The trouble with Barack Obama’s endorsement of ‘monogamous’ same sex marriage

By Kay Steiger
Thursday, May 10, 2012 10:06 EDT
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Barack Obama speaks to ABC News
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Along with President Barack Obama’s “evolution” on same sex marriage, the institution itself has been evolving. Indeed, throughout history, as marriage historian Stephanie Coontz has pointed out, marriage has been an exceptionally adaptable institution.

Even as religious conservatives kept voting for same-sex marriage bans — a full 32 times, in fact, since 1998 — others were debating what marriage should be about.

Stranger sex advice columnist Dan Savage, who tweeted in support of Obama’s endorsement of same sex marriage, has long been advocating a different kind of marriage: a “monogamish” one. He has long told advice seekers in his column and on his weekly podcast to allow partners to seek sexual pleasure outside the relationship, so long as it’s done openly and honestly with the consent with the partner.

But if anything, Obama’s announcement Wednesday pointed to the opposite of this when he announced his “personal” feelings on marriage equality, “I think about members of my own staff who are in incredibly committed monogamous relationships, same sex relationships, who are raising kids together.”

Oddly, this radical act of Obama supporting same sex marriage sounded conservative. In his eyes, marriage is still a monogamous institution between two people for the purpose of raising children.

The strategy of making same-sex marriage boring and normalized is a controversial one on the marriage equality front. Michael Warner’s radical 1999 book, The Trouble With Normal, argued that same sex marriage shouldn’t be the only goal for LGBT rights advocates. Instead, he wanted activists to push the government to recognize unconventional families with domestic partnerships.

Domestic partnerships have become an important part of the marriage equality debate. Re-imagining what a long-term partnership — both for LGBT and heterosexual couples — is an important step in modern society. That’s why it was disappointing for many when companies began backing off domestic partnership benefits arrangements once New York state legalized same sex marriage. Tuesday’s North Carolina vote to ban same sex marriage also bans heterosexual domestic partnerships. As we move toward “marriage equality,” the choice is increasingly between marriage or singlehood, even though millions of people live in a partnership that’s neither.

And even though Savage’s honesty-driven “monogamish” marriage isn’t the widely-practiced standard, it’s hard to argue for monogamy when so many heterosexual couples cheat. One only look to prominent politicians on the left and right: take former Sen. John Edwards’ lewd sex tape or former South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford’s “hiking on the Appalachian trail” to see prominent examples that marriage isn’t just for the monogamous.

While studies find varying degrees of marital infidelity, in part because people rarely want to admit, even to a researcher, that he or she cheats, it does happen and may even be on the rise. Research from the University of Washington in 2006 found that lifetime infidelity rates for people over 60 were 28 percent for men and 15 percent for women, both up several points from 1991. Other studies estimate that broadly, about 10 percent of people cheat in marriages.

In the meantime, Obama has already started fundraising off his testimonial for same sees marriage, which was a little upsetting to some since talking points leaked to Buzzfeed revealed this “coming out” for same-sex marriage didn’t actually indicate a change in policy and states could continue to discriminate against LGBT folks all they want.

This might be an odd argument to be making, especially from one heterosexual monogamist, especially at a time when so many people are pressing for the marriage equality that they so deserve. One step at a time, perhaps, but on the way to marriage equality, we shouldn’t let politician further dictate what all marriages should be. We should let couples decide on monogamy for themselves rather than setting the standard from on high, and same sex couples should have the same legal rights as straight ones, whether or not any of them are monogamous.

[Screen shot of Obama speaking Wednesday to ABC News]

Kay Steiger
Kay Steiger
Kay Steiger is the managing editor of Raw Story. Her contributions have appeared in The American Prospect, The Atlantic, Campus Progress, The Guardian, In These Times, Jezebel, Religion Dispatches, RH Reality Check, and others. You can follow her on Twitter @kaysteiger.
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