Facade of the Senate building in Pasay City. (Philippine Daily Inquirer file photo)

Facade of the Senate building in Pasay City. (Philippine Daily Inquirer file photo)

MANILA, Philippines — In tackling a bill raising the age of statutory rape from the current 12 to 16, senators engaged in a lengthy debate over the “Romeo and Juliet” provision that would exempt consensual sexual activity between young couples “in love” from being criminalized.

During Monday’s plenary session, several senators raised concerns that the provision might be abused.

The provision — also called the close-in-age exemption or the “sweetheart clause” — exempts “consensual, non-abusive and non-exploitative” sexual activity between young partners with an age difference of not more than four years from being considered as statutory rape.

READ: Bill raising statutory rape age to 16 reaches Senate plenary

According to Sen. Pia Cayetano, a co-sponsor of the bill, the provision seeks to recognize that young relationships do exist and that the proposed law should not be used against “legitimate sweethearts.”

“We just want to be sure that conservative parents would not be using that [proposed law] to criminalize the activities,” she said.

“We just wanted to be sure that we don’t automatically criminalize the behavior of these young people, which even if they were not intending to really happens, in some cases, without any criminal intention,’ she said, speaking partly in Filipino.

“Even though as a parent, we do not recommend that kind of activity. But then it should not be instantly considered a crime,” Cayetano added.

Senate President Vicente Sotto III was the first to raise concerns over the provision, saying it should be reworded and made clearer.

“I don’t want this paragraph abused. We might find a better language. Because right now, the way it appears, it’s so simple — especially for the foolish ones: The victim is 11 years. The male is 15. So you can say that’s consensual?” Senate President Vicente Sotto III said.

“With this provision, this exemption, with someone who is 11 years old, it’s no longer statutory rape? What if she is tricked by someone who is 15 years old who likes watching porn on the internet?” he added.

But Sen. Richard Gordon, sponsor of the bill, reiterated that the provision “seeks to balance the best interests of the child considering their evolving capacities, physical and mental maturity, vis-a-vis their protection against rape, sexual abuse, and exploitation.”

However, Gordon stressed the need for “compelling evidence that the couple is really in love” before courts that would eventually handle such cases.

He also said without the “Romeo and Juliet” provision, the bill would be “too draconian.”

“Young people will lose their future because they fell in love and they couldn’t control their love juices, if you will. And that’s why, the point is, it’s hard to control the love juices, especially at that time,” he said.

Still, Sotto expressed misgivings over the provision.

“We’re raising the statutory age to 16, but we’re giving an exemption. That’s my worry,” Sotto said.

Same age

Sotto then suggested that the provision either be removed or that the “Romeo and Juliet” provision only cover young couples of the same age.

“If you want an exemption, why not the same age. No more four-year age difference. There can be an exemption if they’re in love,” he said.

Senate Majority Leader Juan Miguel Zubiri and Senator Panfilo Lacson both said they would support the deletion of the provision.

But Sen. Risa Hontiveros, another co-sponsor of the bill, opposed the scrapping of the clause.

“Let’s not throw away the close-in-age exemption because it might lead the kids all the more to go underground. All the more they might not open up to their parent,” she pointed out.

Lacson, Drilon proposal

Meanwhile, Lacson proposed that if the victim is 12 years old or below — regardless of the perpetrator’s age difference — should be automatically considered as statutory rape.

“Now [from] 13 to 16, I think we should insert a provision to…at least put some sort of flexibility,” he said.

Senate Minority Leader Franklin Drilon made a similar proposal. He said the provision should instead make the “Romeo-and-Juliet” defense available if the younger partner is 13 years old and above.

“But below 12, that defense is not available,” Drilon said.

The senators agreed to discuss the measure again on Tuesday to give themselves time to come up with a clearer language for the provision.

Before the chamber suspended consideration of the measure, Zubiri assured that the Senate was committed to passing the bill, which aims to raise the age of sexual consent in order to provide the youth with wider protection against statutory rape.


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