Child marriage rules in many U.S. states violate rape laws, study reveals

MONTREAL, Quebec — Child marriage is still legal in many states across the U.S., but a new study reveals that these laws blur the lines between sex with a spouse and the crime of statutory rape. Researchers from McGill University found that the inconsistent enforcement of laws regulating marriage and sex is creating a dangerous environment for minors — providing loopholes for people committing sex crimes.

Specifically, the team found 14 states where child marriages violate local statutory rape laws. The United Nations defines child marriage as a union involving a person under the age of 18. According to many organizations worldwide, however, the practice is a violation of human rights and also cuts down on the educational opportunities for the children involved — especially young girls.

The McGill team compared data from marriage certificates to statutory rape laws across America during their study. Results show the proportion of child marriages that fit the legal definition of a sex crime in that state varied between one and 50 percent.

However, some or all statutory rape laws provided exemptions for sex between married couples in a staggering 33 states. In these states, the proportion of marriages involving minors that would fit the definition of a crime — if those exemptions didn’t exist — varied between one and 80 percent.

“Our study exposes the inconsistency between laws that permit children to marry and laws that criminalize sex with children across the U.S. The research shows that some child marriages are indistinguishable from sex crimes,” says senior author Alissa Koski, an assistant professor in the Department of in Epidemiology, Biostatistics and Occupational Health, in a university release. “It’s unclear why they were certified as marriages rather than prosecuted.”

Some states even allow pre-teens to marry

The team says it was surprising to find how widely America’s laws varied from state to state. Their report even found instances where children could marry before reaching their teenage ages.

“For instance, four 12-year-olds have been legally married in Louisiana since 2000,” adds lead author Kaya Van Roost, a PhD student under the supervision of Prof. Koski.

statutory rape laws
Map depicting state-specific marital exemptions to statutory rape laws in the United States.
(CREDIT: Kaya Van Roost et al.)

The study did find some states with more restrictive laws. In Idaho, sex before the age of 18 was illegal for all unmarried minors until 2010. In more restrictive states, the team found many child marriages fit the legal definition of a sex crime.

Conversely, the laws in Michigan prohibit sex with a child under 16, unless that child was married. In states like this, fewer child marriages fell into the sex crime category because most of the children were either 16 or 17 years-old.

“The simultaneous legality of child marriage and marital exemptions to statutory rape laws provide legal loopholes for sexual acts with children that would otherwise be considered crimes,” Koski explains.

Study authors conclude that lawmakers need to re-examine the statutory rape laws and marital exemptions in many states in order to create a clear line between the two.

The findings are published in the Journal of Adolescent Health.

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