Most people will agree: Sexual predators who target children are bad. However, some GOP legislators and religious leaders are OK with adults having sex with children—as long as they are legally married. A recent flurry of legislation to review the minimum marriage age is pitting the rights of predators against the rights of children, and the predators have a surprisingly amount of support.
The age of consent to marry in most states is 18. However, in several states, if a parent and/or a judge agree to waive that requirement, children as young as 13 can be married, and in 27 states, there is no minimum age to marry. Who wants to marry a child? Well, someone who wants to have sex with a child. And for many GOP legislators who are reviewing their states’ laws on the matter, making it legal makes it OK.
In 2010, nearly 10,000 minors got married in the U.S., the vast majority of them underage girls married to adult men. Between 2000 and 2015, 86 percent of the reported 207,468 child marriages that took place in the United States were between minors and adults (eight states did not report data). Only 14 percent were between two minors—a “Romeo and Juliet” situation.
Child marriage, an especially prevalent problem in the developing world, is a leading factor in poverty, health problems, overpopulation and the lack of rights for women. According to global advocacy group Girls Not Brides, 12 million girls are married every year. However, the practice is alive and well in the U.S. too.
The issue came into focus during the 2017 Alabama senate race, when it was revealed that GOP candidate Roy Moore had a long history of pursuing underage girls, including a child he offered to babysit during her parents’ divorce and custody proceedings, and the 15-year-old who later became his wife. Moore narrowly lost that contest, in large part due to a surge of African American voters. However, Moore largely retained the support of white evangelicals.
Alabama state Auditor Jim Zeigler said there is nothing “immoral or illegal” about a man in his 30s pursuing a teenage girl. “Take the Bible. Zachariah and Elizabeth for instance. Zachariah was extremely old to marry Elizabeth and they became the parents of John the Baptist,” he said. “Also take Joseph and Mary. Mary was a teenager and Joseph was an adult carpenter. They became parents of Jesus.”
Evangelical pop culture is filled with advocates for child marriage—particularly the marriage of girls in their teens to adult men. Child marriage advocate Vaughn Ohlman speaks at homeschooling conventions about the benefits of child marriages (for adult men).
Parents are encouraged to arrange early marriages so the girls can be molded to be an ideal companion for their husband. Visible figures such as the Duggar family put an emphasis on early and “fruitful” marriage. And a culture that labels underage victims as sluts and forgives “repentant” adult rapists turns what is often a predator story into a false narrative where children have power, when in reality they have none.
It’s not just limited to the conservative Christian realm; conservative Mormon, Jewish and Muslim communities also advocate early marriage. The thought is that it decreases the amount of sex outside of marriage, increases the number of children a couple might produce, fits notions about female “purity,” and prevents young people from being exposed to influences outside of the religion.
It also keeps women from attaining independence. A girl who marries young is 50 percent more likely to drop out of school and 31 percent more likely to live in poverty. Yet for many child brides, marriage to someone who can drive, hold down a job and vote looks like financial security.
“Men are often seen as breadwinners and might need to be much older and be established to take care of a family, particularly one that may have a lot of children,” said Ashley Easter, homeschool alum and advocate for abuse victims. “And a girl, she may only have the responsibility of having children and keeping a house. And if a girl can do that by the time she’s 14, I can see how someone could draw the conclusion that she’s ready for marriage. But that’s wrong in my perspective.”
In 1937, when Life Magazine published photos of a 9-year-old child bride, Eunice Winstead, and her 22-year-old husband, horrified legislators in several states jumped to make sure laws would protect children whose parents would not. At that point, ages 16 through 18 were determined sufficient for children to make this life-altering decision. But eight decades later, lawmakers are deferring to religious preferences instead.
In 2017, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie rejected a bill to end child marriage that was passed by both state House and Senate, saying, "the severe bar this bill creates is not necessary to address the concerns voiced by the bill's proponents and does not comport with the sensibilities and, in some cases, the religious customs, of the people of this state."
Other states are facing the same roadblocks. When Kentucky proposed amending its current marriage laws, which permits girls of any age to be married if pregnant, conservative lobbying group Family Foundation of Kentucky intervened to stop the bill, saying the matter should be left to the child’s parents.
“SO disappointed!” wrote the bill’s author, Sen. Julie Raque Adams, R-Louisville, on Twitter. “My SB 48 (outlaw child marriage) won’t be called for a vote. It is disgusting that lobbying organizations would embrace kids marrying adults. We see evidence of parents who are addicted, abusive, neglectful pushing their children into predatory arms. Appalling.”
(Speaking of pregnant children, a six-year-old gave birth in 2011 in Peru, becoming the youngest recorded mother in history. The average age of first menstruation is 12 years old.)
Kentucky’s proposed Senate Bill 48 would have changed the non-pregnant marriage age from 16 to 17, limited the age difference between spouses to four years, and required the couple to get the permission of a judge. The judge could consider the maturity of the teen, any history of domestic violence by either party and whether the minor was impregnated by the putative spouse while she was under the age of consent.
"This is legalized rape of children," said Eileen Recktenwald, the executive director of the Kentucky Association of Sexual Assault Programs. "We cannot allow that to continue in Kentucky, and I cannot believe we are even debating this is the year 2018 in the United States."
After social media embarrassed the male legislators and lobbyists for their apparent approval of child marriage, however, the bill was resurrected and will now go to the House for consideration.
"The nation has eyes on Kentucky right now, eager to see our leaders do the right thing and pass this legislation to prevent child sexual abuse through child marriage," said Donna Pollard, a Louisville woman who testified she had been pushed into marriage at 16 to an older man who had begun sexually abusing her at 14.
In Tennessee, meanwhile, conservative lobbying group Family Action Council of Tennessee asked Republicans to kill a bill banning child marriage because it might interfere with proposed legislation to counter the U.S. Supreme Court's 2015 decision to legalize gay marriage in the case of Obergefell v. Hodges. However, the move drew attention to the fact that judges in the state could grant marriage licenses with no minimum age limit, a detail that made enough people squirm that the bill will now be brought back for reconsideration.
Proposed legislation to ban child marriage in Arizona, which has no age limit on marriage, was watered down by Republican leaders who said a ban would be too restrictive. Instead, the bill that passed in February, HB 2006, says children under 16 must get a judge’s approval, and the judge must find that the “minor is entering into the marriage voluntarily.” Seven Republican lawmakers voted against the bill, and several argued that many girls enter happy marriages in their mid and late teens. Others complained that the matter should be left to the parents to decide.
In March, Florida lawmakers approved a bill to limit marriages under age 17. The new bill says 17-year-olds can marry with parental consent but must take a premarital preparation course. Also, they cannot marry someone more than two years older. The anti-child-marriage bill was approved after years of campaigning by Sherry Johnson, who was forced at age 11 to marry her church deacon, who had molested her since she was 8, and impregnated her when she was 11 years old. Between 2001 and 2016, more than 16,000 children under the age of 18 were married in Florida. In one case, a marriage license was issued for a 16-year-old girl and a 90-year-old man.
The Problem With Child Brides
Opponents of child marriage point out that the practice is largely detrimental to girls. Girls who marry at a young age have poor educational outcomes, high rates of complications in pregnancy and childbirth, are more likely to be physically and sexually abused, suffer from higher rates of depression and mental health problems, and their families are more likely to end in poverty.
Many states set the minimum marriage age for girls lower than for boys. Other states waive the age requirements if a girl is pregnant or has a child, which means an adult can get out of statutory rape charges by marrying his victim. Since the bride remains a minor, she has few rights in the event of an abusive marriage. In many states, the girl cannot file for divorce until she turns 18. In some states, minors cannot access domestic violence shelters. Girls between 16 and 19 experience the highest rates of domestic violence.
“When somebody aged 17 or younger called us, there was almost nothing we could do to help. If we tried to help her leave home, she’s considered a runaway,” said Fraidy Reiss, the director of Unchained At Last, an organization that is lobbying legislators to raise the marriage age to 18. “If we manage to get her to a shelter, most shelters would turn her away.”
If a child marriage doesn’t work out, after divorce, a former child bride is ill-prepared to become independent, often lacking an education, job experience or even the ability to drive. According to a 2010 study, women who married as minors are 31% more likely to live in poverty.
“It’s devastating how trapped they become,” Fraidy Reiss, the founder and executive director of Unchained at Last, tells Teen Vogue. “I definitely would say that legislators do not seem to get it.”
Now that public attention has been turned to the topic, however, proponents of child marriage are being forced to acknowledge that their aspirations to protect religious practices or parental rights may ultimately protect predators.
"Whatever our disagreements in American life about the proper role of government, surely we can all agree that the government should protect vulnerable children from sexual predators," said Russell Moore, current president of the Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, the public policy arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. "Safeguarding children must be the concern of all of us," he said. "Any law that provides a loophole for creepy men to exploit children should be reformed."
Yes, it should.