In a recent piece for the Atlantic, Liberty University professor Karen Swallow Prior argues in defense of young marriage. Prior, whose religious bias is evident throughout the piece, cites research from wedding website Knot Yet to bolster her argument; of especial interest to her are statistics that portray unmarried twenty-somethings as more likely to drink and suffer from depression. Unlike Prior, I intend to state my bias upfront: I am an unmarried twenty-five year old woman, I drink in moderation, and I have depression, though not, as Prior implies, due to my unmarried status, unless I’ve been suffering from a lack of husband for the past thirteen years. Her argument, tinged as it is by her adherence to conservative Evangelicalism, is deeply flawed and contributes little real insight into the statistics on marriage in the Western world.
As a feminist, obviously I consider the topic of marriage to be deeply relevant to gender equality. It is my belief that later marriage encourages, rather than hinders gender equality, I believe it also contributes to healthier, more sustainable relationships. I am ambivalent on the institution of marriage itself as I don’t think that marriage is necessarily an indication of a stable relationship. But for the purposes of countering Prior’s argument, I’m going to stick solely to available research on marriage trends. And those trends directly counter Prior’s assertions. According to longitudinal research produced by the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, the length of a marriage directly correlated to the age: 81% college graduates aged 26 and older stayed married for 20 years, in contrast to 65% of a younger, but comparably educated, cohort. Research produced in the UK reveals similar trends. Young marrieds were by far the likeliest to end their relationships in divorce. Age, then, actually correlates to more successful marriages, which is presumably the outcome Prior most desires to see.
In her piece, Prior also cites the work of Mark Regnerus, a sociologist whose work on sexuality has been largely discredited by peers in his field. His now-infamous study on gay parenting became the subject of an internal audit by Social Science Research after colleagues revealed flaws in his work. If Prior is aware of these flaws, it isn’t evident in her piece, and her credibility as an academic is seriously damaged by her reference to Regnerus’ work on this topic. When her previous publications are considered (Prior is also against the use of hormonal birth control), we see the religious right’s utopia in miniature: a totally heterosexual world in which women are married young, and pregnant. Not particularly conducive to the higher education of women, or to the broader cause of gender equality.
There are additional flaws in Prior’s argument; it remains unclear if Knot Yet controlled for factors like addiction and mental illness in its survey. Given that it is not a peer-reviewed resource, I find it unlikely that they considered this in their work. We’re left, then, with a series of assertions that are directly contradicted by available academic work on the subject. As the religious right continues its campaign to control women’s lives, the publication of such a piece by the Atlantic isn’t just ill-conceived, it’s dangerous.