Gay marriage and the patriarchy shell game

By Amanda Marcotte
Monday, August 9, 2010 20:02 EDT
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Adam Serwer and Steve Benen have had their fun attacking the logic of Ross Douthat’s incoherent anti-gay marriage column, and now it’s my turn. Douthat is caught up in a trap that catches many, probably most conservatives. The official values, as I’ve said before, or our nation are liberal values. We believe in equality and justice. So conservatives who want to argue for inequality have to work themselves into pretzels trying to claim that inequalities we see aren’t really inequalities. Often, this works well enough to convince people that are mostly invested in preserving inequalities that they aren’t bad people, but sometimes the logic is so inane, that even people who harbor prejudice can’t be convinced. (Such as when you’re talking about segregation under the “separate but equal” rationalization.) We’ve come to that point with gay marriage.

Judge Walker did us all a favor by attacking the issue head on, using feminist arguments grounded in equality to make his point. Since Walker brought feminism and women’s equality into this, conservatives are put in a position where they have to argue for the primacy of patriarchal marriage while pretending that they support egalitarian marriages, though this is a direct contradiction. The way they play this game is, as usual, to play the “patriarchy? I don’t see no stinking patriarchy!” card, trying to argue that feminists made up “the patriarchy” in order to pretend women are victims, though they sometimes will admit that there was a patriarchy at some point in time, or that other countries that they wish to invade do have patriarchies, but we don’t. Douthat spews this nonsense all over his incoherent column, often contradicting himself directly.

He wants to be taken seriously, so he concedes that there was such a thing as a patriarchal marriage, though he doesn’t use that term. But after immediately conceding that “traditional” marriage doesn’t necessarily mean monogamous marriage or the nuclear family, he switches straight into patriarchy-denial mode:

Nor is lifelong heterosexual monogamy obviously natural in the way that most Americans understand the term. If “natural” is defined to mean “congruent with our biological instincts,” it’s arguably one of the more unnatural arrangements imaginable. In crudely Darwinian terms, it cuts against both the male impulse toward promiscuity and the female interest in mating with the highest-status male available. Hence the historic prevalence of polygamy.

This is a favorite patriarchy denial tactic, though you rarely see it get so boldly stupid. The idea is to deny that there’s a long history of this thing called a “patriarchy”, where men own and control women’s bodies through economic, social, and violent means, and instead argue that inequalities that exist are strictly due to inherent desires and lack of intelligence on women’s part. In this case, Douthat’s going so far as to argue that polygamy is the result of women’s natural desires to be sexually exclusive plus greedy. This, of course, is so incorrect as to be laughable. Polygamy is a logical outcome of assuming one gender is human and the other is functionally livestock to be collected and sold by the human gender. Women didn’t invent polygamy in order to make life easier for men and their pockets fatter. But it is amusing to realize that Douthat thinks that those Mormon polygamists marry off 12-year-old girls to 70-year-old men because this reflects a 12-year-old girl’s innate, biological (Darwinian!) desire to get it on with a wrinkly old misogynist.

So what are gay marriage’s opponents really defending, if not some universal, biologically inevitable institution? It’s a particular vision of marriage, rooted in a particular tradition, that establishes a particular sexual ideal.

Which is to say, Douthat’s arguing that since evil old patriarchy is our natural inclination, our ideal of marriage is a way to fight back against our deepest, ugliest natures. Marriage is great because it’s anti-nature! Of course, this doesn’t explain why it has to be male-female. Nor does it explain why money-grubbing monogamist women have to swear to be faithful (and often fail), when the only person whose nature is being thwarted are promiscuous men. (I’m beginning to feel like I have to blame the wives of conservative men for the current state of evo psych blather. By taking on the duty of being good, reassuring wives all the time, their poor husbands are convinced that their wives never look sideways, and therefore feel assured when they claim that women’s nature is to be monogamous to men who are promiscuous. If women married to conservative men told the truth about how much they look, perhaps said men wouldn’t spout bullshit with such self-assurance.)

The point of this ideal is not that other relationships have no value, or that only nuclear families can rear children successfully. Rather, it’s that lifelong heterosexual monogamy at its best can offer something distinctive and remarkable — a microcosm of civilization, and an organic connection between human generations — that makes it worthy of distinctive recognition and support.

So, Western marriage is basically an imposition of civilization over our natural desires (as defined by Douthat), but the reason that it has to be male/female is because that’s the combo that produces natural children, right? So, marriage is good because it’s unnatural, but it’s actually because it’s natural. It’s both at once and nothing at all! Just as long as the gays don’t get a piece of it.

As the fact-finding in the Prop 8 case found, this argument is groundless. They have yet to find one divorce caused by gay marriage. The notion that straight married people will somehow lose support if gay people can get married makes about as much sense as arguing that 12-year-old girls, given the choice, prefer to leave childhood to wear prairie dresses while waiting on and having sex with old men.

Again, this is not how many cultures approach marriage. It’s a particularly Western understanding, derived from Jewish and Christian beliefs about the order of creation, and supplemented by later ideas about romantic love, the rights of children, and the equality of the sexes.

Ah-ha! So Douthat will admit that there is such thing as a patriarchy that opposes the idea of equality between the sexes. But he claims that Jewish and Christian tradition holds that women are equal to men, something many people who actually study the Bible will be surprised to discover. For instance, I’m amused every time I hear some ahistorical wingnut trying to claim that this passage in the Bible isn’t anti-equality: “Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the church, his body, of which he is the Savior. Now as the church submits to Christ, so also wives should submit to their husbands in everything.” Presumably, they also think there was nothing anti-feminist about laws forbidding married women to own property, or laws that forbade all women from voting. That’s not patriarchy! Patriarchy doesn’t exist and/or is something other people conservatives look down on do, right?

So, marriage is, according to Douthat, a rejection of patriarchy that doesn’t exist except when he says it does, and the equality of the sexes is best upheld by discriminating on the basis of gender when it comes to who can get married. Also, Western civilization has created a non-patriarchal marriage by casting off the patriarchal rules of old, but the only way to preserve this precious non-patriarchal marriage is to preserve the patriarchal definition of who can get married. Also, look over there, some dudes are kissing! *runs off*

Just kidding. Douthat has many column inches to fill with a complete lack of understanding of history. This was a particular favorite:

Americans already have a kind of postmodern polygamy available to them. It’s just spread over the course of a lifetime, rather than concentrated in a “Big Love”-style menage.

Of course, working under the assumption that women are naturally monogamous and men are naturally promiscuous, god only knows who he thinks these men are screwing around with in this “postmodern” (another word he doesn’t understand) polygamist world. Does Douthat believe that Western men surround themselves with harems of loyal women who sit around all day working on their pop art collections, in between having discussions of deconstructionism? That does sound like liberal decadence, but it also doesn’t sound like reality.

If this newer order completely vanquishes the older marital ideal, then gay marriage will become not only acceptable but morally necessary. The lifelong commitment of a gay couple is more impressive than the serial monogamy of straights.

Wait, is he suggesting that serial monogamy is the new version of polygamy, then? It’s a popular fantasy on the right that American men go through a series of marriages to increasingly younger women, but honestly, I’ve not seen any real evidence of this. Maybe with a handful of rich playboys, but most of us tend to pair off with people our own ages, even when we’re older. That you see more elderly single women than elderly single men has more to do with the fact that there are more elderly women, period—widows outnumber widowers. But I do see why, if he thinks that men sleep with women and then abandon them, leaving them all used up and unable to partner with someone else, that we may have to move towards greater acceptance of gay marriage. After all, that means all the women get used up pretty much immediately, and so dudes will be left having to all marry each other.

But if we just accept this shift, we’re giving up on one of the great ideas of Western civilization: the celebration of lifelong heterosexual monogamy as a unique and indispensable estate. That ideal is still worth honoring, and still worth striving to preserve. And preserving it ultimately requires some public acknowledgment that heterosexual unions and gay relationships are different: similar in emotional commitment, but distinct both in their challenges and their potential fruit.

But what are these differences? Douthat shits on adoptive parents of every sexual orientation by suggesting that it’s because straight marriages produce “fruit”, i.e. children, but of course, we let infertile and elderly straight people marry. Since Douthat tries to argue that Western marriage is imposing an unnatural structure on people whose natural urges run contrary to it, then his sudden obsession with the “natural” production of children makes no sense at all. Wouldn’t a gay couple who is committed to raising a family resemble his unnatural ideal more than a childless straight couple that’s into swinging? And yet the latter has the right to marry and the former doesn’t.

He can’t have it both ways. Either his ideal of marriage is a supposedly Western post-patriarchal one centered on romantic love, equality, and family where illogical arguments about nature are less relevant than ideals about love and commitment—which would mean that gay marriage fits neatly into the equation—or he can have a patriarchal marriage where gender differences are paramount because marriage is about male control over female bodies, and women are considered second class citizens at best, but are functionally breeding chattel. Considering Douthat’s long-standing loathing of abortion and contraception, we know that he really is for the latter, but like the squirrelly little coward he is, he won’t just come out and say it.

I’ve been fascinated at how Judge Walker’s decision has created this problem for conservatives, though. By making the issue of gender inequality the centerpiece of his decision, he’s put conservatives in a camp where they have to argue either a) gender inequality is inevitable or good or b) that erasing gender roles from legal marriage doesn’t have the implication that gender roles have been erased from legal marriage. The latter position, which is what Douthat is stabbing at, is incoherent. The former tends to be a little more coherent from a logical viewpoint. Take this asshole, for instance, who argues that male control of female sexuality and male domination is inevitable, so marriage needs to be preserved for male/female pairings because it’s the kindest, gentlest form of male dominance over women. He gets points for being consistent, but of course his argument will have no traction in a society that believes in formal equality between men and women. Also, since we allow single women to live alone and they don’t slip into concubinage, this argument he makes isn’t going to pass the reality based test:

What protects women, ultimately, is that marriage laws and customs confer upon her independence something extra – dignity, protection, sacredness – that others must respect.

His argument is that marriage protects women from the hoardes of humping man-dogs out there, because supposedly a man has to be nice to his wife. Never mind that the traditional marriage these wingnuts love so much is one where men had the legal right to rape their wives and women’s “dignity” amounted to having to clean up after a man without much in the way of thanks. But this argument, as I’m sure Douthat is aware, falls apart in a society where single women actually outnumber married women. The notion that more than half of American women are basically living debased existences without dignity, where, as this dipshit implies, we’re basically getting raped non-stop? It’s easy to disprove that by pointing to the mundane and dignified realities of actual single women. The notion that a man or multiple men have control over women’s bodies no matter what, and that marriage is the only way to make that gentler, makes no sense in our era. Nor does the suggestion that men will stop being nice to their wives if men can marry men and women can marry women.

But it is very interesting, isn’t it, that making an explicitly feminist argument for same-sex marriage is turning out to be the death blow for the last semblance of logic in anti-gay marriage arguments? Once you hit them with equality and fairness—and our national commitment to not having marriage as an institution of women’s oppression—they have no idea what to say.

Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte
Amanda Marcotte is a freelance journalist born and bred in Texas, but now living in the writer reserve of Brooklyn. She focuses on feminism, national politics, and pop culture, with the order shifting depending on her mood and the state of the nation.
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