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Redefining Marriage

August 21, 2011

Both opponents and proponents of same-sex marriage appeal to the raising of children in their arguments. In recent Western history, it has been considered essentially feminine or essentially masculine to be a good mother or a good father, respectively. Today, our ideal of child-rearing consists less in parents fulfilling duties that are designated by their sex, and more in their collaboratively raising their children regardless of which parent fulfills which roles. Of course, the “needs” of children are also culturally determined, and the increasing precision with which we aim to guide our offspring’s development has rendered the categories of “male parent’s job” and “female parent’s job” antiquated, unnecessary, and perhaps even distracting.

Opponents of same-sex marriage mourn the death of the traditional mother and father figures. While many in this camp are careful to avoid the claim that same-sex relationships are inherently immoral (though many are not so cautious), they argue that a male-female parenting team offers a balance of power and nurture to children that same-sex parents cannot. Proponents of same-sex marriage, however, focus on the harmlessness of same-sex parenting. They cite studies showing that gay couples raise children just as well as straight parents do, or they focus on the oppression of individuals who wish to get married (which are certainly grounds for legal reform). They rarely make a case to satisfy conservatives’ concerns about the American family in general, such as the divorce rate and the number of children born out of wedlock. Developing an idea of what we can gain from this inevitable redefinition of marriage will help us rebuild and fashion it as an effective humanist institution.

Opponents naturally argue that same-sex marriage would actually further deteriorate marriage, which, in a way, is correct. To redefine it as blind to biological sex, they say, is to remove one of the few remaining pillars of a fragile, endangered, yet deeply important cultural tradition. This line of reasoning will not, however, lead to a clear picture of the damage that same-sex marriage would cause; the role of gender in marriage varies so drastically across cultures and time periods that it is impossible to tell what the institution would gain or lose if we allowed same-sex couples to wed. To defend biological sex as a basis for who may get married is to make the obsolete claim that a difference in sex is indispensable to marriage and parenting. The ultimate futility of this position marks ours as the time for same-sex marriage.


Marriage in History and the Status of Women

Gender has always shaped family and political life. Practices of past societies appear in our own, while we also reject many of the gender conceptions of our predecessors. Ancient Egyptian women, for instance, enjoyed far more legal and economic rights than women in early 20th century Europe or America.  Starting around the 31st century B.C. Egyptian women could manage, own and sell property, and they could sue their husbands for divorce; of course, rights and privileges at this time differed primarily across social class rather than gender. Similarly in Ancient Sparta, women controlled their own land in marriage and after divorce. Spartan women also participated in sports and underwent much of the same physical training as men. Their role as women, however, centered upon producing and raising male Spartan warriors, thus balancing the role of the men who defended the state.  Spartans also admired distinct personality in a woman just as they would in a man, a refreshing contrast to other cultures in which women are or have been generalized as untrustworthy, hysterical, irrational or weak.

While Spartan women played a “feminine” role in motherhood, their culture’s regard for women as robust participants in society (though they did have limited political rights) resembles the attitude we’ve assumed recently through the first and second waves of feminism. In our case, however, women derive their clout not from a particular female function that is balanced by a male function, but from their accepted equality to men. The feminist movement thus helped to prefigure today’s gender fluidity in parenting and marriage.

Same-sex marriage was destined to come after the women’s movement because it requires the dismantling of any rules binding gender expression to biological sex; in furthering the practical rights of women, the feminist movement began the detachment of social gender from anatomy. “Masculine” and “feminine” qualities and behavior are displayed by people of both sexes whether they are heterosexual or not; thanks in part to the women’s movement, the spectrum of gender across sex is perceived as less grotesque today than it was several decades ago. Sexual and romantic attraction toward men had always been considered feminine, and that toward women had always been considered masculine. The undermining of these orientations as designated for females and males respectively portended the social acceptance of homosexuality, the process we are currently experiencing.


Spousal Rape and Sodomy

Same-sex marriage is an uncanny manifestation of how the second wave feminist movement and its heralds excavated the institution of marriage, making it: a partnership between equals or between two parties who are in some way “the same” (“homo”); releasing emphasis on the difference between men and women. Evidence of this reform is the relatively recent legal possibility for a husband to be charged with raping his wife, whereas prior to the feminist movement the marriage contract alone was lasting consent to sex. Spousal rape laws echoed the death of officiated roles of an empowered man and subservient woman. Opponents of same-sex marriage as well would probably not advocate the repeal of these laws that resulted from the era they often cite as a warning not to mess with marriage.[1]

The implementation of spousal rape laws signified an ethical breakthrough that anticipates same-sex marriage as a legitimate partnership. Once there is no code of marital behavior that is defined by biological sex, the importance of biological sex within marriage falls away; the institution becomes one of two consenting adults.[2] Interestingly, the striking down of laws against sodomy in the United States progressed over roughly the same time period as laws against spousal rape were established.[3] In other words, “permissible” sex was being redefined such that ethics took precedence over a particular physical expression; whether both parties consented to sex became more important than whether their sex act was approved.[4]



Gender in Marriage Today

Riding the third wave of feminism, we are no longer in a position to dictate how a woman should be a wife or mother, nor can we dictate how a man should be a husband or father. Neither are we in a position to say exactly how a married couple should treat each other, as long as they behave within the law.  Upholding love and commitment as essential to marriage seems like a good place to start, but it is impossible to carve out two specific roles that each spouse should fulfill in order for their marriage to succeed; the details are best left up to the individuals in the relationship, though the high divorce rate suggests that we could use some guidance. Because it is no longer politically plausible for the state to dictate marital behavior, we are unfortunately encouraged to look to various commercial media for lifestyles or people to emulate. For support and counsel, religion would probably be a better place to look, but so many religious people have pitted themselves so loudly and obstinately against same-sex marriage that it can be difficult to take their marital advice seriously; their arguments simply cannot hold up to current, more ethical conceptions of gender. The growing tension between modern gender ethics and religion is part of what has shaken the institution of marriage to its core.

Both the government and we as citizens can, however, articulate gender-neutral ideals for child-rearing, such as a two-parent home. The state has an interest in future generations as well as an obligation to promote favorable conditions for children. Physical health is the bare bones of the state’s (and of course parents’) responsibility to children, with mental health following close behind. On these fronts, the food industry and commercialism are far bigger hazards to the well-being of American children than same-sex marriage. Additional concerns are promiscuity and early sexualization, areas where liberals might try to level with conservatives. Some people fear that same-sex marriage will exacerbate these hazards, but such panic stems from an exaggerated association of queerness with sluttiness; they insist that there is a homosexual agenda against sexual morality instead of assimilating a renewed sexual ethics of physical and mental health.

Opponents of same-sex marriage also claim that children brought up by a gay couple will be “confused” about their own gender identities. Gender itself certainly should not be taboo; rather it should be recognized as fluid across the sexes. The overwhelming majority of children attend school and activities with others who have varying gender expressions and sexual orientations; to push back on same-sex marriage in the name of protecting children only misleads them from a completely safe and interesting aspect of reality that they form part of. Naturally, we should protect children from threats, but we should not lie to them about where we are in history. Same-sex marriage solidifies in a cultural institution the ethical progress we have made through gender equality. Its legalization would show that we hold a couple in a committed, loving relationship in higher esteem than a couple who merely fits an anatomical bill; it would nurture marriage today, and lay solid ground for marriages of the future.


Jackie Colvin is a freelance writer living in Chicago.



[1]The current Mama Grizzly phenomenon, however, smacks of such nostalgia with its gussied up image of an empowered mother -wife as opposed to an empowered female. I suspect they’re onto something with this line of reasoning, but it would have more to do with losing the housewife who cooks dinner (instead of picking it up from McDonald’s or the freezer section) than a problem with sexual morality; food preparation is not inherently feminine, but we don’t seem to prize homemade meals as essential to good parenting.

[2] More precisely, it involves two consenting adults who are not related such that their marriage would be illegal, though the relevant laws differ across jurisdictions.

[3] The first state to strike down laws against sodomy was Illinois in 1962, and by 2003 all but 14 states had followed suit; in 2003, the Supreme Court ruling in Lawrencev. Texas invalidated the remaining sodomy laws.

[4] While marital rape is criminalized in all 50 states, most states still consider marital rape a lesser offense than stranger rape. South Dakota was the first state to criminalize marital rape in 1975, and North Carolina was the last in 1993. See also: SpousalRapeLawsContinuetoEvolve


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