The Magical Mystery Of Marriage
I was once told, after I said that I didn’t plan on changing my name if/when I got married and wasn’t all that sure about joint bank accounts, that I am what is destroying America. Huh. And here I thought it was terrible economic decisions, wars paid for by credit card, and an massive and increasing inequality gap.
But nope, women not changing their names so they have an “easy out” from marriage are what’s destroying America.
Congratulations, fellow America-destroyers! I think I should get a cool title, like “DIANNA: DESTROYER OF WORLDS!”
In all seriousness, though, it seems that in Christian America, marriage (particularly straight marriage, but we won’t get into that) is the answer to all society’s ills. Even Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney illumined this philosophy when he argued that marriage is a solution to gun violence and that “broken homes” are what leads people to commit gun violence. He of course stated in this in front of the son of a single mother, The President of the United States.
Indeed, “marriage” as an answer to societal ills isn’t a new phenomenon. Bush 43 was a fan of a welfare program that told women they should get into a stable marriage relationship to solve their financial woes. Rhetoric against marriage equality claims that the gays will destroy marriage, which will destroy society. In the mid-20th century, when women gained more rights and it made it easier for them to escape from bad marriages, gloom and doom from the religious right proclaimed that society was now going to die. Interracial marriage was, like marriage equality, considered a threat to society because of the same sanctity of marriage rhetoric we see now. Indeed, even some arguments against women’s suffrage, way back in the 19th century, argued that letting women vote would destroy the one-ness of the family (a man voted for his whole family because he and his wife were one).
Marriage as an answer to society’s ills (and the state of society’s marriages as a microcosm for society’s health) is rhetoric that isn’t anything new. And it’s just as bullshit now as it was then.
Now, I’m not saying that marriage itself is a sham, or that marriage as an institution is bullshit, but that Christians in America have placed marriage on such a pedestal that we can somehow say, unironically, that it is an answer to gun violence. This means we’ve got some serious, serious problems.
As a Christian feminist, I most often see this argument in relationship to premarital sex (mostly defined as anonymous one night stands, though that is not the primary form of sexual relationships even now). If people would just honor marriage and wait until marriage, there’d be fewer divorces, fewer abortions, fewer broken homes, and fewer problems in society! It all comes down to sluts and players not wanting to put a ring on it.
This kind of shallow understanding of the nature of both marriage and of premarital sex does nothing but cause harm. It gives Christians false expectations and ideas about marriage, and invalidates the experiences of those who have had positive sexual experiences outside of marriage.
In its most harmful, it conflates casual sex with sexual violence, as though marriage is the answer to sexual violence. In fact, marriage is often where society sees abundant sexual and physical violence, as a commitment to marriage is often used by an abuser as an excuse to commit and continue abuse. Marriage does not change a misogynist into a loving husband, and signing a piece of paper does not sanctify an unhealthy sexual life.
When we present marriage as a shorthand for committed, healthy relationships, we misunderstand and misrepresent marriage as it exists for many people today. We conflate the ideal with the reality. We turn marriage into a panacea for society’s ills, rather than an institution that is itself filled with broken and sinful people. When we say that marriage is the answer for the "consequences" of casual sex (which Christ and Pop Culture defines here as rape and babies), we erase the experiences of numerous married women who still fear pregnancy and numerous married women who have experienced rape from their husbands.
Presenting marriage as an answer to a broken sexual system does not go nearly deep enough. Fundamentally, it starts from the premise that commitment is what matters about sex, not consent, not a good partner, not healthy attitudes. It asks the wrong questions - we need not ask "why aren't people committing?" but "why aren't people having sex in healthy ways?"
What I’m saying here is not that sex without commitment is inherently healthy, but that commitment is not the only thing that has the ability to foster a healthy sexual life. We need to stop presenting marriage both as shorthand for committed sexual activity and as the solution for unhealthy sexual activities. We need to change the conversation from marriage vs. not marriage to “What is healthy? What does consent look like? What does readiness for sex look like? How do you communicate and talk about sex with your partner? How do you bring up problems about sex with your partner?” It is only after we have asked what healthy sexuality looks like – absent of labels like “casual” or “marital” – that we can begin to discuss how marriage is the fulfillment of that healthy sexuality for some people.
What we don’t need is an emphasis on marriage as an answer for society’s problems, but a conversation about why we view certain things as problems in the first place. It is only then that we can begin to make more cogent, philosophical and understandable arguments without resorting to dubbing others destroyers of society. Marriage isn't magic, and neither am I.