Child Marriage: What Real Grooming Looks Like

In Canada and the United States, this still happens. CW: Child abuse and sexual assault.

Child Marriage: What Real Grooming Looks Like
Photo by Niranjan _ Photographs on Unsplash

Accusations of grooming and child abuse are all over the news these days.

People are up in arms about the need to protect children from exploitation and indoctrination, and to keep them safe from being harmed by adults. It's a decent enough cause to fight for, and it’s good to see- when it’s aimed in the right direction.

These days though, the pointed fingers tend to be aimed in the wrong direction. We're familiar with the QAnon conspiracy theories and the Pizzagate incident, unhinged accusations of child trafficking rings for Hollywood celebrities and Democratic politicians.

The claims are wild and ridiculous, and more often than not they center the LGBTQ+ community in some way. Calling us groomers, pedophiles, and abusers with no evidence to back up the accusations.

While the far-right media points an accusing finger towards the LGBTQ+ community, in spite of what the experts say, I thought it would be a good idea to talk about a very real, very serious issue here in North America.

I care a lot about child abuse. I, also, want to protect kids. I think we can all agree on that.

In light of that, let’s talk about a real and commonplace form of child abuse that’s taking place around the world. It happens in the United States, it happens here in Canada, it happens everywhere.

Let’s talk about child marriage.

Child Marriage and Child Abuse

Child marriage is defined as: a marriage or similar union, whether legal or informal, between a child under the age of 18 and an adult or other child.

It’s important to note that around the world, the most common form of child marriage takes place between a female child and an adult male.

In discussing child marriage within the United States, I would be remiss if I failed to draw attention to a fantastic non-profit that’s working to end the practice: Unchained at Last.

As a result of their advocacy, legislation making child marriage legal and recognized is being overturned, and new laws are being written to provide greater protection for children in situations of abuse.

Forcing children into marriage with adults is one of the most obvious forms of child abuse there is, and yet in the discussion of child grooming and sexual predators, national media almost never raises it as an issue.

The only States in the U.S. that don’t currently allow child marriage ‘in exceptional circumstances’ are New York, Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Minnesota, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Vermont, Connecticut and Michigan.

Vermont, Connecticut and Michigan only joined the party this year, in 2023. Massachusetts banned child marriage with no exception in 2022. Not one of these states banned child marriage before 2018.

I’ll remind you that there are 50 States in the United States of America. 40 of them allow for child marriage for various reasons, some of which include:

  • Consent of a court clerk or judge
  • Consent of parents or the legal guardians of the minor
  • If one of the parties is pregnant
  • If the minor has given birth to a child
  • If the minor is emancipated

Let me be clear. If a minor is pregnant, or if they have given birth, sexual assault has occurred. A child has been raped. Children cannot consent to sexual activity. The minimum age of sexual consent in the United States is 16…

…Unless marital exceptions are in place. In those cases, it is not always legally considered to be rape under the law. However, the psychological damage of such abuse remains clear. Personally, I don't think the presence of a few words on a piece of paper and a ring makes any difference in the question of consent, but maybe I'm just too 'woke'.

Several of the above 43 States do not even have a minimum age listed for how old a child needs to be before they can be granted permission to be married. These include California, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Washington.

In this respect, Canada is not much better. According to the Department of Justice, there remain “close in age” exceptions allowing for sexual activity between children as young as 12 or 13, provided the other participant is within a certain age range relative to the child. In the case of 12 and 13-year-olds, the range is less than two years.

At 14 or 15, however, the ‘close in age’ exception goes up to 5 years.

It’s also important to note that the definition of sexual activity under this law covers all sexual activity. While it does state that all activity that lacks consent is considered assault, lack of consent can be difficult to prove if the child has been groomed to be silent and not report it.

This is why age of consent and statutory rape are such important standards of law. There should not be loopholes to dodge consequences for violating them.

Even among adults, sexual assault is chronically underreported for reasons ranging from shame and trauma, law enforcement failing to take claims seriously, and the fear of being raked over the coals and having their stories discredited by unscrupulous lawyers in court.

Nobody wants their trauma to be ridiculed and paraded in front of an audience.

Canada prides itself on the strides we have made towards ending child marriage across the world, but we aren’t able to claim that we’ve ended the practice within our own borders. While full legal marriages remain rare, common-law spousal relationships are still sometimes recognized for minors as young as 16.

Ending Child Marriage Around the World

Child abuse is child abuse, regardless of where it’s happening.

When I put out these letters, I try to include a handful of ways for people to get involved and take a stand against injustice. This is one of those topics that already has a strong foundation of activism in place.

I’ve already pointed readers towards Unchained at Last, and the phenomenal work they’re doing to end child marriage in the United States. Let’s list some other organizations stepping up to the plate in this battle as well!

These are just a handful of awesome charities and organizations that work to advance the rights and protections of children around the globe. From ending child marriage, to fighting poverty and increasing access to healthcare and education, these charities are fighting the good fight.

If you know any more, please list them in the comments!

If you want to get involved, this is a good place to start. And as ever, if you have a platform, use it. Spread the word, write your representatives, and beat that drum.

We fight by raising our voices together.