Between two concrete stages in life, society often creates zones with special rules to guide the transition between the two.
There are drivers and those too young to drive. In the middle we have “student drivers,” with all sorts of particular limitations around their ability to drive.
There are workers, and there are those too young to work. In the middle, we have a transition phase (between 14 and 18 years of age) where they can work, but only for so long, with certain permissions, and in certain fields.
But driving and working are not the only “adult activities” children are legally phased into. There are also the more-sensitive questions around sex and family.
For many years, North Carolina had allowed 14 years olds to marry if they had become pregnant. Thankfully, both Republicans and Democrats came together in 2021 to raise the age of marriage to 16, the same age one can legally consent to sex. Democrats had wanted to raise the age for marriage to 18, but the bill was still unanimously passed and then signed by Gov. Roy Cooper.
Even so, Democrats still frequently bring up this issue, completely incredulous that “child marriage” continues to exist in our state. During recent debates on the Parents’ Bill of Rights, my state senator, Graig Meyer, in a tweet with generous use of capital letters, denounced Republicans who BLOCKED an amendment to BAN CHILD MARRIAGE.
Two days later, the left-wing organization Carolina Forward was among others to highlight this issue as one Republicans were being particularly crazy on.
I do think it’s an issue worth talking about. But what’s most interesting to me is why marriage is the line in the sand, especially since the amendment came during a debate where Democrats were demanding the right for children much younger than 16 to consent to sex-change procedures that would permanently sterilize them and eliminate their sexual functioning. But marriage is too far.
As I said earlier, 16 is also the age of sexual consent in North Carolina. A 16 year old can have sex, get pregnant, move into the home of their partner, and choose to either raise the child, give it up for adoption, or get an abortion. Parents would need to sign off on some of these decisions, but none of them are facing any significant legal challenge. Getting married to that partner, though, is.
How is marriage “sexualizing children” (as Carolina Forward said above), while sex itself is not?
It’s important to note that for a 16 or 17 year old who wants to get married in North Carolina, they need their parents and a judge to sign off, and the person they wish to marry must be within four years of their age. So we’re talking about, in the most extreme case, a 16 year old marrying a 20 year old.
What’s interesting is that this requirement to be close in age does not apply to the age of sexual consent. So, for Democrats, they do not seem to be making much fuss about the fact that a 16 year old girl can have sex with a 65 year old man and bear his child. Only that she might marry another teenager.
Personally, I’d like to see both of these laws tightened a bit. Four years is a big difference at that age when considering marriage. And considering there is no close-in-age requirement for the age of consent, there’s an even bigger opportunity for a power imbalance in other sexual relationships.
Why not put the age differential at three years for both?
For those who insist that marriage should be only for those over 18, that actually had been the original wording (numbering?) of the bill. But, interestingly, many legislators told the bill sponsors that they had close family or friends who were married early and made it work. There were even some legislators who said they themselves were married as teens.
Off the top of my head, one such story comes to mind for me. My high school friend and his girlfriend got pregnant at 17. He dropped out of school, became a plumber’s assistant, and they got married soon after. I don’t think the wedding happened when they were still under 18, but it doesn’t impact my point. They chose to start a family before they were adults, and now, at 40, they are still married and have three healthy kids and a thriving plumbing business.
Neither of them was from a stable home, so they used that very-early marriage as a stabilizing force and made it work. Was that ideal? Absolutely not. But if we are going to tell teens they can have sex, get pregnant, and raise those kids together, it doesn’t quite make sense to ban them from getting married.
In a state with no-fault divorce, where the teen lovers could choose to part ways a year later, I can’t help but wonder what the real concern is. Could teen marriage cause a knee-jerk reaction on the left because they see marriage and children as primarily limiting for young people, while sexual experimentation is more liberating? It could go back to the foundational left-wing belief from Rousseau that institutions (whether family, community, culture, or religion) are the source of suffering and oppression, and freedom lies in throwing off their shackles.
From what I saw, my friend’s early marriage and children did make him grow up much more quickly. But I don’t know that it was a bad thing. Many of the others in our friend group, like many teens and young adults, didn’t make great use of those years. While others were playing video games, “partying,” and wasting time on college classes they didn’t really care about, he was facing real-life head on.
So should society use those late teen years as a transition period, where we ease them into some adult realities, albeit with strict parameters, or should we just see it as a light switch, where we yell, “Stop child marriage” on one day of the week, if a 17 year old tries to marry the 19-year-old father of her child, but if she has a birthday the next day, then it’s magically fine for her to marry a 90 year old? Should we also get rid of other transition zones, yelling, “Stop child labor” to prevent 17 year olds from working after we stop child marriage?
Marriage should not be considered a more taboo activity than having sex and raising children. In fact, at whatever age we start allowing the latter activities, it makes sense to allow the former. Parenting is a hard job; it’s even harder alone. And marriage is the timeless way of binding yourself to another person to get that job done. Teen marriage (like teen parenthood) isn’t ideal, but sometimes it may be someone’s attempt to make the best of an already-tough situation.
Editor’s note: The title has been tweaked a couple times since the author couldn’t land on a satisfactory one.