Sunday, March 12, 2006

S-squared, Sykes and same sex marriage, pt. 4

I want to mention three more potential objections to gay marriage. They seem weaker to me than the first three, but changing marriage is a big deal, so we should consider them.

Pressure on conjugal marriage. If two people can access "benefits" by claiming to be husband and husband, or wife and wife, then why wouldn't two people who are not intimately involved also choose to access these benefits to their mutual benefit? While marriage comes with financial burdens, these are less significant to persons with less income to lose or property to be divided. If the best friend of an employed single mom with good spousal benefits has a single friend who lacks health insurance, why not "marry" her friend - at least for awhile. They would not be intimately involved (they'd presumably be seeking intimate companionship outside their "marriage") While this could happen now, it may be that social expectations and sexual tension will prevent many men and women from doing this in a way that will not be the case once marriage is redefined and open to persons of the same sex. Stanley Kurz sums up the impact of such "marriages:"

In a narrow sense, the women and children in this arrangement would be better off. Yet the larger effects of such unions on the institution of marriage would be devastating. At a stroke, marriage would be severed not only from the complementarity of the sexes but also from its connection to romance and sexual exclusivity--and even from the hope of permanence. ... [T]he proliferation of such arrangements "would turn marriage into the moral equivalent of a Social Security benefit." The effect would be to further diminish the sense that a woman ought to be married to the father of her children.

The final two things I want to mention are, perhaps, the most inflammatory and I have to admit that I find them the least persuasive, but not unworthy of mention.

Pressure on the norm of sexual exclusivity. This goes back to the notion that it is somehow hateful and bigoted to even wonder whether there are things about intimate homosexual relationships that are different than those of heterosexuals. This seems sentimentally naive. Wanting to and entering into an intimate relationship with a person of the same sex is something that is distinct from the experience of the overwhelming majority of the population. Without making any judgment on whether this is right or wrong, there is no reason to believe that such relationships "must be" the same.

A great deal of social science research and the arguments of many prominent advocates of gay marriage suggests that while lesbian couples place a great value on monogamy, gay male couples do not. Even if a man is committed to a permanent relationship with one other man, both are more likely to be open to sexual encounters with others.

This is not to suggest that male gay couples are less committed to one another, but that sexual exclusivity is less central to that commitment. (Indeed, Gallagher cites research concluding that sexual openness contributes to male gay couples staying together.) My guess is that this is not because they are gay, but because they are men. Contrary to what my wife might say, men are not pigs. But they probably are less inherently monogamous than women. Whether this is a function of socialization or evolutionary biology, it has the ring of truth.

If marriage between gay males offers a model of a committed, but sexually open, relationship, will this lead to pressure for additional openness in heterosexual marriages? If it does, what will be the impact? Everything we know about heterosexual relationships tell us that they don't tolerate this type of openness very well. My own sense is that any such impact would be temporary - much like the impact of the sexual revolution of the late '60s. But every time marriage takes a blow, it seems to emerge slightly weakened.

Pressure on the idea that heterosexuality is normative. On the one hand, proponents of gay marriage will say that this is precisely the point. Everyone is equal - and equally good. I think that is true if, as we are now prone to believe, sexual orientation is congenital and immutable.

But knowledge is contingent. The idea that one is inherently gay or straight has not always been what we believe and may not be again in the future. It does not seem outrageous to say that sexual orientation is more complicated than the distinction between choosing and being chosen. There are persons who will be gay no matter what, but there may be others who may or may not be depending on the environment in which they are raised.

If environment might have an impact on how many people are gay or straight, then society, while respecting those who are gay, may have an interest in portraying and encouraging heterosexuality as the norm. But could it do that in a world recognizing same sex marriage?

One of the commenters on an earlier post said that much (maybe all) of this seems speculative. I argee. We are in uncharted territory here. How likely is any of this? I will turn to that in the next post. But I have been participating in a weekend long Irish wake for a good man and it is time to return to that.


Anonymous said...

If you look at the Massachusetts and Canada statistics, lesbians comprise the majority of gay marriages. Lesbians are as a rule more monogomous than heterosexual couples. Therefore, gay marriage, by your logic, exerts a positive influence on the monogamous nature of marriage.

Of course, we're still talking about a tiny number of relationships -- maybe two to four percent of the total. Given this lopsidedness, in which direction will the social pressure most likely exert itself?

Anonymous said...

For a comprehensive, conservative, and traditionalist counterargument to these posts' argument against extending civil marriage to lesbian and gay couples, I recommend taking a look at Dale Carpenter's posts at the Volokh Conspiracy. (As a sidenote, Eugene Volokh, who now clerks for Justice Alito, is a proponent of marriage equality.)

Carpenter's posts are all compiled here . He is, as Volokh introduces him, a professor at the University of Minnesota School of Law. He's also a University of Chicago School of Law graduate, and a founder of the law school's conservative debating group, the Edmund Burke Society. He clerked for Judge Edith Jones on the Fifth Circuit, practiced for several years, and in 2000 started at Minnesota, where he teaches and writes on Constitutional Law, the First Amendment, and Sexual Orientation and the Law.

Gallagher also posted her arguments at Volokh, and the above link allows readers to take in Gallagher's full set of arguments in addition to those of Carpenter.

David Schowengerdt said...

In response to the first point, your argument is based on an assumption that gay couples don't have deep, complex and intimate relationships. Where does that assumption come from? Sure, many gay couples need the protections and benefits of marriage, but ask any gay couple who wants to get married "why?" and they'll probably tell you the same thing a straight couple would. Out of love and to take the relationship to a level that everyone respects and recognizes.

As far as the other points, seems like a lot of worrying and a lot of speculation. What is your real worry about point 3? That we may have a few more people in gay relationships?

With all this speculation, why shouldn't the burden of proof be placed on opposition to same-sex marriage? Certainly, if society is ultimately and clearly hurt by allowing gay people to marry, the law can be changed again. That's supposed to be the beauty of our democracy.

David Schowengerdt said...

Me again with more follow up.

Regarding point 3 (the normative sexuality point), you are concerned that a few "bendable" people will become gay. I don't believe this, but if it were true, what's the real concern?

First, they're going to see gay couples whether or not they're married. And they're going to see them as committed, real couples, not just two people "hanging out."

Secondly, they're still going to see 95% of the couples as male/female. I would think that overwhelming majority should suffice as a declaration as to what is "normative"...or rather, "what most people are doing."

And as another scenario, isn't it also possible that some straight people will see a committed gay couple who has been together for 20 years a good enough reason to avoid marriage for themselves?

Or, how many straight couples will refuse to get married until the marriage laws are equally applied to gay couples? I've come across a few couples who have already told me that.

See what I mean about all this worrying and speculation? Why do we go out of our way to make our heads hurt?