Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Marriage As a Message of Responsible Procreation?

For a slight change of pace, today and tomorrow I'm going to review two interesting academic articles I've read recently regarding marriage equality and feminism. While it can be fun to regularly observe anti-gays prattle on about the ickiness of anal sex and such, sometimes we all need to be reminded that there are far more sophisticated arguments beyond the Homos Will Destroy Our Entire Society and Feminists Are Ugly variety that proliferate on the intertubes.

First, via the Yale Journal of Law and the Humanities, Kerry Abrams and Peter Brooks address the so-called Responsible Procreation argument, articulated by Justice Gordy's dissent in the Goodridge decision, as it relates to marriage equality for same-sex couples. (All quotations from Abrams and Brooks' article unless otherwise indicated).

In short, Gordy's "Responsible Procreation" argument goes something like this: Unlike heterosexual couples, same-sex couples cannot accidentally procreate. Since same-sex couples cannot accidentally procreate, marriage is not necessary or appropriate for same-sex couples. Heterosexual couples, however, require marriage in order to police that rambunctious male hyper-sexuality. If same-sex couples were allowed to marry, it would send a "misimpression that reproduction is acceptable without a long-term commitment to parenting."

This argument was subsequently adopted by other state courts and used as a reason to deny same-sex couples the right to marry. Looking through the lenses of anthropology, history, literature, and constitutional law, Abrams and Brooks explore where this "one goal" of marriage theory originated and question its accuracy.

Unlike those who ignorantly or arrogantly make claims to the contrary, marriage does not have the one meaning to all people. Most historians would agree that there is no single, universally accepted definition of marriage and that, in fact, the purposes and goals of marriage have varied considerably across time and culture. That is not even a particularly contentious claim. It's just a fact in the reality-based world.

However, advocates of Traditional Marriage often idealize marriage as an institution created to encourage men to raise their biological children and "nobly" give up their inherent urge to have sex with as many women as they desire. Yet, this marriage-as-a-policing function is a relatively new conceptualization of marriage. As Abrams and Brooks document, sociologist Claude Levi-Strauss observed that marriage historically was not about the regulation of procreation but rather, it was about "the creation of alliances among different kinship groups."

Furthermore, in addition to creating alliances (and thus reducing the chances of war), marriage served the important function of "maintaining control over private property." Under the law of coverture, a woman's legal identity was subsumed by her husband's and marriage efficiently determined "which children would become heirs." Contrary to the goal of marriage as channeling agent for male sexuality, because "bastard" children could not inherit, Abrams and Brooks note that marriage did not actually function as a check on male (hetero)sexuality. Rather, it functioned "as a way for men to maintain sexual freedom without adverse financial consequences to themselves or their (official) families." Marriage, of course, comes with no guarantee that a male will remain faithful to his wife; historically, it came only with a guarantee that his children born in wedlock would inherit his property.

Even the idea that parenting must be undertaken by both a mother and a father is a relatively new argument as "[t]he history of the family includes a wide variety of structures, most often including extended families and polygamous families, where care of children is shared by many." Abrams and Brooks note that courts did not begin manufacturing the Marriage As Responsible Procreation concept until debates about same-sex marriage became prominent in the 1990s and that when they did so, hilarity (and absurdity) sometimes ensued. Money quote:

"Consider Baker v. Nelson, in which the court stated with no irony: 'The institution of marriage as a union of man and woman, uniquely involving the procreation and rearing of children within a family, is as old as the book of Genesis.' Sarah’s handmaiden Hagar, who gave birth to Abraham’s children because of Sarah’s infertility, would be quite surprised to discover that marriage was the institution designed to police Abraham’s sexual impulses; and the sisters Rachel and Leah, both married to Jacob, knew that marriage facilitated, rather than constricted, Jacob’s access to multiple sexual partners."

With historical context in mind, the Responsible Procreation argument looks suspiciously like reverse reasoning. That is, starting with their conviction that marriage is not an institution "designed" for same-sex couples, advocates of this theory reason backwards by finding the one thing that separates same-sex couples from (many) man-woman couples and come up with a supporting argument that works with their already-held conclusion. It is interesting, on the internet, to observe amateur "marriage defenders" parrot the Responsible Procreation argument and its attendant claims that marriage always has been and always should be about Responsible Procreation as though that is a "self-evident truth" about marriage observable in reality, history, and all cultures since time immemorial.

Abrams and Brooks conclude by arguing that the Responsible Procreation conceptualization of marriage may ultimately lead to the downfall of Traditional Marriage. In short, the idea that marriage exists to entrap men is "wholly unappealing for many people." In reality, marriage means different things and has different purposes to different people. "Marriage defenders" have arrogantly claimed a monopoly on Authentic Marriage and, unfortunately, their definition serves only to alienate people from our shared institution. For, "marriage defenders:"

"have begun the process of transforming marriage from an institution that can be imbued, chameleon-like, with whatever characteristics an individual feels or needs to use to fill it into a mere regulatory device that people engage in out of a sense of obligation, duty, or access to health insurance."

To add to this argument, I find the entire Responsible Procreation argument to be insulting, most of all to men. As advocates of this theory would tell you (albeit euphemistically), men must be entrapped within the shackles of marriage or else they will not be good, responsible fathers or partners. It is in their nature to copulate with many women and then to abandon their resulting offspring for that higher "evolutionary" need to spread his seed. In a way, I suppose that makes sense. I've seen more than a few "marriage defenders" express an emotion that I suppose can best be likened to jealousy towards gay men and lesbians. In their eyes, homosexuality is an "urge" that gay people should just give up and perhaps, instead, channel everything into a (boring?) heterosexual monogamous marriage like the ones they themselves remain mired in. And, if heterosexual men have to give up non-monogamous sex, then gay people should have to give up their own desires as well.

Indeed, in an article that got laughed off the internets, the thrice-married Sam Schulman applauded "ordinary heterosexual men" for "heroically" marching up the aisle and surrendering "that dream of gratifying [their] immediate erotic desires." Are married men forever resentful of this "sacrifice" and, if so, is this why more men seem to be not just opposed to homosexuality, but utterly obsessed with opposing it? Just a theory. And if it holds true, I have a thought. Howsabout we let same-sex couples marry and tell heterosexual men, especially those "marriage defenders" who encourage gays to opt for a heterosexual lifestyle, to just do a better job of suppressing their own "natural sexual urges"? I mean, we already know that marriage already does a shoddy job, in the real world, of preventing married middle-aged "marriage defenders" from throwing away their careers for the thrills of that Other Woman.

But I digress, first off, it is unrealistic to present the desire for non-monogamy and sexual abandon to be a uniquely male characteristic. Showing their unfortunate male-centricity, I wonder if it ever crosses some "evolutionary" theorists minds that, especially since the advent of birth control, women have sexualities complete with desires and fantasies of their own to contend with. I sometimes wonder how much of the much-discussed Male Sex Drive is the result of "evolution" versus how much is the result of society-given entitlement.

Secondly, the idea that marriage's purpose is to channel male sexuality simultaneously gives men no credit and no responsibility for their own actions. Whether society is keeping gays out of marriage or blaming women for their own sexual assaults, society is supposed to cater to the urge of the male penis. Because the penis cannot be controlled, men will no longer rear, care for, or support their children if marriage does not continue sending men the message that Marriage Is For Responsible Procreation. But hey, who can blame them right? Men, you know, are just a naturally irresponsible lot and, despite everything we know about their inherent superiority, they have no agency of their own. They are, in fact, influenced only by their dicks and the messages that Marriage sends them. If they don't care for their children, it isn't their fault. I mean come on, is that really the message society wants to continue sending about men? Really?

Yet, for all of its rhetoric of being about the children, the Responsible Procreation argument's greatest failing is that it actually makes marriage entirely about men and their sexual urges. It, like so many other socially conservative ideologies, places men at the center and postulates that society will be utterly destroyed if marriage does not remain centered around men. For all of its blustering about the importance of fatherhood, you will notice that nary a word is said about wives, women, and mothers.

That's why, I suspect that the Responsible Procreation Argument is a case of social conservatives protesting too much. They know that, whatever happens to the legal status of marriage, society will carry on because women, who have been and who remain the primary caretakers of children, will carry on. Marriage isn't about controlling male sexuality. Marriage has never come with a fool-proof guarantee of sexual fidelity no matter what message "marriage" has sent. No, the Responsible Procreation argument is part of a larger mythology of gender complementarity that hoists the Male above the Female and reduces each one of us to our reproductive capacities, or lack thereof.

For good reason, it is a waning ideology for LGBT people and heterosexuals. It will eventually be its own demise.

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