Questioning the culpability of laws in the exploitation of children

She got married at age 13 and was allowed to by law. Her parents had to provide written permission but with that, she was allowed to get married to a 19-year-old.

At 17, she was having sex, for the first time in her life, with a man three times her age after he stalked her on social media. Why wasn’t he arrested? Because according to the law, the age of consent is 16.

Horrified? I was. We might make assumptions about where in the world these situations could occur. The answers are the United States and New Hampshire. This surprised me because I was one of those people who assumed these scenarios occurred in different countries or certainly significantly more rural areas of America.

Stereotypes aside for another article, think about the girls you know at these ages. Are any of them ready to handle the emotional, physical, mental and sexual components of marriage as a teenager? Are any of them ready to mange the psychological and physical impact of a sexual relationship with an adult as a teenager? In my experience working in mental health setting and schools for over thirty years, the clear answer is no.

But the bigger question is why are there laws which support the adults in these examples rather than the children?

Simply based on science, there is no reason these laws should be in existence. Indulge me with a brief biology lesson. The frontal lobe is the part of the brain behind the forehead. It plays a major role in our executive functioning skills. These skills include management of risk taking behaviors, cause and effect thinking, emotional regulation, planning, problem solving, impulse control and social interaction.

The irony of biological development is that the growth of the frontal lobe slows down during adolescence and is the last area of the brain to fully develop, typically around age 25. This has significant implications on how teenagers function and why so many engage in behaviors which don’t always support their physical, mental, emotional or social health, or which don’t offer benefits to their long-term future plans. Yet these laws are allowing these children and adolescents, with not-completely-developed executive functioning skills, to make decisions which have serious ramifications on their overall development. There are clear laws to protect individuals with documented brain damage or impairment — Alzheimer’s or other forms of dementia, TBIs, intellectual deficiencies — but these children can enter into relationships with adults even though their frontal lobes are not yet intact.

Overall, these laws continue to reduce children and females to roles as expendable property, individuals to be used in any way seen fit by male adults. When we question why more progress hasn’t been made in terms of children’s right and women’s rights, the first place to look is at some of the laws on, or trying to be added to, the books. In some states, the basic foundation of the government is holding children and females in a place to be used without regard for their safety.

Look at the young girls in your life. Can you imagine them in either of the scenarios discussed earlier? Do you want them to have the potential to be exploited in those ways? Maybe as a society we need to have these conversations to continue to promote social justice for children and women, rather than continuing, or returning to, outdated practices.

A cognitive-behavioral coach with a Ph.D. in clinical psychology, Dr. Robin Buckley helps executive women and couples thrive in their careers and relationships.