Note: As promised in the Nov. 23 issue, we sat down with Rep. Roger Rivard (R-Rice Lake) to discuss statutory rape, juvenile sexual assault, Romeo and Juliet laws and the sex offender registry. This includes his responses and does not examine issues individually or impartially.
"If it's rape, it's rape. If it's not, it's not," said Rep. Roger Rivard, sipping decaf in a booth at Rice Lake Family Restaurant.
Observe: Rivard is speaking very definitively about the line separating consensual sex from rape. But, legally, in this state, if one partner is 17 or 18 and the other is younger, the older partner is always committing statutory rape, regardless of whether consent is given.
The charging of a Chetek-Weyerhaeuser student with felony sexual assault last month raised questions about Wisconsin laws that set the age of consent at 18, prosecute all 17-year-olds as adults, routinely require them to register as sex offenders and make no exceptions for dating relationships.
No one but those involved can speak to what really happened between the two Chetek teens. Still, dozens of C-W Area High School students launched a protest in November of what they felt was an unfair accusation.
Rivard agrees there is reason enough to examine the laws governing teens and sexuality. Rape is rape, he said. But, when sex is consensual, it's not rape.
"It used to be where common sense would prevail in the community. Now, we have to legislate everything."
When he was a teenager, Rivard's dad offered a warning. "Some girls rape easy," he said, meaning they might give in and change their minds later, or someone might change their minds for them.
Point taken. Rivard elected never to get himself in that situation. But, in response to the question of whether he supports lowering the age of consent, he still hedges. He said choosing ages is difficult due to teens' varying rates of development.
"I look back at what I was," he commented. "I owned my own business when I was 19. I was married when I was 19."
Nowadays, he theorized, teens are given fewer responsibilities, so many are less responsible.
"They're held back, not exposed. They are less advanced now."
Likewise, he added, naming a minimum age for prosecuting children as juveniles is difficult. However, no matter the situation, Rivard does not believe a young child is adequately developed-mentally, emotionally or sexually-to knowingly commit sexual assault, the crime with which a Grant County 6-year-old has been charged.
Setting a minimum age for juvenile prosecution is a matter for Wisconsin Attorney General J.B. Van Hollen, he added.
Rivard sees problems with the current regulations governing the sex offender registry. He remembers checking the online registry one day, just out of curiosity. He was surprised to see one of his friends, a shy, nonthreatening family man, listed.
He was also amazed by the sheer number of offenders. To look at the map, he joked, you would think rural Rice Lake is a really dangerous place.
He agrees that when registry requirements are too broad, Wisconsin citizens are not protected from truly violent, threatening offenders.
"We're not exposing sexual predators. We're exposing everyone," he said.
Rivard said he is willing to look for a sponsor who can pitch a Romeo and Juliet bill-protection for dating teenage couples if a relationship turns sexual-to the corresponding Assembly committee.
He does not feel unmarried teens should be sexually active, he emphasized. However, he also does not think the justice system or its funding source, taxpayers, should be responsible for punishing teens who have consensual sexual relationships.
"We're creating criminals. Literally, creating criminals," said Rivard. "Some changes need to be made."