One of our recurring themes here on Los Thunderlads is the remarkable weakness of arguments against gender-neutral marriage. The law-courts of the world are full of lawyers advancing ingenious arguments in support of the most ludicrous propositions; wealthy business interests can suborn economists and other social scientists to make very impressive cases for any policy that will increase their profits; sectarians and enthusiasts of all sorts can build formidable intellectual defenses for even their most far-fetched crochets. Yet the idea that the title of “marriage” should be granted exclusively to heterosexual pairings, a familiar idea throughout human history and one that enjoys the support of many extremely powerful institutions and of solid majorities of public opinion in much of the world today, seems to find no rational backing whatever in contemporary public discourse. Opponents of gender neutral marriage have noticed this circumstance; I can recommend theologian Alastair J. Roberts’ recent note, “Why Arguments Against Gay Marriage Are Usually Bad.“ Mr Roberts doesn’t convince me that gender-neutral marriage is a bad idea, but he does come up with a number of interesting remarks to make as he goes along his way.
In the last few weeks, I’ve noticed advocates of gender neutral marriage making themselves look almost as silly as their opponents routinely do. First up was an article in Slate magazine by Mark Joseph Stern, one subtitle of which is “Why do defenders of DOMA and Prop 8 worship coitus?“ Mr Stern reports on legal briefs recently submitted to the US Supreme Court in defense of measures that seek to reserve marriage for heterosexual couples only, briefs in which penis-in-vagina sex is presented as an essential defining characteristic of marriage. Mr Stern seems incredulous that this is in fact the premise of arguments presented to the US Supreme Court. “This argument puts gay marriage opponents in an awkward position. For years, they said gays were too libidinous and licentious to create stable marriages. Now, as proponents of gay marriage emphasize love, fidelity, and commitment, the right is fetishizing coitus,” he writes. He goes on: “In [Professor Robert] George’s primitive understanding, marriage isn’t about love or raising children. It’s about copulation.”
Mr Stern’s piece went up a couple of weeks ago. Yesterday, Tom Tomorrow reminded me of it. Click on the image to go to the strip:
I’m not an expert in comparative religion, but it does strike me as rather odd that there might be cultures which do not “fetishize coitus” and grow elaborate institutions around penis-in-vagina sex. After all, penis-in-vagina isn’t just another arcane sexual practice, but is the act of procreation. Among animal processes, only eating and death compare to it in the range and gravity of their consequences. If you’re going to worship any events in nature, it would seem that penis-in-vagina sex would be first on the list.
Now, the institution of marriage in the West has evolved in such a way that “love, fidelity, commitment,” romance, and other abstract considerations are more important than anything so concrete as penis-in-vagina sex. The religious life of the Protestant West has evolved to emphasize the purely abstract over the concrete to a remarkable degree. Throughout the Western world, same-sex couples are usually treated by their relatives and neighbors as the equals of opposite-sex couples in every way; the exceptions come in legal formalities and in random acts of hostility. I believe that laws should reflect and sustain the actual practice of society, not assert transcendent standards that would revolutionize that practice, so it seems reasonable to me that marriage as an institution should drift free of its last formal links to penis-in-vagina sex. However, it is no more “primitive” for Robert George to hold to an understanding of the nature of institutions that precludes such a development than it is for Hindus and Buddhists to revere lingam-yoni symbols.
The whole debate, left and right, strikes me as an example of the modern West’s inability to take sex seriously as a moral concept. Moderns can be quite calm and serious when discussing the legal standards of consent to sexual behavior, but characteristically respond to moral questions about other aspects of sexual behavior with one of two avoidance strategies. Either they try to laugh the topic off, or they refer it to medicine, psychology, or some other therapeutic discipline. This is a real problem with modernity. Since sexual behavior is such an important part of life, people who try to follow a moral code which has nothing serious to say about sex are likely to become unserious people. Yet it seems to be an insoluble problem. Modernity appeals to the formal, abstract rationality of the marketplace, of the courts, of science, of bureaucratic organization. An institution built to support, celebrate, and commemorate penis-in-vagina sex jars with this formal, abstract rationality; but so, eventually, does everything else that makes life possible and enjoyable.
Again, I hold that the function of the law is to affirm society as it is, not to remake it according to some abstract plan; it is because many same-sex couples in fact operate as married couples in the USA that I hope the law will change and recognize the actually existing reality of our society. As I pointed out here four years ago, to change that fact and the social conditions underpinning it would require a very far-reaching restructuring of US society. Modernity, with its attachment to abstract theoretical schemes, might endorse some such restructurings, and people with a romantic hankering for the premodern might wish they could recreate a world in which the concrete and particular take precedence over the abstract and general. But as a student of the works of Irving Babbitt, I see in such impulses nothing but the drive to assert one’s own power over the world and the people in it, a drive that can never be satisfied, but that grows with each success it encounters. If we are ever to recover the sense of the sacramental as something inherent in particular actions, particular things, and particular places, it won’t be the law that leads us to that recovery, but a much broader social development that the law will notice only after it is already so far advanced that few people can formulate a coherent argument for or against it.