A 14-year-old child can have sex with a 40-year-old, legally, in New York.
It’s an arcane and baffling conundrum, in our opinion, as legislators. On the one hand, under statutory rape laws, a minor cannot consent to sex with an adult. On the other hand, under domestic relations laws, the same minor can be married off to that adult, where the age difference would otherwise be statutory rape.
Currently, 14- and 15-year-olds can marry with judicial approval, and 16- and 17-year-olds can marry with parental permission. Unlike statutory rape laws, where the ability to consent is a bright-line rule set at 17 years old, the laws relating to underage marriage allow consent to be proxied and contingent upon the permission of someone else.
Consent is a bright-line concept, either one can give their consent or one cannot — why are we allowing another person to make a decision that has lifetime consequences?
The anachronism of our marriage laws is highlighted when you look at other examples of practices where there is a minimum age to participate. For example, one can’t purchase alcohol or cigarettes while under 21, no exceptions. Likewise, one can’t get a tattoo under 18, even if a parent agrees.
These are all examples of activities that have serious, potentially permanent, consequences. And the law recognizes a certain level of maturity is requisite to make decisions for oneself on these issues.
We could expound upon the different rationales behind banning the marriage of minors. For example:
• Modern adolescent brain development and decision-making ability research.
• Societal pressures and stigma are not as strong against unwed teenage pregnancies as it once was.
• Religious reasons must be balanced against the general welfare of society as a whole.
But that’s not necessary. The reason is simple: common sense. A 14-year-old is not ready for marriage.
If the incongruity with statutory rape laws wasn’t convincing enough, then consider this: A minor can marry, but there is no provision for them to divorce. Therefore, that child is trapped with no escape, until reaching the age of legal adulthood, or 18.
We are pleased that the state senate passed legislation this week, and appreciate Gov. Cuomo’s recent support of the legislation to create a bright-line rule of consent at 17 (matching the statutory rape age threshold), in addition to allowing judicial permission to marry between the ages of 17 and 18, provided certain guidelines can be met.
The city council has taken up this issue of import, in kind. Much of the response we have received from members of the public is shock and surprise that the current legal landscape allows marriage at 14. As more and more people become aware of this issue, New Yorkers recognize that the law needs to be brought into the 21st century.
We must change the law this year.
Andrew Cohen represents the 11th district on the city council, including Bedford Park, Kingsbridge, Riverdale, Norwood, Van Cortlandt Village, Wakefield and Woodlawn. Amy Paulin represents the 88th Assembly district in Westchester County.