In her unique style, Miranda Devine wrote an op ed discussing same-sex marriage. Concerned that Tony Abbott is betraying social conservatives by planning a Coalition conscience vote, she called for a referendum on the issue.
As reviewed at Buzzfeed, other conservatives seem to accept that same-sex marriage is on its way to Australia. Right-wing shock jock Alan Jones announced his support for gay marriage, as did right-wing radio host Neil Mitchell. Andrew Bolt also announced that whilst he had concerns about gay marriage, and where it might lead, he recognised that the “battle for same-sex marriage has been won”.
Bolt’s article ended on an interesting point. He said that this did not mean “ending an argument”, but “opening new ones”. Marriage is presently tied up with notions of monogamy and “tradition”. Would gay marriage supporters embrace and insist on fidelity? Would they become “conservative” and oppose open marriages? Bolt writes “they’ve won the argument that two adults may marry whomever they choose. But what will they now say to three adults wanting that right? Four?”
In a sense, Bolt misses the mark: heterosexual married couples are free to be as promiscuous as they like. The state does not annul heterosexual open marriages, and there is no suggestion that this will happen.
Yet the broader point that Bolt makes is worth considering. Marriage is being redefined. Presently, it is taken for granted that it should exist in a certain way, and that conception is being changed around the world. One cannot assume that marriage will be exactly the same forever after gay marriage is legalised. For example, a same-sex marriage bill might exclude some monogamous couples. If a couple wants to get married, and one, or even both of them don’t identify as male or female, it would be important that this not be an obstacle to their relationship being recognised as equally valid to other relationships that fit within other gender identifications.
Bolt explains why he values marriage as it is now with reference to history: “For centuries marriage was between a man and a woman, until death did them part. We eventually ditched that death part and then brought in no-fault divorce.” Devine, a little less familiar with history, wrote that marriage
“… is a universal, foundational institution… It has underpinned all human civilisation since the beginning of recorded history. Marriage has always been the union of a man and a woman, for the core purpose of procreating and rearing children. It exists to tame the base sexual instincts of men and women, to harness a mother and father to monogamy and the optimal upbringing of their children. It is not a vehicle to validate adult romantic interests.”
Devine is wrong, but the way in which she is wrong is enlightening, because it gives us an idea of why conservatives are wary of changing the definition of marriage, besides those who are simply motivated by a desire to discriminate against gay people.
Stephanie Coontz wrote a critically acclaimed study, called Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. She notes in her book the difficulty of even defining marriage, because of the many forms marriage has taken across the world in history.
She notes that “only rarely in history has love been seen as the main reason for getting married”. So Devine is correct in her implicit assumption that marriage isn’t about love.
However, her theory that marriage was “always” the “union of a man and a woman”, for the sake of harnessing them to monogamy, is not as correct. Coontz writes:
“In many societies of the past, sexual loyalty was not a high priority. The expectation of mutual fidelity is a rather recent invention. Numerous cultures have allowed husbands to seek sexual gratification outside marriage. Less frequently, but often enough to challenge common preconceptions, wives have also been allowed to do this without threatening the marriage. In a study of 109 societies, anthropologists found that only 48 forbade extramarital sex to both husbands and wives.
When a woman has sex with someone other than her husband and he doesn't object, anthropologists have traditionally called it wife loaning. When a man does it, they call it male privilege. But in some societies the choice to switch partners rests with the woman.”
Devine says marriage is not about validating adult romantic interests, but about making and looking after children. Yet sterile couples can still marry, and clearly one reason people get married today is because they say they are in love. This is a development within the last few hundred years.
The arguments of conservatives were similar then to what they are now. Conservatives “recognised the dangers” of “basing marriage on love and companionship”, which “represented a break with thousands of years of tradition… They worried that the unprecedented idea of basing marriage on love would produce rampant individualism.”
After all, the conservatives argued,
“the values of free choice and egalitarianism could easily spin out of control. If the choice of a marriage partner was a personal decision, conservatives asked, what would prevent young people, especially women, from choosing unwisely? If people were encouraged to expect marriage to be the best and happiest experience of their lives, what would hold a marriage together if things went “for worse” rather than “for better”?”
Marriage for the sake of “personal happiness” was considered a dangerous innovation, which
“could undermine self-discipline. One scholar argues that this fear explains the extraordinary panic about masturbation that swept the United States and Europe at the end of the eighteenth century and produced thousands of tracts against “the solitary vice” in the nineteenth. The threat of female masturbation particularly repelled and fascinated eighteenth-century social critics. To some it seemed a short step from two people neglecting their social duties because they were ‘taken up with each other’ to one person pleasuring herself without fulfilling a duty to anyone else at all. “
Coontz observes there were similar slippery slope arguments back then.
“In 1799 the British conservative Hannah More predicted that the agitation for ‘rights’ would undermine all family ties. First there was the “rights of man”, she said. Then came the ‘rights of women’ Next, she warned, ‘we will be bombarded with grave descants on the rights of youth, the rights of children, and the rights of babies.’”
Eventually, the conservatives were proved right in the 20th century:
“Conservatives had long claimed that rising expectations about finding happiness in marriage would lead to an increase in divorce. They were now proved right. Increasingly, people filed for divorce because their marriages did not provide love, companionship, and emotional intimacy, rather than because their partners were cruel or had failed to perform their marital roles as housekeeper or provider. “
This model of marriage became so successful that by the 1950s, it was assumed to be as standard as it is today:
“Never before had so many people shared the experience of courting their own mates, getting married at will, and setting up their own households. Never had marriage couples been so independent of extended family ties and community groups. And never before had so many people agreed that only one kind of family was ‘normal.’
The cultural consensus that everyone should marry and form a male breadwinner family was like a steamroller that crushed every alternative view. By the end of the 1950s even people who had grown up in completely different family systems had come to believe that universal marriage at a young age into a male breadwinner family was the traditional and permanent form of marriage.”
Conservatives might lament the transformation of marriage, but in many ways this represented progress. Choosing who one marries, and marrying in pursuit of happiness perhaps does not seem as dreadful and exotic as it once did. The idea that if a marriage was awful, it could be ended was a triumph for human freedom.
As Coontz observed, “Once a Victorian woman entered marriage, she was still legally subordinate to her husband… In the thirteenth century the English jurist Henry de Bracton declared that a marriage couple is one person, and that person is the husband”.
This thesis was reaffirmed by the great British jurist, William Blackstone in the 18th century.
One should remember the sexism deeply entrenched in the institution of marriage for so long:
“In many states and countries a nonvirgin could not bring a charge of rape, and everywhere the idea that a man could rape his own wife was considered absurd. Wife beating was hardly ever treated seriously. The trivialisation of family violence was epitomized in a 1954 report of a Scotland Yard commander that ‘there are only about twenty murders a year in London and not all are serious – some are just husbands killing their wives.’”
So is gay marriage a similar menace? Do the conservatives have a point?
I would say, yes and no. Historically, marriage has meant a lot of things across the world at different times. The idea that it’s an eternal institution with a fixed meaning is nonsense. The fact that our understanding of it is changing is not necessarily a bad thing.
Conservatives by their nature oppose change. Marriage has indeed become less certain and permanent. This is because people can divorce spouses who they don’t want to spend the rest of their lives with: surely a daunting challenge, and a cruel sentence to impose on those who have made bad choices.
Does this mean that once same-sex marriage is legally placed on the same footing as heterosexual marriage, marriage will change radically like it previously has? I don’t think so. There are two kinds of arguments that are made in support of gay marriage, which point in different directions.
One argument would run like this. Heterosexual couples are free to marry whoever they like, with minimal restrictions placed on legal recognition of their marriage. Homosexual couples are not free to do so, and this is discriminatory on the basis of sexual orientation.
Another argument is this. People are free to engage in any type of sexual or romantic affairs they like, so long as they operate within certain legal boundaries: that all participants are over a certain age, that their relations are consensual and so on.
Within these limits, it is inappropriate for the state to interfere, or recognise one relationship as more worthy of certain types of state benefits. The state should be neutral in regards to personal relationships, and should not penalise or reward one type over another. Just as it is inappropriate for the government to prevent a man from marrying a woman because they haven’t known each other that long, or because he doesn’t really love her that much, so the government has no business interfering in consensual gay relationships.
The first argument is somewhat self-contained and narrowly drawn. The second one is more radical, because it is consistent with broader changes. If consensual monogamous relationships between two women are to be treated equally to monogamous heterosexual relationships, why shouldn’t the state recognise, as Andrew Bolt asked, three adults who want to marry?
Personally, I am sympathetic to the second argument. I do not believe that the state should only offer legal recognition to monogamous relationships. However, this doesn’t mean that monogamous marriage is doomed. Though public opinion has long favoured legal recognition of gay and lesbian marriage, it has taken a long time to translate this into political success.
There is little reason at this point in time to assume that polyamorous campaigners will have similar success in transforming the definition of marriage. Gay marriage has broad backing across Australia, from rich to poor, which even reaches into most of Tony Abbott’s family.
Polyamory has nothing like the same extent of public support, visibility, or networks of activists across the breadth of Australian society. Monogamy may have its own difficulties, but society will have to change more before the law catches up to those changes.
Put differently, marriage will continue to reflect societal norms and values, which change over time, as they always have.
Donate To New Matilda
New Matilda is a small, independent media outlet. We survive through reader contributions, and never losing a lawsuit. If you got something from this article, giving something back helps us to continue speaking truth to power. Every little bit counts.