I recently read an article about an Idaho bill, led by Rep. Melissa Wintrow (D-Boise) that was killed in the House at the beginning of May. The bill would have made it illegal for children under age 16 in that state to marry without consent from the parents, the court and — wait for it — the child, before the marriage could take place. If a law has to stipulate that the child must give consent, I thought, does this imply that children in the 21st century do not have consent over whether or not to get married?
Apparently, it does. In Idaho, children (read: girls), on record as young as 13, can be married off to men much older than themselves with either the consent of their parents or the oversight of a judge. The judge’s involvement is supposed to protect them, but it often does not. Nor does it protect boys: because of Idaho’s statutory rape laws, an 18-year-old kid having sex with his 15-year-old girlfriend can be convicted of rape and sent to prison for up to 25 years. It doesn’t matter if they go to the same high school, have the same friends, hang out at the same parties. By law he’s an adult, and she’s a child. That makes him a rapist, unless they’re married.
Marriage may seem better than prison, though prison and marriage can feel like the same thing at that age. Add in a baby and the girl, at least, can forget college. Teen boys aren’t the worst thing young girls have to fear, though: from 2000 to 2010, nearly 5,000 children were married in Idaho, many of them girls wed to men far older than themselves. Rape, statutory or otherwise, is legal between husband and wife in Idaho, except under the most extreme circumstances.
Republican lawmakers killed the bill for two (stated) reasons. One, according to Bryan Zollinger (R-Idaho Falls), is that “I do not think courts should be involved in marriage at all. I think two willing people should be able to go and get married.”
But what if one of the parties is a teenage girl, willing or not, whose parents have decided this marriage is going to happen? Worse, what if she is a pregnant teenage girl?
“If we pass this legislation, it will then become easier in the state of Idaho to obtain an abortion at 15 years old than it will to decide to form a family and create a family for a child that has been conceived.” — Christy Zito (R-Hammett)
It’s not that Republicans believe courts shouldn’t come between two people in love. Rather they believe every effort should be made to come between a woman (child) and her uterus. Once a grown man — or even another teenager — impregnates a girl, she’s likely to make what, to them, equals a terrible decision. Abortion still being legal in Idaho, the state cannot allow that to happen. These girls must be married off before they assert control over their own bodies.
Wow, I thought as I read this, Idaho sure is backward. Naively, I believed the age of consent for the rest of the U.S. was 18. But I was wrong. Child marriage is legal and practiced in 48 of 50 states (Delaware and New Jersey both ended child marriage in 2018). It affects mostly girls, and is mostly carried out for religious reasons. At least 167,000 children were married in the United States between 2000 and 2010. Most of these were girls. This means kids who cannot yet legally buy cigarettes, enlist in the army, or vote are entrusted (enforced?) with arguably the biggest life decision (duty?) there is: binding themselves to one person, then bearing and raising that person’s offspring.
If this sounds medieval, that’s because it literally is. From what we know about marriage customs and childbearing in the Dark Ages, the legal age for marriage was 12 for girls and 14 for boys. But even in medieval marriage, there were checks and balances. That thing the officiant sometimes says in traditional wedding ceremonies, the part that goes “if anyone has any reason why these two should not be wed, speak now or forever hold your peace?” That’s straight out of King Arthur-land. People could and often did speak up to bar weddings from going forward. Reasons included adultery, incest, religious reasons such as fasting or breaking lent, and rape.
I can think of about a dozen reasons why a grown man should not marry a child, but the primary reason is that a child, no matter how “mature” she looks, no matter how bright she is, cannot fully comprehend the consequences of having sex with that man. At that age, both male and female teens need protection and guidance, not sexual advances, from adults. This is because their brains, unlike their bodies, will not be finished developing until they reach their mid-20’s. Until then, they will not have a fully-formed prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain that asserts logic, that acts as the driver of the car. As teens, the car is often driving the driver.
A teenage girl will seem “adult” one moment and a child the next; she may be impulsive, emotional and reckless. She may dress inappropriately in an attempt to imitate older female role models (think any Instagram star) but not necessarily mean to be sexual. And when she does begin to explore sex, she is far better off with someone closer to her own age and experience level. Sex should be a fun, wonderful, playful thing. An adult pushing, cajoling, bullying or flirting her into sex, no matter how willing she may seem at the time, does immense damage to her young psyche and smothers her chance at a future — emotionally but also physically, if she gets pregnant. Marriage to an older man does not mean sex is consensual. In other words, this man is raping this child.
We, as a society, need to stop holding our peace. We need to speak now, with our vote, and elect representatives who will tear down old laws like they did in Delaware and New Jersey. The only reason these archaic structures are still in place is because we, the people, allow them to stand. Fear of women’s choice should not keep us from liberating children.
To join the fight against state- and religious-sanctioned child rape, visit Unchained at Last.