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On appreciating sex difference in the gay marriage debate

Posted by B. Daniel Blatt at 1:57 pm - August 9, 2010.
Filed under: Gay Marriage,Sex Difference

Perhaps the greatest reason for my ambivalence on gay marriage is that as my psychological and mythological studies have touched on anthropology, culture history and ritual, I have observed that all cultures understand the institution as a pairing of the opposites, uniting two individuals of different sexes.  Across cultures, the bride and groom have always played different roles in the ceremony.  (Arnold van Gennep offers a good introduction to this in the chapter, “Betrothal and Marriage” in his classic, The Rites of Passage.)

That said, I believe that if the state recognizes traditional marriages, it should also recognize same-sex unions, but am just not beholden to the term “marriage” to define them.

Given the vast array of evidence from a multiplicity of disciplines* on sex difference, I remain troubled by using the term “marriage equality” to define the movement for state recognition of same-sex marriage.  It suggests that sex differences are meaningless or, to borrow a term of a discredited theory, are mere “social constructs.”

In his thoughtful consideration of marriage and Judge Walker’s opinion in today’s New York Times, Ross Douthat contends that gay and straight unions are not the same:

But if we just accept this shift [i.e., changing views of marriage), 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.

Emphasis added.

Simply put, two men or two women relate to each other in a different manner than do one man and one woman.  It’s folly to suggest that sexual difference is meaningless, particularly given the vast amount of scientific research on the topic these past forty years.

Like Douthat, we would be wise to recognize that same-sex unions differ from different-sex ones.  And without an “Equal Rights Amendment” in the constitution, states are free to consider that difference in determining how to recognize those unions.  Perhaps, like the legislators of Vermont and New Hampshire, they will choose to call those unions “marriage” which is and should be their prerogative.

Or perhaps is states as diverse as Nevada, Oregon, Washington and Wisconsin, they will call them something different.  And that is the genius of our federal system.  Would it that all states followed the lead of those who have recognized same-sex unions.

That said, we obscure the differences between the sexes at our own peril.  And let us appreciate that difference.  There is a reason the French delight in their expression, Vive la différence!

——

* From my Pajamas piece on Judge Walker’s opinion:

In the intervening years, however, a whole host of studies from neuroscientists, psychologists, sociologists, and anthropologists have found that sexual differences are real. In his 2002 book, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature, Harvard Psychology Professor Steven Pinker observed: “Neuroscience, genetics, psychology, and ethnography are documenting sex differences that almost certainly originate in human biology.”

Evolutionary biologists Richard Wrangham and Dale Peterson have even found these differences in our primate “cousins.” In her recent book on the male brain (a companion to her 2006 study of the female brain), Psychiatry Professor Louann Brizendine writes: “Male and female brains are different from the moment of conception.”

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22 Comments

  1. I have no doubt that there are differences between same-sex and opposite-sex relationships. However there are differences in opposite-sex relationships with other opposite-sex relationships (and a great variety when it comes to it!) so what these scientific findings prove with regards to the state/social construct of marriage I don’t know.

    Marriage is not based on science, so a scientific argument for why opposite-sex marriage is special is about as useful as those trying to stretch Bible passages to retroactively explain scientific discoveries. Attempting to do so only serves to create confusion where there need be none.

    As someone who favours individual liberty, I find your weird fall back to trying to place individuals into certain roles based on some immutable feature they share with a group of people (when it should be up to them to decide) is disturbingly authoritarian.

    Comment by Jae — August 9, 2010 @ 2:44 pm - August 9, 2010

  2. Authoritarian? Huh? Can’t imagine how anyone could mke such assumptions about my views.

    I don’t believe the state should place us in any roles whatsoever.

    Just wondering if you even paid attention to the point of the post — which has nothing to do with the state defining our sex roles.

    Comment by B. Daniel Blatt — August 9, 2010 @ 2:48 pm - August 9, 2010

  3. Whilst I support a “privatisation” of marriage, you seem to suggest the state should become further involved in creating new laws to cover new relationship types it should recognise, rather than simply making an existing Government sanctioned institution gender neutral (a step in the right direction in my opinion).

    “That said, I believe that if the state recognizes traditional marriages, it should also recognize same-sex unions, but am just not beholden to the term “marriage” to define them.”

    My preferred view would be for Government to get out of the marriage business entirely and leave it to couples, groups and organisations to decide what they wish to call their contractual arrangement. Then if people wish to call their arrangement “marriage” they can or they can call it something different.

    So yes, as you favour further state intervention and more laws and regulations, rather than a simplification of partnership rights on way towards actual freedom, you are “authoritarian”.

    Comment by Jae — August 9, 2010 @ 3:06 pm - August 9, 2010

  4. From the post, “That said, I believe that if the state recognizes traditional marriages, it should also recognize same-sex unions, but am just not beholden to the term “marriage” to define them.”

    Note that “if.” Look, if you think me authoritarian, we really can’t have a conversation because you’re so far off the mark, it’s just plain silly to go on.

    So far off the mark.

    Comment by B. Daniel Blatt — August 9, 2010 @ 3:09 pm - August 9, 2010

  5. Then why spend so much time making the distinction? You seem obsessed with gender roles in marriage, when really you should be making positive arguments for the state getting out of private arrangements.

    I find your continued arguments against same sex marriage, as you don’t personally like the word marriage, to be self defeating if your ultimate aim is freedom from the state.

    Perhaps more focus on a small state approach rather than a continued insistence on trying to convince your readers to support your conservative lifestyle beliefs.

    Comment by Jae — August 9, 2010 @ 3:14 pm - August 9, 2010

  6. No, jae, I’m just pointing out the reality of sex differences. And if you think I’m against gay marriage or don’t like the word, “marriage,” then you haven’t been reading my posts, but reading things into them that just aren’t there.

    please look up the word, “ambivalent,” it doesn’t mean against.

    Comment by B. Daniel Blatt — August 9, 2010 @ 3:17 pm - August 9, 2010

  7. Frankly, I’m surprised SSM has gotten as far as it has in the last twenty-years. I would have expected that same-sex “civil unions equivalent to marriage” to be the dominant legal-format taken….and still think that CU’s might still be the best strategy for universal recognition at the Federal-level since a much larger majority of Americans support CU’s as fair and legally-supportable without the emotional baggage of SSM, “the Church”, and their own traditional marriages.

    And if you had asked me twenty-five years about about SSM and CU’s…I would have replied that we’d get ENDA, hate crimes and full military service long before wide-spread CU’s…and that SSM was still a century of in the future in the realm of science-fiction speculation. Frankly, I figured we were more likely to have a single, gay President of the United States before any Federally-sanctioned SSM’s.

    O tempes, o mores….”

    Comment by Ted B. — August 9, 2010 @ 3:19 pm - August 9, 2010

  8. And without an “Equal Rights Amendment” in the constitution, states are free to consider that difference in determining how to recognize those unions.

    I wonder why the backers of gay marriage never pushed for the Equal Rights Amendment, an amendment that had been proposed in every Congress since the 1920′s.

    Had the equal rights amendment been passed, ratified, and gone into effect as late as the beginning of this year, I would fail to see how Proposition 8 and similar laws would be upheld against such an amendment. (I would not go out on a limb and say the Supreme Court would never uphold Proposition 8 against such an amendment; that would be a tough sell.)

    Comment by Michael Ejercito — August 9, 2010 @ 3:20 pm - August 9, 2010

  9. You’re in deep archetypal territory, Dan, as you know. Not many will follow you there in these days of rationalist social constructionism. For a lot of these folks, gender is only interesting as a marker of social discrimination.

    Comment by EssEm — August 9, 2010 @ 3:51 pm - August 9, 2010

  10. From Ross’s article:

    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. And a culture in which weddings are optional celebrations of romantic love, only tangentially connected to procreation, has no business discriminating against the love of homosexuals.

    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.

    My question would be… Are we? Are we giving up on it or just including a few more, just an N’th of a percent more who want to share the same vows, with the same meaning, who happen to be homosexual?

    Thoughts?

    Comment by Sonicfrog — August 9, 2010 @ 4:46 pm - August 9, 2010

  11. “Like Douthat, we would be wise to recognize that same-sex unions differ from different-sex ones.”

    But you realize that Douthat doesn’t argue anything. He asserts. He wants to feel special and gays marrying doesn’t make him feel special any more. Poor Ross.

    Comment by TJ Parker — August 9, 2010 @ 4:51 pm - August 9, 2010

  12. My question would be… Are we? Are we giving up on it or just including a few more, just an N’th of a percent more who want to share the same vows, with the same meaning, who happen to be homosexual?

    It all depends on what you see marriage as, Sonicfrog.

    If you see it as nothing more than a vehicle for government recognition of sexual partnerships, fine.

    If you see it as a fundamental assertion that children do best in a stable family unit and a response to encourage and support those who do what society needs and reproduce, then you are giving up.

    Comment by North Dallas Thirty — August 9, 2010 @ 4:57 pm - August 9, 2010

  13. TJ, you sound like Andrew Sullivan making his case for gay marriage. He wants the state to make him feel special.

    Comment by B. Daniel Blatt — August 9, 2010 @ 5:07 pm - August 9, 2010

  14. NDT, but what if you see it as both? The two options you present are not mutually exclusive you know.

    PS. Nice try to slip in a false dichotomy, and define the first choice, you lesser choice, as selectively “sexual”, without including other aspects of a marital relationship, such as an expression of superior emotional bond, ultimate respect for your partner, and the desire to form the ultimate family unit with your partner.

    Comment by Sonicfrog — August 9, 2010 @ 5:23 pm - August 9, 2010

  15. What a pathetic faggot.

    Comment by Sirkowski — August 9, 2010 @ 5:52 pm - August 9, 2010

  16. What a civil rejoinder!

    Comment by B. Daniel Blatt — August 9, 2010 @ 6:34 pm - August 9, 2010

  17. The archetypal gay relationship is passionately monogamous and loyal–Enkidu and Gilgamesh, Achilles and Patroclus, Damon and Pythias, Sergius and Bacchus, David and Jonathan, etc. A look at these archetypes reminds us that straight marriage (or marriages) is about fulfilling social duty, not love. These archetypal gay relationships are also fully masculine.

    A return to archetypes would be a great antidote to the Pride and Rainbow version of being gay. Archetypal homosexuality is not about exotic, effeminate beings having sexual adventures with as many partners as possible–being gay is about loving one single man more than your own self, forever.

    Comment by Ashpenaz — August 9, 2010 @ 7:12 pm - August 9, 2010

  18. PS. Nice try to slip in a false dichotomy, and define the first choice, you lesser choice, as selectively “sexual”, without including other aspects of a marital relationship, such as an expression of superior emotional bond, ultimate respect for your partner, and the desire to form the ultimate family unit with your partner.

    It is sexual, Sonicfrog. You can’t fulfill the requirements for marriage because you’re not sexually attracted to women.

    Comment by North Dallas Thirty — August 10, 2010 @ 3:56 am - August 10, 2010

  19. What is the compelling state reason for the government to recognize and regulate marriage?

    Most of the gay marriage proponents can not or will not tackle this question. The reason why is because once the gender barrier is broken, the whole list of barriers will follow.

    Comment by heliotrope — August 10, 2010 @ 9:22 am - August 10, 2010

  20. It is sexual, Sonicfrog. You can’t fulfill the requirements for marriage because you’re not sexually attracted to women.

    Oh please! Ever heard of mail-order brides, or arranged marriages – which in many countries (and maybe a few pockets here) are still acceptable.

    And by the argument you just laid out, gays CAN NEVER get married, because they are not attracted to the opposite sex. In your world – No Sexual Attraction = No Marriage. So you just strengthened the anti-prop 8 case. Good Show!

    Comment by Sonicfrog — August 10, 2010 @ 10:45 am - August 10, 2010

  21. Can an old fat married straight white man put his two cents worth into this discussion on this venue? The gay marriage “problem”, in my opinion, is not so much with the “gay” part as with the “marriage” part. Consider marriage to be a religious institution defined by a church. If we observe separation of church and state, then the state would not be recognizing marriage as a legal entity. Thus there would be no basis for legalizing benefits such as taxes, hospital visitation rights, or any other of the privileges accorded to the married, and the incentive to limit it to hetereosexual couples would diminish, if not evaporate. This is sort of the obverse side of civil unions, but I believe it would be more sustainable in both political and judicial testing. If then gays want to be “married”, they need ony find a church that says they are, and the state can’t say they aren’t. But married or not, straight or gay, all should have equal rights and attainment of that goal will extinguish the controversy now isolating gays from “main stream” America.

    Comment by Tom Beebe — August 10, 2010 @ 11:42 am - August 10, 2010

  22. And by the argument you just laid out, gays CAN NEVER get married, because they are not attracted to the opposite sex.

    Hey, it’s what Ted Olsen and Vaughn Walker argued, isn’t it?

    And hence the point. It should be called gay-sex marriage because that is what it is about — gays and lesbians demanding that they should be allowed to marry to whatever they’re sexually attracted, rather than abiding within the standards society already set for marriage.

    Comment by North Dallas Thirty — August 10, 2010 @ 8:12 pm - August 10, 2010

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