October 4th, 2007

#607: So what?

This article is about a couple in Alabama who recently celebrated their 80th wedding anniversary. That's awesome.

I got it from Major Geeks. Their link included the comment, "Be sure to do the math. Ahh, Alabama."

Why did they include this little dig? Because the groom was 17 and the bride was 14 when they were married, in 1927.

Translation: "Haw haw haw, lookit that! Typical rednecks! That guy's a pedophile, marrying a girl when she's only 14!"

...except, guess what? The modern age of consent of 18 is not a natural law like gravitation or the speed of light; it's just how our culture has evolved. We now consider a person under the age of 18 to be a "minor"; but it was not always so. It used to be 16 in most places, and 14 in plenty of others, because people didn't usually live all that damned long.

Before antibiotics, before sulfa, a minor cold could turn into pneumonia and kill you. Heart attacks were usually fatal because no one had invented any of the drugs or medical procedures which can save a person's life during a heart attack. There were no vaccines; if you got polio, you stood a chance of dying from it, or being confined to a wheelchair for the rest of your life. A host of other "childhood ailments" could likewise screw you up or kill you.

Our laws still carry relics of times when the age of consent was under 18. When can you get your driver's license? At age 16, which used to be the age of consent in many states. The "statutory rape" law of most states includes a provision stating that if the victim is over 16, she can choose not to prosecute and the law then does not apply. (In other words, if an adult man has sex with a 16-year-old girl, and she tells the cops it was consensual and she's not going to press charges, there's no case.) And you can get a job and not be considered a "child laborer" at age 16.

Many states set age of consent at 14. In Iowa, for example, it was 14 for years, and as far as I know it is still 14 in one state, though I can't remember which one. (Not Alabama.)

When Elvis married, his wife was 14.

So, now the age of consent is generally set at 18, which is fine; it's what our society has decided on and it works well. But it's a relatively recent change; back when this couple got married, I'd wager it wasn't even remarkable for a 14-year-old to get married.

I'm amazed that we haven't had a bunch of feminists decrying the idea of a girl's "sweet 16" birthday--that's a reference to her being "of age", after all. (Eve Ensler seems to think it's okay for a 14-year-old girl to be date raped, as long as it's by a lesbian, though, so maybe I'm not looking at this correctly.)

Overall I think an age of consent of 18 years old is just fine. It's when we let people own property and volunteer for military service, so it all kind of fits together rather well. But I don't confuse my prejudices with natural law, nor do I think it was always like this; I know better.