Monthly Archives: September 2010

The Invention of Marriage

First published at on September 24, 2010

Once upon a time, in a land far away, a Council of Elders convened to ponder the challenges of human relationships. Noticing that male-female relationships frequently involve sex, and that sex often makes babies, this “Relationship Council” decided that an institution was needed to regulate adults’ behavior for children’s benefit. Thus marriage was invented.

The Relationship Council is, of course, a figment of my imagination. But not just mine, apparently: conservative opponents of marriage equality often seem to believe in something very much like it.

I’m referring to their tendency to speak of THE purpose of marriage, as if this rich social institution had one unitary, fixed, transcultural and transhistorical purpose—a single problem which it was designed to solve—rather than arising, as human social institutions typically do, in a far messier way.

So for example, in their recent cover story “The Case for Marriage,” [] the editors of National Review confidently declare, “The reason marriage exists is that the sexual intercourse of men and women regularly produces children.”

Not “a” reason, or even “the most important” reason, but THE reason. The Relationship Council must have declared it so.

An even stronger version of this implicit myth suggests that marriage was not invented at all, but rather discovered, much as one might discover blood types or other natural divisions. On this view, our legal and social institution of marriage merely tracks something already present. Assuming that it does so correctly, alterations to it would not merely be unwise—they would embody a kind of falsehood. (The National Review editors, like most conservative commentators on the issue, seem to vacillate between the weaker and stronger myth.)

Needless to say, I find this understanding of marriage absurd, both philosophically and historically. Whatever else it is, marriage is an evolving social institution. Like virtually every other, it has multiple overlapping purposes—most of which reinforce one another, some of which exist in tension. (Compare, for example, modern marriages of choice with traditional European arranged marriages.)

But the myth gets worse. For it appears that the Relationship Council’s ultimate concern wasn’t about children at all, since infertile heterosexual couples may marry whereas same-sex couples—even those with children—may not. Why not? According to the National Review editors (who sound an awful lot like Princeton’s Robert P. George),

“The philosophical answer boils down to the observation that it is mating that gives marriage its orientation toward children. An infertile couple can mate even if it cannot procreate. Two men or two women literally cannot mate.”

Got that? Marriage is for mating.

The idea that marriage=mating looks even worse when you consider its implications. It implies that married heterosexual couples who are having sex but aren’t “mating”—because, for example, they’re engaging in orgasmic oral sex, or because they’re using contraception—are pursuing a kind of “counterfeit” intimacy.

But wait, there’s more. Imagine a heterosexual couple, deeply in love, where the male is paralyzed from the waist down. Can this couple marry?

They cannot, on this view, for they cannot “mate.” Thus the male’s sexual stimulation of the female could achieve no more than “an impermissible illusion of (a counterfeit experience of) true one-flesh union, not its reality,” as one of George’s students recently put it to me.

This view of marriage is not just false. It’s not just foolish. It’s inhumane.

If this were all, it would be bad enough. But as if they wanted to make extra-sure that their argument was unsound, the National Review editors did not rest content merely with a false premise (namely, that the purpose of marriage is “mating”). That would have been too easy. Instead, they took that false premise, and proceeded to draw an invalid inference from it. That is, they argued from what is not true to what does not follow.

Purely for the sake of argument, let us grant that the purpose of marriage is mating. Indeed, let us grant that this is obviously so, as obvious as that ears are for hearing.

It is simply a non-sequitur to move from that premise to the conclusion that marriage may never be used for other purposes, such as recognizing, fortifying and protecting same-sex couples and their families.

After all, ears are for hearing, but they are also quite useful for keeping one’s eyeglasses from slipping down one’s nose. They can do that even for those who do not or cannot use them to hear (i.e. the deaf).

Securing their eyeglasses is something the National Review editors ought to try. For then they might better see what is crystal-clear to growing numbers of Americans: Same-sex couples, too, have needs that marriage serves well, and society has an interest in promoting stable family units for all its members. Even those whose sex doesn’t count as “mating.”

Gay Marriage, Straight Marriage and La Difference

First published at on September 17, 2010

Some weeks ago I wrote a piece [] responding to a Ross Douthat column which draws on the celibate lesbian author Eve Tushnet. Tushnet had written,

“If you have a unisex model of marriage, which is what gay marriage requires, you are no longer able to talk about marriage as regulating heterosexuality and therefore you’re not able to say: Look, there are things that are different about heterosexual and homosexual relationships. There are different dangers, there are different challenges, and, therefore, there are probably going to be different rules.”

My ultimate complaint was (and remains) that neither Tushnet nor Douthat explains why extending marriage to gay people would somehow warp it to where it could no longer meet the needs of straight people—especially since gays and straights share so many fundamental needs and challenges.

In a recent blog post, Tushnet responds. [] Her response is organized around four points. I’ll address each of them briskly here, with the hope that I might delve into some of them at greater length later.

First, she responds to my chiding her and Douthat for ignoring the myriad differences that exist WITHIN the category of heterosexual relationships—some with children, some without; some involving young lovebirds; some involving mature companions; some domestic, some long-distance, and so on.

Tushnet complains that my perspective requires one to believe that sex/gender difference is just one difference among others, rather than THE difference. As she puts it, my view requires denying that sex difference is “iconic.” She writes,

“I genuinely believe that sex difference is sublime in a way that age difference, for example, is not. Its sublimity stems in part, though I think only in part, from its danger, its potential for horror, and its simultaneous potential for exceptional beauty.”

I’m not sure that Tushnet is aiming at my central complaint here. But if she is, then she’s saying that the problem with extending marriage to same-sex couples is that doing so renders it unable to express the “iconic,” “sublime” and “beautiful” male-female difference it traditionally expressed.

It’s hard to respond to that, except to note that it depends on a radically different worldview from mine: As I see it, of the many important purposes of marriage, iconography is pretty low on the list.

I value marriage because of the concrete ways in which it recognizes and fortifies families, helping them to sustain relationships that do them—and society—palpable good. It serves people’s deep needs for intimacy, care, support in childrearing, and so on. Gay and lesbian people have those needs, too.

So if it’s a choice between marriage-as-iconography and marriage-as-meeting-concrete-needs, I’d pick the latter every time.

Second, Tushnet complains that “If lots and lots of differences are as important to marriage as sex differences, or sex differences are as unimportant to marriage as lots and lots of differences, it’s exceptionally difficult to understand how marriage could be an institution which regulates sex at all.”

No, it isn’t. Sex (the activity) is a powerful and risky force, and thus there are reasons to regulate it in and through marriage. (Of course the stakes are higher when that activity can also result in children.) Furthermore, sex brings people together, and marriage helps keep them together, even as their sexual interest waxes and wanes. What’s so difficult to understand?

Here Tushnet proffers the usual false dilemma: either marriage is solely male-female or else it “means whatever you want it to mean.” But there’s plenty of reasonable middle ground between those polar (and false) alternatives.

Third, Tushnet speculates about my worldview. (She could have asked; I’m not that hard to find.) She suspects that, for me, men and women are nothing more than functions: “If we can figure out the function of a father, we can replace biological fathers with father figures or male role models and no harm done.”

I hold no such thing. Indeed, I’ve written about the fact that I believe biological bonds are special [], which is not to say that they are the only kind of parent-child bond deserving of support.

But what I also believe—and have repeatedly argued—is that it’s unfair to saddle marriage-equality proponents with the donor-conception debate. Tushnet does this again in her fourth point, where she complains that members of the “’family diversity’ movement” lack “aesthetic sensitivity” to biological connectedness.

If she’s right, she’s only half right: it’s in part BECAUSE of such aesthetic sensitivity that some gay couples—as well as many infertile straight couples—choose donor-conception over adoption. (There are other reasons, including the hurdles placed in front of gay couples seeking to adopt.)

I understand why Tushnet worries that some individuals’ desires for “their own” biological children renders them less sensitive to children’s interest in “their own” biological mother AND father. But I cannot see how she (or anyone) convincingly connects the dots between that premise and the conclusion that gays shouldn’t be allowed to marry.

It’s not about iconography. It’s about the real needs of gay and lesbian individuals, couples, and families.

Should Gays be Against Marriage?

First published at on September 10, 2010

In my marriage debates, I am often asked what I think about critics on the left who argue that marriage is a fundamentally flawed institution which gays and lesbians would be better off avoiding.

Answer: I think they’re ultimately wrong.

There are several such critics, though the ones that come quickly to mind are my fellow philosopher Claudia Card and the queer theorist Michael Warner. Their objections vary, but a common theme is that marriage necessarily involves the state discriminating between different types of relationships, privileging some (the married) at the expense of others (the unmarried).

Marriage pressures people in subtle and not-so-subtle ways, they argue, including economic incentives such as health-care, employment, and tax benefits. It grants status. Those who remain single are stigmatized or pitied, as are those who pursue alternative family forms. Card is also especially concerned about the legal access marriage gives spouses to each other, access which can make partners (especially women) vulnerable to abuse.

Such criticisms are not without merit. There was a time (thankfully past, but not by long) when married women could not defend themselves against rape by their husbands, because of a legal system which treated wives as essentially their husband’s property. Marriage does grant status, and married people sometimes flaunt it obnoxiously. And it’s unfortunate that single people have a harder time getting affordable health care than their married counterparts—though that is more because we attach health insurance to employment than a problem with marriage per se.

But I don’t see how solving these problems requires dismantling marriage, and I certainly don’t think we should delay the marriage-equality debate until we’ve addressed all other issues. Yes, marriage puts some pressure on people; that’s part of what makes it work as a social institution. Yes, sometimes that pressure goes too far. Yes, there are other valuable ways in which people organize their lives, and some of these deserve more attention than they get. But meanwhile, gays and lesbians are excluded from a fundamentally valuable institution—and that’s wrong.

Consider an analogy to another valuable social institution, college. One could make many of the same critiques of college that my fellow professors Card and Warner make of marriage. It privileges some life choices over others; it grants status; it unlocks a variety of economic and social benefits. We pressure young people to attend college and (unwittingly) stigmatize those who don’t. We claim to recognize that college isn’t right for everyone, and yet we do very little to support alternatives.

Now suppose that gays and lesbians were excluded from college. The correct response would not be to insist that college is imperfect and that we ought to forgo the “college-equality” debate until after we’ve fixed all of these other problems. The correct response would be to fix what we can, including the inequality.

Card has anticipated and responded to a similar argument. Imagine a society, she writes, which for sexist reasons allows men but not women to own slaves. Card argues that the way to repair such a society would be, not to extend slavery to women, but rather to abolish it altogether. She is surely correct about this. But the analogy only works on the assumption that marriage (like slavery and unlike college) is necessarily unjust, rather than only contingently so. I find that assumption absurd.

So while I agree that the marriage debate provides an opportunity to re-examine the weaknesses and strengths of marriage, as well as other life-choices, I remain convinced of the fundamental value of the institution. To this I would add a pragmatic point: Marriage is not going away—despite its radical critics’ hopes and its right-wing defenders’ fears. We would all be better off if it included gay and lesbian couples.

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