How is this law going to hurt your marriage? That is the jeer hurled at opponents of New York’s new same-sex marriage law. As the Boston Globe put it memorably some time ago, same-sex marriage will “no more undermine traditional marriage than sailing undermines swimming”.
Indeed, many supporters of traditional marriage don’t know how to respond. Fortunately, however, at least three answers were quickly presented in the New York Times. The Times supported the law and praised as “a powerful and principled choice” when it was passed. Since it is New York’s newspaper of record and the flagship of American progressive thinking, there can be little doubt that the ideas promoted in its pages will someday emerge as real options.
The first was an op-ed piece by Katherine M. Franke, a Columbia University law professor. On the day before the bill passed, she confessed that she really didn’t want to marry her long-time lesbian partner anyway. Why lose the flexibility and benefits of living as domestic partners? As far as she was concerned, “we think marriage ought to be one choice in a menu of options by which relationships can be recognized and gain security”.
One choice in a menu of legally supported relationships? How long is the menu? If marriage is just the most demanding of many options, it is sure to lose its prestige and popularity.
The second comes in a background article by Ralph Richard Banks, a professor at Stanford Law School. What comes after gay marriage? Well, he puts his money on polygamy and incest. Professor Banks points out that legal prohibitions on either practice are not nearly as strong as they once were. They are forbidden because people who engage in them are regarded as morally reprehensible. Therefore society feels justified in discriminating against them. But this is bound to change:
“Over time, our moral assessments of these practices will shift, just as they have with interracial marriage and same sex marriage. We will begin to take seriously questions that now seem beyond the pale: Should a state be permitted to imprison two cousins because they have sex or attempt to marry? Should a man and two wives be permitted to live together as a family when they assert that their religious convictions lead them to do so?”
In short, add polygamy and incest to the menu of options.
The third is a long profile of Dan Savage, whom the Times describes as “America’s leading sex-advice columnist”. Savage writes a syndicated column for more than 50 newspapers and even appears on the Times op-ed page from time to time.
Savage, who claims to be both “culturally Catholic” and gay, thinks that gay couples have a lot to teach heterosexual couples, especially about monogamy. Idealising monogamy destroys families, he contends. Men are simply not made to be monogamous. Until feminism came along, men had mistresses and visited prostitutes. But instead of extending the benefits of the sexual revolution to women, feminism imposed a chastity belt on men. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage,” he says. What we need, in his opinion, is relationships which are open to the occasional fling — as long as partners are open about it.
A sociologist at New York University, Judith Stacey, told the Times that monogamy is simply not meant for everyone. “One size never fits all, and it isn’t just dividing between men and women and gay and straight,” she said. “Monogamy is not natural, non-monogamy is not natural. Variation is what’s natural.”
Traditional marriage — well, actually, real marriage — is and has always been monogamous and permanent. There have been and always will be failures. But that is the ideal to which couples aspire. They marry “for better for worse, for richer for poorer, in sickness and in health, to love and to cherish, till death us do part”. The expectation is exclusivity in a life-long commitment.
Marriage can be a struggle and even couples who have notched up decades of fidelity need to have their wedding vows supported by the law and the surrounding culture. By and large, same-sex marriage will not shatter their commitment.
But it can hardly fail to affect the attitudes of young couples who are thinking of marriage a decade from now.
First of all, traditional marriage will be one of a number of options. Even if they choose it, they will have different expectations and dreams than their parents. For them, marriage will include acceptance of infidelity, will not necessarily involve children, and will probably only last a few years.
Supporters of same-sex marriage say that the New York law is good for marriage. In a way they’re right. Just as World War II was good for Germany because out of the ashes, corpses and rubble arose a heightened sense of human dignity and a democratic and peaceful government, same-sex marriage will heighten our esteem for real marriage. But in the meantime, the suffering will be great.