Friday, May 18, 2012

The Heterosexual Redefinition of Marriage

Critics of same-sex marriage offer a narrative along these lines:
Marriage has always meant "a union between a man and a woman" therefore it makes no sense to talk about two men or two women marrying each other. Homosexuals are trying to redefine the word "marriage" to mean something completely different from what marriage is!
While it's true that, historically, marriages have nearly always been heterosexual relationships, there is another very plausible explanation: marriage was a kind of male-oriented ownership relation. A man could possess one or more wives, but it it made no sense for men to possess each other or for women to possess each other in this way. It was only with the modern women's movement that marriage has commonly come to mean a co-equal life partnership. Our culture's acceptance of this heterosexual redefinition of marriage from ownership to partnership has already opened the concept of marriage to homosexual partners. Gays and lesbians don't need to redefine marriage. Straights have already done so.

Give Me That Old Time Marriage

Appeals to "traditional marriage" usually invoke the Bible for support, but our marriage tradition has come a long way from Old Testament and even New Testament views on marriage. The Old Testament is especially relevant since religious arguments against homosexuality often rely on the assumption that ancient Jewish laws are still relevant, at least in spirit. Let's start with one of the Ten Commandments:
"You shall not covet your neighbor’s house; you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife or his male servant or his female servant or his ox or his donkey or anything that belongs to your neighbor." Exodus 20:17, NASB
This sure looks like a rule for men about respecting other men's things. At least the neighbor's wife was mentioned before the donkey, even if she does come after the house. Unmarried women were the property of their fathers or their fiancés. If another man were to come along and break her seal (so to speak), it was a crime against the man she belonged to.

 Violation: Consensual sex with a non-engaged virgin.
 Penalty: The man must marry her and pay her father, unless the father decides to keep both the money and his daughter. The woman must comply with her father's decision. (Ex. 22:16-17)

 Violation: Rape of a non-engaged virgin.
 Penalty: The man must marry her and pay her father. He can never divorce her. The woman must marry her rapist. (Deut. 22:28-29)

 Violation: Consensual sex or rape of an engaged virgin in the city.
 Penalty:  Both stoned to death. The man for "violat[ing] his neighbor's wife." The woman for not crying out for help; all city sex is presumed to be consensual. (Deut. 22:23-24, NASB)

 Violation: Consensual sex or rape of an engaged virgin in the country.
 Penalty: The man is stoned to death for harming her fiancé (yes really). No penalty for the woman because she is presumed to have cried out for help, but there was no one in earshot to save her. (Deut. 22:25-27)

 Violation: A supposed virgin lacks a hymen on her wedding night.
 Penalty: She is stoned to death at the doorway of her father's house. (Deut. 22:20-21)

 Violation: A man falsely accuses his new wife of lacking a hymen.
 Penalty: The man must pay a fine to her father, and he can never divorce her. (Deut. 22:13-19)

I realize this notion of forcing women to marry their rapists seems really out of touch with contemporary morality, but I want to be fair and give Hank Hanegraaff a.k.a. Bible Answer Man an opportunity to provide some cultural context:
"First, the Mosaic Law is hardly about letting a rapist off easy. The consequence for raping a woman engaged to be married was stoning (Deuteronomy 22:25). If the woman was not engaged, the rapist was spared for the sake of the woman’s security. Having lost her virginity, she would have been deemed undesirable for marriage—and in the culture of the day, a woman without a father or husband to provide for her would be subject to a life of abject poverty, destitution, and social ostracism. As such, the rapist was compelled to provide for the rape victim for as long as he lived. Thus, far from barbaric, the law was a cultural means of protection and provision." — Hanegraaf in answer to "How could the Bible command a rape victim to marry her rapist?"
A strange answer considering a nation's laws would be an opportune place to provide for the welfare of poor women by other means. At any rate, rape was treated primarily as a harm done to a woman's father or fiancé, which can only be justified under a property view of women.

War Booty

We think of marriage as a mutual choice to commit to each other for life. While there might be some room to hope Israelite fathers consulted their daughters on their choice of husband, foreign women taken after the slaughter of their families couldn't have had any choice but to sexually submit to the men who killed their fathers, mothers, sisters, and brothers.
"When you go out to battle against your enemies, and the Lord your God delivers them into your hands and you take them away captive, and see among the captives a beautiful woman, and have a desire for her and would take her as a wife for yourself, then you shall bring her home to your house, and she shall shave her head and trim her nails. She shall also remove the clothes of her captivity and shall remain in your house, and mourn her father and mother a full month; and after that you may go in to her and be her husband and she shall be your wife. It shall be, if you are not pleased with her, then you shall let her go wherever she wishes; but you shall certainly not sell her for money, you shall not mistreat her, because you have humbled her." — Deut. 21:10-14,  NASB
"Now therefore, kill every male among the little ones, and kill every woman who has known man intimately. But all the girls who have not known man intimately, spare for yourselves. [...]
Now the booty that remained from the spoil which the men of war had plundered was 675,000 sheep, and 72,000 cattle, and 61,000 donkeys, and of human beings, of the women who had not known man intimately, all the persons were 32,000." — Num. 31:17-18, NASB
Forcing an enslaved woman into the marriage bed isn't even permanent. When you tire of her, send her away. Just don't "mistreat" her! Can you imagine the reaction if modern Israel tried this policy of genocide-except-the-virgins? Would we recognize such marriages as marriages?

Big Love

Polygamy, like slavery, was regulated rather than condemned in the Bible. Sometimes these regulations were intertwined:
"If a man sells his daughter as a female slave, she is not to go free as the male slaves do. If she is displeasing in the eyes of her master who designated her for himself, then he shall let her be redeemed. He does not have authority to sell her to a foreign people because of his unfairness to her. If he designates her for his son, he shall deal with her according to the custom of daughters. If he takes to himself another woman, he may not reduce her food, her clothing, or her conjugal rights." Ex. 21:7-10, NASB
Or there's the law about polygamy and inheritance:
"If a man has two wives, the one loved and the other unloved, and both the loved and the unloved have borne him sons, if the firstborn son belongs to the unloved, then it shall be in the day he wills what he has to his sons, he cannot make the son of the loved the firstborn before the son of the unloved, who is the firstborn." Deut. 21:15-16, NASB
Not to mention that prominent holy men like Abraham, Jacob, Gideon, David, and Solomon were never condemned for practicing polygamy as such.

The Lord Your Husband

New Testament views on marriage may seem pretty close to our own, but this might just be a matter of focus. New Testament writers don't discuss marriage arrangements and rules for slavery as much as Old Testament writers did. Polygamy seems to have gone out of style. Slavery is acknowledged but not challenged (Colossians 4:1). The ruler-and-subject concept of marriage was explicitly re-affirmed. Paul wrote:
"Wives, be subject to your own husbands, as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife, as Christ also is the head of the church, He Himself being the Savior of the body. But as the church is subject to Christ, so also the wives ought to be to their husbands in everything. [...]
So husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies. He who loves his own wife loves himself; for no one ever hated his own flesh, but nourishes and cherishes it, just as Christ also does the church, because we are members of His body." Eph. 5:22-24, NASB
Women are told to be submissive; men are told to be loving. There is an order here with God above both men and women equally, yet husbands are still clearly above their wives. Paul reinforced this double hierarchy in 1 Corinthians:
"For if a woman does not cover her head, let her also have her hair cut off; but if it is disgraceful for a woman to have her hair cut off or her head shaved, let her cover her head. For a man ought not to have his head covered, since he is the image and glory of God; but the woman is the glory of man. For man does not originate from woman, but woman from man; for indeed man was not created for the woman’s sake, but woman for the man’s sake. Therefore the woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head, because of the angels.
However, in the Lord, neither is woman independent of man, nor is man independent of woman. For as the woman originates from the man, so also the man has his birth through the woman; and all things originate from God." 1 Cor. 11:6-12, NASB
To review, marriage in the Old Testament treated women as property purchased from their fathers, or as spoils of war plundered from enemies. Polygamy was occasionally practiced, but polyandry was unheard of. The New Testament urged women to be unilaterally submissive to their husbands. Husbands were to love their wives, not as separate persons, but as part of themselves. The concepts of mutual choice and co-equal partnership in marriage did not yet exist.

Before the Uprising

By the 1760s, around the time of the American Revolution, marriage had evolved in some respects. William Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England carefully distinguished civil marriage from holy matrimony. Both the husband and wife had to consent to the marriage, though boys under 14 and girls under 12 could be "imperfect[ly]" married, then allowed to decide to affirm or void the marriage at those respective ages. Affirmation was implied to involve voluntary sexual union after reaching his or her "years of discretion." Polygamy was expressly forbidden. Forcing slaves into marriage was not addressed, but was likely precluded by the same principle behind the general consent requirement. All of this represents a substantial advance toward modern views on marriage.

Still, once a woman chose to enter into a marriage, she gave up a lot more than her maiden name. Blackstone wrote:
"By marriage, the husband and wife are one person in law: that is, the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended during the marriage, or at least is incorporated and consolidated into that of the husband: under whose wing, protection, and cover, she performs everything; and is therefore called in our law-french a feme-covert [married woman]; is said to be covert-baron, or under the protection and influence of her husband, her baron, or lord; and her condition during her marriage is called her coverture. [...]
For this reason, a man cannot grant anything to his wife, or enter into covenant with her: for the grant would be to suppose her separate existence; and to covenant with her, would be only to covenant with himself: and therefore it is also generally true, that all compacts made between husband and wife, when single, are voided by the intermarriage. [...]
If the wife be injured in her person or her property, she can bring no action for redress without her husband's concurrence, and in his name, as well as her own: neither can she be sued, without making the husband a defendant. [...]
But, in trials of any sort, they are not allowed to be evidence for, or against, each other: partly because it is impossible their testimony should be indifferent; but principally because of the union of person: and therefore, if they were admitted to be witnesses for each other, they would contradict one maxim of law, "nemo in propria causa testis esse debet" [no one ought to be witness in his own cause]; and if against each other, they would contradict another maxim, "nemo tenetur seipsum accusare" [no one is bound to accuse himself]." — Commentaries on the Laws of England, Book 1, Chapter 15
If any form of marriage deserves to be called "traditional," it's marriage as the lordship of a man over a woman.

The Age of Equality

The Married Women's Property Acts of 1870 and 1882 allowed women in the United Kingdom to own property separately from their husbands. The latter version also recognized women as separate legal entities in many of the ways denied to them under the doctrine of coverage, as discussed by Blackstone above.

One year before the first Married Women's Property Act was passed, John Stuart Mill's essay The Subjection of Women had raised public awareness of the legal inequalities experienced by married women. In practice, husbands had dominion even over their wives' bodies.
"[A] female slave has (in Christian countries) an admitted right, and is considered under a moral obligation, to refuse to her master the last familiarity. Not so the wife: however brutal a tyrant she may unfortunately be chained to — though she may know that he hates her, though it may be his daily pleasure to torture her, and though she may feel it impossible not to loathe him — he can claim from her and enforce the lowest degradation of a human being, that of being made the instrument of an animal function contrary to her inclinations." — John Stuart Mill, The Subjection of Women, Chapter Two
In case the language was unclear, husbands could demand sex whether their wives were willing or not. Husbands could also imprison their wives. At least, they could get away with doing this in England until the watershed "Clitheroe case" (Regina v. Jackson) of 1891. Frustrated with his wife's refusal to live with him, Mr. Jackson and two of his friends seized her as she was coming out of church with her sister, and dragged Mrs. Jackson into a carriage. She was kept in his house, guarded by his friends, while her family "laid siege" to the house and filed for habeas corpus. The first judges refused to intervene, but an appeal judge ruled that a husband may not "imprison" his wife "until she consent[s] to the restitution of conjugal rights." An early women's rights activist wrote in a letter to the editor:
"Of the momentous character of this judgment there can be no question whatever. It is a declaration of law which is epoch-making in its immediate consequences, and its ultimate results reach far into the future, involving indeed the establishment of a higher morality of marriage, and the substitution, in the relation of husband and wife, of the ethics of justice and equality for the old and worn-out code of master and slave." — Elizabeth Wolstenholme Elmy, The Decision in the Clitheroe Case, and Its Consequences
This is precisely the modern "redefinition" of the marriage relationship that this post is about. The idea of partnership marriage has taken time to spread, and is still struggling against the idea of male authoritarian marriage. Stephen Grunlan's recent Christian textbook, Marriage and the Family, has a section explicitly devoted to comparing arguments for "traditional marriage" and "partnership marriage," ultimately leaving it up to the convictions of each couple. It's not a simple matter of religious marriage being one way and secular marriage being the other.

An Open Door

What does all of this have to do with same-sex marriage? I wanted to show that homosexual marriage is — as its opponents claim — incompatible with traditional marriage. But then so are all the heterosexual marriages today which don't feature a man-as-master and a woman-as-servant. A defining characteristic of traditional marriage was a difference in authority based on sex, not merely a difference in sex. This explains why same-sex marriage is an almost entirely new phenomenon, previously blocked by the expectation of inequality. As a contemporary historian puts it:
"The ancient Romans had no problem with homosexuality, and they did not think that heterosexual marriage was sacred. The reason they found male-male marriage repugnant was that no real man would ever agree to play the subordinate role demanded of a Roman wife. Today, by contrast, many heterosexual couples aspire to achieve the loyal, egalitarian relationships that Greek and Roman philosophers believed could exist only in a friendship between two men." — Stephanie Coontz, Marriage, a History: How Love Conquered Marriage, Kindle Edition p. 11.
The long fight against sexism in marriage has opened the door for same-sex marriage. The most respectable form of marriage today is that of a co-equal life partnership, and there's no reason two men, two women, or one of each cannot make this same kind of commitment to each other.


  1. "The most respectable form of marriage today is that of a co-equal life partnership."

    "Respectable" to whom? Why, to respectable people, of course.  "Respectable" according to either your standards or the standards of the dominant social strata. This is precisely how moral realism obfuscates.

  2. This is a very scholarly piece, Garren! Thanks for sharing your research and insight. I wish more people could hear this argument.