Thursday, March 28, 2013

Defending Marriage

This is the post I wasn't going to publish but...

The Supremes have been discussing the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  Many observers believe that it might be struck down.  That would leave the definition of marriage to the states.

What's always fascinated me about that act is the "defense of marriage" part.  What is marriage defended against here?  Marauders who want to tear it apart?  People who want to participate in this wonderful institution?  That it is the latter makes the defense very odd.  Like saying that you can't come and play with our wonderful toys.

Except that the gays and lesbians have their own toys and have no intention of taking yours, assuming that I can use such metaphors in quite a serious context.

The arguments are somewhat more serious than that, of course.  The basic one is that marriage is meant for having children, and same-sex couples cannot have children together without external assistance.  This argument also tended to state that it is best for children to be brought up with two parents of opposite sexes, preferably the biological parents.  But research doesn't quite support that, at least when it comes to the children of gay and lesbian couples who tend to do quite well, thank you.

That leaves us with the argument that marriage is meant for bringing up one's own biological children.   This seems to require that marriages which have not produced children should be scrutinized most carefully and perhaps dissolved, that women after menopause or men with vasectomies should not be allowed to enter a heterosexual marriage and that we should pay far more (far more!)  attention to the threats that are created by unpaid child maintenance from non-custodial divorced parents, a very large problem in this country but one which gets minimal attention from the marriage-is-for-children people.

As many have pointed out, marriage as an institution is much more at risk from heterosexuals who have tried it than from gays and lesbians.

Then there is the "slippery slope" or "open the floodgates" argument from the likes of Rush Limbaugh and Rick Santorum.  Who are we going to let get married next if gays and lesbians are allowed to have same-sex marriage?  Can a man marry his dog?  How can we disapprove someone marrying a young child?  And what about polygamy?

The obvious answer to the first two questions is that the dog cannot be asked to consent to such marriage and neither can a small child, though the reasoning between the two cases is somewhat different, because the child will grow up to have that ability to consent or not whereas the dog will not.

The third question is more complicated. 

Notice that polygamy almost always means polygyny:  one man with more than one wife, and historically places which have allowed polygyny have also structured it so that the man has more power than all the wives put together.  What this means is that the partners in the polygynous marriage do not have equal powers.  The wives have very little power, the husband has the lion's share.

Would the American legal system give such arrangements the power of a binding marriage, especially if the wives are made to enter the arrangement inside closed subcultures where they really have few other alternatives or divorce rights?

I don't know.  On the other hand, if polygyny was legally allowed only under the equal-rights-for-all-spouses arrangement, most men might not find it that appealing.  For instance, a man's power in a heterosexual monogamous marriage would be roughly half (at least on paper), whereas his power in a group marriage with nine wives would be one tenth of the total.

All that would apply to polyandry, too.  Thus, the argument I would use to answer that third question is that it is the egalitarian laws about marriage which should be defended, not the specific form it takes between fully informed, adult and consenting parties.

This bring us neatly to religion.  Polygamy is linked to religious arguments in both Islam and Mormonism, after all.   But the supporters of DOMA are also often religious people and base their arguments on a literal reading of the Bible as being opposed to homosexuality, especially between men.  Yet a literal reading of the Bible also demands that adulterous women be stoned, that people not mix different fibers in their clothing and so on.

And of course other people's religions probably should not be used to determine what the rest of us do.  Hmm.  The Catholic Church certainly doesn't agree with that when it comes to contraceptive policies in the United States.  But still.  If the question is about marriage as a legal institution, nobody is forcing religious people to enter into same-sex marriages or the priests, ministers or mullahs to perform marriage ceremonies for gay and lesbian couples.

The proponents of DOMA probably have other arguments, too, but these three are the ones I hear about often.

I sometimes wonder about a hidden fourth argument, I do, and that is the defense of marriage as a male-dominated institution.  Having viable same-sex models for marriage could cause problems with that one, because gender could no longer be used to determine who it is who is supposed to be the head of the household or who it is who is supposed to do the vacuuming and the childcare.  Thus, believers in biological essentialist theories could support DOMA, too, though some of them might be OK with expanding legal marriage to one-man-many-women, what with that seen as "natural," too.

On some level it is the contents of marriage that are defended here, including its traditions and power relationships.  If we remove those signals of gender the hierarchies might tumble over.  Or not.  We shall see.

Then there are the legal aspects of marriage.  Extending marriage to same-sex couples wouldn't really matter very much in terms of those, because we already have the format for two adults.  But extending it to group marriages and such would cause bigger changes.  For instance, what would widows or widower's benefit look like if there are, say, five of them?

Finally, the history of marriage cannot be ignored here.  It was not initially a religious institution, at least in Europe, but was brought into the lap of the church with some reluctance from the priests.   Marriage for the wealthier was very much about property, very patrilocal,  centered on the idea of procuring sons for the next generation who would carry on the name and the lineage.  Marriage for women was the only widely available way to survive, the most common occupation, if you like.

The proponents of DOMA ignore those aspects of the traditional marriage and replace them with religious or ideological arguments.