Saturday, November 13, 2010

Some Thoughts on the Tyranny of Marriage

A friend of mine recently went to a school reunion. She's in her mid-forties, working, unmarried, lives in her own unit alone. She's not single though; she has a partner. They met through work. He lives in his own place, has done for quite a few years, alone. He was married but that ended a long time ago. My friend and her partner actually live not far from each other and theirs is a commuting relationship. So anyway at the school reunion, when my friend told her former classmates about her relationship, they heaved a sigh of relief, "we'd been wondering if you were gay because you weren't married and didn't have kids." It's in just such little ways that the tyranny of marriage makes itself felt. Presumably having a man in her life has restored some credibility for her, even if she isn't married. And yet my friend's situation is not that unusual. I have another friend who has been in a relationship with a man, a man also previously married and with kids (and grandkids, with whom she has a strong step-grandmother relationship too), for over 18 years now; they have never lived together in that time. And it's not just straight people. I have a gay friend who not does not live with his partner despite their 20 or so years together, they actually live in different countries, here and in Thailand! I'm told that in Thailand it's not the norm, or at least wasn't in the past, for male lovers to live together. Married people do that and marriage is husbands and wives and babies. Marriage there is primarily about children.

So I was curious to discover this essay over at the Guardian the other day. It's called The Tyranny of Marriage by Lara Pawson. Lara is a married woman in the UK and she and her husband want to end their marriage because they've learnt that marriage "conveys gravitas and status ... it's a smug club to which my husband and I no longer want to belong." I recommend you read the whole piece; I reckon it's pretty good, although I also disagree with some parts of it too. I'm going to quote and comment on parts of it but first some background. In the UK marriage is only permissible between a man and a woman. However the UK also has civil partnerships. These are only permissible between two men or two women. A man and a woman can't contract a civil partnership and male or female couples can't get married. Nevertheless, civil partnerships are pretty much like marriage although they lack some of the privileges that marriage has. I'll get back to that shortly.

In the UK there's an Equal Love campaign which is being coordinated by the tireless gay activist, Peter Tatchell. In part it's about the right for same sex couples to get married but it's also about the right of opposite sex couples to contract a civil partnership. A number of opposite sex couples, including Tom Freeman and Katherine Doyle, have applied to enter into a civil partnership. They've been knocked back as have the same sex couples been denied to contract marriage. I think this is a brilliant campaign with the potential to unleash some major changes which will lessen the tyranny of marriage. I used that term last year in one of my pieces on marriage and I was curious to see Lara Pawson use the same term as the title of her piece.

She starts off saying:
I want to divorce the man I love and he wants to divorce me. We do not wish to separate – simply to end our seven-year marriage... we would prefer "to secure official status for our relationship in a way that supports the call for complete equality and is free of the negative, sexist connotations of marriage". We are both fed up with being part of the hetero-husband-and-wife brigade that is accorded so much status and privilege

They got married in 2003 because they wanted "a public celebration to acknowledge our love, and my husband- to-be felt strongly that a ceremony with singing and reading was important, as well as the almighty knees-up." Marriage, "albeit a God-free one, seemed to be the only available path." They also got married for a practical reason. They were planning to live in Angola and getting visas as two 'single' people, in other words unmarried people - they were, after all, a couple - was a difficult process. Marriage enabled them to cut through the red tape. Marriage is recognised by international treaty, so long as it's monogamous. Polygamous and polyandrous marriages aren't recognised under international law even though they might be allowed in specific countries. Monogamous marriage is the only non-biological relationship that has international recognition, it's one of its privileges and it is privileged by it. (I'm very conscious of that privilege. After I finished my PhD I had high hopes of getting an academic job. I knew too that it would most likely be an overseas job and certainly most of the academic jobs I've applied for have been overseas since I began making applications 10 years ago. I purposely held back as much as possible from getting involved with anyone for most of the last decade because I knew that if did get a job overseas, it would be extremely difficult to get a male partner into which ever country I'd end up in, perhaps impossible with many).

Lara says that she soon discovered how sexist marriage is. "Before we even tied the proverbial knot, I became swiftly aware of discrimination against wives. A job in journalism I was up for suddenly became unavailable: a female manager called to say that now I was married she presumed that it would be difficult for me to be a foreign correspondent." This was in 2003! But it's not the inherent sexism of marriage that most got to her. Rather it's the privilege that marriage receives.

When you marry, you gain a certain unspoken gravitas, as though society heaves a collective sigh of relief: "Thank God they've grown up." Several husbands and wives actually said to me, albeit with a weary smile, "Join the club". Clink clink. And I soon discovered that marriage really is a club.

Being married pulls you into a new elite. It lends you an air of stability and reliability that singles and divorcees are denied. We assume that those who are unmarried probably have something just a teeny bit wrong with them because they have never managed to persuade another to settle down into that cosy unit of coupledom. This is the smug tyranny of husbands and wives.

I think what Lara has discovered here is the fact that marriage is the default in our society, the default of what constitutes a normative relationship, the type of relationship we are all meant to aspire to, the type of relationship that is considered makes for a well-adjusted and happy individual. As my friend found at her school reunion not being married put her in the category of 'suspected to be gay' (presumably lesbian was something too shocking for her classmates to consider). Consequently a suite of privileges attach to marriage. I think marriage even affects the way we have sex. Just today I saw this article someone had posted on Facebook, "Was it (not) good for you? Men say they fake it, too" - it seems that men fake orgasms too, 25% of male respondents in a recent US study. Apparently most of the time guys faked it was during penis-vagina intercourse (it seems the respondents were all heterosexual) which was also the same for women. In other words men and women were both following an erotic script and faked orgasm because they wanted to get out of it without putting their partner on the spot. One commentator, Carol Ellison, makes the astute observation:

"When sex is a performance, and when sex has performance goals — erection, intercourse, orgasms— it's problematic," Ellison, who was not involved in the research, told LiveScience. Ellison argues that sexual success should be redefined as anything that makes you feel goodabout yourself, good about your partner and as something that enhances your relationship.

"If you change the goal of sex to creating mutual pleasure and finding all the different ways to create pleasure... you'll learn a lot more about sexual responsiveness," she said. "Sex will be a whole different experience."

I would argue that this performance based approach to sex comes from the reproductive priority accorded it by making marriage the template of normative intimate relationships. Marriage traditionally and primarily has been about having children. That and property (children themselves are traditionally a form of property) and inter-family alliance have always been the main purposes of marriage. Marriage has given sex a form of legitimacy through its procreative function, especially in Christian societies. Erection, intercourse and orgasms (especially the male's) are linked to that procreative function. They form a script that people believe they have to follow if they are to be counted as normal - normative - human beings.

I've taken a bit of a long detour here but I found the resonances between the fake orgasm article and the broader issue of the privileged default status of marriage too compelling to ignore. However the privileged status of marriage almost has a common sense quality. No one ever questions the centrality of marriage in our society. No one questions the laws against bigamy or plural marriage - everyone assumes that monogamy is the normal 'natural' way to be. No one questions the 'happy ever after' romantic aura that's cast around marriage. As Lara says when people marry they're given a "gravitas" and regarded as "all grown up." And I've been told that, anecdotally anyway, many young women today regard being a bride, getting married, as a kind of formal coming of age. And of course when you get married you're wedded to your soulmate, your partner, your complement, without whom your life is incomplete. It's the ultimate in co-dependency, it's also considered central to maturity. There's a whole industry of psychobabble literature designed to prop up the mythology.

And yet, as I pointed out in my first post on this topic last year the current status of marriage as the stand alone non-biological kinship relation and as the way to psycho-emotional affectional maturity and fulfilment is a fairly recent development in human history. Marriage has always been central, the demands of patriarchy and progeny always made it so, but for our ancestors, it did not have the tyrannical dominance that it does today. The late gay historian, Alan Bray, points out that in medieval Europe marriage sat amongst a web of non-biological (kinship) relationships. Indeed marriage was not regarded as the main vehicle of affectional fulfilment. Such fulfilment was more likely found in one's friendships. If it also happened in your marriage then that was regarded as a blessing. But in that medieval world, people might have entered one or two sworn friendships, they may well even have a sworn brother or sworn sister (sworn brotherhood and sworn sisterhood are more common in the Orthodox East but there were Latin rites of making men brothers too). Baptism and godparenting brought people into relationship - people lived amidst elaborate networks of god-kin. And that's just some of the web of relationships in which people lived and of which, marriage was a part.

All of this began to change in the Renaissance and the Reformation. The practices of sworn friendship, sworn brotherhood and sworn sisterhood were stopped and the church rituals that instituted such relationships were suppressed and forgotten, especially in the West (they linger still in isolated pockets in the East). The networks of god-kin were pruned back. The web of relationship was unravelled. At the same time, marriage moved more and more into the centre of life. It became more formalised, reified, sacramentalised. For the Reformers, marriage instituted the godly household which was to become the fundamental basis of the godly Reformed Christian state. (The Reformers also closed down those suspect same-sex households of convent and monastery). The Roman Church also played catch-up making marriage a sacrament and tightening the regime of confession to monitor the sex lives of the faithful.

But with the rise of the modern capitalist state, marriage became very much a state institution. In much of Europe, the state took it off the Church. In the UK the state sub-contracted to the Church, in the 18th century the British Parliament mandating marriage in the Church of England as the only way to legitimate cohabitation (Jews and Quakers were given an exemption). This process goes hand in hand with the development of capitalism. In its raw state capitalism discourages all human solidarity - ultimately we are nothing more than individual consumers and wage slaves. Marriage, monogamous, couplist, patriarchal, and the nuclear family that goes with it, (once again described and valorised in the literature of Reformers such as Calvin) is the minimalist compromise for capitalism to make with human need for solidarity, in order to ensure new generations of consumers and wage slaves. The marriage household also makes a good unit of consumption and so it's easily integrated into the capitalist state. And propaganda is peddled promoting marriage as the focus of human affectional and personal fulfilment and maturity. The rich literature on friendship, going back through the centuries of Christianity and beyond into the many centuries of ancient pagan cultures too, peters out by the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Friendship is instead demoted and trivialised, a situation that would astonish our ancestors for whom it was of such importance.

I've had to summarise briefly and crudely but I do so to bring home just how recent a development the, dare I say morbid, centrality of marriage in our society is. And not just a general concept of marriage but a very specific instance, monogamous, couplist, exclusivist (I won't say patriarchal, sexist or hierarchical because most historical forms of marriage have been that).

But back to Lara's article. She goes on to say that she and her husband will divorce and hope to eventually form a civil partnership if the Equal Love campaign proves successful. But she then goes further announcing a much broader vision of relationship recognition:
As I have argued elsewhere, if we really seek equality we must refuse to accept a society that prioritises conventional coupledom over other forms of love and fellowship. Those who would like to live with people who mean a great deal to them, but are not lovers, are left out of this entire debate. Again, I turn to Tatchell. Five years ago he wrote: "Many non-sexual friendships are as sincere, loyal and enriching as relations between people in love. They, too, should have legal recognition."
She's quoting Peter Tatchell here from an article published in the Guardian back in 2005 when civil partnerships were introduced. Tatchell then rightly condemned the effective apartheid of a dual civil partnership for same-sex and marriage for mixed-sex couples set-up. He then outlined his own proposal for a single civil commitment pact which could be tailored by partners from a pick and mix menu of rights and obligations to work out a pact that best suits their needs. He then goes on to declare:

Many non-sexual friendships are as sincere, loyal and enriching as relations between people in love. They, too, should have legal recognition. Restricting partnership rights to people in sexual relationships discriminates against close friends who support each other but are not in a traditional love coupling. If an elderly brother and sister set up house together and care for one another, why shouldn't they have legal rights?

Unfortunately, few partnerships last a lifetime. Single people account for nearly a third of all households. Friends now play an increasingly important role in people's lives and support networks. It's wrong to deny legal rights to close friends who have a strong, supportive bond, just because they are not lovers and don't have sex.
Similar legislation exists in Tasmania. Legal rights are granted to all relationships of mutual devotion and support, including gay couples, carers and unmarried heterosexual partners. It works Down Under; why not here?

I agree with both Peter Tatchell and Lara Pawson in the need to recognise a wider range of relationships than just monogamous marriage and marriage like relationships/civil partnerships and like Peter Tatchell I like the Tasmanian Relationships Register as a model. My only problem is that Tatchell still seems to stick to a monogamous model. Only one relationship will be registered and that only with one other person. And yet as Tatchell himself says "Friends now play an increasingly important role in people's lives and support networks. It's wrong to deny legal rights to close friends who have a strong, supportive bond." It's wrong to deny the fact that a person might have more than one key friendship. And they might also have a sexual relationship at the same time, too. Furthermore coupledom is not the only model for lovers and significant friendships; there can be triads and other poly arrangements just as we can have more than one significant friendship. Any relationship recognition worth its salt must also have provision for such polyamorous relationships too. It's also not clear from either of the articles whether people who don't live together are covered. I started off this post detailing three such relationships that I know of in my own network of friends, two of which span decades. They don't fit the standard marriage model and neither should they have to. These relationships are also entitled to recognition.

And I'll quote here from a post I wrote on this subject last year:

I would argue that it is about time that friendship was valued and celebrated. It's not clear from my reading whether medieval practices of sworn friendship were another form of adelphopoieia or something different. If adelphopoieia actually brought families into kinship whereas sworn friendships didn't then there is a difference already. One is kinmaking in a strong sense, the other blesses and affirms relationship without necessarily linking two kinship groups. It's time friendship was celebrated, affirmed and blessed. I'm not speaking here about solely romantic erotic same sex relationships. Imagine if two or three male or female friends wanted to celebrate their friendship and have it blessed. Imagine a world in which friendship is celebrated and honoured, including friendships between men and women!

And while I imagine the ways this could happen in a religious setting by drawing on rituals from the past, it doesn't only have to be in a religious setting. Australia now has a well established network of civil celebrants. Their main role has been to perform civil weddings. But as our culture has secularised, many of these celebrants have branched out into funerals and baby namings and same sex commitment ceremonies as well. Maybe it's time for the celebration of friendship or commitment to friendship to be added to the repertoire.

In other words celebrants could develop a range of ritual forms suitable for different types of relationships people wish to celebrate and have recognised. Committed or sworn friendships could then be entered into a relationships register along with the whole gamut of significant relationships in people's lives including marriage and other sexual relationships. Indeed it might make us recognise that marriage-like and other sexual relationships are really forms of friendship and are themselves sustained and maintained by broader webs of friendship.

That's one of the reasons I can't support the rush towards same-sex marriage. I fear that it will close off possibilities for a genuine equal love, a genuine relationship equality. Furthermore that closing off of other options buttresses the status of marriage as the default for relationships and even worse spreads the aegis of that default to cover homosexuality and same sex relationships. I would argue that marriage is not good for heterosexual people but that it is even worse for us queers. Taking marriage as the default for same sex relationships cuts us off from the variety of models in which same sex love was expressed in the past, models which we could be exploring and reviving and reconstructing, rather than forcing our relational lives into a model, marriage, which is oppressive, hierarchical and was not even designed for same-sex love. Quite the contrary, it might even have been shaped by the pressure of homosexual panic (at least that's what my reading of a number of Reformation texts suggests to me). If we are to have same-sex marriage it should come at the end, once we have dethroned marriage from its central position by setting in place a range of options and alternatives for all people in relationships, recognising, affirming and celebrating the variety and richness of human relationships.

Alas, I fear that wont be the case in Australia. When even the right wing nasties in the ALP start calling for same sex marriage then the writing is on the wall. If only the Equal Marriage campaign had been a real Equal Love campaign.

If we do end up with same sex marriage I think the next queer struggle might be to convince queer folks that marriage is not the be all and end all of life, that it's actually pretty rotten in fact; and that maybe we queer folks should not only avoid marriage but instead try to develop new ways (even revive some old ones too) and better forms of love and fellowship.

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