The XX Factor

Is It a Crime for 51-Year-Old Doug Hutchison to Have Sex with His Teenage Wife?

The Web’s abuzz about the nuptials of 51-year-old actor Doug Hutchison* and 16-year-old “aspiring country singer” Courtney Alexis Stodden. As Slate ’s Trending News Channel is reporting , “the marriage is legit because Stodden got the consent of her mother in advance.” The law permits an underage girl to get married , but will it allow her to have sex with her husband?

Every state makes it a crime for an adult to have sex with a minor, usually by setting a minimum age of consent or a maximum age difference between partners. An adult is guilty even if his underage partner consents to sex, because statutory rape laws treat these relationships as inherently coercive.

But most states forsake this premise when it comes to married couples. At least half of states explicitly exempt sexual activity within marriage from their statutory rape laws. (I’ve found laws on the books in Arkansas , California , Colorado , Georgia , Hawaii , Idaho , Iowa , Kentucky , Louisiana , Maine , Michigan , Mississippi , Montana , New Hampshire , New Mexico , New York , North Carolina , Ohio , Oklahoma , Pennsylvania , South Carolina , South Dakota , Vermont , Virginia , Wisconsin .) Even where spouses aren’t explicitly exempt, they are unlikely to be prosecuted. But it does happen. A few years back, Nebraska charged a 22-year-old with sexual assault for consensual activity with his 14-year-old wife. (They had married in nearby Kansas because Nebraska wouldn’t let them.)

Surely it doesn’t make sense for a state to recognize a couple as legally married but make it illegal for them to have sex. But perhaps rather than abandoning the logic of statutory rape laws, we should apply it to marriage regulations. As Jaye Sitton, a civil rights lawyer in North Carolina, once put it , “one must question the wisdom of a statutory scheme permitting individuals to marry at an age when they are not considered competent to consent to sexual intercourse.”

Doug and Courtney Hutchison provided the above photo on the condition that Slate include this statement from the pair: “We are very much in love and want to get the message out that true love can be ageless.” Photograph courtesy of DARKWATERFILMS

* Correction, June 23, 2011: Hutchison’s last name was originally misspelled throughout this post.