More on marriage
Douthat clarifies his argument
In his New York Times blog, Ross Douthat wrestles with one of the most persuasive critiques of his recent article against gay marriage; the notion that there is no reason to view heterosexual relationships as exceptional or “distinctive” in a way that merits them being prioritized over homosexual relationships.
In responding Douthat argues that:
The interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences in heterosexual relationships is, for want of a better word, “thick.” All straight relationships are intimately affected by this interplay in ways that gay relationships are not.
He goes on:
The marital ideal that justifies calling gay unions “marriage,” by contrast, is necessarily much thinner, because it’s an ideal that needs to encompass not two but three different kinds of sexual relationships — straight, gay male, and lesbian. So it ends up being about the universals of love and commitment, rather than any of the particular dynamics of heterosexual intimacy. And I think this thinness is a problem: It makes it that much harder to imagine the marital institution doing the kind of work that it was originally developed to do, and needs to do now more than ever — the work, as Tushnet puts it, of directly addressing “the specific ways in which sex between a man and woman can be really devastating to society, or really fruitful.”
Last week Jake commented that Douthat needs to explicitly outline the process by which gay marriage threatens the values he is concerned with. Here, he fleshes this process out sli
ghtly, implying that expanding the definition of marriage risks stretching the institution so thin that it will no longer be able to specifically address the needs of heterosexual relationships.
Still, this statement is far from self-evident. Maybe gay marriage will move us further away from the ideals Douthat praises, but having more Americans in stable relationships could also create greater social acceptance of cultural values like the importance of family.
Douthat is also right that “sex between a man and a women can be really devastating,” but homosexual sex can be dangerous to the wellbeing of
a society as well. Andrew Sullivan articulates this point well in his description of the AIDS epidemic in the gay community:
If you have total gay freedom and no gay institutions that can channel love and desire into commitment and support, you end up in San Francisco in the 1970s. That way of life – however benignly expressed, however defensible as the pent-up unleashed liberation of a finally free people – helped kill 300,000 young human beings in this country in our lifetime.
If Douthat wants marriage to help set relationship norms that in part moderate sexual behavior and promote stability, he needs to consider that these are challenges that are not exclusive to the heterosexual community. How best then, to balance the specific needs of heterosexual relationships, while still providing institutions that can support the gay community as well?
While Douthat’s analysis seems incomplete in some places and flawed in others, he’s done an important task in asking us to define in specific terms the role of marriage in society, and how it could potentially change, for better or worse, if gay marriage is legalized.
Image by Flickr user Daniel Greene used under a Creative Commons Attribution License