Women are getting married much earlier these days. At least some women.
A recent raid on a spin-off Mormon sect in Texas was triggered by a 15-year-old girl notifying authorities that she had had a baby, and was presumably married when she conceived that baby.
Oddly enough, we are more shocked that this young girl might be married, than by the fact that she has a baby.
No surprise. Teen pregnancy is not exactly a new, or hidden, phenomenon; Jamie Lynn Spears, age 16, the latest poster child for unmarried teen pregnancy has been gracing all the tabloid magazines at the grocery store for months.
We also know full well that as soon as girls reach reproductive maturity, signaled by the onset of menstruation which occurs any time between ages 11 and 16, they can have sex and babies.
But still, we are shocked by the teen wife and assume that sex at this age must be abuse.
As a mother, and an anthropologist, I have conflicting feeling about this issue.
If any man or boy so much as touched my young daughter, I would kill him. I know the damage such attention causes, how it scars an underage boy or girl for life. And if she went into such a relationship willingly, I would be stunned, baffled, and wonder what was missing in my parenting to push her into sexual adulthood, or marriage, way before her time.
But as an anthropologist, I also know that the age at which girls are ready for marriage is culturally constructed.
In Western culture, we think that marriage is only appropriate for 20-year-olds, not teens, and that has been true for more than a hundred years. But with the introduction of the birth control pill, the feminist revolution and economic independence for women, the age at first marriage has risen sharply. In 1860, the median age for marriage in America was 22 for women, and now it's 26.
As those numbers show, there simply is no connection between reproductive maturity and the accepted age of marriage for girls in Western culture; the median wait between first period and marriage is eight years. But in other cultures, that connection is much more explicit — the median wait is three years.
More interesting, there is wild variation in what girls are allowed to do during those three years. For example, the Trobriand Islanders of Melanesia encourage girls to engage in premarital sex as a way to find a good match. The Efe of Zaire let girls have several trial marriages (which means, of course, sex with different men or boys), before they settle down. Other cultures marry off their girls at first period, or before, to eliminate the possibility of premarital relations, while some cultures strictly forbid any male contact until marriage and keep their girls under lock and key.
These social rules are based on how each culture thinks about women as the instruments of passing on genes; controlling female sexuality is controlling female reproduction. Underneath it all, worry over the passing on genes, worry that a man might be cuckolded into caring for another man's child, worry about how much females like sex and what they might do with their desires, directs cultural norms.
And maybe that's why marriage at a young age bothers us so much in Western culture.
We appropriately worry that these girls are unprotected, abused, forced into passing on genes with some disgusting guy who doesn't have her best interests in mind. We know the cultural norm — marriage at 26 — and know it's there for a reason. When that age-specific norm is violated, we all stand up and take notice because our girls are in trouble and it's our job, as a culture, to step in and enforce the rules we have all agreed upon, and for culturally constructed good reasons.
Meredith F. Small is an anthropologist at Cornell University. She is also the author of "Our Babies, Ourselves; How Biology and Culture Shape the Way We Parent" (link) and "The Culture of Our Discontent; Beyond the Medical Model of Mental Illness" (link).