Wednesday, September 21, 2005

I Don't. 

The truth is, I have a hard time remembering that I’m a radical and most people don’t share my views. In that spirit, I’m laying out some of my thoughts on marriage, sex and politics to see what Corrente readers think.

Right now, it’s almost an impossible task to pick out what’s the worst thing happening to America. Creeping theocratic pseudofascism, trillions lost by the DoD, crumbling infrastructures, declining literacy and the destruction of public education, ballooning national debt, spiraling war, yadda yadda yadda. Yet as you all know, some of our elected officials would rather spend their valuable legislative time addressing critical issues like “preserving the sanctity of marriage.” Well, I suppose one can expect no less from Republicans, but I was surprised by a recent discussion among liberals on the topic. Several people were advocating for sustaining marriages at any cost, and most believed in attempting to bring about a lower rate of divorce. On the surface, this is a ‘sensible’ concern. There were also suggestions that marriage brings virtue, and that married people demonstrate virtue by just being (monogamously) married. I take issue with these suppositions.

First off: what is marriage, anyway? You can’t touch it, or sense it with your eyes and ears. Or at least I can’t; when I look at a person I know of no way to discern if they’re married, even with the identifying markers like strategically placed paint or rings- after all, people lie. A person can tell me, “I’m married,” and it relates to absolutely nothing that is physically real and material. What is real and material is a person’s set of behaviors. A person who only sleeps with one other person, a person who shares finances and living space and procreates with one other person, a person who is granted special rights by the state as a result of certifying a religious or civil ceremony- these things are real. But like the FSM, marriage itself relates to something as tangible as fairy dust, and I think we should give it the same amount of attention. It’s a social construct, one that’s created far too great a diversion in these troubled times.

Obviously, there are benefits to partnership and monogamy. Lower risk of STDs, increased social standing and financial stability, confidence in reproductive success, and perhaps the most important, never having to feel “totally alone.” But there are also drawbacks, which may not be of the same scale, but are real nonetheless. The exploration of the sexual self can’t be fully accomplished with one partner alone. Intellectual and sociological change and growth can be hampered by routine. Opportunity can also pass by those who find themselves rooted to a place, job and relationship, sometimes of the once in a lifetime kind. Like all important choices, marriage is one that comes with risks and benefits that each person should weigh carefully before taking that step.

But to a radical like me, marriage in the ideal and marriage in the real world are two different and grossly unequal things. I’ll throw down the gauntlet and say that the ideology of marriage creates unnecessary inequalities for women. Unmarried women are subject to a great deal of internally and externally generated emotional and mental pressure. They are frequently objects of derision, and they suffer from a host of unfair conditions (financial, social and reproductive) that their male counterparts don’t necessarily share. At the same time, married women suffer under a set of completely different and equally unfair discriminations- in the workplace, in popular culture, in forms of religious dogma. While great progress has been made in many countries, it’s still the case that a man shares few of these burdens. Married or unmarried, men enjoy many freedoms that women still have yet to fully experience. Few men have been told that it’s not worth hiring them because “they’ll just quit to have children in a few years.” Few men have been told “there must be something wrong with you” for failing to marry by the age of 40. Few men experience pressure to sacrifice a career in order to reproduce, and suffer the attendant setback in career goals when they choose to return to full employment. And for some reason, men with children but no wife are looked upon as heroic examples of male flexibility and compassion, where their female counterparts are regular targets for political and social persecution, subject to official and unofficial hurdles just to get the basic support they need. Marriage perpetuates religious and social traditions which engender patriarchy, sexism, and violence against women.

Marriage also creates a tremendous sink for the mental and emotional energies of those who are married. Marriage is usually supposed to be defined principally by monogamy, and this is the form of which I now speak. Married people must constantly struggle against their natural biological impulses and find satisfaction in their partner alone, and at the same time a gender disparity exists within the sociological reality of “monogamy” that favors men and male infidelity. Even for those contented by their partner, over a lifetime, sexual synchronicity can be difficult to achieve, especially after childbirth, menopause, medical problems, and varying states of physical and mental health. Assuming those difficulties are overcome, married people must also concern themselves with how they are perceived by others. The appearance of dissatisfaction, adultery, or sexual deviation can cause one or both partners to lose social standing, employment, the approval of their religious leaders, and ultimately even benefits from the state. I would add that lifetime monogamy severely limits the discovery of the natural and wonderful full human sexual range, but I will admit that this could be possible for those who devote themselves to exploration within a relationship.

Finally, marriage and partnership are two different things- just ask any long term gay couple denied marriage rights except until very recently. How do people live together, have sex, raise children, balance shared finances and support each other through thick and thin? Well, I’m sure there is no one ‘right’ answer to this question, just as I’m sure the absence or presence of a piece of paper and a ceremony has nothing to do with it. There are also the examples of other cultures around the world and throughout history, which have different views on heteronormativity and monogamy. Why shouldn’t people be free to enjoy all the benefits the state sanctions for ‘traditional marriage’ if they form partnerships that are homosexual, triune, non monogamous, asexual, or not for the purpose of procreation? And why should any of those arrangements be assumed to bring less satisfaction to those who prefer them? Don’t even get me started on the ‘moral’ component of nontraditional relationships- as far as I can tell, the least moral people are frequently the most vocal advocates for ‘traditional moral values.’ (and are there immoral values? whatever…)

Now, all this wouldn’t really matter too much, it’s just my opinion after all, except that concern about marriage is taking up valuable space in people’s minds, writings and activism time. The Left is told that “gay marriage” cost us the election, and gay rights as a whole are pushed back because of it. People involved in progressive politics have to expend valuable political capital better spent elsewhere dealing with one ridiculous piece of marriage related legislation after another. We spend boatloads of time discussing what “should be” with respect to families, and less time fixing the social problems that actually cause families to have problems- you know, poverty, discrimination, lack of education, etc. Isn’t that what we should be worried about? Or at least, shouldn’t we worry more about those things than something that in the end, is really only the business of the people inside the relationship?

I’m not really arguing for an end to marriage, although if that happened I wouldn’t cry. I am arguing for two things: choice and focus. I believe people should enjoy universal equal rights, and that “marriage” of any kind should have no impact on those rights. I also think the state should get out of the marriage business altogether, and stop trying to legislate reproductive, social, religious and fiscal policies on the basis of who is and who is not married. Further, I would like to see the progressive left quit letting the right frame the issue, and stop wasting our efforts in a battle we’ll always lose. I will always be a “burden” on the left, just because I am queer and exist. Fundies and the far right will never accept me, if I advocate for gay marriage or not. Further, those same groups will never accept the value of nontraditional family arrangements as the equals of their narrow version of what is a legitimate ‘family.’ To their eyes, all divorced people are stained, all women who’ve had abortions are sinners, and all adulterers (except their own) are permanently morally flawed; each of these groups is presumed to have less of a right to contribute to discourse relating to wholesome and prosperous society. So let’s stop trying to please them, and get with the program of what most Americans really care about. There are a hundred other issues which are more important, something most Americans have said when anyone bothers to ask them instead of the noisy far right minority.

A short version of my goals may be explained in this analogy: as a feminist, I cringe to think of how much time and wasted brain space young women devote to subjects like fashion and make up. Not only because of the inherent sexism in such concerns (young men have no obligation to follow fashion in such fervent detail) or even because much of the fashion industry posits racist, unhealthy and impossible standards of beauty. What I lament most is the loss to those young women’s own lives- what education they could’ve received, what adventure they could’ve had, what freedoms they could’ve enjoyed, if only they had turned their attentions on the real world instead of the one in magazines and on TV. In a similar way, I feel the left needs to just let the “marriage question” be, and focus on the issues that matter most in peoples lives. By playing along with the fundies, and treating marriage as a vital, valid topic for political discussion, we waste our own limited resources and play a game we can never win. As far as brass rings go, I say this one is not for us.

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