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Monday, February 27, 2012

The Illiberal Case for Redefining Marriage


I saved this from what is now eight years ago (or so), because I was intrigued by it, and because I knew Don Browning's work. It's an interesting, if sloppy, argument.

Take justice. Some legal theorists wonder if giving marriage benefits to same-sex couples does injustice to other human arrangements where people care for one another brother caring for ailing brother, a younger daughter caring for her aging mother, two older women pooling resources without having sex. Why privilege partners in sexual relationships and not those actually dependent on one another? Rather than extending marriage to cover all dependent relations, shouldn't we find other ways to support people who need help?
Try as I might, I can't see where that argument has a discernible link to a defined concept of justice. What it is primarily concerned with is the idea that homosexuals are having sex, and they only reason they want to be married is so they will have sex with each other, because homosexual relationships, according to this paragraph, are only sexual relationships.

Then there's this:

Others ask whether same-sex marriage may be unjust to children. Doesn't it raise to the level of normative social policy the idea that children don't need the parents who gave them life? Others observe that we do not know the effects on children of being raised by same-sex parents. Recent reviews by Steven Nock and Robert Lerner of existing social-science studies of gay parenting demonstrate that all are inadequate with regard to testable hypotheses, sample, controls, and hence conclusions. In short, we have no knowledge about these effects even though recent court opinions assume we do. This raises the question, is it rational to develop social policies without better knowledge?
Two problems here, one glaringly obvious: if children "need the parents who gave them life," what of adoption? And second: should social policy arise from the people? Or should the people be guided by social policy? One vision exemplifies Jeffersonian democracy; the other sounds more like Brave New World.

And this is classic closing the barn door after the horse is out reasoning:

Same-sex marriage does not simply extend an old institution to a new group of people. It changes the definition of marriage. It reduces marriage primarily to a committed affectionate sexual relation. It goes further. It gives this new and more narrow view of marriage all of the cultural, legal, and public supports that accrued to the institution when it functioned to hold together this complex set of goods.
One could as well argue that Loving v. Virginia changed "the definition of marriage," as, in fact, it did. But what intrigues me is the idea that same-sex marriage "reduced marriage to a committed affectionate sexual relation." Not because I think it does; but because I think we've already done that.

The idea that human beings are primarily sexual beings can be traced back to Vienna in a period just prior to Freud. Freud did not sui generis decide the sex drive was the prime motivator of human conduct, he adopted the view from others in what is now called the "Viennese school." But the idea is now rampant, and now rampantly accepted in Western culture, that human beings are primarily sex machines: that all our motivations and ambitions and purpose are centered on sex; and if not on procreation, then merely on satisfaction. If Christianity has turned more and more toward sex as the enemy of the spirit, this is a part of that turn (and may well be the whole of it. Even the Puritans weren't as fascinated with sex as we imagine them to be. Hawthorne's novel is revisionist history, not documentary; and he writes in the century that ended with the rise of the Viennese school. Something new never comes out of nothing preceding it.). As Kathleen Norris points out, the Desert Fathers weren't concerned with sexual desire as a root evil. They were more concerned with spiritual sins, with matters that took the soul away from the presence of God.

If we accept that humans are primarily sexual creatures, then we accept that marriage is primarily about sex. That was certainly the message in response to the "sexual revolution:" that sex was to be "saved" for marriage, and so marriage was primarily about sex. In the movie "Diner," the married Shrevie is asked by his friends about the sex, because they imagine that's what marriage is all about:

when you're dating, everything is talking about sex. Where can we do it? Why can't we do it? Are you parents gonna be out so we can do it? Everything is always talkin about getting sex, and then planning the wedding, all the details. But then, when you get married... it's crazy, i dunno. You can get it whenever you want it. You wake up in the morning and she's there. You come home from work and she's there. So all that sex planning talk is over with. And so is the wedding planning talk cause you're already married. So... ya know I can come down here and we can bullshit the entire night away but I cannot hold a 5 minute conversation with Beth. I mean it's not her fault, I'm not blaming her, she's great... It's just, we got nothing to talk about... But it's good, it's good
And it turns out, of course, marriage is not about sex; it's about a great deal more than sex. But when you decide people are sexual beings first and foremost, and then decide they must also curtail that sexual drive until it can be employed in "accomplishing a complex alignment between sexual activity, procreation, mutual help and affection, and parental care and accountability," then marriage is already all about sexual relationships.

Except, as Shrevie found out; it isn't. And it never has been.

Of course, the Wife of Bath might disagree; she happily uses sex as a means to control her husbands. That is, when she isn't using her intellect against them, or her sheer willingness to be as physically aggressive as they are. Indeed, it's hard to read Chaucer as a proponent of the kind of social policy Browning is arguing for here. In "The Miller's Tale" Alisoun (also the Wife of Bath's name!) enjoys a win-win, as she sleeps with the young scholar and never gets punished for it, an idea Kate Chopin resurrected a few centuries later, but found she couldn't publish in her lifetime. And, of course, the Wife of Bath's tale is about a woman who uses her appearance to teach a knight a lesson in humility and proper marital relations. So marriage has never always been about "accomplishing a complex alignment between sexual activity, procreation, mutual help and affection, and parental care and accountability."

But is marriage just about sex? Advocates of same-sex marriage emphasize the other aspects of marriage, since marriage and sex are almost completely divorced from each other now (that is, fewer and fewer people think we cannot have the latter outside of the former). If anything, the topic of same-sex marriage allows us to reconsider the purpose of marriage, and to think about how much we've reduced it to legitimizing sexual relationships, and left it at little more than that and "parental care and accountability." We don't need to fear the dilution of "marriage" by allowing same-sex couples to claim the word for their relationships. We need to fear how much we've already diluted marriage as an institution and a concept, and we need to consider what we really want it to be, and how to make it into that. Because the more we cling to "how it was," the less we are going to see "what it is." And while it may be comforting to think some institution can control the concept and keep it a sacrament (on one end) or establish a social policy that defines it (on the other end), the fact is marriage as it is practiced and as people regard it, isn't conforming to any one, limited, institutional definition.

And the sooner we see marriage for what it is, the sooner we can begin to redefine marriage into what we clearly want it to be.

12 Comments:

Blogger The Thought Criminal said...

It might be impossible to separate the political utility of the opposition to marriage equality from the asserted moral considerations brought up in opposition to it. Mary Cheney's defacto marriage and motherhood is hardly singled out for condemnation, no more than Roy Cohn's very, very well known and promiscuous sex life disqualified him from being the legal hit man for reactionary figures, including the equally compromised Francis Cardinal Spelman.

That said, as a gay man, the reaction against that is the denial that gay sex, like non-gay sex, creates a large number of serious moral issues. About the only aspect of non-gay sex that isn't also present in gay sex is the possibility of pregnancy - and that's a huge moral consideration so perhaps straight sex is, truly, more morally problematic than gay sex.

Witnessing the AIDS epidemic up close and horrible, pretending that anal and other forms of high risk sex aren't moral issues isn't an option for me. But talking about those issues is forbidden and discouraged. The resultant problems of infection, long term, if somewhat controllable illness and, not infrequently death, are swept under the rug. Not least of those is risking infecting, knowingly or unknowingly, multiple sex partners. It's my experience that gay folk are somewhat more open to a discussion of those issues of gay sex than those straight folk who believe themselves to be exemplars of liberalism. But there's nothing liberal about risking contracting or spreading a life threatening series of illnesses. The refusal to acknowledge that is just more evidence that what gets called "liberalism" is quite often a marginally more tolerable form of libertarianism.

Monogamous marriage would, certainly, lessen the liklihood of being infected with HIV, hepatitis C and a large number of other illnesses, as would not practicing high risk sex. So there's a moral issue to consider in the gay marriage debate.

Anthony McCarthy

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