Sunday, July 18, 2004

The Swinging Married Life

Dan Savage, guru of kinky sex and relationships, has a fascinating article on the gay-strait marriage issue (warning: it's on Salon, so you need a subscription or daypass to read the whole thing):

The double standard relentlessly promoted by opponents of gay marriage -- and attacked just as relentlessly by supporters -- is that marriage is about having children. Since gays and lesbians can't have children, according to religious conservatives, we shouldn't be allowed to marry. It has been almost comically easy to punch holes in this argument. Not all married straight couples can have children (the elderly, the sterile); many straight couples who can have children choose not to. And it's not exactly a secret that thousands of gay and lesbian couples have had children or plan to have children through adoption or insemination. If marriage is about children, how is it that childless straight couples can marry but same-sex couples with children cannot?

By promoting this double standard social conservatives have unwittingly exposed the shocking truth about marriage in America today: The institution, as currently practiced, is terrifically hard to define. Marriage is whatever two straight people say it is. Kids? Optional. Honor? Let's hope so. Till death do us part? There's a 50/50 chance of that. Obey? Only if you're a female Southern Baptist. Modern marriage can be sacred (church, family, preacher), or profane (Vegas, strangers, Elvis). What makes a straight couple married -- in their own eyes, in the eyes of the state -- is their professed love, a license issued by a state, and the couple's willingness to commit to each other publicly. How a straight married couple chooses to express love, exactly what it is they're committing to, is entirely up to them. It's not up to the state, their reproductive systems, or even the church that solemnizes their vows.

This is the reason so many defenders of "traditional marriage" sputtered their way through appearances on "Nightline" and the Sunday morning news programs. Traditional marriage is just one option among many these days. A religious straight couple can have a big church wedding and kids and the wife can submit to the husband and they can stay married until death parts them -- provided that's what they both want. Or a couple of straight atheists can get married in a tank full of dolphins and never have kids and treat each other as equals and split up if they decide their marriage isn't working out -- again, if that's what they both want. (It should be pointed out, however, that a religious couple is likelier to divorce than atheists who marry in a tank full of dolphins.) The problem for opponents of gay marriage isn't that gay people are trying to redefine marriage but that straight people have redefined marriage to a point that it no longer makes any sense to exclude gay couples. Gay people can love, gay people can commit. Some of us even have children. So why can't we get married?

I think Mr. Savage is the first person to bring up this point, that "Traditional Marriage" these days is anything but what the Bible Thumpers think of as traditional (unless you are the aforementioned Southern baptist. What fun for you). That modern marriage scarcely resembles what your grandma and grandpa did is a good thing. I wouldn't want my wife to obey me any more than I want her to be barefoot and pregnant in the Kitchen. That's not what gets our motors running, and neither is it what made us fall in love in the first place. That my wife is my equal in intellect, ambition and desire is the whole reason why we got married.

But notice that it's only grandmas and grandpas of our society, the self-styled Guardians of Western Culture, that are getting their old fangled knickers in a twist over this little fact. They're somewhat startled, but mostly jealous of the fact that we, the young modern married couples of the world, are free to pick and choose how we define our relationships. I'm sure in private, most of these elderly finger waggers are kicking themselves for not adding a little kink to their lives when they had the chance (not that they still couldn't. It's not like swinging's the exclusive domain of the young). But instead of adding a little spice to their winter years, they decide to chastise anyone who doesn't conduct themselves in the mythologized manner of Tradition with a capitol T (which seems to be little more than baby rearing and middle-aged resentment, from what I can tell).

That these traditions they flog so mercilessly are fairly recent on the historical scene hardly registers at all. The traditions they dance around were contrived by Victorian era moralists, and even then were more rhetorical suggestions than practical guidelines. A gentleman of the 1890's might talk a good bit about family and virtue and the glory of the empire, then kiss his wife goodbye for the evening and stroll down to the brothel or out to the club to play cards with the fellows and twirl around with a dance hall girl. And let's not even get Biblical, as some of the more laughable wags have; do we really need to rehash the rules detailing multiple wives, concubines, slaves and when it is appropriate to impregnate your daughter?

Modern marriage is a wide open and varied thing1. That it has become so over time, gradually, with hardly anyone noticing until now, is a testament to our culture's flexibility. Which makes it all the more ironic that those who talk so much about protecting all that is good and right with our culture have so little faith in it's ability to persevere and adapt.

Senator Santorum, self appointed Arch-Moral Whip and Chain of the GOP, has made quite a name for himself, promoting slippery slope analogies about how if we let the gays in to our gold ring club, then the swingers and kinks and disciples of De Sade will sneak along in their back pocket. He's simply not been paying attention. The real freaks are already in the clubhouse. We're the ones who decide to get married, despite every reason in the world not to.
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1. Dan Savage also makes an interesting case for married nonmenogamy, suggesting that we regard three-ways, "the same way Bill Clinton regarded abortion: They're best when they're safe, legal and rare."

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