'the future of marriage' live-blog: what marriage is

Welcome to part four of my live-blog reading of David Blankenhorn's The Future of Marriage (2007). You can read part onepart two and part three here. 

We began The Future of Marriage by asking "What is marriage?" Despite acknowledging that "there is no single, universally accepted definition of marriage" (11; emphasis his), David B. seems hellbent on coming up with just such a definition. Without one, he seems to feel, all of our discussions about marriage law -- and particularly the desire to be more inclusive in American society regarding what forms marriage and family might legitimately take -- are specious.

So in chapter five, after our exploration of definitions he feels are too vague or over-inclusive, our romp through prehistory, and our case-study exploration of Mesopotamia and the Trobriand islands, we circle back around to the question of defining marriage. But this time rather than posing a question, David B. is offering and answer: the chapter title is "What Marriage Is."

The chapter opens:
In all or nearly all human societies, marriage is socially approved sexual intercourse between a woman and a man, conceived as both a personal relationship and as an institution, primarily such that any children resulting from the union are -- and are understood by society to be -- emotionally, morally, practically, and legally affiliated with both of the parents (92). 
This is David's working definition of what marriage is. He goes on to argue that it is "a way of living rooted in the fundamental physiological and biochemical adaptation of our species ... constantly evolving ... [yet it] also reflects one idea that does not change: For every child, a mother and a father" (92).

This definition of marriage has obvious implications for the legitimacy of marriage in the lives of couples like myself and my wife: how does it include marriages within which no children are biologically procreated between the two spouses? how does it include marriages with children wherein the parents are of the same sex and/or gender? However, before we get to that part of David B.'s thought process (he does address those issues later in the chapter), I'd like to point out a few things about this definition qua definition.
  • To claim that in all times and in all places there is one idea about marriage that does not change is an awfully big claim. Certainly, scholars are fond of grand claims; that doesn't mean we aren't also vulnerable to having our grand claims deflated when those claims rest upon a shaky scaffolding of evidence. And in this instance, the scaffolding isn't a whole lot: a survey of contentious evopsych literature and two geo-temporal locations in which marriage was practiced in two very different ways, but both included childcare on some level.
  • Following from the broad scope of the claim comes the fairly random/convenient selection of child-rearing as the core concept behind marriage. Based on Blankenhorn's own examples,we could just as easily make the argument that the core concept of marriage was to regulate sexual activity, to formalize extended family relationships into the next generation, or celebrate the pair-bond of a couple by the larger community. All of these features were present in both cases, so why pick the mother-father-childcare option? To my understanding, most historians exploring the history of marriage and family life would identify a cluster of concepts and behaviors around which marriage circles, some aspects rising to the fore in certain eras or cultures, others in a different period among another group of people. I don't think anyone (well, probably someone, but certainly not any mainstream theorist) would deny that for most cultures throughout history the provision of care for the young (and the elderly!) is an important feature of family life. And marriage has often been a vehicle for securing familial structures for the following generation(s). It doesn't follow, however, that we can therefore reduce the meaning of marriage to parent-provision. We actually provide parents (and other care-givers) for children in multiple ways, only some of which involve marriage. Adoption, fostering, recognition of bastards, even prison, all have served to provide children with some sort of care (however lacking) until they are old enough to start earning their own keep.
  • Finally, I just want to note this question of providing children with both "a mother and a father." David B. clearly believes that children have a right not only to know their biological origins -- that is, which two persons (and probably under what circumstances) provided the sperm and egg from which the child was formed -- but also to be raised by both biological parents. This is a multi-level claim that I am uncertain can be adequately dealt with in the context of a conversation about marriage, since it raises issues that are not contingent upon marriage. 
    • We certainly have, in modern America since the 1970s, a strong tradition of privileging the right of a birth parent(s) with presumptive legal rights: unless a birth mother specifically surrenders her parental rights, and often the biological father a well, they are -- barring proven abuse -- the adults responsible for the welfare of the child. This is irrespective of any marital relationship between the two parents. So independent of marriage a child is entitled to their biological parents unless other provisions for parentage have been made. And even then, there is a strong movement toward ensuring a child access to the information surrounding their biological origins in instances where they are not raised by their biological parents. 
    • But David B. is going beyond the right of a child to know; he's making the argument that children have a right to be functionally parented by both biological parents -- and that marriage between the two bio parents is both the primary and the best vehicle for such an activity. I won't argue with him that, in modern America at least, this is the dominant model for parenting. Statistically speaking, it appears that the majority of children are growing up in households in which the primary care-giving adults are also their biological and legal parents. Arguing that this is the best model, in a universal sense -- the model most likely to result in child well-being -- is a much more complicated discussion. Blankenhorn has, thus far in The Future of Marriage, not made a convincing case (or, really, any case at all) for the married bio-parent model being superior to all other models, and explained on what grounds such an argument might rest.
What are the implications of this definition of marriage for same-sex couples who are (or desire to be) married? And where does such a definition leave couples who are not planning (or are unable) to procreate and/or parent? Blankenhorn ignores the demographic of female-male couples who are not directly procreating (they still fit within his model of male-female parents in type if not in functional fact) and focuses on the case for same-sex couple inclusion within this definition of marriage. I'm not going to tackle every point he makes inthis chapter, but two facets of his argument struck me:
  • He argues that "the leading proponents of same-sex marriage in the United States today ... studiously avoid any implication that marriage is connected to sex. Instead, they insist that marriage is an abstract and radically non-physical 'relationship' that is separate and apart from, you know, what people do in the bedroom" (92). Ahem. Well, first of all, I gotta say my wife and I don't always do it in the bedroom, but ... wait, what? Did he actually just make the argument that LGBT rights activists have separated sex from marriage?? .... o_O. I think this is an example of fairly serious mis-interpretation if not intentional mis-construction of the pro-marriage equality case. Here are a few observations that spring to mind:
    • Most egregiously, the charge that LGBT folks avoid speaking about sex in the context of their primary intimate relationships ignores the context of virulent and systemic discrimination we've experienced, historically, when we dare to speak about same-sex sexuality in public. I'm going to repeat that: Arguing that it is lesbian and gay couples and their allies who are primarily responsible for erasing "the bedroom" from definitions of marriage is an argument born of heteronormative privilege. 
    • How often do heterosexual couples talk about their sex lives in the context of public marriage-related proceedings? I recently came across a reference in another book on marriage to a (heterosexual) couple whose marriage vows had included the promise to be one another's "lovers" -- wording that many wedding guests had felt inappropriate to the occasion. I rather suspect this is a situation wherein David B. is holding such conversations to a double-standard of sexual transparency, suspicious that same-sex relationships are not sufficiently sexual to be considered marriages (which I have to say has got to be a first in terms of charges leveled at the queer community!) and thus we need to prove our sexual credentials in order to truly belong. While straight sex is just assumed.
    • Wait ... who exactly is making these arguments? I want names, dates, quotations, and citations. More than cherry-picked courtroom definitions (which are often designed to be flexible and contextual, because that's how our legal system works), I want evidence that there's some sort of systematic campaign on the part of same-sex marriage proponents to de-couple sexual intimacy from marriage.
    • Finally, a word in support of my asexual friends and others for whom sexual intimacy is actually not a central component of their marriage relationship(s): Arguing that not all marriages include sexual intimacy is not equal to claiming that sexual intimacy is outside the bounds of marriage, or somehow not central to most marital relationships. For many, I daresay most, married people, sexual intimacy is (or has been, or will be) a component of married life. But that's not the same as requiring sexual intimacy to be a part of married life. Just like procreation and/or parenting is a part of married life for many people (I think I saw a number recently that claimed about 80% of all married couples raise children together?) but isn't a requirement to marriage. We don't ask couples seeking a marriage license whether they are sexually active together and/or whether they intend to procreate. People who argue that sexual activity with one's partner is not an essential part of marriage are likely arguing simply that: sex is not a required component of marriage. That is not the same as removing sexual intimacy from our cultural understanding of what many or most marriages encompass.
  • Why all the angst over a "big umbrella" definition of marriage that can encompass many more (religiously- or subculturally- or even individually-specific) definitions within it? Because David believes that in order for marriage to be viable it must be a strong social institution with a widely agreed upon meaning. He writes: "I can never assume that another person shares my view ... [a clear, centralized definition of marriage] establishes an 'ought' not just for me alone, but for everyone who is or wants to be part of the institution, including (I have good reason to believe) the person I will marry" (98). Excuse me while I get out the sad trombone ... because this particular concern that we have definitions we can count on meaning the same thing to all people without actually clarifying with the people in question in so many words strikes me as a profoundly majority-culture presumption. Maybe it's because I grew up in many ways a minority within a majority culture. My immediate family (and later myself, as an individual) differed in our values in many ways from the families and institutions around us. I never got to assume people held the same values I did. I always had to clarify, converse, ask. Communication is a good thing, and should be happening between partners as they decide whether or not to marry. To take David B.'s example (97-98), if "fidelity" to one person means only ever having sex with your marital partner, and to the other person it means the spouse being your primary relationship but includes sexual experiences with others -- well, then you've got to discuss that and decide how to come to a meeting of minds and hearts on the subject (or go your separate ways). David B. seems to be rather appalled by this diversity in human relationship organization; I just see it as an opportunity for important clarifying conversation.
As we turn to chapter six, "Deinstitutionalize Marriage?" this question of shared assumptions looms large. Blankenhorn fears that big tent definitions of meaning within a pluralistic society will lead to a weakening of smaller-group understandings and thus to a loss of marriage as a key life event within our culture (something he obviously views as a negative thing). He also (circa 2007) views proponents of same-sex marriage as primarily interested in this pluralization (or, as he frames it, "deinstitutionalization") of marriage, and perhaps using marriage equality campaigns as a Trojan horse approach to bringing about the downfall of marriage-as-institution once and for all.

I'll be exploring those fears next time! Stay tuned.

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