A new law that took effect on July 3, 2016, in Virginia made it illegal for a 13-year-old girl to get married.
It applied to 13-year-old boys as well, but the reasons the law was needed was mainly because of the exploitation of girls.
According to a Washington Post report, from 2004 to 2013 more than 4,000 adolescents under 18 were married in Virginia, 90 percent of them girls, many of whom were married to men at least 21 years old, and sometimes decades older.
This isn’t a case of May-December couples in love with one another; this is about child abuse, statutory rape, forced marriages and sex-trafficking.
The men who do such things were able to avoid prosecution by marrying their victims, usually getting parental permission by bribes or blackmail – or avoiding it altogether by impregnating the girls.
The sex trafficking of young girls is not something that we like to talk about, but it is something that has been increasing in the public consciousness over the past number of years.
It’s not a new problem, however, and neither is using marriage to legitimate the exploitation of girls and women in general.
One might wonder why it was ever legal for a 13-year-old to marry in Virginia. To understand why, you have to understand the history of marriage, not only in our country, but going back to biblical days.
As reflected in the Bible, marriage was for the rights and benefits of men. Few rights were bestowed on women, and whatever benefits the woman received by being under the protection of a man’s household was just in contrast to what would happen were she not under that protection.
A widow or otherwise unprotected woman was often forced into sexual slavery, usually as a prostitute in a fertility cult, where she would be forced to service numerous men daily – in other words, raped, all in the name of a god. Few survived long in the face of such abuse.
Just about any life would be better than that, including a life in which you were considered property and valued mainly for your ability to produce male heirs and to raise whatever other children you gave birth to.
Wives had to submit to their husbands’ sexual desires at any time, with virtually no say in the matter.
They had no recourse if they were physically abused, neglected or the victims of repeated infidelity. In fact, infidelity was common and not secret; it was a sign of a man’s wealth and power to have concubines along with wives.
What was a woman to do? Divorce was a recourse only a man could exercise, and for virtually any reason.
All he had to do was get the village leaders, who were all men, to agree that there was just cause.
The Bible reflects but does not condone these practices. It, in fact, shows some early movement away from them.
Laws prohibiting sexual contact with a woman during and immediately following her menstrual period, for instance, can be seen as protection against a man’s continual demand for sexual satisfaction.
The Old Testament’s condemnation of idolatry should be seen not only as a demand to love only the Lord but also as the condemnation of the exploitation of women, boys and girls that took place in fertility cults.
In the New Testament, we repeatedly see Jesus elevating women to a status that society at large did not grant them.
In the Sermon on the Mount, he explicitly condemned the use of the divorce laws to allow a man to get around the adultery laws (see Matthew 5:27-32).
The early church placed women as leaders in their movement, naming them as deacons, apostles and prophets.
When Paul commanded Christian husbands and wives to submit to one another and for husbands to love their wives and give themselves up for them as Christ did for the church, he was undermining patriarchal marriage in a way that liberated women and kept men from the sin of injustice and abuse.
The New Testament doesn’t go all the way in completely undermining a patriarchal society, but it points the way.
Unfortunately, much of Christianity did not go much further than New Testament times and for a long time women were considered as lesser or at least weaker versions of men, in constant need to be under the leadership – or control – of a strong male figure.
By regarding females as weaker and in need of protection, doors were opened for their exploitation.
Southern slaveholders justified their exploitation of African slaves by asserting that they were an inferior race that needed the “protection” of the master.
Civil rights laws that actually do protect minorities are based on their equality, not their inferiority.
Similarly, real protection for women and girls comes when we stand up for their full personhood. The men involved in sex trafficking regard girls as mere commodities.
Laws such as the recent Virginia law protecting young girls is in keeping with the biblical trajectory of seeing women, instead of as property to be used for profit, but as children of God deserving of protection, nurture and freedom.
Larry Eubanks is the pastor of First Baptist Church of Frederick, Maryland. A version of this article first appeared on his website and is used with permission. You can follow him on Twitter @EubanksLarry.