The UWIRE Forum

Resetting the debate over government’s role in marriage
August 20, 2009, 3:38 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized
Matt Cavedon

Matt Cavedon

According to Newsweek, polyamory may be the next sexual revolution.

As its name suggests, polyamory is the practice of having multiple committed sexual partners with the knowledge and consent of all of the other partners. Approximately 500,000 Americans are believed to be in polyamorous relationships.

With America’s changing attitudes about sex over the past 50 years, we may come to the point where polyamory becomes a political issue. With the traditional definition of marriage giving way in the mindset of many young Americans, what comes next?

The same-sex marriage movement shows that an increasing number of Americans no longer associate marriage with having children, or at least having children with conceiving them. This is an extremely radical break with most conceptions of marriage, and it shifts the focus of marital union to sexual intimacy and commitment rather than procreation. It is fair to ask why polyamorous people should be excluded from the capacity for such commitment. Emotion, after all, is a terribly subjective thing. It is difficult to judge one person’s love for another person against one person’s love for several other people and to proclaim one clearly better than the other. Why not let polyamorous groups get married?

Perhaps the reason that most Americans are still fairly disturbed by that possibility is that the sexual revolutions of recent decades have not changed our mindset as fundamentally as we thought they did. Maybe we still do have an ideal of one man and one woman getting married and having children, remaining together in a lifelong love with one another and raising the next generation in a stable environment. Much though we have failed in recent decades to live up to that ideal, with rampant divorce and out-of-wedlock births as evidence, we still acknowledge on some level that marriage is really about monogamy and procreation. Sex is an expression of an intense love, and it is something that we generally try to reserve. This makes sense biologically. Sex is our means of procreation, and procreation is carried out more successfully in the context of monogamy.

It is natural that marriage, an institution that is traditionally the place where sex is permitted, is traditionally seen as lifelong. Marriage combines two essential aspects of our biology by solidifying the bonds between parents so that procreation happens in a stable environment. The legal protections and tax code privileges given to married couples exist because marriage is considered to be beneficial to society.

We do not give out money because people have found someone who makes them happy and has sex with them. We give out money because marriage is natural and it serves a natural, social need.

Maybe we do not need to give out money to married couples in order for them to do what society needs them to do. If that is the case, the only concern of the state with marriages is secondary: we want to make sure that couples in marriages, which exist outside of the state, can share medical decisions, property, and the commitments they have made to each other. Such legal guarantees do not need to be called “marriage” in order for them to be valid. Again, marriage is a natural, not a political, institution. All that the law does is recognize marriages and enforce them; it does not create marriage.

The state cannot reasonably recognize either same-sex relationships or polyamorous ones as “marriages.” That brings marriage itself under the purview of the state, which is a violation of nature and an unreasonable expansion of state power. If the state wants to honor child-rearing within these relationships, then it can give child tax credits. If the state wants to make sure that married couples, same-sex couples, or any other category of people can share life’s major decisions, it can set up ways for them to do so without defining, redefining, expanding, or changing marriage. Marriage does not belong to the state; only privileges and subsidies do.

The conservatives are right to argue that marriage is naturally between one man and one woman, and the hardcore conservatives are right to argue that it is until death do us part. The progressives are right to argue that there may be room to honor the relationships that homosexuals and, perhaps, polyamorous people have with legal protections and even with money insofar as they serve social purposes like rearing children.

Where both sides are wrong is in working out of a framework where marriage can either be defended by the state or changed by it in order to meet political agendas.

Let marriage be. Let the state recognize marriages and create new categories for benefits if it must, and let us debate each of those new categories and benefits as they come up with reference to the interests of society and not the sanctity of marriage or the desire to change it.

Matt Cavedon is a senior at Harvard University


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This column says so much while saying next to nothing. It is assumptive of what “tradition” means to an individual, along with ignorance of the history of marriage. Cavedon assumes he is correct when he says “marriage is naturally between one man and one woman,” when it truth it has rarely, if ever, been the case. There are a plethora of reasons why such a statement is broadly false, not the least of which includes the fact that marriage is no natural occurrence in and of itself.

But, perhaps the most shocking display of ignorance and self-contradiction comes at the conclusion of this column. First, Cavedon implies that marriage cannot be decided by the government. Yet the first brief sentence of his final paragraph is “let marriage be”?

Marriage is currently being decided by states with individual preferences. The federal government still clings to DOMA. Leave it be? Doing so would ENSURE government interference in marriage.

Cavedon also suggests our state “… create new categories for benefits if it must, and let us debate each of those new categories and benefits as they come up with reference to the interests of society …” Pardon me Mr. Cavedon, but isn’t that what IS happening? Civil unions have been around for quite some time. It is their very creation and continuation that has so much of the LGBT community in an uproar.

Finally, Cavedon says that doing so is the best course of action because doing so does not involve “… the sanctity of marriage or the desire to change it.” At best, this implies that discussions should no longer involve that tired political powerplay phrase “sanctity of marriage.” But, as we review the rest of Cavedon’s column, this certainly does not appear to be the case.

Instead, it is more likely to mean that marriage is, has always been, and should always be, a sacrament, and therefore should not change to accompany new views. Should this be the case, then this column is the most despicable kind of commentary on the marriage debate: a viewpoint presented as moderate and compromising while in truth harboring a deep-seated political belief.

If Cavedon is moderate, he certainly does not reflect so with this column, however he may try. If he is conservative OR liberal, he should own up to those beliefs and admit them, not try to pull a veil over our eyes.

Comment by Sophia Prell

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