The Myth of “Traditional” Marriage — Part One

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Our culture and our time blind us all to some extent—some more than others, yet no one is exempt. Often we assume that the ways things are now and in this particular culture is how humans have always behaved throughout the globe. Many speak as if humans always organized within and understood the concept of centralized nation-states, that capitalism was always the dominant economic societal structure, that marriage was always a romantic relationship between a consenting adult male and a consenting adult woman.

When one examines history honestly, however, none of these three assertions jibes with the evidence and actual experience of humanity.

And after listening to the recent oral arguments in front of the U.S. Supreme Court regarding the constitutionality and legality of gay marriage – specifically concerning California’s Prop 8 and the federal government’s National Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) – I was reminded of the ubiquity of the “traditional” marriage myth.

During both hearings, the representatives for the opponents of gay marriage readily threw around and expounded on the term “traditional marriage,” insisting that it is an “age-old” institution that has almost always been between a consenting adult man and a consenting adult woman. To redefine this vital “social institution” too quickly or even at all, they argued, would cause too much societal harm and chaos.

“Consider the California voter…with the question before her whether or not this age-old, bedrock social institution should be fundamentally redefined, and knowing that there’s no way that she or anyone else could possibly know what the long-term implications of a profound redefinition of a bedrock social institution would be,” said Charles J. Cooper, Esq., who represents the anti-gay-marriage petitioners in the Prop 8 case.

Holy shit. Well if Cooper’s correct, it sounds like “fundamentally” redefining and changing social institutions is a rare occurrence that should be approached with caution because of all the pernicious effects such an action will most likely produce. In addition to Cooper, we often hear those opposed to gay marriage frantically ask “if marriage is redefined what’s to stop someone from marrying multiple people? What’s to stop my Aunt Carol from marrying her cat?! What’s the stop that creepy kid down the street from marrying his anime body pillow?!”

“But wait,” your common sense interjects. “ Aren’t societies and humans in general constantly changing? Haven’t we experienced a number of fundamental redefinitions of our social institutions? Haven’t some of these occurred even in our lifetime? So why hasn’t the apocalypse occurred yet?”

If you’re looking for a specific example, look no further than one of the most basic social institutions—the family. What constituted a family varies from time to place. In the past, humans grouped into large extended families, living with numerous family members. For most Americans, the household family now mainly consists of the nuclear components—parent or parents and their children. Which brings us to another point: in prior American eras the single parent, as we understand it today, was rare and often ostracized. Now a male or female, sometimes with the help of advanced medicine and technology, can produce and/or raise a child or children without the need of a corresponding spouse.

Or a parent or parents could adopt. And adoption itself is a radically new and different phenomenon than it was in the past. During a large part of European history, the idea of a man raising and treating a child not of his own blood as his own actual spawn was anathema to society at large. The idea that someone not of their parents’ blood, or even of their fathers blood (the term bastard, anyone?) could be recognized as a true family member was ludicrous.

Yet we changed. And we survived, with little to no dangerous repercussions from “fundamentally redefining” this “bedrock social institution.” And in the case of adoption, family changed for the better to become a more inclusive concept.

For another example, look at divorce. The power to divorce – its very existence, who could do it, and why – has varied from time period to time period and culture to culture. In America today we’ve evolved to a more inclusive definition of divorce, one that bestows more rights on individuals, rather than excludes them.

I doubt one would argue today that such historical redefinitions of marriage actually threatened these societies. No one would argue that “if people can claim just anyone as their child, what’s to stop someone from adopting their cat or their anime body pillow?!”

So what’s different about marriage? Has marriage ever been redefined?

Well, of course it has.

I find it interesting that many gay marriage opponents use their holy books to support their view of “traditional” marriage when these hodgepodge compilations of religious writings contain such biblical paragons of Judeo-Christian ethos as Solomon, who was to wives as Ash Ketchum is to Pokémon; Abraham, who – at the command of Yahweh himself – entered into a kinky three-way, child-conceiving arrangement with his wife Sarah, and his concubine, Hagar;  Jesus, who never married; or Paul, who argued that the ideal human condition was to remain unmarried and celibate.

For most of human history, marriage was a mainly socio-economic relationship where older men would be given younger women by an interested family, sometimes to insure or form an alliance. The bride’s family would usually be compensated for the loss of their daughter’s labor with a bride price and the husband-to-be would receive a dowry in addition to his future wife. In this way, marriage was more about obtaining property (aka the woman) that could be used to fulfill sexual appetites, produce children, and contribute to manual labor.

These marriages were arranged by families, sometimes polygamous, and generally involved an older male wedding and bedding females whom American society today recognizes as non-consenting minors.

Even in the 20th century United States, the definition of marriage was not uniform from state to state. Some states relegated marriage to romantic unions within designated “races.” African Americans were barred from marrying Caucasian Americans in 16 states, until the Supreme Court ruled, in the landmark Loving v. Virginia (1967) case, that anti-miscegenation laws violated the 14th amendment’s equal protection clause.

As far as I know, after the Loving v. Virginia ruling there wasn’t a rash of confused young people running out to marry animals and/or inanimate objects. But, hey, I could be wrong.