'the future of marriage' live blog: deinstitutionalize marriage?

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

Having sorted out what marriage is in chapters 1-5, we move on in the second half of The Future of Marriage to consider what marriage might be in the future. Chapter six (which we will look at today) considers the relationship David B. perceives between supporters of same-sex marriage and those who hope for the demise of marriage as a privileged social institution. Chapter seven outlines Blankenhorn's key theory about marriage, and same-sex marriage specifically, which is that choices about marriage are choices between two competing "good" options (in Blankenhorn's mind, the "good" of marrige equality and the "good" of protecting a child's right to be parented by their biological mother and father). Chapter eight is, then, a call to arms as we are asked to "determine marriage's fate." This final chapter is also followed up by a rather odd appendix on forms of kinship which -- among other things -- perpetuates stereotypes about promiscuous bisexuals. But! All in good time.

Today we're going to talk about those eeeevil lefty academics -- specifically lefty lady academics; more on that later -- who are critics of marriage as it has been historically practiced, and yet support marriage equality for same-sex couples. David B. is deeply troubled by what he reads a a disingenuous position on marriage, suggesting that it has damning implications for those who argue that granting same-sex couples equal access to marriage is, in fact, a conservative or pro-marriage-as-institution position. He writes:
Here is my dilemma: With every fiber of my being, I want to affirm the equal dignity of all persons and push for equal treatment under the law. Yet I'm also  marriage nut. I've spent most of my professional life arguing that marriage is important and that children need mothers and fathers ... I believe that my nightmare can...be expressed as a sociological principle: People who professionally dislike marriage almost always favor gay marriage, [and] ideas that have long been used to attack marriage are now commonly used to support same-sex marriage (128).
Basically, the short version of this chapter is: "While same-sex marriage, per se, is something I'd love to support when I look around at who's supporting same-sex marriage rights, and their justifications for doing so, I strongly disagree with these individuals' overall social goals. I suspect that they see same-sex marriage as a means to their nefarious ends -- therefore I am deeply uncomfortable supporting marriage equality, though this conclusion makes me sad."

sad like John Lithgow in Footloose is sad...
Once again, I feel like we're having the cherry-picking problem. For all the fuss anti-same-sex-marriage folks make about "OMG I'm not bigoted!!" and "Being against same-sex marriage doesn't mean I'm anti-gay!!" in many instances they seem very willing to paint the marriage equality folks with a massive Paintbrush of Indistinguishable Radical Threat-yness.  I mean, yeah, sure, you're gonna find people on the marriage equality side who see same-sex marriage as either a band-aid fix ("as long as we privilege married couples, everyone should have equal access to that privilege") or as a radical challenge to the heteronormative regime -- a queering of marriage, as it were, that will hopefully drive a stake through the heart of Marriage of the kind defined by David B. in the previous chapter. As someone who, actually, appreciates both of these arguments, I'm totally willing to own those contingents as playing for my team.

However, I would not make the argument that they're the only players. We also have Gene Robinson and Andy Sullivan, to take two examples, making much more culturally and theologically conservative arguments for same-sex marriage. It's not some either-or situation where -- gotcha! -- the "real" agenda of the marriage equality folks is somehow exposed. We have a range of different motivations here, a range of different personal "lifestyle" choices and political agendas. That we've all come together to push for marriage equality doesn't mean these differences disappear. It just coalition building. That's how politics works.

David Blankenhorn seems particularly incensed by one specific person who "professionally [dislikes] marriage" while supporting marriage equality: sociology professor Judith Stacey, currently teaching at New York University. She is the author of Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China (2011) and Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late Twentieth-century America (1990; 1998). Her own ethnographic research has focused on, for example, kinship patterns among gay men in West Hollywood, and the socio-political relationship between gay rights and rights for polygamous households in the U.S. and South Africa. She earned her M.A. in History from the University of Illinois, her PhD in Sociology from Brandeis, and has taught at U.C. Davis and the University of Southern California.

Why am I playing "who the fuck are you" here? Well, because David B. seems bent on discrediting Stacey through casting doubt upon her professional credentials -- and by building her up as some radical feminist marriage-breaker -- rather than taking on her critiques of marriage and grappling with them with any seriousness. "Search through all of her writings," he scorns, "and you'll find that she never met a divorce (or a divorce rate) she didn't like" (131). He scoffs at the fact that her chaired position in contemporary gender studies at USC was endowed by Barbra Streisand ("I'm not making that up"!) -- or perhaps disapproves of gender studies altogether, it's unclear. Stacey, we're told dismissively, "is an activist as well as an intellectual," who seeks to "combine socialism with women's liberation" (the horror!), and who in 1979 had an article published that "[cast] a friendly eye toward Communist China" (131). Judith Stacey's vision of a more pluralistic future -- one in which many forms of kinship are honored and included in the fabric of our society, rather than marginalized in favor of what historian Nancy Cott calls "monogamy on a Christian model" -- is, indeed, Blankenhorn's nightmare. One that he fears so much he actually calls it "Staceyan"!

When a feminist academic has a future anti-marriage regime named after her by a self-identified "marriage nut," she must know she's arrived.

Eclectic further thoughts on chapter six from my notes:
  • David B. outlines fifteen arguments in favor of same-sex marriage, one of which is that "marriage removes the stigma of non-marriage" (140). I don't have any major point to make here, I only want to point out that the fact that non-marriage is seen as a "stigma" in our society is one of the key reasons people like Stacey seek to deinstitutionalize (i.e. de-privilege) marriage as a state of being. David B., to my mind, never satisfactorily addresses the question of why marriage should be privileged over other forms of family formation. He just assumes it should be (and thus, "naturally," always has been).
  • He uses the word intrinsic a lot, as in supporters of same-sex marriage "say that some things that formerly were intrinsic parts of marriage no longer are" (140). Also the word natural, as in "Marriage as a man-woman bond is fundamentally a natural and social [not religious] institution" (159). Words like "intrinsic" and "natural" are red flags to me, falling into the pattern of thinking some historians term "common sense" thinking -- that is, something that is so widely assumed in given culture that it doesn't require explanation or justification, it's just "common sense." When David B. points out that "marriage is [no longer] intrinsically connected to sex," (a debatable point, but for the sake of argument), what I see as an historian is a shift from one "common sense" paradigm to another -- not some threat to a previously stable notion. By ascribing naturalness to his preferred way of understanding a phenomenon like marriage, he avoids having to explain or justify his beliefs -- they simply are.
  • He brings up the way some people seek to refine notions of monogamy and sexual exclusivity, so that perhaps one can be monogamous ("committed to one person") while not necessarily being exclusive ("have sex only with that one person"). He terms this a radical disconnection, complaining that "until a moment ago, we had one idea ... then we decided to split that idea into a sex part and a commitment part, separate and distinct ... Over here is being committed. Over there is being exclusive. What'll it be for us, honey?" (150). What strikes me is that to Blankenhorn this refining process is a distressing one (he actually uses the word "distressing" here). Whereas I think of such conversations as illuminating and important: what does a word like "monogamous" mean to each person or within each relationship? Isn't it better to have those "What'll it be for us, honey?" conversations than not have them? I, at least, feel like the fewer assumptions we make about how another person thinks -- even someone we believe we know intimately -- the better. I wonder why an activity which I greet with enthusiasm is one which David B. has such a negative reaction to?
  • Returning to the subject of marriage definitions, this one rears its head again and again: "Marriage's main purpose is to make sure that any child born has two responsible parents..." (153). If only he'd revise this to "[One of] marriage's main purpose[s] is to make sure..." Then I'd totally be willing to co-sign the sentiment! The historical record shows, I'd agree, that marriage has functioned as a way to formalize parenting responsibilities (and thus children's responsibilities, I might add) and inheritance rights across generations. But it is neither the only way human beings have enforced parental responsibility, nor the only functional purpose of marriage. The harder he pushes this as the central tenet of marriage, the weaker his pro-marriage case becomes.
  • He derides the notion of separating civil marriage from religious marriage rites, asking rhetorically, "I don't believe...that marriage will be improved by getting rid of any traces of religious influence, do you?" (161). This profoundly over-simplifies the case that the marriage equality folks are making to separate religious and civil marriage practices. In fact, teasing out civil from religious marriage would act to protect religious diversity in a pluralistic society. Currently, pro-same-sex marriage traditions (to name one pertinent example) are held hostage by civil marriage law that, in turn, was deeply shaped by a specific Christian notion of what marriage is and should be. To loosen this stranglehold of Christian conservatism from civil marriage law would be to protect the religious liberties of those of us whose faith does not, in fact, proscribe same-sex unions out of marriage's bounds. 
  • "Call me overly sensitive," he writes, "but I am bothered by the fact that public arguments in favor of gay marriage almost always include a dismissive denunciation of the entire history of marriage as a human institution" (161-162). Well, I'm not going to call him "overly sensitive," I'm just gonna call him "factually wrong." Unless by "almost always ...a dismissive denunciation" he actually means, "some of the time, in certain situations, some scholars point to the inequalities of marriage as practiced historically in order to call for greater inclusiveness moving forward." Am I critical of marriage as it was historically practiced? Well, yeah. I'm critical of a lot of history. Human beings have been pretty crap at lovingkindness toward one another. We are past (and often present) masters at the art of being violent, exclusionary assholes. I think he's confusing "critical of the way human beings have practiced marriage in the past" with wholesale rejection. Again, you can surely find people who believe marriage as a social institution is beyond repair. You can also find many people within that camp who support same-sex marriage rights, as both a stop-gap measure in an imperfect world and as a step toward changing or dismantling a social institution they believe has been damaging to many lives. Their arguments are worth more than derisive rejection. They are also far from representative of people who believe same-sex couples should have the right to marry, and they are surely even further from representative of same-sex couples who are married. Since I venture to guess that -- unless you've got some weird destroy-from-within guerrilla attack planned -- most of us who get gayly married see the socio-cultural tradition of marriage as redeemable, as meaningful. We've chosen to marry precisely because marriage as an idea and practice is meaningful to us. So much so that we've gone to all of the trouble and expense of ... marrying. 
Two closing thoughts for this post. 

First, I'm going to stand firm on both/and ground here and suggest that it is possible to critique the privileging of marriage, certain marriage practices, and some historical meanings of marriage, and also support more inclusive forms of marriage. The thrust of this chapter has been to undermine the case for more inclusive forms of marriage law and practice by associating them with "radical disconnection." As if we commie feminists with our "Staceyan" notions of a more pluralistic society will usher in a future era of widespread dysfunction and loss of interest in marriage as a social practice. 

I'm just not that concerned. If you look at historical instances in which countercultural groups attempted to dissuade their members from forming "particular attachments," generally what you find is that the members formed such intimate relationships anyway. Whether we're talking family life in the Soviet Union or pair bonding in the Oneida community, couples formed and familial attachment proved incredibly strong and resistant to social engineering. Just like the cockeyed notion that the mere possibility of same-sex relationships will somehow cause straight people to lose interest in one another, the notion that other forms of marriage will cause people to lose interest in exclusive pair bonding just doesn't seem very realistic a scenario. Just as an anecdote, the existence of open relationships has not destroyed my monogamous, exclusive marriage -- it's just meant that my wife and I discussed and discarded the option of an open and/or poly union. I'd say the fact we had that conversation in so many words makes our marriage stronger not weaker.

In sum, a key difference between my view of marriage as a social institution and David Blankenhorn's is that I believe marriage can be both pluralistic and meaningful, while he believes society must enforce a single hegemonic meaning of marriage in order for it to retain status and power.

Second, I am concerned by an emerging pattern of difference in the way David B. approaches the work of male supporters of same-sex marriage and his treatment of female scholars such as Judith Stacey and historian Stephanie Coontz. While David circumscribes his philosophical differences with individuals like Jonathan Rauch and Evan Wolfson in terms of ongoing friendship (or at least friendly disagreement), his treatment of Stacey and Coontz is openly hostile and seeks to discredit not only their specific ideas on marriage but their standing as scholars in their respective fields. While I am happy to acknowledge that "respected scholar" doesn't always mean "correct in all things," or even "individual worthy of my respect" (Niall Ferguson anyone?), the overall impression left here is that respect for one's opponents is at least partially based on gender. I'll be putting together a post on this toward the end of my series.

But we'll leave that on the table for now and move on to chapter seven and David B.'s "goods in conflict" framing of the case for and against same-sex marriage. Stay tuned!


  1. Good post.

    When I first read this book, I wasn't as evolved in my feminist consciousness as I am now, so I think I missed some of David's sneering and dismissive treatment of Judith Stacey, especially compared to his relatively respectful treatment of male proponents of same-sex marriage (some of whom don't even have academic credentials anywhere near Stacy's or Coontz's).

    I wonder if David thinks that feminists are intrinsically (see what I did there?) "activist," and are therefore not serious scholars or academics. As though they/we are on a mission to totally disparage marriage just because we find some aspects of its history problematic toward women. And, well, that's a not a very nuanced or fair treatment of most feminist arguments.


    "Just as an anecdote, the existence of open relationships has not destroyed my monogamous, exclusive marriage -- it's just meant that my wife and I discussed and discarded the option of an open and/or poly union. I'd say the fact we had that conversation in so many words makes our marriage stronger not weaker."

    I agree. In fact, that many couples don't have that explicit conversation, in my opinion, often means that an unspoken subtext to the relationship is, "We don't have an open relationships, so I have to have relationships on the side without my partner knowing."

    When anti-gay people cite high rates of open relationships among, especially, gay male couples, I like to respond with, "Well at least they're honest and adult with each other about it. Which is more than we can say for most straight couples, right?"

  2. You have played the Sad John Lithgow card. All argument is over.

    However, I appreciate that you are covering this in such detail, so that I can know what it's about while spending my time reading several other books instead. For Mr. Rogers.

    1. Doing anything for the sake of Mr. Rogers is good enough for me :)!

  3. Did you misword this? I suspect you meant "fewer" not "more":
    I, at least, feel like the more assumptions we make about how another person thinks -- even someone we believe we know intimately -- the better.

    1. Thanks! Yes -- I read over it through at least two proof-reads and didn't catch it, so my brain must have been flipping it to "fewer" all along :)