On Underage Marriage and Sexual Ethics

Preface: Earlier this week I posted a rant to my private Facebook page about a retreat in Kansas for Christian parents to arrange marriages for their underage children. This retreat was being hosted by Let Them Marry, an organization that promotes teen marriages and describes “youths” (people under 20) as being ready for marriage when they’ve developed “all forms of full secondary sexual characteristics”. I encourage you to click the links in this paragraph and evaluate Let Them Marry’s beliefs in their own words for yourself.

The next day, I found out the conference had been canceled because the Wichita branch of the Salvation Army withdrew the use of their facility. What follows is a slightly edited version of a note I posted to my private Facebook page about why I think this is a good thing even though I’m against laws that allow discrimination against same-sex marriage.

Ah don’t understand ze patriarchy…

The Salvation Army has denied a request by the Let Them Marry organization to conduct its event at Camp Hiawatha. Our decision is based upon our long-standing concern for the welfare of children. At The Salvation Army, we work every single day to provide a safe, caring place for children, many of whom have been left vulnerable due to the actions of adults. We remain steadfastly focused on our mission of advocating for and protecting children. (source)

I was going to share this post by the Salvation Army branch in Wichita, KS as a positive update to the child marriage post I shared yesterday. Then I got to thinking about the question I knew some people would inevitably have, whether they’d ask it or not – “Why are you okay with this when you aren’t okay with businesses refusing to support same-sex marriage if that goes against their beliefs?”

My answer is long and nuanced and possibly wanted by no one, but hey, what else is social media for? So here goes.

First of all, the biggest reason I’ve opposed “religious freedom” laws that give the right to discriminate is because they aren’t just about weddings. These laws are written broadly enough that people could use them to deny any service to a person they perceive as LGBT. Under these laws, you could refuse to let someone get groceries at your store, or receive emergency care in your hospital, or be rescued from the side of the road in your tow truck, all based on whether you perceive them as lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender. I would see it as an injustice if people were denying services like this to someone who was married as a minor, too. Or to someone who is married to a minor, for that matter, because discriminating against them harms their spouse.

But the real issue to me is the reason I am morally opposed to child marriage but not morally opposed to same-sex marriage, a reason that seems lost on much of conservative Christianity today. In a word, the reason is CONSENT.

Before I elaborate, I want to get a couple of things out of the way:

1. I am a Christian. I don’t think this makes my opinion more valid than that of someone who isn’t a Christian, but I want to establish that since so many people seem to think being a Christian and being in favor of LGBT equality are mutually exclusive.

2. There is nothing in the Bible that specifically says an adult can’t marry a child. There is nothing in the Bible that specifically says a person can’t marry a person of their own gender. If you are a Christian who believes underage marriage OR same-sex marriage is forbidden, your sexual ethic goes beyond the letter of the law.

So, let’s get into this term “sexual ethic.”

My sexual ethic is one based on consent. Consent doesn’t mean doing whatever you feel like doing, whenever you feel like doing it. It means everyone is honest with each other about what they want and what they don’t. It means everyone communicates. It means no one is pressured or coerced into a begrudging “yes” when their “no” won’t be well-received. It means that, if sex is going to happen, whether it’s in the context of a life-long commitment or a one-night stand, ALL pertinent parties are enthusiastically okay with it. If two people consent to an affair but their spouses don’t, that’s not consensual. If three people say “yes” to a relationship and one of them is just going along with it because they’re afraid of losing one of the other two, that’s not consensual. If one person is under the influence of a mind-altering substance and the other person is sober enough to manipulate them and knows they wouldn’t say “yes” if they were sober too, that’s not consensual. If one person sincerely desires to save sex for marriage and someone pushes them to have sex anyway to prove they aren’t a fundamentalist, that’s not consensual. If someone’s spouse doesn’t feel like having sex with them and they keep badgering until their spouse gives it up, that’s not consensual.

If a child (which I’m defining as a person under 18, same as the United Nations and the World Health Organization) has been raised to believe they will displease the God they love if they disobey their parents and refuse to enter a marriage they’re convinced is God’s will, that is not consensual.

If a child knows they will lose their family’s and their community’s support if they don’t agree to a marriage they’re convinced is God’s will, that is not consensual.

If a child is actively seeking marriage to an adult, the adult has a responsibility to understand that a sexual relationship with a child cannot be consensual and to not enter such a relationship.

I support same-sex marriages under the same condition that I support opposite-sex marriages. CONSENT. True consent. Enthusiastic consent. I know the legal issues around wedding vendors and discrimination are complex, and I don’t have enough of a lawyer’s or politician’s mind to even begin addressing them. I could give you all the Bible verses to show you that a consent-based ethic is consistent with Christianity, but the people at Let Them Marry use Bible verses, too. Either or both of us could be accused of “twisting Scripture” or “taking Scripture out of context” depending on who you already agree with.

Anyway, my sincerely-held belief is that American society, especially conservative Christian society, needs to do some serious evaluating of its sexual ethic and start learning, teaching, and living consent.

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