Sunday, May 11, 2008

Marriage: an oppressive human right?

Is marriage a good thing or a bad thing? Progressive thought doesn't seem to provide a consistent answer to this question.

On the one hand, patriarchy theory tells us that marriage is an institution designed to uphold the privilege of men as a class over women. It is therefore a key institution enforcing the sexist oppression of women.

So you might think that progressives would hold marriage to be a bad thing. However, progressive thought also holds that if gays are not allowed to marry they suffer a major loss of human rights. If gays can't marry, the argument goes, they are being excluded from a vital human institution - which then makes marriage sound like a good thing.

So we end up with a mixed message about marriage. But what would happen if a progressive was forced to confront this inconsistency?

The Rev. Elder Nori J. Rost, a pastor at a community church in Colorado Springs, has written an article discussing the issue. She begins by claiming that marriage was created as an instrument of the patriarchy:

As basically the only means of survival for women, marriage was clearly a restrictive yoke placed on them that assured the continued domination by men in society.

This was still the case at the time of the Reformation:

... marriage was still not about love ... This in itself served to continue to control the bodies of women, but the other implication was that marriage was still primarily a contractual agreement about the current property of the bride and future property of any offspring.

It was only in the mid-1800s, claims Rev. Rost, that love started to have anything to do with marriage. Nonetheless, even today marriage is an oppressive institution:

when heterosexual couples marry, they participate in a patriarchal system that has, at its foundation, control and subjugation of women and children. Moreover, they continue to enforce the perception of marriage as normative and healthy and alternative arrangements as suspect and inferior.

The Rev. Rost then asks what really motivates opposition to gay marriage. She believes that the right opposes gay marriage because it threatens the patriarchal order in three ways.

First, it would help to destroy gender roles:

Two men or two women who choose to share their lives together ... will have to figure out their unique roles ... those roles can be created without the underlying assumption of what the man's role and the woman's role is to be.

Second, it would promote the idea that sex is for pleasure not procreation:

The only purpose of sexual intimacy in gay and lesbian relationships is that of pleasure. I believe this is fearful for the right-wing element to contemplate ...

Third, gay marriage would weaken the wider structure of society:

If, however, we legitimize those relationships by sanctioning same-sex marriage the right-wing people unconsciously fear that such blatant disregard for patriarchal norms will seep over into the heterosexual community like a virus, challenging other old ways of being. In other words, perhaps the conservatives are right: same sex-marriage does threaten the fabric of society.

So to this point we have learned that the Rev. Rost believes that marriage is oppressive and that the right fears gay marriage because it represents a threat to the social order.

Does she therefore support gay marriage? At first, the answer seems to be no. After describing the ills of marriage she complains:

Yet it is this somewhat scurrilous goal that many gays and lesbians are now vociferously seeking.

You might think, having described marriage as a "scurrilous goal" that she would advise gays to stay well clear of it. Yet her final word on the matter is not so straightforward:

Which brings me to the unasked question: Should gays and lesbians be seeking marriage rights at all? ... Is marriage, in its current form with its nebulous history, the prize we should all be eying?

Clearly, there is no easy answer. Early on I was tempted to say that the struggle for marriage is one that is a fruitless waste of our energy and resources. However, I am now more inclined to see it as a step in the right direction ...

While in many ways I think we are climbing the ladder of same sex marriage only to find it is propped against the wrong wall, I also recognize that it is the ladder we seem to be facing. At the end of the day, there is much more to be done ...

Perhaps the means in which marriage is disentangled from the entitlements is by the allowing of same sex marriage and the affront to the patriarchal norms that are so entrenched in the current institution of marriage. Marriage needs to be de-constructed so it becomes iconic of "just" love ...

Her answer is confused and hesitant, but she seems to think that marriage, despite being a bad thing, should still be sought by gays because it will be undone by gay marriage and replaced by a more "just" form of love.

I won't launch at this point into a criticism of the Rev. Rost's patriarchy theory (though I would not want to be defending her claim that love was not an important aspect of marriage prior to 1850). My purpose in this article has been to show the difficulty in the progressive position on marriage: marriage is treated as both an oppressive and unnatural patriarchal construct as well as an important human right from which no-one should be excluded.


  1. If you eliminate the obfuscation in the Left's rhetoric, you find the truth: liberals want "gay marriage" so they can destroy marriage. By having homosexuals "marry" each other, they intend to revolutionize public opinion on marriage so that normal people won't want it either.

    Of course, there is also a strain of thought that wants "gay marriage" so that homosexuals will enjoy the same government benefits that normally apply to married couples. But those who have thought through to ultimate goals invariably want to destroy marriage altogether. Nonetheless, when questioned, many will deny that they want to destroy marriage, since if that fact were generally known, a large majority would oppose giving the slightest amount of ground on this question.

  2. Marriage is a basic civil right that should be attainable by all Americans if they choose.

    Charlotte, you've put one half of the leftist message on marriage here.

    You would think that if marriage was "a basic civil right" that heterosexuals would be able to enjoy it unhindered.

    Instead, the second half of the leftist message on marriage is that it's an oppressive, sexist institution that needs to be deconstructed.

    It's an odd thing to experience. In most contexts marriage is under assault and its existence questioned; but when it comes to gay marriage it suddenly turns into a "basic civil right" from which no one should be excluded.

    John, your comment sums up the situation most ably, thanks.

  3. Marriage is a basic civil right that should be attainable by all Americans if they choose.

    But Charlotte, it already is: *Any* man is free to marry a woman, and *any* woman is free to marry a man. No one is excluded from this on the basis of sexual orientation. Where is the violation of rights?

  4. Just FYI, Nori Rost is a woman and the Metropolitan Community Church, to which she belongs, is an explicitly homosexual-centric denomination.

  5. Charlotte, one could easily wish that the closed minds of the pro-gay marriage crowd would be opened to see why gay marriage is really going to be a bad thing for society, or at the very least why advocates of gay marriage should guarantee society that gay marriage will definitely not harm society.

    And some of us start to twitch when so-called "progressives" speak of "educating" other adults. So patronising, it's not funny.

  6. Hermes, thanks for the information on Nori Rost. I've amended the article accordingly.

  7. There's an interesting column in today's Herald Sun on the issue, written by a young gay man.

    His argument is that it is mostly gay activists who are pushing for gay marriage, with the majority being uninterested:

    "When actually asked, for instance, as they were during the Private Lives Report produced by La Trobe University in 2006, most of the gay partners indicated that they had no intention of ever "formalising" their relationships.

    "Indeed, there proved to be no evidence that the majority of same sex-attracted men in Australia were in any kind of relationship at all, let alone one that would conform to basic community ideas about the longevity, exclusivity and life-affirming nature of marriage."

    The writer recognises that heterosexual marriage is based on certain norms that are unlikely to be met by the majority of gay men.

  8. Mr. Richardson,

    It is quite interesting that in today's climate of instant polls that none of us has ever seen the one asking homosexuals if they really want to get married.

  9. The issue of marriage is certainly a divisive one for the left.

    I remember in my student politics days some of my left-wing opponents were for gay marriage, for the reasons described here and others were opposed to it, again for the same reasons in this article.

    Generally speaking, I would say that gay marriage is something that more moderate lefties support, whilst opposition to marriage altogether come from the more extreme elements.

    Until I read this article I had not read a leftist view that supported gay marriage AND opposed marriage altogether. But like the extremists who oppose marriage altogether, she does seem to be motivated by resentment. I believe that's usually the underlying cause of radicalism.

    Issues such as the republic, climate change, gay civil unions, and abotion divide rightists. Issues such as gay marriage, specific models for an Australian republic and Israel divide leftists.

  10. The gay-marraige lobby argues that since not all married straights have kids, therefore gays should not be excluded merely on the basis that marriage is about the reproduction of genetically-related children In a way this point has superficial attraction. They then go onto argue something along the lines of 'marriage is about two people who love each other who want to commit to each other for life, and this can just as viably be two people of the same sex and the opposite sex.'

    But marriage has never ever been just about 'two people who love each other.' In all societies right throughout history marriage's purpose has been to ensure genetic lineage and property transfer inheritance.

    Thus Marriage is a SOCIAL institution. Hullo? It has always been so.

    It is true - at least in the West -that notions of firstly, courtly love, and more recently, romantic love have come to dominate "discourse" on marriage, but at a slightly deeper level the old structural/political streams still flow healthily.

    I would like to see the move from 'loving relationship' to 'marriage' subject to a lot more consideration than it has been over the past 40 years. The idiocy with which many people I know have married and divorced would make your head spin. I know people (yes, more than one) who are under 40, on their third marraige and still have not had any children!

    Unlike "the olden days" reproductive technology advances (ie contraception, abortion, etc.) and the total freedom of women to be financially independent means that for the first time in history both men AND women actually do get married "of their own free will." So it's not like in the past when women (and men to a lesser extent) were basically forced to marry somebody, anybody, or face a very uncertain and somewhat marginalised life who then became stuck in hideous marriages because they had no money, no skills, and an unjust family law system against them.

    I propose that any people who marry and then divorce should be punished financially and perhaps even publicly shamed. This would stop all these twits who get maried and divorced at the drop of the hat. Also I think we should start a movement of sneering at those who get married who insist they will never have children.

    Now I am an extremely liberal, tolerant, broad-minded person on a local level. My various life experiences have exposed me to transgendered peope who marry, turkey-basting lesbians, blah, blah, blah. But when I think on a social level, I am not happy with collapsing the complexties and necessities of institutions that reinforce genetic obligations with a free-for-all wishy-washy notion of 'monogamous couple love.'

    As Paul Keating said, "two blokes and a cocker spaniel do not a family make."

    If most gays are anything like the ones I know, these financial penalties would completely silence demands from gay men to get married, as most of them know they can't stay with the same bloke for more than two weeks!