It had seemed impossible—and yet the stampede of allegations of sexual misconduct against men in positions of power has descended to a new level of awful. With Roy Moore on the scene, we are now talking about children.
Yet in Alabama, where Moore is running for U.S. Senate, sexual relations between a 32-year-old male district attorney and a 16-year old girl are sanctioned by the state, then and now, under one circumstance: marriage. The legality of such a union requires only parental consent.
And Alabama is not alone.
Every state allows children younger than 18 to marry, usually with parental consent, according to research conducted by activist Fraidy Reiss, herself forced into an arranged marriage.
In 2017, two-thirds of U.S. states sanction marriage of children younger than 16.
Half of all states have no statutory minimum age.
As a result, between 2000 and 2015, more than 200,000 minors in the United States – children between 10 and 17 – were legally subjected to serial sexual exploitation and what might otherwise be termed statutory rape, in the form of being permitted, perhaps coerced, to marry.
In other words, society legally places vulnerable youngsters in the hands of sexual miscreants every day, as long as there is a contractual commitment to ongoing exploitation.
Reiss has valiantly attempted to publicize the consequences of this authorized abuse of girls (nearly 90% of married minors are female) as young as 10, 11, 12 and 13, married off to men often in their 20s and 30s, even 40s and older. There is scarcely a need to document the perils, immediate and lasting, to each child – the extent to which her education, economic opportunities, health, and freedom are forfeited; the risk she is repeatedly subjected to violence; the shame, isolation, and enduring threat to self-esteem and sense of self.
So why dredge up this story now?
The stories of these girls, some of whom are now grown women living the aftermath of decades of silent exploitation, sound a lot like those of professed victims of Harvey Weinstein. And of Kevin Spacey. And of Charlie Rose. And of countless other men in positions of relative power.
As a physician, I have heard such stories first-hand from my patients – military women, who, while serving their country, were subjected to abuse and humiliation, often at the hands of a commanding officer.
Imagine these women’s sense of horror quickly shriveling to shame. The erosion of inner strength. The loss of self.
If the current moment of collective outrage leads us to turn a societal corner, to upend women’s reluctance and fear of speaking out; to stifle the sense of profound entitlement of some men to wantonly indulge their most sordid instincts; to overthrow the reluctance of bystanders and confidants to speak up, that would be a brilliant victory. Because the actions of Weinstein & Co. are illegal, what is needed is to permanently wither them through sustained exposure to the light of day.
If the same moment of outrage could also translate into success in ending the sanctioned sexual abuse of the country’s most powerless and vulnerable group — children too young to smoke, drink alcohol, enter into a contract or join the military, too young in many cases even to drive, or, paradoxically, legally consent to sex — well, would that not be a shining silver lining?
To be sure, women and girls in the United States are better off now than for most of the history of this nation. Adapting a motto from the era of accelerating progress in civil rights, We’ve come a long way, baby (courtesy of Virginia Slims, purveyors of a vice in which we have long possessed the right to indulge).
In other good news: the number of girls (and all minors) entering into marriage has fallen between 2000 and 2015, in almost every state.
The bad news: the number is not zero.