Will Gay Marriage Undermine Monogamy?

First published at 365gay.com on March 11, 2011

Recently I received the following inquiry via my website [http://johncorvino.com/]:

“As a single older closeted gay man. I don’t understand how we can ask for marriage rights when so many gay couples don’t even understand monogamy. Care to explain?”

My first reaction was, “No, not really.”

That reaction stemmed partly from the fact that, in my own experience, people often bring up monogamy when they want to berate the non-monogamous. Moreover, open relationships are a rhetorical hot potato, the sort of thing marriage-equality opponents love to pounce on. And the writer’s “Care to explain?” struck me as terse, maybe even bitter.

My second reaction was to write back, albeit concisely:

“Many straight couples don’t understand monogamy either, and yet they’ve been getting married for thousands of years (including cultures where monogamy is very much NOT the norm).”

What I wrote was true, as far as it goes, but it left me with a nagging feeling that I hadn’t gone far enough.

Then a few days later I read Ross Douthat’s New York Times op-ed “Why Monogamy Matters.” [http://www.nytimes.com/2011/03/07/opinion/07douthat.html?_r=2] Douthat distinguishes between pre-marital sex that is truly pre-marital—involving couples on the path to matrimony—and sex that is “casual and promiscuous, or just premature and ill considered.” (I smell a false dilemma here, but let’s plow on.)

He then highlights some recent research suggesting “a significant correlation between sexual restraint and emotional well-being, between monogamy and happiness — and between promiscuity and depression.”

I haven’t yet looked at the research, and I won’t comment on it further except to raise the obvious concern that correlation does not equal causation. I’m curious about the confounding variables: Who are these unhappy promiscuous folks? What are their family backgrounds, their worldviews, their economic situations and so on? How are we defining promiscuity? And how are we measuring (un)happiness?

But two things jumped out at me in Douthat’s discussion.

One was his quick statement that this correlation “is much stronger for women than for men.” (More on this in a moment.)

The other was the absence of any mention of same-sex marriage. As I’ve discussed before [http://www.365gay.com/opinion/corvino-taking-on-the-new-argument-against-gay-marriage/], Douthat has argued against marriage equality [http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/09/opinion/09douthat.html?_r=1&ref=rossdouthat] on the grounds that extending marriage to gays and lesbians would render the institution less able to address heterosexual challenges.

Douthat’s rationale for this assertion is vague, but it’s not difficult to put two and two together and form an argument:

[1] Monogamy is hard, and people usually aren’t monogamous unless given good reason to be. [2] Same-sex couples have less reason to be monogamous than heterosexual couples do, because gay sex doesn’t make babies. (Note: “less reason” does not mean “no reason.”) [3] And gay men in particular have less reason to be monogamous, because non-monogamy doesn’t correlate with male unhappiness the way it correlates with female unhappiness (according to Douthat’s cited research). [4] Therefore, we should expect gay couples—especially gay male couples—to be less monogamous than straight couples. [5] Letting gays marry would thus undermine the norm of monogamy for everyone. [6] This effect would be bad for society generally, because of more out-of wedlock births, unhappy women, etc.

Perhaps my single, older, closeted gay male correspondent has a similar worry.

There’s more than one place to attack this argument, but the weakest point, in my view, is at [5]: letting gays marry would undermine the norm of monogamy for everyone.

It should go without saying, but letting gays marry will not change the fact that straight sex makes babies or that straight relationships contain women.

It also won’t change the fact that at least half of same-sex couples ARE women.

Finally, it won’t change straight people’s ability to think for themselves, notwithstanding social conservatives’ apparent pessimism on this point.

While monogamy may be hard, it’s not so hard that a monogamous couple (straight or gay) can’t look at a non-monogamous couple (straight or gay) and conclude, “Nope, that’s not right for us.” After all, people read the Bible without deciding to acquire concubines.

More generally (and realistically), people encounter neighbors with different cultural mores while still preferring—and sometimes having good reason to prefer—their own.

As our opponents are fond of reminding us, gays and lesbians make up a relatively small minority of the population. Coupled gays and lesbians make up a smaller minority, coupled gay males an even smaller minority, and coupled gay males in open relationships a smaller minority still. As Jonathan Rauch has written in his excellent book Gay Marriage: Why it is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America, “We might as well regard nudists as the trendsetters for fashion.”

So why do conservatives think that this tiny minority will undermine the norms of the vast majority, rather than vice versa?

It’s hard to escape the answer: because that view fits their preconceived objections better, evidence and common sense be damned.