Marriage is about …

By Lorenzo

A common argument against same-sex marriage is that marriage is “about” children. Or that the purpose of marriage is the raising of children. Or some similar claim.

Conservative philosopher Keith Burgess-Jackson rebuts a certain class of arguments against the claim that marriage is “about” children here. But the claim he defends–that marriage is about children–strips marriage of its historical context. Marriage becomes an ahistorical entity, floating in an historically unanchored “eternal now”.

Why do we think marriage is “about” one thing? How do we work out whatever it is marriage is “about”?

If we examine marriage as a human phenomenon, then we will find that the only common defining feature of marriage across human societies is that it creates in-laws. Which suggests that marriage is about connection.

But, of course,”marriage is about” arguments typically does not do any such thing as taking such a broad, historically anchored, view. Indeed, such claims are often largely, or even completely, ignorant of the diversity of human marriage customs. What is actually meant is “in our society/civilisation, marriage is about …”.  Which then raises the question of why marriage in our society is like it is.

Because of a particular historical evolution. One of which was the deliberate suppression, on religious grounds, of same-sex marriage. Either in the pre-Christian history of the Mediterranean world or the pre-colonial history of societies subject to European settlement or conquest. In the rabbinical text the Sifra, the following appears (in Achrei Mot 9:8):

I did not say this [prohibition] except for the statutes enacted by them, their fathers, and their father’s fathers. And what would they do? A man would marry a man, a woman [would marry] a woman, a man would marry a woman and her daughter, and a woman would marry two men. Therefore it says, “and in their statutes do not follow.

Rabbinical literature included some very absolutist prohibitions on homosexual activity (between men) some of which implies (pdf) the existence of same-sex marriages. Such prohibitions fit in with the priestly and clerical interest in moral complexity and outcasting.

Nor was this rabbinical denunciation of folks same-sex marrying each other mere rhetorical invention. It is fairly clear that an early piece of Christian legislation in the Roman Empire banned (pdf) same-sex marriages (Th. C. 9.8.3):

When a man marries and is about to offer himself to men in womanly fashion (quum vir nubit in feminam viris porrecturam), what does he wish, when sex has lost all its significance; when the crime is one which it is not profitable to know; when Venus is changed to another form; when love is sought and not found? We order the statutes to arise, the laws to be armed with an avenging sword, that those infamous persons who are now, or who hereafter may be, guilty may be subjected to exquisite punishment.

This is the period when marriage laws took a very adverse turn for women (pdf): on religious grounds, but clearly about stripping women control over their fertility and shifting legal and sexual power and authority to men. Claiming that marriage is “about” children is not necessarily good for women.

Much of the contemporary “culture wars” are about reversing that Christianisation and reverting to much more Roman practices on matters of sex and gender. While retaining the moral universalism that Christianity added to the Classical heritage.

A multiply-married King greets visiting Queen.

Really, marriage is “about” what a given society collectively decides it is about. This is where the claims that marriage is “by definition” a union of a man and a woman are so silly. First, polygyny is clearly a form of marriage–the Bible says so, referring to “Solomon’s wives“. Second, polyandry is clearly a form of marriage–see the Mahabharata. Suddenly, marriage becomes “by definition” between one or more men and one or more women. The claim that it is not so in our society is true, but that is also a social choice. Marriage has been chosen to be “defined” that way.  As it can be decided to “define” it differently.

A multiply-married woman with her five husbands.

Monogamous marriage is about two people building a life together much more directly than it is about children. That is why infertile folk are allowed to marry and an intent to have children has never been a required attribute. It is also why it is a socially preferred vehicle for raising children. But it is the mutual commitment that makes it suitable, is not that having children magically creates mutual commitment.

After all, it is not as if same-sex marriages cannot also be “about” children. Once we permit adoption–accepting that conception and raising children are not the same thing, so avoiding sloppy use of the term “procreative”–then same-sex marriages can be every bit “about” children as opposite-sex marriages.

So, claims based on the alleged nature of marriage turn out to ignore a considerable amount of history. Once marriage is understood as two people building a life together, then two people of the same-sex committed to building a life together can be as thoroughly married as anyone else.

Which, presumably, is why popular sentiment has been shifting towards supporting same-sex marriage. Because that is how people actually understand marriage, they just needed to get used to the idea that same-sex attracted people are “just folks” too.  The subtitle of an excellent history of marriage is How Love Conquered Marriage. The arrival (or, more accurately, the return) of same-sex marriage is just part of that long historical process.



  1. Jeremy
    Posted July 18, 2014 at 8:59 pm | Permalink

    Darwin has the final word on sillyness. If same sex marriage was a useful thing in society, then the vast range of human societies would show us a successful society with same sex marriage as normal.

  2. Posted July 19, 2014 at 8:29 am | Permalink

    [email protected] You don’t understand the difference between social selection and natural selection do you? Social selection is not remotely a random process. “Useful to those with power” is a very large part of how it operates, for example.

    And there were societies which had same-sex marriages for a long time. Amerindian societies, before monotheist conquest, for example.

    The “this form of oppression has been successful in the past so it must be for good reasons” is not an engaging line of argument, as it can be used to justify any form of bad treatment merely on the grounds that it has persisted.

  3. Herding cats
    Posted July 19, 2014 at 6:58 pm | Permalink

    It could also be argued that “reproduction” of homo sapiens (sapiens) has become rather uncomfortable for every other species on this planet.

    Perhaps some rather less “reproduction”?

  4. Posted July 20, 2014 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    [email protected] Yes, it is not as if there is a person shortage …

  5. Catching up
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 7:06 am | Permalink

    A big number of people today form families without bothering about marriage. any live together, for years before taking the step. The marriages that do occur, do not happen in a church, or any church involvement.

    The world, and our society, as we know it, has not collapsed.

    It is a bout commitment. Many feel that they are able to give this, without involving outside formalities.

    Even the Catholic Church, preached that the Sacrament of marriage, is between two people. The Churches role, is to observe that commitment. Nothing more.

  6. Mel
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 11:35 am | Permalink

    In my part of rural Victoria there are hundreds of gay couples and I know some who’ve been together since their teens and who are now pushing 60. Our community is thriving and growing so fast that many of us want to slow things down.

    Same sex marriage, if we include de facto SSM, has been common in the West for at least two generations and I think J would agree that we are very successful indeed. The sky hasn’t fallen in. In fact, life for the common man has never been better.

    And good on you Lorenzo for continuing to soldier away on a noble cause.

  7. Herding cats
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 6:44 pm | Permalink

    Darwin has the final word on sillyness. If same sex marriage was a useful thing in society, then the vast range of human societies would show us a successful society with same sex marriage as normal.

    Might also suggest that bacteria and viruses do the “normal”.

    (please don’t misunderstand me; have, in my youth, explored sexuality with males. Time tends to drift me towards sexuality with females).

  8. Herding cats
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    .. and while am here – why is not “sensuality” part of the equation between humans. Have we really become so “robotic”? Slaves to slogans?

  9. Herding cats
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 7:03 pm | Permalink

    “partitioned” into ‘workers’, slaves, “owners”.
    MY body and mind belongs to ME.

    What i choose to do with the body self lives in IS my choice – and i defy any politician to try and destroy it.

  10. Herding cats
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 7:16 pm | Permalink

    (um, in the interests of ‘full disclosure’ in this discussion – have to admit that have survived 70 years on planet earth; so far.)

  11. Herding cats
    Posted July 21, 2014 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    … but only one male progeny, from my loins.
    Emotionally problematical.

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