ARE HETEROSEXUALS WORTHY OF MARRIGE?
by MICHAEL PARENTI
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Parenti’s most recent books are The Assassination
of Julius Caesar (New Press) and Superpatriotism (City
Lights). This article is published with the permission of
the past year, a furious opposition to gay marriage has been
voiced by many who claim to know how God feels about this issue.
President Bush even went so far as to propose an amendment to
the Constitution to make same-sex marriage a federal offence.
According to recent polls, a majority of Americans believe that
marriage should remain a union that is strictly between a man
and a woman. We hear that same-sex unions would threaten and
undermine holy matrimony, although not a single concrete example
of how that would happen has been offered. Gay marriage is legal
in Belgium, the Netherlands, and Ontario, Canada, and thus far
it has neither impaired traditional marriage nor subverted civil
society in those places.
gay marriage aside, what do we have to say about heterosexual
marriage. In all the recent controversy, no one seems to have
noticed how heterosexuals have devalued and defiled the sanctity
of this purportedly God-given institution. Consider the following:
millennia, straight-sex marriage consisted of a bond not between
a man and a woman but between a man and any number of women.
Polygamy is a recognized practice in the Holy Bible itself.
King Solomon had 700 wives (not to mention 300 concubines) yet
suffered not the mildest rebuke from either God or man. Other
estimable figures in Scripture and throughout history have had
large retinues of wives. Women in these kinds of overpopulated
unions have been treated as little better than concubines, usually
facing a dismal existence of enforced confinement.
some parts of the world today, polygamy is still practiced by
those men who have the money to buy additional wives. Buy? Exactly.
Too often marriage is not a mutual bonding but a one-sided bondage.
The entrapped women have no say in the matter. In various countries
around the world, warlords, tribal chieftains, mullahs, or other
prestigious or prosperous males lock away as many wives as they
can get their hands on. The women often find themselves railroaded
into a loveless lifelong captivity. They are subjected to constant
control, periodic violence and abuse, prolonged isolation, enforced
illiteracy, unattended illnesses, and other degrading conditions.
heterosexual abuse of holy matrimony comes when marriage is
used to cement political alliances, shore up family fortunes,
or advance careers. From ancient Rome to the latter-day European
aristocracy, females of the best families of one nation or political
faction were treated like so many gaming pieces, married off
to well placed males of another nation or faction. And not only
among aristocrats. Throughout the nineteenth and early twentieth
centuries, in respectable bourgeois society the suitability
of a perspective spouse was just as often determined by purse
and pedigree as by any genuine emotional attachment.
has historically been more closely linked to property than to
love, and the property arrangements tended to benefit the male
spouse. For generations in the United States and other western
countries a married woman usually could not even own property.
She had to forfeit all her family inheritance to her husband,
thereby being reduced to an appendage of the paterfamilias.
And rarely could a married woman pursue an advanced education
or professional career.
straight-sex marriages continue to this day in many parts of
the world, with little regard for the feelings of the young
women and men involved but with much concern for the dowry,
social status, and financial condition of the respective families.
Even in our own country we know there are heterosexuals who
marry for money or social standing or some other reason having
little to do with personal regard and affection. Do not such
opportunistic calculations devalue the institution? Yet we hear
no clamor about it, certainly not from the President or other
homophobic guardians of nuptial heterosexuality.
days, arraigned marriages are relatively rare in the United
States except on Reality TV, where young and attractive women-—selected
by television producers---openly vie for the opportunity to
marry a millionaire whom they have never before met. They put
themselves on display, usually a dozen at a time, while some
wealthy hunk takes torturous weeks to eliminate all but one.
Then he and his final selection are married on screen before
millions of viewers. Here surely is a heart-warming benediction
of a sacred institution.
the affluent class in ancient Rome, almost half the brides were
under the age of fourteen, many as young as twelve, with consummation
coming on the wedding night even if before menarche. This raises
another longstanding unsavory practice of straight-sex marriage:
underage brides. Child brides as young as 11 and 12 (or younger)
are still bartered in various parts of the world, with a nuptial
night that amounts to little more than child rape, often followed
by years of mistreatment by the groom and his family. Yet the
present defenders of straight marriage say little about how
their sanctified institution is used in some places as an instrument
of child sexual abuse.
dismal chapter in the history of heterosexual marriage is the
way it has been used to bolster racism. In some seventeen states
in the USA, holy matrimony was an unholy racist institution,
with laws forbidding wedlock between persons of different races.
For generations we had no same-sex marriage to worry about but
we lived with legally mandated same-race marriage. The last
of these miscegenation laws remained on the books until 1967.
the United States today, heterosexual wedlock is not a particularly
uplifting or even safe institution for millions of women. Consider
some statistics: An estimated two million females are repeatedly
battered. Most of these victims are married to their attackers.
Domestic violence is the single largest cause of injury and
second largest cause of death to U.S. women. An uncounted number
of wives are raped by abusive husbands. Every year, upwards
of a million women seek medical treatment for serious domestic
abuse injuries. Almost three million children reportedly are
subjected to serious neglect or physical or sexual abuse. Each
year tens of thousands of kids run away from home to escape
is the additional problem of abandonment. Millions of spouses---including
many white middle-class professionals---desert their families
and fail to provide sustenance for their own children. Often
they do not even acknowledge or stay in contact with their offspring.
If heterosexual matrimony is so sacred, you would think it might
produce less horrific results.
of results, the phenomenon of divorce comes to mind. To be sure,
millions of heterosexual couples find lifelong happiness in
marriage; still, the most predictable outcome of straight marriage
is divorce: 51 percent to be exact. That is an extraordinary
statistic not matched by too many others. If we said there was
a 51 percent murder rate or suicide rate or student drop-out
rate, a 51 percent vehicular accident rate, a 51 percent rate
for alcoholism or deaths from drug abuse, this would be great
cause for alarm. In fact, society would probably be uninhabitable
with such rates. Perhaps, then, marriage is not all that important.
Fifty-one percent of all marriages fall apart, yet society has
not fallen apart. If anything, in the more abusive households,
divorce is actually a blessing.
do the more traditional marriages that take place in conservative
circles show any greater rate of happiness or survival than
those that deviate from the conventional norm. The man may be
the head of the household and the primary breadwinner, and the
wife may be the dutiful homemaker, and the entire family may
pray together -- but they do not stay together at any greater
rate than the more secular unions. A 2001 study found that born-again
Christians are just as likely to get divorced as non-born-again
adults and other less confirmed believers, with 90 percent of
these divorces happening "after they accepted Christ, not
before." So those who claim that marriage is best fortified
by religion have yet to prove their case.
course, fundamentalist keepers of the public morals do bemoan
the high divorce rate, but they don’t get exercised about
it the way they do about gay wedlock. The point is, if millions
of heterosexual divorces every year have not hopelessly denigrated
the institution of marriage, why would some thousands of same-sex
marriages do so? If straights like reactionary radio commentator
and drug-head Rush Limbaugh can get married again and again
without undermining the institution, what is so threatening
about a gay union? Does Limbaugh feel that gay marriage makes
a mockery of all three of his past marriages -- and his pending
fourth? If anything, happy gays wanting to get into the institution
might help make up for all those unhappy straights wanting to
same-sex unions do violate church teachings, then the church
(or synagogue or mosque) should refuse to perform gay marriages,
and most do refuse. The gays I saw getting married in San Francisco’s
City Hall were engaged in civil marriages, with no clergy presiding
over the ceremonies. And what I saw opened my heart. Here were
people, many in longstanding relationships, who were experiencing
their humanity, happy at last to have a right to marry the one
they loved, happy at last to exercise their full citizenship
and be treated as persons equal under the law.
sum up, here are some of the things that straight-sex marriage
has wrought through the ages: polygamy, child-brides, loveless
arrangements, trafficked women, bartered wives, battered wives,
raped wives, sexual slavery, child abuse and abandonment, racist
miscegenation laws, and astronomical divorce rates. If gays
are unqualified for marriage, what can we say about straights?
If George Bush and his homophobic worshippers really want to
defend the institution of marriage, they can begin by taking
an honest look at the ugly situations within so many heterosexual
unions in this country and throughout the world.
Parenti has been married and divorced only twice.