So in an earlier post I wrote this: It’s important that marriage–its norms and expectations, more than its explicit legal benefits–is one powerful cultural response to the fruitful/destructive volcanic force of eros, and especially heterosexual eros. It’s important that out of the many cultural institutions that try to channel the lava, marriage is typically one of the gentlest. (That’s often true even when a marriage culture is oppressive and misogynist–in those cases the alternatives are often, though certainly not always, even worse for women and children. Marriage is the worst form of heterosexual government, except for all the others.)
And then someone asked whether I really wanted to make that claim, given the huge range of practices that have been called “marriage” over the years, and all the violence and power-over which marriage sheltered and excused. I rethought and wrote this:
[* edited to add: This is only comparing marriage with other structures of heterosexual relations, e.g. sex work, cohabitation, hookups, various historical forms of structured extramarital relationships. If you compare marriage to just avoiding men entirely you get very different results! And anyway this is the point in this post with the most caveats and exceptions.]
But even that, I think, is just too strong. It’s like saying “religion is better than atheism”: You can see why a Christian would have an initial response of, “Yeah, definitely, I mean religion responds to our longing for contact and union with the Divine, it’s a culture’s way of expressing and channeling something sublime at the core of our human nature.” But what if the religion is Aztec human sacrifice and the atheism is some service-‘n’-humility modified Twelve-Stepper? At the very least the conversation then becomes complicated. And there’s no point in defending the Aztecs when what you were actually trying to talk about was comparing “small-o orthodox” Christianity (which is already too broad) to George Orwell-type atheist liberal humanism. Similarly I have no idea why I wanted to defend e.g. Roman marriage with, “At least it’s better than Roman heterosexual not-marriage!” Since Eden we’ve managed to turn even our forms of union and solace into arenas for domination and cruelty.
So uh, I apologize, I stand by the rest of what I said but this bit was not great. (Although you see how I found a way to rescue the “worst form of heterosexual government” line, which I like and which I think has a real point. You can be honest about the ways marriage goes wrong without thinking we’ve found a better norm to replace it with.)
Why do it this way, with a separate post? To make the earlier post, which was not actually about this question, easier to read. Thanks for playing, y’all, pardon our dust etc etc.