid-30s, maturity wise, when we met. Sometimes you just have a connection with someone," she said.
She questioned whether society's best interests are served in having Krienke, a father and supporter of his family, lose his career.
"Undoubtedly there was a boundary that was crossed because he was teacher and she was a student, but falling in love doesn't always happen in the best of situations," Leckstrom said.
A matter of maturity?
Epstein, who has studied the issue for 12 years, maintains that each case is different.
"To assume automatically that the older person in the relationship is coercive simply is not right," he said, noting that teenagers can be just as manipulative as those many years older.
Paul and Mary Onesi married in 1917 and were honored in 1995 by Worldwide Marriage Encounter as the longest-married living couple at that time. What nobody focused on was the fact that when they married, he was 21 and she was 13.
"They were being honored but nobody said, 'Wait a minute that's child abuse' — because it wasn't child abuse," said Epstein, who received his doctorate in psychology from Harvard University, was previously the editor in chief of Psychology Today and currently teaches at the University of California, San Diego.
He maintains that it comes down to maturity.
When Sam Juhl was elected mayor of Roland, Iowa, in 2005, he was 18.
At what point had the high school student become mature enough to take on such a responsibility? Apparently enough voters believed he could do the job, because nobody even ran against him. Two years later, he was re-elected.
Some could argue that people twice Juhl's age are still not mature enough to hold such a position of power.
"The laws assume that under a certain age, based strictly on age, that everyone is incompetent to have sex. And it's even more absurd that, from that age on, everyone is equally competent to have sex," Epstein said.
He likens it to voting laws. When the United States formed, voting rights were only granted to those who were white, male property owners over the age of 21. Now, the voting age is 18, women and minorities can vote and property ownership isn't a factor.
But on the other end of the spectrum, elderly people suffering from severe dementia can still vote, even if they don't understand the issues and simply sign their name on an absentee voter ballot.
Epstein argues against age limits at either end of the spectrum. It comes down to competence, he said, and it should go both ways. He noted that many states, California included, now issue more frequent driving tests to seniors.
He pointed to the Amethyst Initiative, a movement backed by some 100 university presidents seeking to lower the current drinking age of 21. After seeing countless cases of binge drinking because college students are suddenly on their own, they instead support a competence test.
"We don't stop drinking and we don't stop sex when we draw a line in the sand based on age. All we do is make it adversarial between adults and young people," Epstein said.
The idea of a competence test for the age of consent sounds daunting at first, he acknowledged, but he maintains that it's no different than so many other fields. Real estate brokers, doctors and plumbers all have to pass tests, and Epstein said it's no different. By the same token, he opposes lowering the voting age, because it won't help what he sees as a problem of maturity and competent thinking skills.
"To assume that everyone past a certain age is competent really is the greater fallacy," he said. "It's saying that we as a society, which demands competency in plumbing and doctors, will let anyone vote."
Epstein launched www.howadultareyou.com, a site where users take a series of tests to gauge their maturity levels. After analyzing the first 30,000 test-takers, Epstein recently submitted a study to a psychology group. His results: 30 percent of teens between the ages of 13 and 17 scored higher than the median adult age.
In other words, many teens were more competent than adults.
Pressure from pop culture
State laws regarding age of consent vary drastically. Lifelong California residents probably have no idea that many states decree that 16 is the age of consent. In Mississippi, the age of consent is 16, but marriage certificates require parental notification if either party is under the age of 21.
At what point does someone go from childhood to adulthood? Though a California teen is allowed to drive that 2,000-pound vehicle at 65 mph down a freeway at age 16, that teen is not considered mature enough to be able to consent to have sex.
Such consent laws don't solve a bigger problem, said Natalie Wilson, a professor of women's studies at California State University, San Marcos.
"It's a Band Aid that's trying to fix a problem that's much deeper," she said. "The bigger problem is the way we think about sex and sexuality in America. We have a hyper-sexualized culture where we see scantily clad women on TV, but we also have abstinence-only teaching and purity balls."
With all the pop culture focus on sexuality, Wilson says society needs to focus on responsibility. Sex happens, and she says the best way to help young people is to educate them.
Similarly, she noted that men are basically expected to look at women, and that they are glorified for their conquests. That's wrong, she said.
"When you're a 45-year-old and you're lusting over Britney Spears in her schoolgirl uniform, that's kind of weird. I don't think you should be lusting over prepubescents," Wilson said.
And, though she's a self-proclaimed feminist and liberal thinker, Wilson doesn't think teachers should be having sex with their students, regardless of age. It's a matter of power and authority, she said.
Each case weighed differently
Krienke did not respond to a request for an interview. His attorney maintains that the charges should never have been filed, and notes that Krienke still has a relationship with his "alleged victim."
Kristine Reed, a prosecutor who oversees child abuse and sexual assault cases at the San Joaquin County District Attorney's Office, said each case is examined before charges are filed. She said that Krienke's status as a teacher was definitely a factor.
She also noted that the California Legislature has created different laws regarding ages.
If a victim is under the age of 14, that is charged as felony child molestation, which can carry stiff penalties and requires sex offender registration for a conviction. If the child is over the age of 14, then different can laws apply.
In the Krienke matter, he was charged with statutory rape. If the difference in age between him and the student had been three years or less, the charge could have only been filed as a misdemeanor, Reed said.
"If it's an 18-year-old having sex with a 17-year-old, it's different than, say, a 32-year-old having sex with a 17-year-old," she said.