If child marriage is child abuse…

Within the last year, charities have been arguing for an end to marriage at 16. Under UK law, it has been possible to marry at 16 or 17 with the consent of parents. Sajid Javid has also thrown his weight behind the desire to change the age of consent. Back in 2021, he was unequivocal on the issue:

There you have it. Child marriage is child abuse. He said here, ‘we don’t let them even get tattoos until their 18’, going on to say children should not get married. So, a month or so ago, we passed a law protecting children from getting married.

For what it is worth, I absolutely agree with the new law. It makes perfect sense to me that children should not get married. Not only are cases of forced marriage much higher amongst those who are 16 and 17, but the very essence and reality of marriage is not something for children. I quite agree with Sajid Javid that we don’t even let children get tattoos until they’re 18, what on earth are we doing permitting them to get married?

Which begs the question why we have raised the minimum age for marriage consent but not that of sexual consent? If we won’t let children get married until they’re 18, and we won’t even let them get tattoos until they’re 18, I’m unclear on the rationale for letting them have sex before they’re 18? We are, in fact, sending the implicit message that you can have sex at 16 but not in any way that might be within the confines of a stable marital relationship. Which, if marriage at 16 is abusive, makes this seem even harder to square.

We are in the incredible position that one isn’t allowed to leave school, cannot get a tattoo, is unable to buy alcohol and cannot register to vote, but is allowed – despite being deemed not to have the capacity for all these other things at such a tender age – to consent to sex. If it is abuse to marry a child at 16, it is hard not to conceive how having sex with such a one isn’t similarly abusive.

If child marriage is child abuse isn’t child sex even more obviously child abuse? If marriage at 16 or 17 is child abuse, isn’t sex at 16 or 17 similarly child abuse? If marriage consent (rightly) gets raised to 18, oughtn’t we to do the same for sex consent? After all, if only adults are properly capable of consenting to marriage, shouldn’t it be only adults consenting to sex?