|Jasmine and her father. (From "Aladdin.") Image source.|
We’ve discussed child marriage in this space before, usually in the context of the Christian homeschooling movement. When looking at legislation like Virginia’s, it’s perhaps worth remembering that there are some religious leaders and groups explicitly promoting early marriage as a way to guard against sexual immorality. [emphasis mine] While most of these marriages likely involve children who are 16 or 17, and not 13, 14, or 15, any marriages that involve children younger than 18 curtail young people’s ability to make their own decisions separate from their parents. These marriages can lock young people in to a specific life trajectory before they are old enough to legally leave home without parental permission.Look at that term there, "sexual immorality." In this context, we are supposed to understand that it means "unmarried sex." (The writer of the blog post, Libby Anne, doesn't believe there's anything intrinsically immoral about having sex outside of marriage- and neither do I- she is just using the language that purity-culture Christians use.)
But seriously, think about this. Promoters of purity culture describe any and all sex outside of marriage as "sexual immorality." Do they believe that pressuring children into marriage is "sexual immorality"? Why, no, they don't.
To be clear, in reality most purity-culture advocates do NOT believe it's generally good for teenagers to get married- that's too young. But if you look at the logic of purity culture, it's hard to really make an argument against teenagers (who legally count as children before the age of 18) getting married. In purity land, THE most important thing is don't have sex if you're not married. This is the foundational doctrine of purity culture, the rationale behind everything else. Yes, people who live in reality have an intuitive sense that it's not really a good idea to enter into a legal arrangement which will affect you for the rest of your life if you're too young/inexperienced to really understand and make that decision. So you get a lot of people who, though they believe in purity culture, would say teenagers shouldn't get married. But there's nothing in purity culture to support that view.
And because purity culture believes that inexperience is the best way to guarantee a healthy and happy marriage (that's what "purity" means- being inexperienced in terms of sex and romantic relationships), the best case scenario is you marry the first person you ever have a crush on. Really.
Back when I was in purity culture, I remember every now and then there would be articles in Christian magazines about "hey, why DON'T we push kids to get married young?" And the biggest reason they gave was, of course, so they don't have sex outside of marriage. I would say that, though most people in purity culture don't agree with this, it's seen as an understandable position to hold.
In other words, pressuring children to make decisions about marriage is NOT seen as an example of "sexual immorality." And that should make you question the entire concept of "sexual immorality."
Look at that sentence again: "promoting early marriage as a way to guard against sexual immorality." How on earth does that make any sense? Why would it be "sexual immorality" for two teenagers to have consensual sex, but not "sexual immorality" for adults to teach teenagers that they need to make decisions about marriage before they can have sex?
Or, how is it not "sexual immorality" when promoters of purity culture tell children disgusting lies like "your virginity is the most precious gift you can give your husband" or "every time you have a crush, you lose part of your heart that you can never get back"? How is it not "sexual immorality" to teach kids that having sex outside of marriage is a horrible sin that will haunt you for the rest of your life, while not teaching them anything about the consequences of rushing into marriage with a partner who's not good for you? Why, in purity land, does "sexual immorality" mean "unmarried sex" rather than "doing something immoral, that relates to sex"?
And that's how they read the bible too. Ask them "does the bible say that premarital sex is a sin?" and they will pull out SO MANY bible verses that include the phrase "sexual immorality", expecting everyone to just accept that, by using that term, these verses are prohibiting all sex outside of one-man-one-woman marriage.
What a strange way to read the bible.
Let me show you another post from Libby Anne's blog, which answers these questions. A Tale of Two Boxes was written in 2012, and you must read it if you want to understand why conservative Christians and feminists have such a hard time communicating with each other about sexual ethics. Basically, the idea is that conservative Christians (which I also call purity-culture Christians) categorize sexual acts as sinful or not based on their understanding of what God allows and forbids, according to the bible. (Or rather, according to an interpretation of the bible very much influenced by patriarchy and treating women like objects, but we won't go into that right now.) They believe God told us which things are sinful and which are not, and God knows best- we don't necessarily need to know the reasons why, we just have to obey God. (Yes, you can make arguments about why God would allow or forbid something, about how those commands can benefit us, but that was never the point. Even if we don't see any good reason for following those commands, we still have to do it, because God said.)
In other words, premarital sex is in the "sinful" box, so that's why it's "sexual immorality." (Does the bible say it's a sin? Why of course, look at all these verses about "sexual immorality", they OBVIOUSLY meant premarital sex. Yeah, this is called a circular argument, folks.) How about teaching kids it would be a good idea to get married while they're super young and inexperienced? Well, let's check. Nope, it's not in the "sinful" box, and actually, it would prevent kids from having sex outside of marriage. (They're still having the same amount of sex, but if they have the correct legal paper, suddenly it's not sinful.) Therefore, pressuring kids into early marriage is totally not "sexual immorality."
The point is, if you ever hear someone use the term "sexual immorality" to mean "people having consensual sex in ways that my version of God doesn't approve of", don't take seriously anything they have to say about sex or immorality. Because that is a very bizarre definition.