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Young Marriage In The Bluegrass State

The title, I guess, is supposed to say it all: Kentucky Republicans kill bill to limit child marriage because parents should have right to marry off kids

A bill that would limit child marriage has run into opposition from Kentucky Republicans who argue that parents should be able to marry off their kids without interference of a court, the Courier-Journal reports.

The modest bill would not totally ban child marriages, but would require a judge to review records to make sure that the child was not the victim of abuse, that there are not domestic violence incident involving either party and that the adult is not a registered sex-offender. The bill would require that the judge deny the right to marry if there was a pregnancy that resulted from the adult spouse molesting the child.

How in the world can anyone oppose something so reasonable and modest? Between the title and the opening graf, you almost expect to hear some hyper-Christian homeschool kids are sending twelve year old girls into arranged marriages in a wild west of free range marriages.

But Kentucky’s current law is actually reasonably restrictive:

Under the current law in Kentucky, 16 and 17-year-olds can marry with their parents’ permission, and a girl of any age under 16 can marry as long as they are pregnant and marrying the expectant father. Likewise, a boy of any age can marry a woman that he impregnates under the current law.

So we’re not exactly dealing with the wild west here. So, contra this incendiary headline, thirteen year olds can’t actually get married unless they are pregnant and even then requires judicial involvement. And contra the Raw Story headline, suggesting it’s about “marrying off kids” strips young persons of all agency.

Now, the pregnancy loophole is problematic from an incentives standpoint. Are you in love with your sweetie? Make a pregnancy happen and you can get married and live happily ever after! I question Kentucky’s prohibition on applicable shotgun marriages, but you also don’t want to encourage this sort of thing. But apart from that, you would never guess from the framing of either the law’s proponents or especially Raw Story that we’re basically talking about sixteen year olds and seventeen year olds. After the Parkland shooting, we heard a great deal about how sixteen year olds should be allowed the right to vote. Sixteen year olds may not be adults, but they are certainly capable of thinking for themselves and all that. Now, I am not arguing an inconsistency between believing that a sixteen year old should be allowed to vote and that they should not be allowed to marry. It is reasonable to believe both. But if you’re arguing that sixteen year olds have the maturity to vote and you see a sixteen year old getting married as one step removed from arranged marriages and two steps removed from sex trafficking, you probably need to take a step back.

Getting married at sixteen years old is generally a pretty bad idea, pregnancy or no. Getting married at 17 is rarely a better idea. Different states have different laws, and Kentucky’s isn’t actually out of line with other states, including enlightened blue ones such as Minnesota, Maryland and Hawaii. Sixteen is the age of consent in Kentucky, with only a step-parent exception. If you are a sixteen year old guy and you get a woman pregnant – even an illegally older woman – you are likely on the hook for child support. You can get birth control, and you can get an abortion (often without parental consent). They’re minors, but it’s a little late to be calling them children. Prohibiting a sixteen year old from getting married under any circumstances is a major step, and being opposed to that should not be construed as supporting “child marriage”.

Now, I grant my history in this realm is actually somewhat unusual, but it seems likely the median and modal case of a teenager wants to get married either involves pregnancy and hope or dopey youthful idealism. Some of the claims skirt around this by saying (I assume correctly) that most of the marriages include an adult, but if she’s sixteen and he’s eighteen that qualifies. The case that is cited in just about every article on this is indeed terrible, but maybe there is a reason they keep citing the one and use such crafty language as “age variances as great as“?.

Twenty years or so ago, there was a fourteen year old girl who went missing back home. It became a really big story where everyone was on the lookout. The story got a little sketchier over time. It turned out that she had skipped town with her boyfriend, who was eighteen. It also turned out that she was thirteen. She was pregnant and they got married. It was all illegal and very, very messy. In the end, the family asked for privacy and the DA ended up under pressure just to let them be. I’m still not comfortable with an 18/13 marriage, but it was a complicated situation for which there were no good answers. Not the least of which because from the culture they came from, 18/13 wasn’t as much of a problem.

I don’t actually have a strong opposition to this law. If I had my druthers, I would probably allow marriage as young as fifteen or so but only with parental and judicial consent up to eighteen. I would eliminate deferential treatment towards pregnancy and might add a wide-range age prohibition like 25. So my preference is somewhere in between Kentucky’s status quo and the proposed new law. Ever the centrist splitting the difference am I. But my point here is not to defend the current law or oppose the new one, but to recognize that we’re dealing with laws and cultural forces that can be complicated. We need to be able to discuss these without the sides being reduced to for and against “child marriage” and reducing the decisions of sixteen-year-olds, with the consent of their parents, to supporting legalized rape.

Supporters of the law think they will be able to address the concerns of opponents and still enact positive change. I hope they do.


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17 thoughts on “Young Marriage In The Bluegrass State

  1. The concept of different strokes for different folks seems increasingly hard to maintain in the globalized. When communities were relatively more isolated it was easier for them to maintain their way of doing things while ignoring other ways. Sure, the Pastor might preach about the immoral ways of the metropolis or urbane wits would sneer at country ways but the attempts to impose were limited to non-conforming members of the community. That’s bad but somewhat more dealable with.

    Now everybody is aware of everybody else’s dirty laundry and doesn’t like it. The general goal is to enforce more conformity on a larger level.

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  2. The entire situation is also one of the contradictions of liberalism. At least in Anglophone liberalism, religious liberty and the ability of people to live as they please is considered important. Feminism and equal rights for women are important parts of modern liberalism. This can interact very badly with traditional religions and more conservative communities. You don’t want a girl screwed because of where she was born into but a confrontation between liberal communities and traditional communities will end badly for everybody.

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    • This has always been part of the equality freedom tug of war. Without a universal egalitarian ethos, people who are raised according to more hierarchical traditions may end up worse off than they otherwise would (at least according to some measures, though not necessarily according to the standards in which they were raised). However, imposing an egalitarian ethos on everyone would be wrong for the same reason that imposing Catholicism on everyone is wrong. If we say that egalitarianism is true and Catholicism is not, we’ve just become a different kind of theocrat with a different religion.

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  3. Meanwhile Facebook surveyed users to ask if it should allow grown men to ask 14-year old girls for sex pics. ArsTechnica story.

    There’s something to be said for sticking to our quaint old ways, even with early marriages. It builds families that stick together, because whatever marriage difficulties you may encounter, at the end of the day you have to respect your wife because when all is said and done, she’s still your sister.

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    • “We” don’t generally allow 13-14 year old girls, or even 15-16 year old girls, to have sex or relationships with men in their 30s, as per the Roy Moore scandal. I’m not sure that responding to that with “oh, but she’s *pregnant*” as the law in question currently allows (with permissions), is the best choice. Or, “oh, but his partner is *pregnant*” (seems to me if some 30 year old gets knocked up by a 15 year old kid, she should be facing charges, not getting child support… though I do think he should have parental rights… it’s very complex).

      That said, there’s no earthly reason I can see to keep *some* 16 year olds from marrying each other, either. Or some 16 year olds from marrying 20 year olds for that matter. My opinions on the matter aren’t much different from Will’s.

      Any age of consent law is going to mess up *some* things because people don’t age the same, not only because cultures differ. The question is always which things are going to get messed up.

      And contra the frame posited by some commenters above, this isn’t a “the world tries to make Kentucky conform” question. If anything it’s a “Kentucky tries to make Kentucky conform” question that the world is having fun acting scandalized about, because it’s always fun to mock Kentucky.

      (No, I don’t enjoy mocking Kentucky. That was irritated sarcasm, and directed at the media, not at you.)

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      • Though I’m not sure I answered your question, which as best I know would be something like “Young people are more easily exploited; marriage makes continued exploitation easier than other forms of relationships do.”

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        • I probably framed my query differently.

          In deciding whether we should let teens marry, we should probably define what marriage is… both in practice and symbolically (with more emphasis on the former). My sense is it isn’t sufficiently different from other relationships such that we need special rules. But I may be way off.

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          • My sense is it isn’t sufficiently different from other relationships such that we need special rules.

            Whether or not it differs emotionally, in practice it is treated as if it does, and that treatment makes it different, pragmatically. In a totally different context, think of all the reasons why folks wanted same-sex marriage equality from the state – it’s largely because the state gives *special privileges* to a spouse.

            In the context of exploitative relationships, those same special privileges make exploitation easier. This obviously isn’t the only kind of special relationship that makes exploitation easier – the really obvious one is parenthood – but it’s afaik the only one other than “power of attorney” that both people can enter into voluntarily, that has such a broad scope of effects. So it makes some sense to constrain the circumstances under which they can make that choice – at least for as long as it’s still the case that marriage allows for those extra privileges for spouses.

            I would argue that if it didn’t allow them, marriage would purely be a private matter, and I’m sure there are many here who would prefer that – but that’s not how it works right now.

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    • We don’t tend to allow humans that age to enter into binding legal contracts, which marriage is. Unless they have their parents consent, which is the general loophole. And the parent’s consent, when it comes to legal contracts, is supposed to be taking the child’s best interests in mind.

      In this case, the question is “Is this legal contract even applicable for 13 year olds, is there any case in which it is in the child’s best interest to do this?”. If there’s not, there’s no reason to allow the parent’s to enter the child into the contract — be definition, they’d be working against the child’s interests to do so.

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      • To be clear, none of the Kentucky debate involves thirteen year old kids being allowed to marry with only their parents consent.

        Articles keep implying it, supporters of the change keep alluding to it, but current Kentucky law does not allow it and as far as I know no one is suggesting it be changed to allow it.

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  4. Well, I know this country.
    Hard workers wear out early, old age by thirty five or so, and so the metrics are not so easily tabled for later.

    It just goes faster and wears out sooner than the protected classes.

    Of course, everything dies and gets busy, sooner or later. Mostly.

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  5. Pingback: Linky Friday: A Conspiracy Of Us - Ordinary Times

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