Tuesday, July 12, 2011


Dan Savage, a gay sex-advice columnist, had never really registered with me until he and Megan McArdle got into it - and I have to say I found him awfully unpleasant in that exchange. I’ve now read a New York Times Magazine piece on him (via Althouse) and his It Gets Better project sounds like a wonderful thing. My adolescence was stormy for reasons that had nothing to do with sexual orientation; I only survived because of my conviction that adulthood did not have to be miserable. That conviction grew out of the people I saw around me and the stories I read in books, both examples of people like me who had happy lives. I cannot imagine how miserable it must be to be without the kinds of role models who demonstrate what life after high school can be. The It Gets Better project provides those examples for gay high school students who may have nowhere else to look for people like them and Savage deserves high praise for starting it.

That said, I still find Savage pretty unpleasant. I had to laugh at this:

“The mistake that straight people made,” Savage told me, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitarian and fairsey ” In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”

My view would be more along the lines of:

Men were never expected to be monogamous because women had no recourse if they weren’t. Women pretty much had to get married - it was difficult for a woman to support herself, unacceptable for her to have children without being married, and very difficult for her to support any children she did have - and divorce was not an option. If a husband cheated, the wife had to suck it up and put up with it.

Thanks to the feminist revolution, women now have a choice about marriage and some of them - apparently the vast majority of them - expect marriage to mean monogamy. Men are free to not marry women who want monogamy but it’s pretty nervy of them to complain because they no longer have the hammer and are therefore required to consider the preferences of the women they claim to love.

More generally, the Savage attitude seems to me another argument for separating marriage into two distinct forms: civil and religious/traditional/vow-making. Let the government handle civil marriage as strictly a business relationship, a partnership formed for the purposes of property and children. I’d suggest we not call it marriage but rather fall back on a term like “civil union” or perhaps “marital partnership”.

Those for whom the state-imposed aspects of union are enough would do nothing beyond filling out the appropriate forms at the local courthouse. Those who prefer a union that includes making behavioral vows to supplement the legal obligations laid down by the state can have a religious ceremony or can exchange vows in front of whomever they please.

We would then end up with such entities as “Catholic marriage”, “Baptist marriage”, “non-religious traditional vow marriage”, “hand-fasted”, and so on. It would be messy but really no messier than what we have now (anybody but me remember “POSSLQ”) and it seems to me it would be far less messy than continuing to use the word “marriage” when we’ve gotten to the point where we don’t even agree on what it means with regard to something once upon a time as basic as monogamy.

I was also struck in the NYT Magazine article by this:

In their own marriage, Savage and Miller practice being what he calls “monogamish,” allowing occasional infidelities, which they are honest about. Miller was initially opposed to the idea. “You assume as a younger person that all relationships are monogamous and between two people, that love means nothing can come between you,” said Miller, who met Savage at a club in 1995, when he was 23 and Savage was 30. “Dan has taught me to be more realistic about that kind of stuff."

If Savage was male and Miller female, I would assume this is an example of a man pressuring a woman into the type of sex life the man prefers - regardless of what the woman is comfortable with - as the price of maintaining the relationship. As Kay S. Hymowitz put it, in a must-read essay on the sexual revolution and the movement for women’s rights:

But for most female mortals, the rules of the new regime were elusive at best. You kind of liked a guy you had just met, so what next? What did you do when he pressed, “Are you hung up or something?” The old order was built on guilt, shame, and inhibition; you sure didn’t want to go there.

I suppose it’s indicative of something that I make somewhat the same assumption about Savage and Miller, an assumption helped along by the fact that the article discusses how many extramarital affairs Savage has had but not Miller. The Savage approach appears to mean that the spouse with the most, um, unusual sexual preferences has the right to have an affair and, therefore, that the, shall we say, unadventurous spouse’s preference for a monogamous relationship must give way before the desires of his or her mate. The NYT Magazine article later discusses this in terms of men and women but I suspect the same dynamics may well be at work in at least some same-sex marriages (emphasis mine):

“Sometimes he [Savage] can shame women for not being into things that their male partners are into, if they have male partners,” Sady Doyle, a feminist blogger, told me. “The whole good-giving-and-game thing is something I actually agree with. I don’t think you should flip out on your partner if they share something sexual with you. But I think sometimes it’s much harder for women to say, ‘I’m not into that,’ or ‘Please, I don’t want to do that, let’s do something else,’ than it is to say, ‘Sure.’ Putting all the onus on the person who doesn’t have that fetish or desire, particularly if the person who doesn’t have that desire is the woman, really reproduces a lot of old structures and means of oppression for women.”

This, in turn, brings up another issue that intrigues me. I haven’t made an exhaustive study of the topic, but my general impression is that much of the discussion about whether gays’ views of monogamy in marriage differs from straights’ views of monogamy in marriage talks about gay marriage between two men. It will be interesting to see if there are significant differences in the types of marriages gay men create and the types of marriages gay women create.



* Just for the record, I think McArdle’s point in this dispute was valid but insufficient: the problem with Anthony Weiner’s behavior wasn’t that he was married; it was that he was creepy. Flasher in a raincoat on the street corner, guy in a raincoat sitting in the back of a porno movie house on Times Square creepy. Even if Weiner had been unmarried and uninvolved, he would have been creepy.

McArdle says:

To me, society can enforce norms about what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior--or it can enforce the norm that you and your partner(s) have to agree in advance upon what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior.

Looked at in those terms, at least in the Anthony Weiner case, I have norms about what constitutes acceptable sexual behavior that have nothing to do with what he and his partner have agreed on. Or as the wife of the author of the NYT magazine put it when he asked her:

which would upset her more: to learn that I was sending racy self-portraits to random women, Weiner-style, or to discover I was having an actual affair. She paused, scrunched up her mouth as if she had just bitten a particularly sour lemon and said: “An affair is at least a normal human thing. But tweeting a picture of your crotch is just weird.”




Sex and the Empire State - An interview at National Review. The interview is interesting but two things about is are especially noteworthy. First, the link on page 5 to a downloadable version of the Harvard Journal of Law & Public Policy article, “What Is Marriage?” I do not think the authors of the article have successfully made a compelling case that marriage must - regardless of religious considerations - be between a man and a woman but the essay is a good summary of issues and relates to my post in laying out the hope expressed by some who support gay marriage that it will be the just the first step in redefining marriage completely (see, for example, page 32 of the pdf).

Second, on page 3 the interviewee, a passionate and dedicated opponent of gay marriage, speaks of those on the other side in New York:

They are sincerely dedicated to their cause and filled with moral passion to advance what they deeply (albeit, in my view, mistakenly) believe is a civil-rights agenda. If I could choose opponents, I would choose different ones. Moreover, among them are people for whom I personally have great respect and even affection. They are good, patriotic people with whom I am proud to be allied in other very important struggles, and sad to be in political conflict with in this battle. I know how deeply they believe in their cause, and how determined they are to prevail. For some it is an intensely personal matter.

Would that everyone on both sides approached the fight with such civility.

Closing the book on open marriage - W. Bradford Wilcox at The Washington Post. Some sociological push-back outlining the problems of making non-monogamy the norm.

Future of Gay Marriage - Ross Douthat’s column:

There’s a lesson here. Institutions tend to be strongest when they make significant moral demands, and weaker when they pre-emptively accommodate themselves to human nature.

Dan Savage Versus Monogamy - Ross Douthat’s blog:

By stripping away any common definition of the proper relationship between sex and marriage, and asking every couple to essentially rebuild the institution from the ground up, he [Savage] would end up piling far more weight on the marital unit than any individual relationship can be reasonably expected to bear.

Douthat quotes at length from a brief but excellent Eve Tushnet piece:

But of course the whole weird premise of Savage's claim is that eros is so powerful and irrational, sexual fulfillment such an obvious non-negotiable, that... we should talk things out like rational adults before we get married and then stick to our rational rules and goals.

Tushnet in turn refers readers to “Rules of Misbehavior”, an essay in Washington Monthly that is a must-read on this subject:

If there is something to treasure in the old, traumatized ideal of lifelong monogamy, it’s not that it demeans sexual fulfillment. Rather, it’s that monogamy integrates sexual fulfillment with the other good things in life—having someone to pay bills and raise children with, having a refuge both emotional and physical from the rest of the world. It is an ideal that is powerful even when it is not fully realized (as it rarely, if ever, is), not a contract voided by nonperformance.

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