Postcards from the Marriage Wars – Part Two

It wouldn’t be long before same-sex marriage made its way to Australian shores. Slowly, inexorably, it has lumbered towards a point of mass acceptance. Of course, the issue, as something discussed and fought over, has been alight for a number of years now (providing much fodder for media outlets). What I am talking about, however, is changes to the institution of marriage itself. For a few fleeting moments, SSM was a reality in this country – gaining a foothold in that strange little enclave, the Australian Capital Territory, late last year. That it proved to be a temporary victory for proponents of SSM is, I believe, immaterial. A new threshold has been crossed, and I think the debate – at least for social conservatives, orthodox Christians, and others of their ilk – has already been lost. And although a new phase has been reached, it seems to represent the culmination of forces that have been gathering pace for some time. That, however, is an essay for another time.

News outlets carried pieces on what took place in the ACT, as well as on the issue more generally. I have read a number of reports related to these developments, but in this article, I want to concentrate on a piece written by a journalist for The Age. It is not unique, of course; others have been offering these arguments for many years. But it is representative in its approach, and so I shall use it as a touchstone, so to speak, with which to engage current attitudes and mores.

I turn, then, to a series of articles written by Sam De Brito, whose writings appear in The Age and other Fairfax newspapers. A little while ago, he wrote an open letter to Fred Nile, the staunch Christian conservative and NSW state parliamentarian. In it, he chided Rev. Nile for “picking and choosing” when it came to interpreting and applying the various commands of Scripture – in particular, that part of the Bible Christians call the Old Testament. The implication was that the leader of the Christian Democrats was not taking his own holy book seriously – happy to deny certain “rights” to homosexual couples (which De Brito seemed to imply was the result of Rev. Nile’s own prejudices), whilst conveniently setting aside Scripture when it came to thornier questions that might cause some discomfort. In a follow-up article (“The Alternative Ten Commandments,” The Age, December 6th, 2013), De Brito wrote that his main “beef” was with Christians who, according to him, inconsistently apply the Bible’s injunctions. He went on to criticise – maybe “mock” is more appropriate – that most-vaunted of religious legal codes, the Ten Commandments.

One wonders how De Brito would have reacted had he encountered a Christian who accepted the Bible’s command to care for the poor and destitute (e.g. Exodus 22:21-22; 23:2-3; Proverbs 21:13, 15), whilst rejecting its prohibitions against homosexual practices. I for one suspect he would be less concerned about theological and interpretative inconsistency. In any case, there are a number of problems with De Brito’s views – as rendered in his second article – which all evince a desperate lack of biblical understanding, and a commitment to caricature over serious analysis. I will turn to those particular calumnies in a later article.

In recounting email exchanges with angry Christians, De Brito says that he was confronted with a number of emails that:

“…predictably descended into…arguments that without God’s word to follow on issues like who we can shag in the privacy of our own homes…”.

The characterisation of sex as a private activity is, as we shall see, relevant. Elsewhere in his writings on marriage, De Brito seems to recognize the public nature of that particular bond. Indeed, it is precisely the public dimension of the institution of marriage – and the consequent recognition couples are accorded by virtue of their participation in it – that so animates supporters of SSM like Sam De Brito. Now, it is perhaps the case that De Brito’s reference to “shagging” and the like was, in fact, a crude rendition of some of the arguments made by his interlocutors. His stated views regarding marriage would, as I said, suggest some kind of acknowledgment regarding its public dimensions. But what, then, of his views on sex? According to De Brito, sexual union is reduced to the act of “shagging” in one’s home. That he emphasises its private nature is evidence that he thinks of it as nobody else’s business. Moreover, in view of the fact that he includes the exhortation to be a “good shag” in his alternative Decalogue, as well as a pointed self-reference as a never-married father, it would seem that De Brito thinks of marriage and sex as being two, distinct realities. Indeed, he appears to think that sex and marriage can be decoupled and grounded in quite separate ways, with no essential connection between them. What ought one to make of this?

First, I should point out the obvious: sex, as a discrete act, is itself a private thing. That hardly needs saying, and I am not implicitly advocating voyeurism. But its representative and symbolic overtones possess a public-social dimension, and have public-social ramifications. Take heterosexual sex, for instance. A man and a woman may come together, either for a night or for a lifetime. What they do in the bedroom is, to the extent that it involves the two of them, private. However, what if that union results in the conception and birth of a child? And what if the temporary coupling took place between people who were otherwise unknown to each other – a “one night stand”, in other words? The sex act, in itself, was indeed private, cloistered. But its consequences, if they included the birth of a child (for example), would be anything but. This, of course, is a little different to the discussion at hand, but goes some way to showing that sexual union cannot be seen as private in an absolutist sense. Not only in its possible consequences, but also in its meaning – which is often shaped by broader social and cultural forces – is sexual intercourse a more-than-private reality. It is inevitably caught up in a whole raft of relationships, networks, social constructions, etc., whilst also having the potential to create new relationships, networks and social links through its inherent generative potential (not to mention the possible physiological and psychological consequences that may flow from the sex act). Marriage, in this respect, is not aberrant. It doesn’t artificially map an institutionalised framework upon an otherwise private relationship; rather, it seeks to recognize what is already an embedded, essential reality about (hetero)sexual unions.

It is this connection between marriage and sex that forms one of the major planks in traditionalists’ efforts to uphold the idea of marriage as a union between a man and a woman. Such an understanding recognizes the complimentary nature of the heterosexual union, which is both comprehensive in itself and inherently geared towards reproduction. Of course, I realize that not all male-female couples choose to use their unions for the purposes of having children. Others, through no fault of their own, are unable to have children. However, aside from the intrinsically comprehensive nature of the heterosexual union (at a basic biological and systemic level, the bodies of males and females seem, for want of a better word, “designed” for each other), it alone amongst the various unions available to people is capable of generating children. It is an inescapably social bond, embracing the children that issue from it, as well as the social world that will one day be influenced by those children. Robert P. George, a professor of jurisprudence at Princeton University, writes:

“Moreover, marriage (again unlike ordinary friendships) is a matter of public concern and not merely of the private interests of spouses. That is because marriage brings together a man and woman as husband and wife to be father and mother to any children born of their union.”

The institution of marriage simply codifies a unique biological reality, thereby providing a safe environment within which children may be reared and raised. Conservatives have every reason to preserve this institution, given its importance as a framework within which healthy, well-adjusted individuals may be socialised.

Now, back to Sam De Brito. His argument seems to involve a contradiction: on the one hand, he upholds the idea of marriage as, in some sense, a public institution – one that (presumably) should be available to all, regardless of the sexual permutations and combinations that compose individual unions; but, on the other hand, he seems to suggest that sex – which, historically, has been seen as an inescapable component of marriage as traditionally defined – is little more than a private transaction: “shagging” in one’s bedroom, as it were (of course, De Brito would likely say that it can be more than that, by arguing that it is often an expression of the love that exists between two [or more?] people. True; but if can be other than this, to which many a drunken one-night stand testifies, then it cannot be defined by it. Thus, the only relevant commonalities between the various incarnations of legitimate sex acts he envisages are physical union, consent and privacy). It seems that, based upon these incongruous conceptions of marriage and sexual union, he has castigated Christians for worrying endlessly about what gays and lesbians do in private. Maybe some have. But the nub of the issue is the essence of marriage, as a public institution and as an entity with certain properties. In other words: what is marriage in itself (if anything), and what are the (public, social) consequences of attempts to change it? De Brito, in trying to offer a critique of Christians’ views on the matter, seems to have parsed private sex acts and a legalised form of union that is anything but.

De Brito, I submit, appears to be viewing sex and marriage as separate entities, in that either can be practiced without reference to the other (at least consistently; of course, people are free to have sex without marrying one another, whilst couples who have been joined together by a minister or celebrant are free not to consummate that union). However, the question is whether marriage, in particular, can be defined apart from sex. De Brito may want to say that sex need not be a part of the definition of marriage. If the latter is simply the legalised expression of love and commitment between people, and can rest on nothing more than those bonds of affection (however expressed), what else is needed? Similarly, De Brito seems to think that a person’s sexual proclivities can be enjoyed apart from the encumbrances of marriage. Indeed, most people these days would probably agree. As a simple statement of reality, this is uncontroversial. But, to then imply that sexual activity is not an essential component of marriage (which one would likely have to do in such circumstances), forces one into philosophically ambiguous territory. Once again, we are dragged back to what seems to be the centre of this debate, even if it is unacknowledged by many of its participants: what the institution of marriage actually, essentially is.

Indeed, one might legitimately ask: what is the institution of marriage for, if it does not include, as part of any such conception, the importance of sexual activity? What distinguishes marriage from other types of relationship, if not the significance of sex? And if it is connected to sex, then questions regarding the nature of those sex acts, and whether any and every form of sexual expression can provide a basis for marriage, become exceedingly relevant. I have suggested that marriage is inescapably heterosexual, precisely because of the uniqueness of the sexual bond that consummates it. It would seem that marriage, at least from De Brito’s recent writings, is a kind of public commitment, where participants enjoy the privilege of being able to seal their pledges of love and devotion in a legal, recognized fashion. Sex, apparently, is irrelevant – at least in terms of how marriage is defined. Ironically, however, it’s partly because of the sexual nature of homosexual relationships that calls for their recognition have arisen in the first place. I doubt very much whether they would be seen as anything more than particularly intense kinds of friendship if they weren’t expressed, at least in part, through sexual intercourse. Absent this factor, the grounds for recognizing such relationships as in any way different from friendship, generally conceived, would be very weak indeed. De Brito wants to keep sex away from prying eyes and moralistic busy-bodies, but seems not to notice the inescapable connection – wherever one sits – between sexual intercourse and the calls for public validation. To be sure, I do not think that marriage can be founded upon any and all kinds of sexual unions. As I have suggested, heterosexual union alone provides the basis for marriage, precisely because no other type of coupling is inherently capable of producing the next members of a community or social group. I merely point out the layers of incongruous thinking that seem to characterise De Brito’s position: yearning for homosexual couples to be given the right to marry, and yet implying that the very element which has helped generate such claims in the first place – i.e. sexual activity (generally conceived) – has only an accidental relationship to the institution.

Of course, the issues go beyond relatively recent calls for “marriage equality” (a term to which I object, for reasons I shall not go into). More specifically, they go beyond whatever Sam De Brito has written on the subject. His views simply seem to be the outgrowth of a particular cultural narrative, which, in the course of securing freedom of sexual expression, decoupled sexual activity from marriage. The current conception of marriage – which appears to screen out any reference to the creation of a suitable environment for the raising and socialisation of children – owes a great deal to the thoroughgoing romanticisation of love, as well as the deep individualism that prevails in our society. Love is seen as a profusion of emotions and romantic feelings for [an]other person[s]. Thus, on the one hand, sex (of whatever kind) is regarded as a private activity between consenting adults, completely severed from the overarching structures of the marital institution. On the other hand, marriage itself is defined as a kind of contract into which private individuals enter – now seen as a particularly intense form of (codified) companionship, one might say. It could still be argued – superficially – that marriage is public, in the sense that wedding ceremonies are performed before others, reflective of the socio-legal recognition bestowed upon such a relationship. But having severed the substantive elements from the institution, new conceptions of marriage are forced to rest upon the private intentions of those parties entering into such a relationship.

Once more, we witness the attempted fusion of incongruous ideas – the triumph of fashionable thinking over a coherent point of view. In this case, it’s the transformation of marriage into a special form of companionship that most rankles, as proponents of SSM like De Brito seek to dilute the institution. In trying to widen the scope of marriage in order to provide recognition to homosexual couples, views such as De Brito’s end up relying upon a privatised notion of contractual union. Marriage isn’t conceived of as the formation of a unique type of relationship, within which future generations of people may be created and socialised. At best, the sexual and generative features of marriage are subordinate to the (private) feelings of romantic love that exist, and only exist, between the individuals concerned. In other words, marriage has no reality external to the bonds of affection that happen to be exist between individuals; it is reduced to the presence, or actuality, of those feelings. In the absence of the objective reality of sexual complementarity and its inherently generative properties, such unions must be content to rest upon the current emotional states of their participants.

This isn’t merely a question of abstract definitions. If it were, then no more would need to be said. But ideas, as we know, have consequences – and the social consequences of views like De Brito’s, if enshrined in law, may well be disastrous. Nor is it about SSM per se. Rather, the burning issue relates to the deeper ideological and philosophical currents giving rise to calls for “marriage equality” in the first place. What I am referring to are the implications of contemporary views on marriage, particularly as they concern its privatization and underlying emotionality. SSM may be a product of such currents, but its ascendancy would, I think, codify them as the legal basis upon which marriage is founded. Gone would be the understanding of marriage as a bond that is uniquely and inherently capable of issuing in children (who will influence their communities, for good or for ill). In its place would sit a version of the institution that rests, almost entirely, on the normalisation of emotional and physical companionship. Its ongoing legitimacy would only be guaranteed by the bonds of emotion, whilst the objective dimension of marriage would be lost – devolved to the personal feelings of the individuals involved. But how robust a foundation does this provide? Emotions are, as we have all observed, notoriously unstable; they ebb and flow, emerge and recede. One minute, a person might be overwhelmed by feelings of love for another; the next, he might regard that person with relative indifference. How stable are marriages likely to be if they are based upon little more than the feelings of the coupling individuals? Once all external (philosophical) bases for marriage are removed – which seems inescapable if the conjugal conception of marriage is rejected – what else is left but the internal emotional processes that people possess? It hardly needs to be said how destructive divorce can be for all involved – especially children. Trying to root marriages in the transience of one’s private emotions, however, is surely asking for trouble in years to come. Those early feelings of infatuation can subside (sometimes quickly), to be replaced by something more dour, and less romantic. Marriage is, of course, difficult work, and defining it according to one’s emotional state is to turn it into something that is essentially, inherently unstable. If marriage is little more than the outgrowth of affection between two (or more) people – which seems to be all that’s left once traditional conceptions are rejected – what should we say about the reality of that union if such affection disappears? What should we say if and when such unions collapse, causing heartache and anguish for all involved? And what should we say if the children of such failed unions find themselves burdened in life by the fraying of those native bonds of affection?

To take just one example: the increased incidence of drug and alcohol abuse amongst young people from broken families. The conservative “Heritage Foundation” has documented the rates of alcohol, cigarette and illicit drug abuse amongst such youths. In a series of articles that draw from a wide variety of research, the think-tank found that children and adolescents from intact families all had significantly lower rates of alcohol, cigarette, marijuana and cocaine use than did their peers from families that had been fragmented through divorce (see, for example, Patrick F. Fagan and Robert Rector, “The Effects of Divorce on America,” June 5, 2000). Research, therefore, strongly suggests that children from homes sundered by divorce are more likely to engage in them. And yet, trying to corral marriage in the aforementioned way, so that it is forced to rest upon the (transient) emotional states of the participating individuals, is simply welcoming that destruction at some time in the future – perhaps not for every individual, or even for every marital union, but certainly for some. If marriage is grounded in nothing more than such states, and is normalised accordingly, it does not bode well for the survival of many such relationships. What is more, one cannot ignore the baleful ripple effects that ensue if such marriages break-down. However, the confused, contradictory view of marriage that De Brito (and others like him) propounds undermines a bond that is, in many ways, essential to human flourishing. Unfortunately, however, it appears little is able to prevent this view from now being enshrined.


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