If the thought of child marriage conjures clichés of religious extremists in far-away lands, think again. Girls from every race, religion, and social class are being married off to adult men—right here in America.
“I never wanted to get married but I don’t think I had a choice, he was going to get charged with statutory rape,” former child bride Brittany Koerselman tells me from her home in Pocahontas, IA. Now 23, she was 15 when she married her 21-year-old boyfriend in 2014. Seven months pregnant when the police arrived at her family’s door, Koerselman says, “The cops showed up on a Wednesday, that night my mom told me I was getting married, and by Friday, I was.”
The couple fled to Missouri, a state where, at the time, the only requirement for a 15-year-old to marry an adult was one parental signature. The heavily pregnant teenager stuffed herself into a borrowed, chalk-colored prom dress in lieu of a wedding gown, and made the six-hour drive from her hometown of Little Rock, Iowa, to Missouri, where she had cold feet, metaphorically and literally. Koerselman and her boyfriend exchanged vows outdoors in the middle of winter. Instead of an aisle, she walked barefoot down a snowy sidewalk, and before she knew it, the whole thing was over. “We got our marriage license and were married on the same day,” she says. “Three hours and I was married. Bing, bang, boom, it was done.”
“I can say with 100-percent certainty that a forced marriage means rape, not just on the wedding night. It’s a lifetime of rape.”ADVERTISEMENT
But being a wife, a mother, and a high school sophomore would prove to be too much for the teenager. “I went to school on a Thursday single, and I came back the next Monday married,” Koerselman says. Overwhelmed, she would drop out to care for their child. By 18, she was divorced, but the pair briefly reconciled long enough for her to have a second child. Then six weeks after giving birth again, Koerselman was diagnosed with cancer. She’s been through a lot. Looking back, she makes it clear that while she feels her relationship with her ex-husband was consensual, she’s equally clear that she didn’t have much of a choice when it came to marrying him.
Child marriage is a human rights abuse that disproportionately impacts girls, putting them in situations where they don’t have the same legal rights as their adult spouses. Some children are even forced to marry the pedophiles who abused them in an attempt to prevent those adults from being criminally charged. But once they say, “I do,” underage brides who want to flee are trapped in marriages they can legally enter, but can’t legally leave until adulthood.
“As a forced marriage survivor,” 45-year-old child-bride activist Fraidy Reiss tells me, “I can say with 100-percent certainty that a forced marriage means rape, not just on the wedding night. It’s a lifetime of rape.”
Raised in an ultra-orthodox Jewish community in Brooklyn, NY, Reiss had to undergo a medical exam at age 19 to confirm her hymen was intact and then was forced by her family to marry a stranger who relocated her to New Jersey. He was abusive and would smash dishes, punch walls, and repeatedly threaten to kill her. It took years to escape, and when she finally did, her family declared her dead.
While Reiss was technically an adult when she wed, she maintains that the circumstances of her upbringing erased her ability to consent and made her as vulnerable as a child when she was given away like property. Which is why she relates so strongly to the plight of all young women who find themselves groomed, coerced, or otherwise forced into marriages they are in no way ready for—right here in America.
According to research done by Reiss’ social justice organization Unchained At Last, nearly 300,000 children were legally married in the U.S. between 2000 and 2018. Most were 16 and 17 years old, but a few were as young as 10. Despite statutory rape laws enacted to prevent adults from having sex with children, in many states men can legally transition from child groomer to groom via marriage loopholes that require very little parental or judicial intervention.
Courtney Stodden and Doug Hutchison in 2011 (JB Lacroix - WireImage)
“It’s insane that there’s a loophole for pedophilia,” Courtney Stodden, who recently came out as nonbinary and uses the pronouns they/them, tells me over Zoom from Los Angeles. “That piece of paper is a loophole.” The now-27-year-old singer/songwriter was just 16 when they married Lost star Doug Hutchison in 2011, just days before his 51st birthday. It was an extremely high-profile example of child marriage hitting the pop-cultural mainstream and became more of a dirty joke than a call-to-arms.
Stodden is sweet and visibly sad as we revisit their teen years. “I had so much to worry about. I was getting ready to lose my virginity that night,” they explain. “I was so overwhelmed. I wanted to do everything right. I wanted not to look like a kid.”
“I would be in the corner...I couldn’t move. When I’d try to move...he’d scream, ‘What are you going to do? Call the cops?
On their wedding day, the 10th-grader wore a white AMI Clubwear tube dress, garter exposed, and clear plastic platform heels, their hair in teased golden spirals. Stodden’s father, four years Hutchison’s junior, walked them down the aisle in Las Vegas. Hutchison, who also played the creepy guard in Green Mile, was Stodden’s online acting teacher. If the teenager looked like a child cosplaying as a grown-up, it’s because they were. And if Chris Hansen from “To Catch a Predator” had popped up to object during the ceremony, it would not have been surprising.
When Stodden moved from their parents’ home in Seattle to Hutchison’s home in Los Angeles after the wedding, things quickly changed. “He was very angry—just dripping with venom,” Stodden recalls. “Screaming in my face all night long. Spitting all over me, teeth up against my jaw.” Stodden’s body begins to visibly shrink back as they recount this time to me. “I would be in the corner...I couldn’t move. When I’d try to move...he’d scream, ‘What are you going to do? Call the cops?’”
Stodden was blood in the water. No one did anything to protect the child Hutchison could now call his bride, and no one legally could. “I was groomed,” Stodden tells me. “I was brainwashed. Whatever he would tell me, I would believe. I didn’t know how to write a check. I didn’t manage any of the money I made. It all went straight to him. I had such a lonely existence on the nights that he’d decide to be abusive…I had nobody.”
Child brides face more challenges than other threatened spouses because many domestic abuse shelters don’t allow unaccompanied minors. In fact, underage wives can be labeled runaways and taken back to their abusers if they try to leave, and advocates helping a minor escape a forced marriage can also be charged.
“I would leave the house at, like, three in the morning when it would finally stop and he would fall asleep. I would wander the streets. I would hide behind trash cans. I would cry,” Stodden confides. “I was so lonely and scared of the world.”
Feeling trapped, the teenager started drinking. “He introduced me to alcohol,” Stodden says of Hutchison. “It was a way for me to cope and feel like an adult.” Stodden says they realized Hutchison was an alcoholic after marrying him, but by then, they saw few options to leave. “Holy shit,” they remember thinking, “I don’t have any control here. I really have none.”
Stodden finally found the courage to finalize their divorce from Hutchison last year, and says they only began to unpack the grooming process they had endured during the pandemic. “I’ve come to a lot of realizations now that I’m an adult,” Stodden says. “Your brain is forming at that age. [My marriage] really formed the way that I process men now.”
The age of consent is 18 in California, yet with child marriage loopholes, there’s no minimum age to marry. This is a state where children must be at least 15 and a half and have a driver’s license or permit just to ride a scooter, no exceptions. Yet there’s an exception to child rape laws?
Eleven other states also have no minimum age requirement for marriage—Idaho, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, Mississippi, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Rhode Island, Washington, West Virginia, and Wyoming—which means in 24 percent of the U.S., statutory rape is legal, as long as you promise to do it till death do you part. WTF?!
“In about 38 states, what would otherwise be considered statutory rape becomes legal within marriage,” Reiss says. Since 2000, there have been at least 60,000 marriages that outside of wedlock would have been considered sex crimes. And in 88 percent of those cases, marriage provided legal immunity to the adult spouse. For the other 12 percent, the marriage is legal, but every time the couple has sex, it’s still considered a sex crime. So, all across America, children can’t vote, smoke, or drink alcohol. They can’t even call a Lyft or buy cough suppressants. But we’re allowing underage girls to marry adult men.
“In 38 states, what would otherwise be considered statutory rape becomes legal within marriage.”ADVERTISEMENT
“When a child marries in the U.S., it’s a decision made by the parents and sometimes a judge. In most states, there is little to no input required by the child,” Reiss says. In some states, the child must stand before a judge, but as Reiss explains, “every survivor we have worked with went in front of a judge and lied about what was happening because they were too scared of what their parents would do to them when they got back home.” Even in the cases where an officer of the court can see a girl is in distress or the child may be pregnant—which is evidence of a rape—there’s rarely anything they can legally do to intervene.
Fraidy Reiss (center) at the 2017 Boston Chain-In (Susan Landmann)
Since child marriage laws aren’t federally enforced, Reiss and her team lobby state by state, demanding that these absurdly misogynistic loopholes be amended, and their tactics are not subtle. Showing up at legislators’ offices in bridal gowns and veils, their mouths taped and their wrists shackled to symbolize the hundreds of thousands of girls forced into marriage in America, Unchained At Last sheds light on laws many Americans don’t even realize are still on the books.
But why are so many lawmakers opposed to ending child marriage? Unless you have the morals of a cartoon coyote, banning sex with kids seems like a no-brainer. “There are still legislators who feel like they own that pregnant girl and they’re going to control her,” explains Reiss. “[They want her] to get married if she’s pregnant—whether she likes it or not—even if she was raped.”
Then there are other senators, like Republican Gerald Cardinale of New Jersey, who, before he passed away in February, wanted to preserve child marriage for all the 16-year-old girls who feel “genuine affection” for the 50-year-old men they might want to marry. (I can feel the chunks rising.)
An Unchained At Last study found that 86 percent of children who marry in the U.S. are minor girls, most of whom were wed to adult men. In many states, all that’s required for a child to wed an adult is one parental signature and/or evidence of pregnancy, which can also be evidence of rape, depending on the ages of those involved. This requirement is especially dangerous for girls, since children can easily be forced into marriages to cover up for their abusers’ crimes.
“I was raped at 8, pregnant at 9, gave birth at 10, and was forced to be married at 11."
“California is one of those states where, if you have sex with a child, it’s rape unless you first marry the child,” Reiss says, explaining why she was so angry when her campaign to end child marriage in that state failed in 2018. “We could’ve solved so much with a simple, common-sense law that harms no one, costs nothing, and ends a human rights abuse. But legislators rejected that. They said no.”
Sherry Johnson on her wedding day, she was 11, her rapist husband, 20. (Photo courtesy of Sherry Johnson)
Fighting back through activism is one way Reiss is able to sort through her painful past, a job author and fellow human rights activist Sherry Johnson assures me takes a lifetime.
“I was raped at 8, pregnant at 9, gave birth at 10, and was forced to be married at 11,” Johnson, now 61, tells me over the phone from her home in Florida. “I was a mother, a wife, and a fifth grader.”
Her story is infuriating.
Growing up, her mother worked as the assistant “church mother” and her family lived in the parsonage of their strict conservative Pentecostal church in Tampa, FL. The deacon had access to her home and would sneak into the little girl’s room repeatedly to rape her. She was eight. “He could walk from inside the church to inside our house and that’s what he did,” Johnson says. “After service, he ended up in my room.”
She was raped by the bishop and by her stepfather, too. When she told her mother, she was ridiculed. “My mother was the only person I leaned toward to protect me and when she said there was no way this could have happened, [I thought], Who do I go to now? Mom is the only person I have,” Johnson says. “It devastated me.”
She became pregnant with the deacon’s child, and eventually, her school noticed her growing belly. But instead of calling the police, they called a doctor. That was when Johnson and her mother discovered the 10-year-old was 7 months pregnant. Her school expelled her.
“Children and family services knew, clinics I went to knew, the doctors I visited knew, the hospital knew, the school knew. They did nothing about it, nothing,” Johnson says. Her pregnancy was evidence of sexual abuse and still, no one notified the authorities. Instead, her mother forced her to marry her 20-year-old rapist.
“To save the church, to make him look good, to not make my mother look so bad, my mom took me to the courthouse...to marry an 11-year-old to a 20-year-old,” Johnson recalls. “She made my wedding dress and veil and she baked a cake.”
Once her rapist was free from prosecution, his future rapes of Johnson were considered legal by way of marriage. Johnson was pregnant every year from age 11 to 17; a baby for every year she was forced to stay married. And even to this day, her rapist has never been in jail. “They didn’t handcuff him, they handcuffed me by marriage. I went to prison in my mind,” Johnson says. “I had to live that life…and he went through nothing.”
Child marriage is a human rights abuse that protects predators and punishes girls. It legalizes sex with children and emotionally bankrupts them. Under the United Nations’ goals for sustainable development, every country, including the U.S., has promised to end child marriage by 2030. But Unchained At Last is trying to make this happen much sooner. “States are literally sending children home to get raped,” Reiss says. “They understand that a child is going to have sex with their adult spouse. We’re making a mockery of our statutory rape laws, and [America] is complicit in these sex crimes.”
Story By Kelly Kathleen
Illustration (top image) by Dola Sun
This article originally appeared in the Fall 2021 print edition of BUST Magazine. Subscribe today!
Kelly Kathleen is a writer, musician, and podcaster based in Los Angeles. When she’s not authoring strange and shocking stories about women, she’s the lead singer and guitarist of the garage rock trio the Shamalams. Her podcast, Pink Princess Phone, takes a deep dive into the secret psyche and shadow self of her celebrated guests. You can also catch her DJing in L.A. and waving back at people who aren’t actually waving at her. Her turn-ons include drive-ins, metaphysics, wet chemistry photobooths, back-seamed stockings, and the DSM-5. Follow her on Instagram @mskellykathleen for witty observations and upcoming performances.