Gay marriage and birth control: Why not?

A question that is often asked of those who oppose gay marriage is, “Why do you care?” After all, no one is proposing making gay marriage mandatory. What your neighbors do in the privacy of their own bedroom should be their business, etc., etc.

All this is true. But what changes when gay marriage is allowed — or even when homosexuality becomes a publicly affirmable preference — is not what goes on in the privacy of their own bedroom. Homoerotic encounters have occurred in basically all known human cultures, and honest conservatives (starting with Plato) have acknowledged that this is more or less inevitable. What disturbs opponents of gay marriage isn’t so much the gay sex as the public acceptability of gay relationships.

And the reason this disturbs them, in the end, is that it increases the likelihood that their own son will come out, that their daughter will never give them grandchildren — that the form of life to which they have submitted will be abandoned by their children.

To this extent, opposition to gay marriage is of a piece with the kind of slut-shaming behavior that we’ve seen from Rush Limbaugh in the past week — and indeed with the opposition to birth control that underlies it. Extramarital sexual encounters have also always occurred in all known human societies, and women have always pursued such encounters to some extent, because (you may want to cover your children’s eyes at this point) women enjoy sex. It’s different, though, when an accomplished professional woman publicly makes this point. It’s even more different when she makes it in the midst of making the case that health insurers should be required, by a publicly debated and proclaimed law, to cover birth control — because the threat of pregnancy has been one of the major tools for bringing women back into the fold of marriage, either preemptively or in the “shot-gun wedding” situation.

Now it is the case that some fathers have an unhealthy fixation on their daughters’ sexual purity. Yet I think that when they see the successful law student on television talking about making birth control more easily available, there’s a thought in the back of their minds: “Well, great — now there’s no reason for my daughter to get married and produce that grandchild.” I’d imagine that a similar thought-process is involved with publicly legalized abortions.

In both cases, it seems to me that the goal of policing the sexual behavior is not directly to prevent said sexual behavior — as anyone is forced to acknowledge if they think about it for a few seconds, such behavior is more or less inevitable. The goal, instead, is to keep such behavior from being publicly acknowledged.

Who is the audience for this secrecy? I don’t think it’s the majority of people, because it appears that the majority of people are fairly firmly inclined toward heterosexuality and tend to wind up in relatively monogamous pairings if left to themselves. Nor is it the people who are strongly inclined to the various types of illicit sex, who will generally get their fix in some way regardless of the public obstacles.

The audience is the borderline case, that small sliver of the population who could go either way — who might be attracted to the same sex while being more or less content to stick with the opposite sex, who might be open to a broader range of sexual encounters but finds monogamy more or less adequate. Such people will tend to go the more socially acceptable route, because that’s what gives them access to having their own publicly acknowledged family (which apparently a lot of people want to do for whatever reason). When same-sex couples have access to all the same public acknowledgment and family-formation abilities, when single mothers can raise a child who turns out more or less fine — then that’s gone. Then the whole system falls apart.

Again, one might ask why that matters. If your gay son can get married to the man of his dreams and raise a grandchild, haven’t you more or less gotten what you wanted? This question ignores the fact that a big part of the appeal of the so-called “traditional” route is its self-evidence, the sense that one is doing the objectively right thing. Even for the 100% straight, 100% monogamously-inclined individual, traditional marriage requires significant sacrifice, and it requires even more for those strongly inclined toward the same sex or toward promiscuity. If the spell of self-evidence is broken — if not everyone has to do it — then all those sacrifices are called into question.

Legalizing gay marriage really does call existing heterosexual marriages into question, and the question is: Why did I do this? If there was another way, why did I sacrifice in order to conform? The attitude of resentment that results is perhaps unattractive, but it is not incomprehensible.

For that reasons, individualistic defenses basically completely miss the point. It’s not a question of individual preference, but of social formation. And this is precisely the point where I think the advocacy of gay marriage and reproductive freedom in terms of individual choice fall short: they fail to mount a critique of the social form that they really are undermining and should undermine. This leads to conformist approaches, such as arguing that gay couples can form nuclear families that are just as good as heterosexual couples’, or that access to birth control helps promote greater family stability by allowing everyone to consolidate their economic position, etc.

What we need instead is a public discussion of the ways that the nuclear family is destructive — and a way of convincing the resentful reactionaries that their feelings are rooted in the way that the social norms enforcing the nuclear family have hurt them. Then the fairness argument can be turned in the other direction: no one should have to live under such a stultifying regime. Until then, reactionary outbursts are going to be more or less inevitable, and the advances that have been made toward sexual freedom will remain much more fragile than we generally imagine.

26 thoughts on “Gay marriage and birth control: Why not?

  1. This post hits home for me, but on a more mundane level than closeted homosexuality or a longing for promiscuity forfeited. A long time ago, a friend of mine was considering proposing to his girlfriend at the time and asked my thoughts on it. I told him that as somebody who isn’t religious, there was really not much difference to me between getting married and having an understanding with your significant other that you’d be monogamous from now on. So to me, you could look at it two ways. You could either say, “There’s no difference so why get married.” Or you could say “there’s no difference, so why not get married.”

    A year later, like him, I came down on the side of the latter and have been happily married for going on 11 years. I have no regrets or resentment, but the reason I have a spouse of nearly eleven years and not a live-in girlfriend of nearly 13 years has a lot to do with social norms.

  2. I have a friend who recently proposed to his girlfriend and said basically the same thing — he doesn’t have strong feelings about marriage either way, so he just chose to do what seems normal.

  3. I remain inordinately proud to have been associated with this wedding.

    The audience is the borderline case, that small sliver of the population who could go either way — who might be attracted to the same sex while being more or less content to stick with the opposite sex, who might be open to a broader range of sexual encounters but finds monogamy more or less adequate.

    Worth nothing that the borderlands are even wider (though it doesn’t change the shape of your argument). In addition to the people who are more or less content with the opposite sex, who find monogamy more or less adequate, there are plenty of people living here who are not sticking with their chosen individual partner or preferred sex, but trying to live as if they are. And they get mad when the rest of us don’t appear to feel the punishment that they do.

  4. Really great post, Adam. Are they really worrying this much about grandchildren, though? Whenever I read these guys it’s sounds like they’re deeply terrified by female sexuality and female desire. They seem to have this idea that in the struggle for partners women have an unfair advantage over men, able to find partners whenever they like, such that where birth control is easily available women could no longer be controlled and they would “run amok”. Their terror seems to lie in the possibility that 1) none of these women would be interested in them, and that 2) the possibility of pregnancy is the only thing that allows men to maintain control over women. This seems to be the root of their horror towards GLBT folk as well. It’s not the supposed “ick factor” that makes them recoil from open sexuality, but the belief they have that gays have unbridled opportunities for sex that they don’t have. All of this makes me think of the passage in Hume’s Enquiry where he remarks that the selfish man is constitutively unable to imagine the heights of generosity and friendship and therefore can only imagine what their motivates would be in acting in a generous and friendly way towards other. This seems all over the place in conservative screeds about allegedly loose women and promiscuous homosexuals.

  5. I have been arguing with local GLBTQ organizations for years on precisely Adam’s last point. Focusing upon the individual blinds the GLBTQ advocate to the social effects of the movement and its success, while also blinding them to understanding the opposition. An understanding of this point should lead to different tactics on the micro- and macro-scale.

    Levi’s point is over-stated, as most opposed are reacting to an “ick factor” that has been socialized into them and their communities for generations and often centuries. The neurotic case is the exception, except 1) really is a motivator for a lot of men as an issue of sexual territory.

  6. “Again, one might ask why that matters. If your gay son can get married to the man of his dreams and raise a grandchild, haven’t you more or less gotten what you wanted? This question ignores the fact that a big part of the appeal of the so-called “traditional” route is its self-evidence, the sense that one is doing the objectively right thing. Even for the 100% straight, 100% monogamously-inclined individual, traditional marriage requires significant sacrifice, and it requires even more for those strongly inclined toward the same sex or toward promiscuity. If the spell of self-evidence is broken — if not everyone has to do it — then all those sacrifices are called into question. ”

    This strikes me as unconvincing. It seems to me that the fact that “not everyone has to do it” [ie, enter into heterosexual marriage] is obvious (at least in the liberal west) without the legalization of gay marriage. It also strikes me as unlikely that these anti-gay conservatives are questioning of their own marriages, or fear that others will question their’s, on the basis of the presence of gay marriages.

  7. Hi Jason,

    I was not suggesting that there’s no ick factor there, just that that’s not the sole or only factor (and here we should recall that most people have had homosexual encounters, so I think there’s less than an ick factor than you suggest). As Zizek teaches us, we should attend to what racists and bigots actually say in their discussion of “others”. What do we find when we listen to the discourses of homophobes and misogynists? We find that they talk obsessively about the alleged sexual promiscuity of these groups. This is reflective of their own desires and a comment on their own sex lives. Just as the racist that constantly speaks about “lazy minority groups”, “unfair free rides”, “welfare queens”, etc., is actually speaking about their own unfortunate economic circumstances, so too in the case of homophobes and misogynists. As Zizek memorably puts it, “the truth is out there.” It’s not hidden somewhere behind discourse, but right there, in inverted form, on the very surface of the person’s discourse.

  8. Everytime I hear a couple claim they are not getting married because it is just “a piece of paper,” I offer to pay them both $50 to go sign that mere piece of paper. No takers, of course.

    Yeah, that does not prove anything, but I do think it suggests that far from marriage being considered trivial by those who reject it, marriage is somehow too much.

    Of course, my own attitude towards potential marriage with my gf is coloured by the fact that we are citizens of different countries, and being married would solve several immigration related problems.

  9. I was just looking up stats, and one source said that something like 95% of Americans have been married at least once by the age of 55. So yes, there are “other options,” but marriage remains a pretty overwhelming “default” option for most people. You’d think that the high rate of divorce would deter people or make them prefer less formal arrangements, but there’s apparently still some pull to try to make the old institution work somehow.

  10. I think the high rate of divorce may be your answer to why people are willing to give marriage the old college try even if it might not be the best fit for their preferences. If it works out, fantastic. If it doesn’t, divorce and see where it leaves you. Yes, it costs you years, money and probably some friends (they’re not ALL going to pick you) but there isn’t much of a stigma attached to it anymore and it was worth the shot to not have to answer all the questions about why you’re outside the norm. As a married person who’s not going to have kids (most likely), I know even within the conforming institute of marriage you have to keep going. You have to have kids or the questions about why you’re not conforming will not stop. Perhaps I’m paranoid, but I assume that behind at least some of the questions there are curiosities, assumptions and suspicions as to reasons we’re not (having kids).

    As for homosexuality and the “ick factor”. I believe that if you told the general population that most people have had homosexual encounters and had sufficient evidence to back it up, they would be shocked. (I was surprised by that statement) Obviously, if most people have them, though, some of these people would be genuinely shocked because they hadn’t had one and didn’t know it was so prevalent. Some would be shocked (and probably a little relieved) to know they’re in the majority and perhaps they didn’t have to guard their secret so closely. However, the fact that there would be shock, to me, suggests there is still a significant “ick factor” associated with the practice.

  11. I hadn’t heard this idea that a majority of people have had homosexual encounters before, but it does seem likely that we all know at least a few “straight” people who have. They just don’t want to talk about it, because we tend to operate by a “one-drop rule,” at least for men — one gay encounter makes you 100% gay. This is how homophobia works as a social norm — one could imagine a society in which every single person had multiple gay encounters and yet homosexuality was publicly considered a deviation, because no one would want to talk about it.

    There’s a similar logic at work with one of the dark secrets of the traditional family: that it provides a perfect environment for abusers. You’re locked in a detached house with the children you more or less “own,” and people are going to be extremely reluctant to invade the privacy of that realm. I’ve seen statistics indicating that around 20% of girls have been abused by their fathers, and a lesser but still significant percentage of boys. It’s overwhelmingly likely that we all know people who are victims of parental abuse — but they don’t generally talk about it because “no one wants to talk about it.” (The subterranean knowledge that it happens, however, is present in such recurring “jokes” as the notion that all strippers were abused as children, etc.)

    The whole model of the traditional family only works if you assume that the father is a good guy — and apparently around 20% of fathers really, really aren’t. And how do we deal with it? By fantasizing an epidemic of child abuse by total strangers.

  12. Adam, you’re definitely onto something about the denial of child abuse and the paranoid hysteria about strangers. The same logic operates with the ‘creepy uncle’ archetype. There’s that one perverted uncle who abuses children in the family. This is obviously a denial of the fact that an uncle is usually someone else’s father.

  13. I wonder if that has anything to do with how quickly society at large latched onto the “joke” that all Catholic priests were child molestors — they are, by definition, someone outside the family, or at least not anyone’s father. I wonder what it would look like if you compared the percentage of Catholic priest abusers with the percentage of biological father abusers.

  14. I would assume that the percentage of biological fathers is much higher, although that’s simply speculation. I love how the proposed solution seems to suggest that the problem with priests is that, in the absence of any sexual outlet, they will use children as sexual object. Nobody asks the tough question which is why do some many individuals with those tendencies flock to the priesthood? This is the similar perverse thinking that animates much of the anti-gay marriage slippery slope arguments. Well if we open that door, who knows what will come next, perhaps they will choose to [insert the speaker’s own projected fantasies].

    One has to assume that molestation jokes are simple a compromise formation that has developed to help the many people who have been abused to ‘speak’ about their abuse in ironic, detached ways (given that society bars any actual conversation and colludes with the abuser).

  15. “Even for the 100% straight, 100% monogamously-inclined individual, traditional marriage requires significant sacrifice…”

    Could you explain what you mean by “significant sacrifice” here? (I don’t intend that as a loaded question.)

    I’ve been married for six years, and there really was no question of not getting married at the time, even if, in theory, I might once have argued that there was no reason to. But of course there are legal and economic reasons to want to (taxes/healthcare, etc), and in our case, I suspect both of us wanted the societal recognition of our relationship–in part as recognition that we are part of society. (Also, as a side note, while I long thought I’d want to elope, in fact it turned out I valued the wedding itself, as a celebration of that two-way recognition.)

    On the other hand, there are many things problematic about marriage as the norm, of course. Your point about abuse, Adam, is a good one. The Father is given dominion over the family, power, in exchange for his labor. That’s one way of looking at it. In such a situation, that abuse would be rampant is not surprising. But even without that going on, marriage is difficult. Why, then, with all its problems, does marriage persist? Well, there’s the taxes/healthcare situation, mentioned above, but I doubt that’s really a determining factor for many. It probably is just because it’s perceived as normal, so normal that many don’t even think about it.

    And I don’t think people get married thinking they can just divorce if it doesn’t go well. I’d be shocked to learn than anyone married thinking a divorce was likely. But we are expected to operate as individuals, expected to be lucky enough to happen upon the “right” person, the romantic loves of our lives, who we also happen to be able to live with on a day-to-day basis, and we probably have unrealistic ideas about that romantic love (that you’re always going to be madly in love with your spouse, all the time, and if you’re not, it’s a failure). Then, we’re expected to take of care of children more or less on our own. As if any two people are necessarily equipped to handles all of these pressures. Marriage would be a lot easier for people if it weren’t

  16. Richard, By sacrifice, I didn’t really mean anything other than a general perception that being married is hard and takes a lot of work — and there are of course opportunity costs, even if you find monogamy basically satisfying (i.e., what if I’d married someone else?).

  17. That makes sense, thanks.

    I think we’re told often enough that it’s a lot of work, but we are given very little insight into what the nature of that work is. I think the difficulty overwhelms people, perhaps making them more likely to divorce.

  18. A solution is to eliminate ‘civil marriage’ – and require that the institution of marriage (as well as divorce) be handled through the appropriate religious institutions – thus, it isn’t a State-regulated issue. There are, of course, other problems that would occur resulting from conflicts and a whole body of laws that have grown up in the States re. marriage.

  19. I like your way of framing all of this because it rejects the easy way out, which is saying that “some people” are simply driven by visceral passions/emotions of disgust than others (the affect thesis), or some are simply less cognitively well endowed and more subject to biases (the stupidity thesis), or some people cling to religion to answer the big questions they don’t want to face themselves (the lack of fortitude thesis). One could name many others. The problem with all of them is that they have the effect of (a) producing a whole lot of patting oneself on the back for being fully, unproblematically, and eternally on the enlightened side of things, a position that is gained solely by virtue of placing oneself there and being able to identify the gap between “us” and the knuckle-dragging neanderthals, and (b) succumbing to a weird kind of a-historicism, where it’s tacitly accepted that there will always be neanderthals on the other side, that certain cognitive/affective/whatever limits and conditions will never be superceded. This argument says something much different: the “neanderthals” like Limbaugh are not simply subject to cognitive and other biases or incapable of listening to anything but their feelings of disgust toward something “different.” They are quite often agents and subjects, engaging in a power struggle, seeking to preserve a certain matrix of privileges and possibilities, sensing threats, using language and all means available to do so, etc. “We” non-neanderthals are locked in a struggle with them over certain basic issues. But our position as the “enlightened” is not a final one. We don’t get to stay perched on a throne. The act of self-interrogation that we would want “them” to engage in has to be continually undergone by ourselves (how many prejudices and “biases” do we harbor that are not yet even on the political/cultural radar? We’ll never know if we think we’ve arrived at the other shore with clean hands and cognition purged of all bias).

  20. “Cognition purged of all bias” might not be able to function as cognition: our harmful prejudices are a subset of those beliefs and values we hold which could be, but have not been, subjected to reflexive judgement, which itself involves the deployment of other beliefs and values of a similar kind. To identify a prejudice as harmful we must see that it harms others, must be brought to take seriously their claim that it is harmful to them, and must also see that the harm is avoidable and that we ourselves are responsible for its mitigation or elimination. But there may also be beliefs and values which we must hold, but cannot (in present circumstances) hold without harming others; the means of redress in this case is not self-critical undermining of those values, but to try to effect a change in the circumstances which cause those values and those harms to be implicated in each other. A besetting weakness of the “aware” left, I think, is to tend to assume that critical reflection is always the proper (and sufficient) means of redress.

  21. You’ve really hit the nail on the head but I would go farther: the kind of marriage privileged in our society privileges a myriad of social relations. The nuclear family privileges middle-class notions about respectability, for instance, and it definitely embodies Eurocentric cultural patterns. Thus, I think when we’re talking about marriage, we’re not just talking about sexuality, but also race, culture, ethnicity, religion, class, and gender. In the end, I think it means pointing out that this thing [marriage] that many people in the United States consider normative or even universal, is actually a manifestation of particular cultural configurations. It doesn’t just require discussion how nuclear family is harmful but how nuclear family embeds particular cultural formations that can also be harmful: how middle-class respectability and values can be harmful, how whiteness can be harmful, how assumptions about religion or culture can be harmful.

    In the end, I think it means recognizing that whenever we talk about Christianity or Judaism or any religion for that matter (although I think that the term religion should be complicated as well), we’re also talking about all of the above. Religion cannot function outside of the cultural patterns with which it is manifest. Western culture has attempted to extract it from its cultural and ethnic roots but in the end I think it does a very poor job at doing so.

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