Yesterday, a fifth woman came forward to accuse “Judge” Roy Moore, the Republican candidate for US Senate from Alabama, of sexual assault when she was a teenager. This follows a disastrous interview with right-wing gadfly Sean Hannity where Moore said he “generally” didn’t date teen girls but if he did, it was always with their mothers’ permission. Reasonable Americans of all political stripes have been clutching their pearls, but I, for one, am surprised anyone is surprised young girls could be victimised like this.
Roy Moore is a deeply unpleasant person, and we all knew it before these allegations came to light. He is a Christian fundamentalist who, as Alabama’s Chief Justice, twice defied the Supreme Court (once by refusing to remove the Ten Commandments from his court, the other by refusing to recognise gay marriage). He believes homosexuality should be criminalised. He thinks 9/11 was God’s punishment for American sodomy.
As a Christian, the last thing I’d try to do is tar us all with the same brush. The fact is, though, that there’s a massive problem in American Christian fundamentalism we need to address. We saw it at Waco, where David Koresh took child brides. We saw it again with Warren Jeffs, a polygamous cult leader who took 80 wives, some as young as 12.
Child marriages happen throughout the world and in a number of different faiths, but young girls dating and marrying adult men seems to be particularly an issue in rural America where fundamentalist Christianity reigns supreme. A 2016 Pew Research survey found that child marriage is most prevalent in the American south.
In the hills of Eastern Kentucky, where I’m from, it was certainly not unusual to see teen girls dating men 10 years older than them. Offhand, I can name two or three couples I know where a girl in high school dated a much older man with their parents’ knowledge and the town’s tolerance, if not approval. Because nobody else batted an eyelid, neither did I as a teenager. It’s just what happened.
But it is a problem, and one we don’t acknowledge. A BBC report earlier this year profiled two victims of child marriage in the US, highlighting the startling fact that over the past 15 years more than 200,000 children have wed throughout America. The vast majority of the marriages were girls, and the vast majority of them married adult men. It’s a statistic that, based on what’s alleged, would probably make Roy Moore squeal with delight.
Obviously there’s a difference between consenting teens marrying one another (though that itself is not ideal) and a grown man forcing himself on young girls, using his power and authority to intimidate them into silence – which is what Roy Moore is alleged to have done. But the high rate of child marriage throughout the American heartland is indicative of a misogynistic and objectifying view of women in those places.
The allegations against Roy Moore aren’t surprising. Fundamentalist Christianity, like fundamentalist Islam, preaches that women and girls are subservient to men. It is a deeply patriarchal system in which girls are seen not as human beings, but as property to be bartered. It’s no wonder Roy Moore would say he had the girls’ mothers’ permission, as though that made it better. To him (and to many people throughout the US), it does.
Child marriage is legalised molestation, and the only thing that makes what Roy Moore is alleged to have done illegal is a piece of paper. Many of America’s child brides are too young to even consent to sex, yet their parents can sign for them to be married. If a parent consented to allowing their child to be molested in any other circumstance, they would be prosecuted.
This is a cultural problem the US has to reckon with. Just as #MeToo showed that sexual harassment and assault among adult women is far more prevalent than many dared think, we must accept there’s a cultural view of tween and teen girls that makes them vulnerable not just to abusers but to their parents, as well as the social and religious norms that have persecuted girls for generations.