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Child marriage and sexual violence in the United States

Victim, Perpetrator, or What Else?

ISBN: 978-1-78973-336-5, eISBN: 978-1-78973-335-8

Publication date: 8 November 2019


Child marriage, or marriage between two individuals when one or both are under the age of 18, is legal and practiced in 48 US states. Despite this, child marriage is commonly understood as only occurring in the Global South. Child marriage laws shed light on the paradoxical policies that most US states enforce regarding young people’s sexual agency. By legalizing sex between adults and minors within the institution of marriage, child marriage provides exception to statutory rape laws, which classify sex between minors and adults as sexual violence. In this chapter, I draw on feminist and queer theories to critically examine the racialized and gendered effects of these contradictory state policies. First, I analyze US age of consent laws’ reliance on an adult/child binary that constructs adults and minors as essentially and radically different. Second, I explore efforts to challenge the adult/child binary, looking at how frameworks for understanding sexual violence that are rooted in an adult/child binary can exacerbate young people’s vulnerability to sexual violence. Third, I discuss feminist efforts to theorize sexual violence outside of binary logics and their implications for research on child marriage. I conclude by discussing areas for future research on child marriage that attend to the racialized and gendered inequalities that undergird the state regulation of youth sexualities.




I would like to thank Jess Goldstein-Kral, Gloria González-López, the volume’s editors, and the anonymous reviewers for their valuable feedback on earlier drafts of this chapter.


O’Quinn, J. (2019), "Child marriage and sexual violence in the United States", Victim, Perpetrator, or What Else? (Sociological Studies of Children and Youth, Vol. 25), Emerald Publishing Limited, Bingley, pp. 191-205.



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