Politics & Policy

Love and Marriage

A combination necessarily exclusive to a man and a woman.

Let’s talk about sex.  That’s the one thing proponents of same-sex marriage don’t seem to want to discuss.  Yet sex has everything to do with the debate over gay marriage, and over the proposed Federal Marriage Amendment, which defines marriage as a union of a man and a woman.  Until we face certain truths about sex — I mean heterosexual sex — we will never understand the real implications of the movement for same-sex marriage.

This was brought home to me with stunning clarity by William Raspberry’s column, “What’s Love Got To Do With It?” in last Friday’s Washington Post.  Raspberry bemoans the near total absence of rules of courtship — indeed the absence of courtship itself — from our college campuses.  Building on what he’s seen over several years as a college teacher, but even more so on a new report entitled, “Hooking Up, Hanging Out, and Hoping for Mr. Right: College Women on Dating and Mating Today,” Raspberry chastises parents and college administrators for having abandoned college women to the false equality of meaningless sex with men.

Although a majority of female students expect to meet their future husbands on campus — and expect the marriages to last — the campus culture of “hooking up” (quick, no-strings sexual encounters) makes those marriages impossible to achieve.  These women are out of their minds, says Raspberry, to think that hooking up can ever lead to a wedding ring or a long-lasting marriage.  But Raspberry reserves his greatest scorn for the adults who’ve effectively deserted their children by failing to teach or enforce reasonable rules of courtship.

In repudiating the bogus claim of sexual “equality” implicit in the culture of no-strings sex, Raspberry offers a remarkable statement: “I don’t doubt for a minute that women’s control of sex helped to tame men, to focus their attention and make them suitable for, and amenable to, marriage.”

Now nothing in that statement would have been remarkable a generation ago.  And it’s certainly arresting that Raspberry is publicly willing to affirm today what ought to be obvious: that men and women approach sex differently, and that women, by waiting, help men to yoke together love and sex in a way that leads to and strengthens marriage.  But what’s truly interesting about Raspberry’s column is that he wrote it after penning a piece only last year expressing puzzlement that anyone could find gay marriage a threat to marriage itself.

Raspberry wasn’t being dense — just honest.  Marriage is one of those institutions we take for granted.  The rationale for marriage isn’t so much written down somewhere as buried in the thing itself.  That’s why neither Raspberry, nor other right-thinking liberals, can see the connection between the rise of the movement for gay marriage and the decline of heterosexual courtship and marriage.  But the link is there.

In one way or another, the rules of courtship and marriage are all a way of insisting that, in matters of sex, men and women are different.  And since courtship and marriage depend for their successful operation upon an ethos of sexual complementarity, people who imbibe the ethos of courtship can’t help but feel that there’s something not quite right about the idea of a homosexual marriage.

You can certainly argue that our growing tolerance for homosexuality is worth some weakening in the ethos of courtship, marriage, and sexual complementarity.  But painful as it is to acknowledge, it’s a terrible mistake to pretend that our increased tolerance for homosexuality isn’t related to the weakening of modern marriage.  It’s no coincidence that on the same college campuses where men and women “hook up” as though there were no real differences between them — as though they might as well be two men — it is forbidden to openly oppose same-sex marriage.

Yet for all that, William Raspberry still can’t see the contradiction between his call for a renewed acknowledgment of sexual difference in courtship and his inability a year ago to see the harmful effects of homosexual marriage upon the institution of marriage itself.  How can we revitalize an ethos of courtship based upon the sexual complementarity of men and women while simultaneously declaring that marriage itself has nothing whatsoever to do with the differences between the sexes?

A world of same-sex marriages is a world of no-strings heterosexual hookups and 50 percent divorce rates.  The divorce revolution, the sexual revolution, and the homosexual-rights movement all emerged simultaneously in the sixties, and the entirely related advances in these three social movements explain why we are on the verge of legalized same-sex marriage today.  Again, you can argue that the gains in freedom and tolerance are worth it, but don’t try tell me that the costs to marriage — and to children — of our new cultural mode aren’t real.

Yet that’s exactly what Jonathan Rauch tried to tell us, in a critique of the Federal Marriage Amendment in last Friday’s Wall Street Journal, the very same day that Raspberry’s column on “hooking up” appeared in the Post.  Rauch, a senior writer for National Journal, and one of the wisest observers of the Washington scene, is a chief exponent, along with journalist Andrew Sullivan, of the “conservative” case for gay marriage.  For Rauch, same-sex marriage is a win-win-win proposition: good for homosexuals, good for heterosexuals, and good for marriage itself.

That’s because Rauch believes that marriage will help to transmute the sometimes fleeting love that gay couples feel for one another into stable and lasting commitments — just as it does for heterosexual couples — all the while strengthening, rather than weakening, the institution of marriage itself.   But Rauch misses the fact that it’s women — not marriage as such — who make men, in William Raspberry’s words, “suitable for, and amenable to, marriage.” 

It is the unique sexual dynamic between men and women that domesticates men.  Marriage ratifies and reinforces the basic effect, but cannot create it out of whole cloth.  The ethos of marriage builds upon a series of shared and pre-existing expectations about the way a man ought to treat a woman — because of her sexual vulnerability, and because of her need for support as a mother. 

So contrary to Rauch’s hopes, simply redefining the union of two men as a “marriage” will not bring those social expectations into play.  Whether the relationship is called marriage or not, if a man sleeps around on another man, or fails to offer him financial support, he will not be condemned as a cad or a shirker.  Indeed, a substantial number of gay couples openly reject such expectations and declare that their interest in marriage is confined to its economic and legal benefits.  More than this, many homosexuals look to same-sex marriage as an opportunity to intentionally subvert the ethic of sexual fidelity and ethos of sexual complementarity that they consider keys to the “oppressiveness” of marriage itself.  So contrary to Rauch’s soothing promises, same-sex marriage will seriously undermine the ethos of marriage, without significantly stabilizing gay relationships in return. 

The truth is, but for a few exceptional conservatives such a Rauch and Sullivan (and in some ways, even for them), the movement for gay marriage has little to do with an expanded regard for marriage and everything to do with an attempt to gain social approval for homosexuality.  In effect, marriage is being “used” to send a message that has little to do with the institution itself — without anyone having honestly faced the real and harmful consequences to children and families of the change.

That’s why advocates of gay marriage and opponents of the Federal Marriage Amendment want to talk about civil rights, states rights, federalism, even love — anything but sex.  Marriage springs directly from the ethos of heterosexual sex.  Once marriage loses its connection to the differences between men and women, it can only start to resemble a glorified and slightly less temporary version of hooking up.  And in the end, it is children who will pay the price.


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