Rep. Matt Gaetz’s alleged sexual relationship with a 17-year-old girl, in which he is said to have paid to have her travel with him across state lines, is being investigated by the Justice Department. News outlets are focusing on how this scandal could affect a member of Congress. But there’s another urgent question: How often are teenage girls caught in such relationships, consensual or otherwise — and how well does the United States protect them from exploitation?

Advocacy groups would argue: Not very well. State laws attempt to halt egregious cases of statutory rape. But most stop short of enacting other protections, such as preventing teenage girls from marrying their rapists or abusers, my research on child marriage finds.

The U.S. patchwork of protections

States, not the federal government, set the age of consent. In Gaetz’s home state of Florida, the age of sexual consent is 18, making any sexual conduct between an adult and a minor statutory rape. In many other states, the age is 16, although that varies by how close the two people are in age, what the circumstances may be and what type of sexual act is involved.

State laws vary even more dramatically on allowing minors to wed. Forty-six states allow child marriage under certain circumstances. Some states have no minimum age for marriage, as long as the minor has a parent’s written permission or a judge’s approval.

Girls are far more likely to marry before age 18 than boys. Most of those marriages are to adult men, with the average age difference being four years. Adult men can bypass statutory rape charges through marriage.

Where states fail to act, girls are at risk

When state statutes allow children to marry, the underage partner often has negative life outcomes. Public health research finds that girls who marry young are more likely to endure more physical and sexual violence than those who marry as adults. Child marriage has lifelong effects on mental health, including higher instances of major depressive disorders, mood disorders, anxiety disorders and alcohol or drug disorders than those married as adults. Women who married under age 19 are more likely to develop serious medical conditions such as diabetes, heart attack or stroke.

While children can marry under age 18 in most states, they are still considered minors under the law and cannot access the legal system as an adult could until they are 18. Thus, while teen brides are disproportionately likely to be abused by their husbands, because they are minors, they may not be able to hire a lawyer or access a domestic violence shelter without an adult, or otherwise turn to legal or social services, according to my interviews with legislators and advocacy groups.

When do states take action to protect teen girls from predatory adults?

To answer that question regarding child marriage, I have collected state legislative data on a variety of measures, such as roll-call votes, bill co-sponsorship and legislator demographics; interviewed state lawmakers and representatives of advocacy groups; analyzed media coverage from national newspapers and state capital newspapers in key states such as Pennsylvania, Massachusetts and Minnesota from 2015 to 2020; and collected evidence of advocacy groups’ campaigns.

Here’s what I find: When legislators consider child marriage and other forms of sexual exploitation of minors, it’s not because there’s been sustained media attention or widespread public outcry. Rather, legislators are responding to key advocacy groups. That matters because teenage victims of sexual predation — unlike their higher-profile abusers — do not have a voice in the news media, which protect their identities, or an organized presence in the legislature.

Compared with high-profile women’s issues like reproductive rights, equal pay and sexual harassment, child marriage never appears on lists of what the public considers to be the “most important issues,” never garners a high volume of Google searches, nor has a sustained spike in media attention. Only in the past five years — during which advocacy groups have begun campaigns for action — have state legislatures taken up this issue.

Many Americans are apparently unaware of or lack information on child marriages and their elevated risk of abuse.

Survivors have been lobbying state legislatures

Child marriage advocacy groups have begun to organize and appeal to state legislatures to change this situation. Since 2018, four states — Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Minnesota — have completely banned marriage before age 18. In New Jersey, then-Governor Chris Christie, a Republican, vetoed the legislation in 2017. However, the legislature again passed the bill in 2018 and it was signed by Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat. In 2020, during the pandemic, the Pennsylvania legislature unanimously passed a ban on underage marriage.

When I interviewed Pennsylvania legislators, they explained that advocacy groups dedicated to ending child marriage, including Unchained at Last and the Pennsylvania Coalition Against Rape (PCAR), persuaded them to pass the bill. In social media and other online campaigns, these groups featured child marriage survivors’ stories and advocated protecting girls from potential abuse.

When the Gaetz story drops from public attention, most states’ laws will still offer loopholes through which adult men can exploit teenage girls. Teenage girls across the country are not fully protected by state law. But state legislators are responding to advocacy groups’ new argument that they should protect teenage girls at risk for this specific abuse.

Amber Lusvardi (@psproff) is a PhD candidate at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind., specializing in gender issues in U.S. policy development.