Monday, February 1, 2010

An Inigo Montoya moment

It is a question that would have been unthinkable just forty or fifty years ago, but one that has been raised with increasing clamor in our day: what, exactly, does the word "marriage" mean?

Our ancestors, and theirs, and theirs, and so on in a rather long line back would have identified a few things as being key to the definition of marriage: it involved the union between a man and a woman whose biological compatibility often, if not always, led to children; it was meant to be a lifelong commitment; and it was intended to be a union centered around the idea of total fidelity--that is, that the sexual union between husband and wife was exclusive, and that violation that exclusivity was a grave sin and even, at some times, a crime.

Of these three pillars of the definition of marriage, the first to be toppled was the notion that marriage was meant to be a lifelong commitment. Sure, in wedding vows people still pay a kind of rhetorical homage to that idea, but it's an empty gesture of speech, since both husband and wife know that the union may be dissolved by either of them, at any time, for any reason--for such is the reality in an era of permissive divorce laws. That this part of the definition of marriage has fallen so far is a terrible scandal, and its reality has caused pain and tragedy to generations of children raised in the aftermath of a marriage's so-called "failure."

The next pillar to be challenged is the one which says that a marriage must necessarily involve a man and a woman. That is the fight of our times over the definition of marriage, and it is by no means certain at this point that those who wish to rewrite the part of the definition which says "a man and a woman" so that it says "any two or more people of either gender" will prevail. Nevertheless, it is worth considering whether that last pillar, the idea that marriage is a mutually faithful relationship, will endure in a hypothetical post-gay marriage world.

This NY Times article from last week strongly suggests that it will not:

When Rio and Ray married in 2008, the Bay Area women omitted two words from their wedding vows: fidelity and monogamy.

“I take it as a gift that someone will be that open and honest and sharing with me,” said Rio, using the word “open” to describe their marriage.

Love brought the middle-age couple together — they wed during California’s brief legal window for same-sex marriage. But they knew from the beginning that their bond would be forged on their own terms, including what they call “play” with other women. [...]

New research at San Francisco State University reveals just how common open relationships are among gay men and lesbians in the Bay Area. The Gay Couples Study has followed 556 male couples for three years — about 50 percent of those surveyed have sex outside their relationships, with the knowledge and approval of their partners.

That consent is key. “With straight people, it’s called affairs or cheating,” said Colleen Hoff, the study’s principal investigator, “but with gay people it does not have such negative connotations.” [...]

None of this is news in the gay community, but few will speak publicly about it. Of the dozen people in open relationships contacted for this column, no one would agree to use his or her full name, citing privacy concerns. They also worried that discussing the subject could undermine the legal fight for same-sex marriage. [Emphasis added--E.M.]

It is true that even for heterosexual married couples, fidelity is a challenge, and infidelity a common problem. But there has never been, in modern times, a widespread social movement to de-link the notion of fidelity from the concept of marriage. What possible social consequences an ever-widening acceptance of "open" marriages or similar concepts could have on the family, on children, and on society at large has never been adequately explored.

But the arguments advanced in favor of "open" gay marriages will be just like those advanced for gay marriage in the first place: we will be told that it's the nature of gay relationships for the couple to remain sexually active outside the partnership, that it's an antiquated, stuffy, heterosexual notion that fidelity or monogamy are even anything to aspire to (let alone to achieve, as 77% of married men and 88% of married women say they have done), and that for a gay man or woman to have sexual relations with people outside of their "gay marriage" is a normal, natural, positive thing for them to do.

And at that point, we have to face the blindingly obvious: "gay marriage" and marriage do not, in fact, mean the same thing. Without the male/female pair, there is no possibility that the couple will be able to have children as a couple, as a natural and expected part of the relationship, as I've said before--which makes becoming parents merely an optional lifestyle choice for a few married couples, instead of an expected reality for most of them. Without the notion that fidelity is an important component of an ideal marriage, fidelity and monogamy become, instead, merely the sexual preference of choice for the timorous or unadventurous. But with the loss of these two components of the definition of marriage, the word really has ceased in any way to be a real or meaningful word at all--for what does it express, besides the notion that "marriage" is a temporary legal contract involving two or more people in which the disposition of any shared property is spelled out for the purpose of making the eventual, expected, and approved-of dissolution of this temporary and rather meaningless partnership or grouping less legally messy?

I'm finding myself reaching an Inigo Montoya moment when it comes to gay rights activists and their use of the word "marriage."


Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a clear article. Def. food for thought.

Christopher said...

Oh THAT Inigo Montoya moment. I was thinking more along the lines of: "Hello! My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed the word marriage. Prepare to die."

KC said...

Kind of defeats the purpose of calling it a marriage. I mean, really, what's the point? Just the benefits? Then call it a civil union or whatever. That's NOT a marriage.

Kim said...

And with that they're not, truly, just trying to achieve "equality." They truly are aiming to change the definition of the word marriage, and thereby take marriage away from the rest of us.

Geoff G. said...

Our ancestors, and theirs, and theirs, and so on in a rather long line back would have identified a few things as being key to the definition of marriage: it involved the union between a man and a woman whose biological compatibility often, if not always, led to children; it was meant to be a lifelong commitment; and it was intended to be a union centered around the idea of total fidelity--that is, that the sexual union between husband and wife was exclusive, and that violation that exclusivity was a grave sin and even, at some times, a crime.

OK, so basically, marriage has always and everywhere been just like the 1950s American idealized nuclear family. Got it.

Actually, attitudes regarding sexual exclusivity have generally been applied only to women (regardless of whatever the theological theory may be), and reflect a patriarchal society's need to know who a child's father really is. In many traditional Christian societies, right down to this very day, mistresses are an accepted, even expected way of life, especially for powerful and wealthy men.

Perhaps that's not how it should be, but that's how it is and was (indeed, in many times and places, such arrangements were often formalized as plural marriage).

Second, as usual, you completely neglect how marriage was used as a political and economic tool. That's the entire reason why families selected spouses for their children, not the bride and groom themselves (yet another way that marriage has changed drastically over the years). Marriage was a tool to bring two families, and hence their economic, political and social interests, closer together.

That's also why marriage between people of different social class was such a huge problem: the familial benefits flowed entirely in one direction.

Third, you're also proceeding on the basis of Western European assumptions. For a different perspective (one which, I'll note, Christians like Kim have brutally suppressed because it did not accord with their theological views) see here. Some of these Native American tribes (e.g. the Lakota) even had marriages between people of the same gender; indeed, it was viewed as advantageous for a widower to marry a man who would not bear any more children that might compete for affection with children from the previous marriage.

In short, you're taking assumptions based on theological ideals (which have never matched social reality) and based on memories of social assumptions from a particular time and place (i.e. 20th century America) which cannot be extended to other times, places and cultures.

You have asserted that your chosen definition of marriage is an absolute, that it's eternal and that it's never changed. That's not a factual assertion (indeed, the Bible itself contradicts that) but rather a theological one (which is irrelevant to civil law, unless you want to live in a theocracy).

Barbara said...

Like it or not our tibal customs of marriage between a man and a woman. If the Lakotahs have a ight to tibal customs, don't we Christians?
Where did this massive repression of gay marriage occur?
The covenant expression of marriage in the Catholic Christian faith tradtion has to do with the Chuch as the Bride of Christ.
Atheistic regimes such as the Soviet Union had marriage between a man and a woman. I believe the Chinese limit marriage to a man and a woman. The US is hardly a theocracy, by the way.

Mike said...

Seems to that whatever entity has the power to dissolve a marriage, whether it initiated it or just recognized it, pretty much has the power to define what is a marriage and what isn't, say what you will.

If the entity you look to can't do so, don't look to it to be calling the shots.


Anonymous said...

The US is hardly a theocracy, by the way.

Or is it? (Muahahaha... *slinks back into shadows*)

Scott W.

Geoff G. said...

If the Lakotahs have a ight to tibal customs, don't we Christians?

Of course you do. You can live your life in precisely the way you see fit. You can also choose to associate or not to associate with other people based on their beliefs.

What you do not have the right to do is to impose your values on everybody in the country with the force of law.

You say that China and the Soviet Union have (or had) this model. Why do you want the US to be like them? Why do you want to employ the state apparatus to control the lives of individuals?

Siarlys Jenkins said...

This is where I get to be culturally conservative, overlapping with my politically libertarian side, with my economically socialist loyalties just over the horizon. In every society, marriage has something to do with sex, which has to do with either men and women, or some human cultural variation on how to deploy emotions and anatomy that is functionally about men and women. Generally it has something to do with children, or the possibility of children.

Geoff's history is correct. I might add that the reason so many Jewish patriarchs and kings had multiple wives is because polygamy is entirely acceptable to the Old Testament. Greeks and Romans tried to be monogamous, and eventually managed to sort of force it on the Germanics and Celts. On the other hand, the Borgias were all children of a Pope. I consider it progress that we have moved away from polygamy, and that we let men and women pick their own partners. But its not a bad thing to think twice, and think about, so I really want to spend my entire life with this person?

I don't want The Law to force people to stay divorced. There are some really brutal situations which can result. But, it would be better to take marriage vows seriously -- the court will not ORDER us back together, but God really wants us to work at it, and even if we don't believe in God, in the long run we'll be happier if we try. The next partner down the road will get on our nerves too.

There have been plenty of heterosexuals who had declared "open marriages." They tend to end in divorce, for obvious reasons, as do gay marriages that are not intended to be monogamous and faithful. I don't doubt that a gay couple COULD be monogamous and faithful. My only rather unsatisfactory attempt at adultery was with the wife of a man who had an open marriage and was openly sleeping with a mutual friend of all three of us. Its a mess. Not recommended. If I marry, I want someone I really want to be faithful to, and I want reciprocity to help me keep that promise. Oh, a few years later, she left him, he had a steady girlfriend he was notoriously unfaithful to, she found a man she was still married to last I heard.

Anonymous said...

Good post. There are always exceptions to anything: Lakota pairings, Middle Eastern concubines, and Greek upper class pederasty...

It really doesn’t matter. The overwhelming function of marriage has been and remains the formation of children and families. It’s an achievement of evolution and culture. Just as monogamy is a cultural advance over polygamy. Sure, we could all act like the Lakota, or certain Asian rulers in history, but why should we? What compelling reason do we have for that? Moreover, why should we confuse perfectly good words like marriage with other social arrangements?

Marriage has a unique and indispensable social function that homosexual parings cannot duplicate. They can only imitate marriage, or worse, be a parody of it. I am for more precision in language, not muddle-headedness.

A homosexual couple is as dissimilar to a marriage as a man is to a woman. In fact, that’s being generous, since the sin qua non of the physical expression of homosexual love, sodomy, is not only the opposite of heterosexual sex, it’s in its essence, again, a kind of pathetic imitation, or parody of the real thing.

Jan Hus