When the New York Times published an article about how roughly 50 percent of same-sex marriages and relationships in the San Francisco area are “open marriages” in which both partners consent to each other having sex with other people, I assumed it would cause a stir and that I’d be motivated to write a response. Oddly, though, the article seemed to generate little attention. But now I see my friend (and old sparring-partner on gay marriage) Rod Dreher has taken the bait.
Amidst making some valuable points about the politicization of social science research, Rod summarizes his view of the study on which the Times article was based:
If it's true that half of same-sex couples live in an open marriage/relationship, then concerns from SSM opponents that extending marriage to gay couples would redefine our culture's understanding of marriage can't be dismissed as unfounded.
Actually, I still think such concerns can be dismissed as unfounded, though I understand why Rod and likeminded opponents of same-sex marriage would think otherwise. Whereas proponents of same-sex marriage have spent much of the past two decades arguing the Andrew Sullivan position—namely, that permitting homosexuals to marry would lead them to assimilate to bourgeois social norms—opponents of same-sex marriage have made the opposite claim, asserting that once gay marriage is normalized, the morally dubious practices of the gay community would seep into and corrupt the traditionalist marital practices of everyone else. And now it seems the conservative case has received empirical confirmation: roughly half of homosexual marriages and relationships are non-traditional. Instead of producing the embourgeoisment of the gay community, the advent of same-sex marriage has sent us careening down the slippery slope toward the society-wide dissolution of traditional marriage. Right?
Even if we assume that the study cited in the Times article is accurate and that gay community as a whole shares the outlook and attitudes of married homosexuals in Bay area, traditionalists need to explain the mechanism whereby the practices of roughly half of the members of a tiny minority who choose to marry will decisively influence the marital practices of everyone, or even anyone, else. Traditionalists dread this influence—just as some of those quoted in the article welcome it. But do those fears and hopes make sense? How is the change going to happen? Why should we assume that it will? Because sleeping around is fun, and the only thing holding traditional mores in place is ignorance among mainstream Americans that it’s possible to engage in consensual polyamory?
(Imagine the conversation: “Hey honey, I know we’ve always assumed we’d be faithful to one another, but have you heard that gays often sleep around with other partners even when they’re married? Sounds cool to me. Wanna try?”)
But of course most Americans have known for several decades that non-traditional marriage is an option, and yet there’s no evidence that rates of open marriage have skyrocketed, or even grown beyond what they were in the mid-‘70s (which appears to be somewhere between 1.7 and 4 percent of heterosexual marriages). On that note, I wonder if Rod and other traditionalists believe that heterosexual marriages in which both partners consent to extramarital liaisons should be nullified on the grounds that they fundamentally undermine a vital social institution. Consistency seems to demand that they should.
And yet that isn’t the standard position of traditionalists—because they (sometimes) respect the private decisions of consenting adults. If a heterosexual couple decides to have an open marriage, that’s the couple’s decision, made within the confines of their marital partnership, and the state has, and should have, no power to invalidate it. That, anyway, is what most of us believe. But why should gay couples be held to a different, more exacting standard? Because their particular form of deviancy is uniquely insidious?
But how could this be? Don’t traditionalists believe that heterosexual marriage is rooted in nature? And isn’t homosexuality an unnatural abomination? That’s what we’ve always been told. But if so, what sense does it make to assume that news of gay open marriages will lead heterosexuals to adopt those practices as their own? Is nature really that malleable? Can the desire for exclusivity in love really be erased? Is jealousy really likely to disappear from human relationships? Does monogamy really depend on universal moral disapprobation to back it up? But we’ve already lived through nearly a half-century without a social consensus on sexuality. Surely a handful of non-monogamous gay marriages isn’t going to make the decisive difference in mainstreaming polyamory. Or is it?
What a fascinatingly bleak view of the human condition we find among sexual traditionalists: Traditional marriage is natural, and homosexuality is contrary to nature; but nature is so fragile that it needs to be backed up by unquestioning tradition, as well as by the force of law; the moment those traditional mores and legal sanctions are loosened, people begin to diverge from their own natures and conform to the unnatural practices of the deviants, thereby dissolving traditional marriage. This is why I’ve always had a perverse respect for those traditionalists who have been willing to follow their darkly pessimistic convictions all the way to the end—to admit that they think traditional marriage is fundamentally incompatible with freedom. (And no, redefining freedom to mean “obedience” doesn’t count.)