Many people know of couples who married in their teens and went on to live happily ever after.
Shirley Perez’s story is not that story.
Raped at 12, married to her rapist at 13 and abused for 12 years before finally getting a divorce — Perez’s story of teen marriage was a personal hell, and she’s still suffering.
The man she was forced to marry was 39 years old. She had her first child with him at age 14.
Perez cannot read or write, her education was robbed from her. She never got the chance to go to school because she was busy raising the five children she had over the course of her 12-year marriage.
Idaho has the highest rate per capita of child marriage in the United States, of the 38 states that track the data, according to data from the national advocacy group Unchained at Last. The U.S. State Department in its “United States Global Strategy to Empower Adolescent Girls” lists marriage under the age of 18 as a human rights abuse.
Nationally, the average age for women getting married for the first time reached 27.4 years in 2017, according to the Census Bureau. For men, it’s slightly older at 29.5 years, a Women’s Health article said. That’s the longest Americans have ever waited to get married, the article said.
In Idaho, the average age for first-time brides is 25.9, while the average for first-time grooms is 28. And each year hundreds of teenagers get married in the Gem State.
In recent years there has been a push to ban child marriage in the U.S.
Last month, Delaware Gov. John Carney signed into law a bill that sets the minimum age to marry at 18, with no exceptions.
In 2017, New York state enacted restrictions on child marriage, raising the minimum age from 14 to 18 and requiring parental and judicial consent for marriage of those between 17 years old and 18 years old.
In Utah, state Rep. Angela Romero, D-Salt Lake City, plans to introduce a bill next year to raise the minimum age for matrimony to 18, the Salt Lake Tribune reported.
Those efforts have not gained traction in Idaho.
Loophole for potential abuse
There is no minimum age for marriage in Idaho. Sixteen- and 17-year-olds can get married with parental consent, and children younger than 16 can do so with a court order and physician exam.
The court order requirement is designed to protect children from being forced into marriage by making sure a judge sees to the well-being of minors.
But those protections didn’t help Perez.
Perez said she’s still suffering today from the ramifications of her teen marriage.
Possibly to mask the scandal of the age difference between her and husband, someone lied on her marriage license, saying she was 16 instead of 13.
Her birth certificate confirms she was 13 at the time of the marriage: Perez was born in 1953 and married in 1966 in Idaho Falls.
“I think that’s probably one of the reasons he probably married me, young body — you know what I mean? And to keep himself from getting in trouble,” Perez said.
Outside of marriage, a 39-year-old having sex with a 13-year-old would be classified as rape or lewd conduct with a minor, which can carry up to a life sentence. In Idaho, a minor cannot consent to sex.
It’s not unheard-of for adult men to marry their teen partners to avoid criminal prosecution.
“And so in a way, it (marriage) can become a tool, so if I, as an adult person with someone 14 or 15, and I convince the parents that it’s in the best interest because I have sexual desires for that person, if I can get married then I’m protected, then I can have sex with that person and you cannot charge me,” said Teena McBride, executive director of the Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault Center in Idaho Falls.
Adjusting the marital law surrounding minors to follow the rape statute, which allows minors 16 and older to have sex with a person within three years of them, would be a possible solution to protect minors from marrying people much older than them, Bonneville County prosecuting attorney Daniel Clark said.
But the way the current law is written, there is the marriage loophole for potential abuse.
“I don’t think the court should be signing off on such things,” Clark said. “In my view that seems to circumvent the purpose of the statutory rape statute.”
And Perez’s case isn’t isolated, nor is it a problem embedded in the past.
There are still teen girls being married to men who are over the age of 18 and it’s legal because of this loophole. It’s rarer for teen boys to be married to older women.
“If it (the law) unintentionally gives the ability of a pedophile or someone to molest a child, there should be an update to that law,” Clark said. “Let’s not make it legal by saying I do”
In 2001, there was a 13-year-old in Idaho who was married-off to a man over the age of 18, according to data from the Idaho Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics.
From 1999 to 2016, there were 5,629 minors married in Idaho, and 102 were girls under the age of 16. For comparison, between 2000 and 2010, nearly 3,900 minors were married in New York, the New York Times reported. New York has nearly 12 times as many residents as Idaho.
Not ready for relationships
Developmentally, most teenagers don’t have the life experience or abstract thought to handle the maturity needed for a successful marriage, said Benjamin Barton, a developmental psychologist at the University of Idaho.
Between the ages of 13 and 20, the brain isn’t finished developing its abstract thought capabilities which leads teenagers to have very absolutist and idealist thoughts, Barton said.
A teenager marrying someone much older than them is vulnerable to be taken advantage of. The difference in life experience between the teenager and their older partner may cause an unbalanced power dynamic that may lead to abuse, Barton said.
“It would also raise questions for me why this older person is having trouble forming relationships at their age,” Barton said.
McBride said the older men going after the younger girls often can’t find women their own age because women their age aren’t interested in them. The women their age recognize something is wrong with them. This leads the men to seek younger, more vulnerable girls.
That’s what happened to Perez. She said she was verbally and physically abused by her husband.
“Later on, I really wasn’t his wife. I became his daughter, not his wife; that’s how crazy it was. He thought of me as one of his kids,” Perez said. A lot of people also mistook Perez for his daughter, thinking she was her children’s sister.
When she finally divorced her husband at age 25, Perez lost everything.
“I lost all my family that year,” She said, tears swimming in her eyes. “He made sure I lost my kids.”
One of her sons won’t talk to her, and another talks to Perez but she said he doesn’t know her. She doesn’t really have a relationship with them. She walked away from the marriage with $111 and without a family.
A lot of women fleeing abusive relationships are stuck in similar situations, and especially when they get married young, like Perez, their lack of education makes it difficult to get back on their feet.
“My ex-husband loved it, the no education,” Perez said. “He wanted to keep me dumb, not realizing things”
Perez tried to go back to school and get an education when she was in her early 20s, but her then-husband didn’t support her and hindered her efforts.
“I tried to get an education when I was I believe 21, my ex-husband didn’t like it, he did not support the education,” Perez said. “I was five minutes late (getting home) and I took a beating for it. So I never went back.”
A lifelong impact
Child marriage is associated with lower educational attainment, high divorce rates, psychiatric disorders and higher rates of sexually transmitted diseases, according to the study “Child Marriage in the United States and Its Association With Mental Health in Women” published Pediatrics the Official Journal of the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“I think a lot of the prevention component really has to be education and talking about the impact that a young female will feel if she enters into a relationship before she’s really ready,” McBride said. “Her education stalls, even for most women who end up in a divorce setting, these young women are more likely because of the lack of education opportunity, lack of job opportunity, to end up living below poverty level.”
In Idaho, divorce rates for child marriages are two to three times higher than marriages involving people over 18 years old, according to calculations of data from the Idaho Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics.
Women married before age 18 are more than twice as likely to get divorced. Men who marry before age 18 are almost three times as likely to get divorced.
This leaves many education-deprived women without a means to support themselves and their children.
Idaho is also ranked 49th for women’s status and progress, according to Status of Women organization. Kelly Miller, executive director of Idaho Coalition Against Sexual & Domestic Violence, said this is also in line with women being devalued in Idaho. She said child marriage is a way to devalue women because it mostly affects girls.
State Rep. Melissa Wintrow, D-Boise, said if people can’t sign up for the military before they are 18, then they shouldn’t be allowed to marry. She said children shouldn’t be making those lifelong decisions at such a young age, especially if it’s to marry someone much older than them.
“Especially in a state where I hear so much philosophy about a woman’s place,” Wintrow said. “We need to make sure our young women and girls are allowed to make the choices for their own life.”
But all cases of children getting married under 18 should be alarming to people, even if it’s a 17-year-old marrying an 18-year-old, said Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last.
In many cases of child marriage, it is a forced marriage, Reiss said and “completely disempowered throughout this process.”
Even when there isn’t a large age gap within a child marriage, Reiss said it’s still a problem because the underage person doesn’t have the same legal resources as the adult. The child also is usually subject the whims of their parents.
Despite the problems with child marriage, there are still 16- and 17-year-olds who want to marry for the right reasons, but they should still wait until they’re 18, Reiss said. At most, waiting is just an inconvenience, but it protects both parties from unequal power dynamics and potential abuse.
Reiss urges people to go to their lawmakers to change the loopholes in the law that allows child marriage and the potential for abuse which can leave lifelong scars.
“I want to put it behind me, I think it’s time for me to be happy,” Perez said. “To move on, but it hasn’t moved on.
“Maybe if the judge would have acted for me back then, they probably could have (helped me avoid) everything I’ve gone through.”
Reporters Bryan Clark and John Roark contributed reporting.