In 2018, the thought of marrying off teen girls to older men usually evokes thoughts of a bygone era where people married early, in part, because they only lived into their 30s and 40s. In a modern context, we usually conceptualize this as a phenomenon that happens in other countries around the world, particularly developing ones, but not something that happens in the United States. But, sadly, it does happen here. And in certain states like Missouri, child marriage is actually facilitated by the parents of pregnant teen girls who prefer marrying them off rather than dealing with the stigma of unwed teen motherhood. As The Kansas City Star reports:
From 1999 to 2015, more than 1,000 15-year-olds married in Missouri. Of those, The Star’s review of data shows, more than 300 married men age 21 or older, with some in their 30s, 40s and 50s. Assuming they had premarital sex, those grooms would be considered rapists.
The definitions of statutory rape and other child sex crimes vary from state to state. Missouri defines statutory rape as anyone 21 or older having sex with someone under 17 outside of marriage. Within marriage, sex with a minor is legal. But not before.
Missouri is apparently the easiest place in the country for a 15-year-old to get married. While each state varies in terms of its requirements for people under 18 to wed, Missouri only requires the consent and signature of one parent to do so. It is also a state that has no minimum age for marriage—though if someone is under the age of 14, they would need to seek permission from a judge in order to marry. Even worse, if these minors wish to divorce, they cannot file unless they have the signature of a parent.
There is so much that is disturbing about this. We have minimum ages to be able to vote, to drink alcohol, to drive a car, to enter into the military, and to buy a gun. Yet somehow the state doesn’t think its important to regulate how old two people can be when they enter into a lawful marriage.
But let’s also be really clear about where this comes from and who the impacted persons are.
This is a really old-fashioned, religious practice which is steeped in control and patriarchy. It assumes that women’s only purpose in the world is to bear children and keep a home. In so many religious sects and communities, women are not seen as autonomous beings, or even human beings worthy of dignity, respect, and agency. So as girls and women are essentially regarded as the property of their fathers and then their husbands, the men in their lives can do with them what they please—even if it means marrying them off to men that they don’t like or love, or even those who have sexually assaulted them.
Keith Strawn of Idaho, was brought up on charges in 2016 after taking his pregnant 15-year-old daughter to Missouri to marry her 24-year-old boyfriend—the very same boyfriend who got her drunk before having sex with her when she was 14. Because his daughter, Heather, said that she cared for her boyfriend and didn’t want anything to happen to him, Strawn thought marriage was a good alternative. He did not communicate this with Heather’s mother, his ex-wife, who was living in Utah at the time.
Because she clearly has common sense, Heather’s mom was dead set against the marriage and became enraged when she found out what her ex-husband had done. As the Star reports, she called the police and they arrested both Heather’s father and husband.
On the day of Heather’s 15th birthday, when she was nine weeks pregnant, they drove through the night, 17 hours and more than 1,100 miles, to Kansas City to marry her off. That way, the baby would be born within wedlock. And the police, Strawn thought, would be kept at bay. [...]
“I love my daughter very much and never would I do anything to intentionally harm her or put her in harm’s way,” Strawn implored the judge at his May 2016 sentencing inside Idaho’s Fremont County Courthouse. “At the time I thought I was making the right decision, but after looking back I realize that that was the wrong decision, and I regretfully made that decision in duress.”
While Heather’s husband received a 15-year prison sentence and is now regarded as a sex offender, Strawn received a suspended sentence. He originally received four years for felony injury to a child, but it was suspended because Heather was supposedly willing to get married. He served a total of 120 days. District Court Judge Gregory W. Moeller was quoted as having said this at the sentencing hearing:
“Your daughter needed a parent. Instead she had an enabler,” Moeller intoned. “You were supposed to be the one with the better judgment and you completely failed in that regard.” [...]
“Perhaps as you spend each of those 120 days in jail,” Moeller said, “you will think about the 120 days your daughter was married to a rapist because of you.”
Its easy to say that while this is horrifying and should be criminal, it’s not rampant. But what’s frightening is that we actually don’t know how common these cases are or how many have occurred against a young girl’s will or against the will of one of her parents. In order for child marriage to be investigated and properly prosecuted, someone has to alert the police. It seems very possible that this is happening way more than we think and that families are forcing young girls to go along with these marriages, and no one says anything because it seems commonplace and justifiable. Except it shouldn’t be.
Teenage girls should be allowed to enjoy their adolescence and make their own decisions. And when an unplanned pregnancy occurs, they should be supported and counseled accordingly—not forced into marriages with men they aren’t sure they want to be with, especially not with men who are way older and should not have been sleeping with young girls in the first place. To marry these girls off to their abusers is rape culture and patriarchy in action. In 2018, we should be encouraging young women to dream about their futures and fostering their potential as individuals, not just wives and mothers. Anything less is not only antiquated, as we can see in Missouri. It’s also downright criminal.