The Case for Marriage As a Cultural Institution

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I found Sam Schulman’s article, The Worst Thing About Gay Marriage, very interesting. It seems to suggest that the modern concept of marriage is already a bit off its traditional rocker, and that gay marriage would go the rest of the distance towards making it utterly meaningless. That is, the historical aims of marriage included protecting women and children, promoting chastity, defining the moment of transition from life as a child to life as an adult, are less relevant today. But, as applied to gays, they have absolutely zero relevance. Instead, marriage for the gay movement is seen merely as the next stage of romantic progression. This is a dangerous truncation of marriage, which traditionally had much broader impact on culture and individual and social human development. Ultimately, Shulman believes, gays will bore of it, everyone else will forget what it means, and the entire institution will die. Hard to say if that’s exactly how it will happen, but it’s a compelling argument.

The entity known as "gay marriage" only aspires to replicate a very limited, very modern, and very culture-bound version of marriage. Gay advocates have chosen wisely in this. They are replicating what we might call the "romantic marriage," a kind of marriage that is chosen, determined, and defined by the couple that enters into it. Romantic marriage is now dominant in the West and is becoming slightly more frequent in other parts of the world. But it is a luxury and even here has only existed (except among a few elites) for a couple of centuries—and in only a few countries. The fact is that marriage is part of a much larger institution, which defines the particular shape and character of marriage: the kinship system.

The role that marriage plays in kinship encompasses far more than arranging a happy home in which two hearts may beat as one—in fact marriage is actually pretty indifferent to that particular aim. Nor has marriage historically concerned itself with compelling the particular male and female who have created a child to live together and care for that child. It is not the "right to marry" that creates an enduring relationship between heterosexual lovers or a stable home for a child, but the more far-reaching kinship system that assigns every one of the vast array of marriage rules a set of duties and obligations to enforce. These duties and obligations impinge even on romantic marriage, and not always to its advantage. The obligations of kinship imposed on traditional marriage have nothing to do with the romantic ideals expressed in gay marriage.

Consider four of the most profound effects of marriage within the kinship system.
The first is the most important: It is that marriage is concerned above all with female sexuality. The very existence of kinship depends on the protection of females from rape, degradation, and concubinage. This is why marriage between men and women has been necessary in virtually every society ever known. . . .

. . . .

Second, kinship modifies marriage by imposing a set of rules that determines not only whom one may marry (someone from the right clan or family, of the right age, with proper abilities, wealth, or an adjoining vineyard), but, more important, whom one may not marry. Incest prohibition and other kinship rules that dictate one's few permissible and many impermissible sweethearts are part of traditional marriage. Gay marriage is blissfully free of these constraints. There is no particular reason to ban sexual intercourse between brothers, a father and a son of consenting age, or mother and daughter. . . . [Incidentally, I have argued the same thing here, here, and here.]

Third, marriage changes the nature of sexual relations between a man and a woman. Sexual intercourse between a married couple is licit; sexual intercourse before marriage, or adulterous sex during marriage, is not. . . .

Now to live in such a system, in which sexual intercourse can be illicit, is a great nuisance. Many of us feel that licit sexuality loses, moreover, a bit of its oomph. Gay lovers live merrily free of this system. Can we imagine Frank's family and friends warning him that "If Joe were serious, he would put a ring on your finger"? Do we ask Vera to stop stringing Sally along? Gay sexual practice is not sortable into these categories—licit-if-married but illicit-if-not (children adopted by a gay man or hygienically conceived by a lesbian mom can never be regarded as illegitimate). Neither does gay copulation become in any way more permissible, more noble after marriage. It is a scandal that homosexual intercourse should ever have been illegal, but having become legal, there remains no extra sanction—the kind which fathers with shotguns enforce upon heterosexual lovers. I am not aware of any gay marriage activist who suggests that gay men and women should create a new category of disapproval for their own sexual relationships, after so recently having been freed from the onerous and bigoted legal blight on homosexual acts. But without social disapproval of unmarried sex—what kind of madman would seek marriage?

Fourth, marriage defines the end of childhood, sets a boundary between generations within the same family and between families, and establishes the rules in any given society for crossing those boundaries. Marriage usually takes place at the beginning of adulthood; it changes the status of bride and groom from child in the birth family to adult in a new family. . . .

These four aspects of marriage are not rights, but obligations. They are marriage's "a priori" because marriage is a part of the kinship system, and kinship depends on the protection, organization, and often the exploitation of female sexuality vis-à-vis males. [I will add that this is the reason we have witnesses at wedding ceremonies—they are not merely witnesses to a sweet, romantic event; they are witnesses to the new marital duties being created.] None of these facts apply at all to love between people of the same sex, however solemn and profound that love may be. In gay marriage there are no virgins (actual or honorary), no incest, no illicit or licit sex, no merging of families, no creation of a new lineage. There's just my honey and me, and (in a rapidly increasing number of U.S. states) baby makes three.

What's wrong with this? In one sense, nothing at all. . . . But without these obligations—why marry? Gay marriage is as good as no marriage at all.

Sooner rather than later, the substantial differences between marriage and gay marriage will cause gay marriage, as a meaningful and popular institution, to fail on its own terms. Since gay relationships exist perfectly well outside the kinship system, to assume the burdens of marriage—the legal formalities, the duty of fidelity (which is no easier for gays than it is for straights), the slavishly imitative wedding ritual—will come to seem a nuisance. People in gay marriages will discover that mimicking the cozy bits of romantic heterosexual marriage does not make relationships stronger; romantic partners more loving, faithful, or sexy; domestic life more serene or exciting. They will discover that it is not the wedding vow that maintains marriages, but the force of the kinship system. Kinship imposes duties, penalties, and retribution that champagne toasts, self-designed wedding rings, and thousands of dollars worth of flowers are powerless to effect.

. . . .

As kinship fails to be relevant to gays, it will become fashionable to discredit it for everyone. . . .
In other words, marriage used to be a part of enforcing cultural mores and perpetuating a way of life. Now, that enterprise is taboo. Interestingly, gay-marriage proponents are not content with merely toppling traditional mores, and instead want to force open the definitions to suggest that such traditions now include and embrace them. They don’t want to kill the chief, they want to wear his feathers and rule the same old village with their brave new rules. Schulman believes that it will never work. Either the natives will kill the new “chief” and preserve the old order, or they will all eventually agree that the headdress has no meaning, and collectively cast it away.

(Ironically, I was referred to Schulman’s article by Ed Brayton, who posted his own write-up of the piece, with his usual staggeringly high ratio of insults-to-analysis, under the title “The Dumbest Anti-Gay Marriage Argument Ever.”)

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