The Spectacle Blog

The Subversion and Destruction of Marriage

By on 7.5.11 | 4:05PM

New York Times columnist Ross Douthat has written a good and quite temperate piece about how "gay marriage" threatens the institution of marriage.

Douthat notes that to secure popular approval for "gay marriage," gay journalists such as Jonathan Rauch argue that it will be a "force for martial conservatism, among gays and straights alike." But not all gay activists and gay literati agree.

So-called liberationists, for instance, "hope that gay marriage will help knock marriage off its cultural pedestal altogether," Douthat writes. The "liberationists" want marriage to be one of many equally viable "lifestyle choices," none of which enjoy a privileged social, legal and cultural status.

Douthat points out that the liberationists have lost the political and public relations battle. Gay activists long ago realized that saying they want to subvert the institution of marriage is no way to get straights to endorse same sex "marriage."

But what Douthat doesn't quite say, but clearly spells out nonetheless, is how, even with the best of intentions, relatively conservative gay men can still seriously undermine the institution of marriage. They undermine the institution of marriage when they seek to redefine the rules and meaning of marriage to better accommodate promiscuous and polyamorous relationships.

Unfortunately, this is not some far-fetched fear or concern. Monogamy, after all, has never been a hallmark of gay culture or gay relationships. Douthat cites "the prolific author, activist and sex columnist," Dan Savage.

Savage is strongly pro-marriage, but he thinks the institution is weighed down by unrealistic cultural expectations about monogamy. Better, he suggests, to define marriage simply as a pact of mutual love and care, and leave all the other rules to be negotiated depending on the couple.

In "The Commitment," his memoir about wedding his longtime boyfriend, Savage described the way his own union has successfully made room for occasional infidelity.

"Far from undermining the stable home we've built for our child," he writes, "the controlled way in which we manage our desire for outside sexual contact has made our home more stable."

The trouble is that straight culture already experimented with exactly this kind of model, with disastrous results.

Forty years ago, Savage's perspective temporarily took upper-middle-class America by storm. In the mid-1970s, only 51 percent of well-educated Americans agreed that adultery was always wrong. But far from being strengthened by this outbreak of realism, their marriages went on to dissolve in record numbers.

"A successful marital culture," Douthat keenly observes, "depends not only on a general ideal of love and commitment, but on specific promises, exclusions and taboos. And the less specific and more inclusive an institution becomes, the more likely people are to approach it casually, if they enter it at all."

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