Age 13, Judy Wiegand was married off to the older man who sexually abused her. Age 15, already a mother, amid the indifference of neighbours and the police to her husband’s violent mistreatment of her, Judy finally fled when her husband threatened to hurt her child. In 2018, then 54, Wiegand’s testimony was instrumental in passing a Kentucky bill limiting child marriage.
It’s still common, though. Worldwide, more than 650 million women were married while still children. Nor is the practice normal only away from the “developed” West: most American states still allow marriage under 18, while California, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Washington have no lower age limit for marriage at all.
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According to one campaign, between 2000 and 2018 in the United States, 222,430 under-18s were married, including 9,530 under-16s. Of those married under 18, 88% are girls. The age-gap in these marriages would often qualify the pairing as a sex crime, absent the legal formality.
Is there anything more paradigmatically “patriarchal” than thinking the solution to inappropriate sexual interest in an adolescent girl by a much older man is to marry her off to him, so he can molest her with the full support of the community? And there is often very little upside for the girl. International studies show, for example, that being married off under the age of 18 is associated with low education, poverty, partner violence, social isolation, and physical and mental health issues.
Given this litany of ills, we can hardly be surprised to see feminists calling for an end to the practice. And the smashing of this sort of patriarchy is going well: according to figures from Unchained At Last, the annual number of such marriages in America has fallen steadily over recent decades, from over 76,000 in 2000 to around 2,500 in 2018. (In Britain, marriage under the age of 18 was banned altogether in 2019.)
But what about the bit of “patriarchy” that involves the sexual molestation of young women by older men, sometimes with much more power? The smashing of that is not going nearly so well. Consider Epstein Island, or the accusations against Harvey Weinstein — some by women who were very young when they encountered him. Or, recently, allegations that comedian and social media star Russell Brand sexually assaulted four women between 2008 and 2013. One of them was just 16 at the time.
If the allegations against Brand are true, then they fit into a much larger pattern of sexual interest by older men in sometimes very young girls. Not all men, obviously; but clearly at least some of them have this predilection. It’s a pattern shaped by an ugly convergence of public hypocrisy, power, and sex. And a glimpse at the modern history of efforts to grapple with this convergence reveals a grim conclusion: we are busy trying to address everything except the root of the problem.
For even as feminists rightly began agitating on behalf of young women being married off to older men for the purposes of sexual access, the same women’s movement has also promoted ideals that ended up opening the door for the age-old pattern to re-emerge — just without the marriage bit. Even as second-wave feminists began challenging the presumption of early, lifelong marriage for all women, in favour of access to the full range of possible occupations and roles, the arrival of legal and reliable birth control saw that joined to a much more radical programme for sexual emancipation. These calls converged, after legalisation of the Pill, in texts such as Germaine Greer’s The Female Eunuch (1970): a rallying-cry for women to abandon the “castrated” condition of bourgeois domesticity, in favour of free, passionate, “deliberately promiscuous” self-discovery.
Many staid housewives were thrilled by the call of freedom. But some of the women “liberated” from bourgeois mores by this erotic libertarianism were very, very young: the same adolescent girls, in fact, who might in a previous era or different demographic have been the subject of a forced child marriage to their abuser. The Bafta-nominated 2021 Sky documentary Look Away records how this played out in the music industry, among the “baby groupies” of the Sixties and Seventies: girls who were groomed as young teenagers by some of the music industry’s biggest stars. Sable Starr, for example, was immortalised in Iggy Pop’s 1996 album Naughty Little Doggie, in which he sings about sleeping with Starr when she was just 13. And Aerosmith frontman Stephen Tyler notoriously persuaded the mentally ill mother of Julia Holcomb to sign over Julia’s custody to him in the mid-Seventies, when she was 16 and he was 25.
Still more modern “sex-positive” feminists might say: if the girls were consenting, so what? Some argue, in fact, that focusing on girls’ sexual “innocence” is itself further evidence of patriarchal efforts to control women’s sexuality. Why shouldn’t young girls explore their sexuality? Accordingly, contemporary “sex-positive” messaging aimed at young people vehemently de-emphasises the idea that lack of sexual experience should necessarily have any emotional or moral significance. “Virginity”, we’re told in one such book, “just doesn’t work any more in today’s world”, because there are too many different possible “first times” to fixate on “a person who hasn’t done a specific sexual act, traditionally a cisgender man or woman who hasn’t had penis-in-vagina sex”.
This will doubtless be news to the millions of viewers of Pornhub’s “teen” content, a category that consistently makes the website’s annual top searches for men. On the contrary: for some of these at least, defiling this supposedly non-existent innocence is precisely the point. In his memoir, Stephen Tyler recalls his relationship with “Diana”, clearly a pseudonymous Holcomb, in terms that vividly suggest how he eroticised what he saw as Holcomb’s barely-legal cocktail of innocence and experience: “She was 16, she knew how to nasty, and there wasn’t a hair on it.”
Similarly, “Alice”, the woman who reports having had a sexual relationship with Brand age 16 when he was already in his thirties, says of the moment she told him she was a virgin: “He was like, ‘Oh my God, my baby, my baby’, and picked me up and cradled me in his arms like a child and was stroking my hair. He’s like, ‘You’re like my little dolly.’” After that, she says, Brand was “preoccupied” with her innocence and purity.
If this happened as Alice remembers, it suggests a similar cocktail of protectiveness and objectification to the one that emerges from Holcomb’s account. As Tyler’s ward, she was dependent on him; during the three years she spent as his “girlfriend”, Tyler impregnated her, then later pressured her into an abortion at five months’ gestation. Holcomb, now a mother of seven, only broke her silence when Tyler published his memoir (including the porn-adjacent description of her as “Diana”) in 2011. In a hard-hitting essay telling her version of the story, she alleges that as she wept her way through a “nightmare” late-term abortion, Tyler snorted cocaine off the bedside table every time the nurse left the room.
Since the alleged Brand incidents took place, we’ve had #MeToo, Epstein, and Weinstein; scandals that have, in their wake, brought greater emphasis on consent and attention to the risks posed in sexual encounters by power asymmetries, of the kind that Holcomb experienced. It is perhaps a testament to how the public conversation has changed that last December, some three decades after the fact, she launched a lawsuit against Tyler.
In Look Away, many music industry operatives acknowledged their complicity: carefully not seeing, hiding perpetrators, covering stories up. Whatever the truth of Brand’s behaviour, The Sunday Times report tells the same story. As with Epstein and Weinstein and many other such cases, it points to a grim inference: power and social status almost always counts for more than sex crimes, or young women’s suffering.
We should welcome such a shift in public willingness to ask difficult questions of sexually voracious high-status men. But we shouldn’t imagine a new focus on power has done anything to expunge the pattern itself, any more than ending child marriage did. Rather, the focus on power seems to have come with a corresponding reluctance to focus on those perceived as powerless.
Accordingly, we find the pattern is still there, and still being given the benefit of the doubt — but this time among men perceived as “marginalised”. Whether due to race (as in the grooming gangs) or gender identity (as in sometimes flagrantly predatory behaviour, by men who claim to identify as women) actions that might prompt a witch-hunt against an out-of-favour celebrity are routinely met with stonewalling, silence, or excuse-making. And meanwhile nothing, to date, has stopped predators from predating. So how do we keep girls safe?
We’ve tried focusing on public hypocrisy, by campaigning to end efforts to make such abuse “respectable” via child marriage. This succeeded in clamping down on abusive marriages — only for the same dynamic to reappear in the “baby groupies”, and every other group of girls and young women whose exploitation has been whitewashed by narratives of “empowerment” or “liberation”. Then, with #MeToo, we tried focusing on the power aspect. That shone a salutary (if arguably selective and politicised) spotlight on the misdeeds of at least some powerful men — even as the powerless go on slipping through the net.
So perhaps it’s time to focus on the third and final dimension: sex. When men abuse very young girls, it may be about many things. It may be legitimised or concealed in many ways, and for many reasons. But it is, in part, simply a sex thing. That is: those men who molest very young girls do it because they can, and because they like it.
If this is so, it has immense implications for keeping girls safe. Effective measures would probably involve a realism about our sexed differences that would translate in practice to (for example) a presumption of suspicion toward adult men that would likely curb the operations of a serial womaniser but would also have far-reaching effects on our currently largely co-ed society. And this is before we get to the implications such realism would have for differential treatment of (and freedom accorded to) adolescent boys and girls.
And, thus, perhaps all of us — even feminists — have arrived at a tacit consensus is that it’s not worth it. That it’s better to blame power, or patriarchy, or whatever. That the overall liberal benefits of staying in denial about this distinctive form of male desire so far outweigh the risk it poses to a minority of young girls that we, too, look away as we sacrifice them in the name of everyone else’s freedom and pleasure.