On the Mutability of Marriage


There are two naive assumptions for the price of one in David Brooks’ most recent NYT column.1 Concluding, he writes:

The proponents of same-sex marriage used the language of equality and rights in promoting their cause, because that is the language we have floating around. But, if it wins, same-sex marriage will be a victory for the good life, which is about living in a society that induces you to narrow your choices and embrace your obligations.

Brooks’ entire point rests on the idea that marriage is immutably monogamous. This hopelessly naive position is undermined by (just to name one prominent example) Dan Savage’s influential argument that infidelity should be not only tolerated but that it can be embraced within marriage. For example, speaking of the infidelity in his own marriage, he writes:

People have come into our lives as lovers and enriched and enhanced our lives. Taken us into new worlds. And exposed us to new communities. New groups of people, new groups of friends. And that’s been very rewarding, and very rich.

So not only is the monogamy/marriage link not set in stone (that was his first foolish assumption), but furthermore the rhetoric of “equality and rights” was not in some way insulated from the policy of gay marriage. (The idea that policy and and supporting arguments could be so insulated was his second foolish assumption.)

Of course homosexuals didn’t invent infidelity, and there have always been heterosexual proponents of open marriage. Nevertheless, it’s impossible to miss the the extent to which the equality and rights rhetoric–by emphasizing the benefits of marriage to the spouses as opposed to their duties and obligations to each other, to the community, and to children–have substantially eroded all the quaint, freedom-limiting aspects of marriage that Brooks is so excited about.


3 thoughts on “On the Mutability of Marriage”

  1. First, the link to Brooks’ article is broken. This piece appears to be about his column titled “Freedom Loses One” written in April 2013. http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/02/opinion/brooks-freedom-loses-one.html

    “Brooks’ entire point rests on the idea that marriage is immutably monogamous.”
    His point rests on the idea that gay marriages are as monogamous as other marriages.

    By introducing the argument in the last sentence with no supporting data, this piece does a perfectly terrible job of convincing the reader that “equality and rights rhetoric … have substantially eroded all the quaint, freedom-limiting aspects of marriage.” So talking about rights is demonstrably the cause of the breakdown of the American family, and a direct cause and effect of equality-talk to breaking families from their communities can be demonstrated?
    It’s enormously difficult to tie any cultural trend to a measurable societal effect in a statistically compelling way. The best evidence you possibly have is correlation, and there’s no way you have what’s needed to show causation. You’re scapegoating.

  2. Ryan-

    Thanks for pointing out the broken link, and my bads on getting the dates confused. I hate it when I think something is recent and it’s actually two years old. I’ve updated the post to that effect.

    His point rests on the idea that gay marriages are as monogamous as other marriages.

    As a matter of fact, I think it is common knowledge that gay marriages are not considered to be as bound by monogamy as straight / traditional marriages are supposed to be. Thus the term “monogamish.” I supported the assertion with one quote from Dan Savage that I took to be emblematic of the more general trend because, again, I thought this was common knowledge. As another example: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/news/gay-open-relationships/ There’s a tag on HuffPo just for “Gay Open Marriage” with a variety of articles by a variety of authors arguing (1) that gay marriages are not monogamous and (2) that they shouldn’t be and in some cases even intentionally contrasting this with straight / traditional marriage, e.g. “Why I Never Want To Be Just Like Straight People (And Why You Shouldn’t Either)”

    In addition to articles decrying monogamy within gay marriages, there is also social science data. I confess to not bothering to look it up because (for the third time): I thought this was common knowledge. There’s tons of evidence that gay couples (especially male) are not at all monogamous, for example here. A lot of this is problematic, however. In this case, 75.5% of married straight men self-report sexual fidelity and 4.5% of gay men report sexual-fidelity. There are two obvious problems, of course. First, we’re comparing married straight men to gay men, married or not. Secondly, it’s self reported. Still, the 75.5% to 4.5% number is large enough to be interesting in and of itself.

    I have also read sociological data of married gay couples, and I do recall that there were large differences in fidelity between married heterosexual couples, married lesbian couples, and married gay (male) couples.

    So, to address your final accusation:

    1. I will frankly admit that proof is hard in social sciences. Proof is hard in quite a lot of things outside of a laboratory. From what I understand, it’s no easy shakes in a lab in plenty of cases either. But I’m not sure that it is reasonable to go straight from “this isn’t proven” to “we’re not allowed to have opinions based on what evidence we can glean.”

    2. I find the accusation that I’m scapegoating puzzling. As the articles indicate, gay men (lots of them, at least) don’t want to be monogamous. Condemning people for things they don’t view to be deficiencies is–at a minimum–an odd form of scapegoating.

    I think you should concede that the basic argument I’m making–which is that gay relationships are not necessarily compatible with traditional heterosexual social structures–is not intrinsically an anti-gay position. There have been times (and recent ones) when that was actually the dominant position in the gay community: that marriage was an intrinsically heteronormative institution and thus to be eschewed. Thus: there’s nothing necessarily nefarious or anti-gay about pointing out the possible conflict between some aspects of heterosexual / traditional marriages on the one hand and gay relationships on the other. One could just as easily argue that the real anti-gay position is to expect homosexuals to adapt themselves to an institution that has evolved socially primarily for heterosexual relationships. The only reason one does not see this argument very often in our current moment is tactical, not philosophical.

  3. It sounds like gay marriage opponents have trouble with the idea that some people can choose different ways to “narrow choices and embrace obligations” and still have successful families and communities. For example, the word “fidelity” isn’t really apt if your partner knows about it, or if your partner’s there participating. So long as a family gets the kid(s) to school, attends PTA meetings, and coaches soccer, who cares how they get their kink on? The fact that a certain family structure works for you is no reason to impose it on everyone. It would make as much sense to impose a national 11pm bedtime because that works for you.

    The scapegoating comment had nothing to do with the monogamy discussion. The accusation was that “equality and rights rhetoric … have substantially eroded all the quaint, freedom-limiting aspects of marriage.” So, an open gay relationship threatens the monogamy of a heterosexual relationship? If that’s the case, it sounds like not everyone in that relationship was heterosexual.
    This all seems designed to take away from a couple their right to define their own relationship together on the basis of what works best for them and their community. This has nothing to do with eroding limits of marriage; it’s setting per-family limits that make sense for a family in a society.
    It makes no sense to make broad statements about “gay relationships'” compatibility with heterosexual social structures. Gay relationships, like straight relationships, come in a broad and varied spectrum. Some of those gay relationships will fit in perfectly with whatever you think a straight relationship is, while many won’t. There’s no reason for these different relationships to hurt your relationship, or your community.

Comments are closed.