Years ago, I read an essay by a rightwing therapist conceding that abstinence-only sex education is ineffective. Her solution, though, was not comprehensive sex education. It was to have teenagers marry one another.
Pre-marital sex won’t happen, she reasoned, if the teenagers are married. Then they can have all the sex their hormonal hearts’ desire. Problem solved!
I’ve been thinking a lot about it since Lauren Boebert announced that her 17-year-old son has impregnanted a girl they will only say is over the age of 14. “There’s something special about rural conservative communities — they value life. If you look at teen pregnancy rates throughout the nation, well, they’re the same in rural and urban areas,” Boebert told the crowd at last week’s Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC). “However, abortion rates are higher in urban areas, and teen mom rates are higher in rural conservative areas because we understand the preciousness of the life that is about to be born.”
Writing at The Guardian, Arwa Mahdawi unpacks the reality behind Boebert’s claim: “…perhaps that’s one reason teenage mothers are more prevalent in rural areas. Perhaps another reason is that the teenage girls are unable to access a safe and legal abortion and are forced to give birth when they’re unprepared to be parents.”
I happen to think the truth lies somewhere between Mahdwai and Boebert. Certainly, in my own experience, teenage parentage and teenage marriage are more normalized in my rural, working-class and poor background than they are in the middle-class circles I run in as a journalist. Lauren Boebert’s own son joked that she was a teenage mother, and now he’s a teenage father. I, myself, am the son of a teenage mother. I went to high school with couples who posed with their children in the yearbook. Two other classmates got married and had a baby their junior year.
My mother’s family is devoutly evangelical. Don’t get me wrong, I’m very glad my mother gave birth to me, even if no doubt some of my conservative critics are questioning their own stance on abortion because of her decision. I do wonder, though, if under different circumstances she might have made a different choice. Similarly, the culture of my community in high school was extremely conservative and evangelical, meaning abortion was deeply stigmatized. We also lived in one of the most remote parts of the United States east of the Mississippi, making access to abortion incredibly difficult.
It’s the perfect storm for the creation of a culture that, depending on how you look at it, “chooses life” or where teenage girls are “forced to give birth.” The absence of access to safe and legal birth control and abortion in rural areas leads to a normalization of teenage pregnancy in those communities to give folks at least the veneer of having control over their own lives. a control that has actually been stripped away from them by rightwing cultural and political actors in those communities and states.
Which brings me back to that rightwing therapist I read years ago. She thought the answer to teenagers having sex was to get them hitched. She had at least one point: historically, people did marry younger, and it was only in the 20th century when teenage marriage began to drastically decline. Interestingly, a federal government report from 1973, the year Roe v Wade was decided, found that the 1950s – an era of cultural conservatism and which modern conservatives often long for when desiring to Make America Great Again – saw an uptick in teenage marriages.
By 1970, however, there was a sharp decline in the percentage of teenage girls married. What happened in the 1960s? Well, for one, the creation and availability of birth control gave women more control over their own reproduction. Secondly, of course, was the sexual revolution which began liberating women from the shackles of patriarchal expectation and obligation.
Now, Boebert and her fellow Republicans wish to place those shackles back on women and girls, as well as LGBTQ people, by once again regulating and controlling sexuality as was done pre-sexual revolution. From the Dobbs decision overturning the Constitutional protections for abortion access to the spate of laws targeting expressions of gender nonconformity and even same-sex marriage – Tennessee is debating a law that would allow government officials to refuse to marry same-sex couples – Republicans are attempting to turn back the clock to a time when we gays stayed in the closet while teenage girls walked down the aisle. In an effort to control women’s bodies, Republicans are passing draconian dress codes for their female colleagues. Republican judges are limiting girls’ access to birth control based on their fathers’ religious beliefs. A group of rightwing activists, meanwhile, are suing to ban a birth control pill used for decades.
One thing Republicans don’t want to ban, though, is child marriage. Wyoming Republicans were outraged by a bill which would have raised the state’s marriage age to 16, arguing that it interfered with religious freedom and parental rights – presumably the freedom to beat your child with the Bible as you exercise your right to force them into marriage. In West Virginia, which has one of the highest rates of child marriage in the nation, Republican legislators blocked a bill which would have outlawed child marriage before accepting an amended version which allows children over 16 to marry with parental consent. Whether Republican Governor Jim Justice will sign even that, though, remains to be seen.
And last year, Tennessee Republicans proposed a bill that would have allowed straight couples to access common law marriages. While it would have excluded same-sex couples, it had no age limit for opposite-sex couples, meaning children could enter into common law marriages if the law had passed.
While there has been no announcement of the boy Boebert’s impending nuptials, it would not surprise me if that news is forthcoming. A future where children are pregnant and pushed down the aisle is the future Boebert and her fellow Republicans want not only for their own children, but for yours too. The goal is not just to eliminate legal rights. It is to use retrograde policies to roll back the clock to a time before the feminist movement and sexual revolution freed women from the shackles of patriarchal domesticity.
The Republicans’ own policies indicate a desire for girls to be barefoot and pregnant and, yes, married – just like they were in the days when they think America was last great, a time rightly understood as oppressive and unfree to anyone who wasn’t straight and white and male. While Boebert “understands the preciousness of the life that is about to be born,” I’m not sure she understands the preciousness of the life of the teenage girl – a life she and her fellow Republicans would radically limit in the name of Making America Great Again.
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