Brain Pickings

Remoralizing Marriage: Dan Savage in Conversation with Andrew Sullivan at NYPL

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How marriage equality is fortifying the “equality” part rather than compromising the “marriage” part.

At a recent event from the terrific LIVE from the NYPL series held at the central branch of New York Public Library, Andrew Sullivan — one of my favorite people on and off the internet — took the stage to have a wide-ranging, funny, poignant, unabashedly honest conversation with celebrated sex columnist and LGBT rights advocate Dan Savage, mastermind of the monumentally heartening It Gets Better Project. (Meanwhile, twenty years ago this month, Andrew authored the seminal essay “The Politics of Homosexuality.”). The event at once a celebration of the release of Savage’s new book, American Savage: Insights, Slights, and Fights on Faith, Sex, Love, and Politics (public library), and a timely response to the height of today’s cultural heat around the antiquated legislature banning marriage equality.

In fact, among the conversation’s finest points is their discussion of what marriage is and stands for, from its dark roots as an institution for the oppression of women — one Susan Sontag famously termed “an institution committed to the dulling of the feelings” — to its aspiration of celebrating the deepest of human bonds, the kind that ultimately warmed Darwin’s rational heart. As Andrew brilliantly puts it, marriage equality, when closely examined, is an effort not to demoralize marriage but to remoralize it, to bring it closer to its ideals of a union of equals and further from its pathologies. Transcribed highlights below.

On how the promise of marriage equality is in fact reexamining and fortifying the “equality” part, ridding it of its historical baggage, rather than compromising the “marriage” part:

AS: What you’re doing, I think, is actually remoralizing — you’re not demoralizing. You’re saying that the morals that these structures have sustained are actually no longer moral, they’re actually forcing people to be cruel to one another, they’re forcing people to be miserable…

DS: …particularly women to be miserable, and to be enslaved. You know, harking back to traditional marriages in Western families, those were lousy times to be the female in the marriage.

On what the case of Andrew’s parents, who divorced after 49 years of marriage, tells us about the toxic and deceptive ideal of “till death do us part”:

DS: If your mother had been hit by a bus on the way to the lawyer [to divorce your father], everyone would have gone, “Oh, 49 years together — they had a successful marriage.” But 49 years and then they part — that’s an “unsuccessful marriage.” Because we define success in marriage as death … doesn’t matter how miserable you were, doesn’t matter whether it was fulfilling, doesn’t matter if it was an abusive relationship or one of sexual deprivation and lifelong misery and resentment and abuse — if somebody’s getting buried and you’re still married, awesome. And I don’t think that’s a workable definition of marriage when people have access to divorce courts and lawyers.

On how the option of divorce actually makes the marriages that do endure richer and more actively loving:

There’s something about realizing that marriage is opt-in — which it is now, marriage is always opt-in, at any moment you can opt out — it’s almost like you have to earn your partner’s presence in your life. … You cannot take them for granted in a way that you could when it was one woman, one man, for life.

In American Savage, which is excellent in its entirety and a necessary tool of contemporary cultural literacy, Savage explores the subject further:

Defenders of “traditional marriage,” circa 1750, not 1950, objected to anyone marrying for something so unstable as a feeling, Stephanie Coontz argues in Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage. Once upon a time, a long, long time ago, no one married for love. You married for property if you were a man; you were married off as property if you were a woman. Couples married to cement alliances. Princes married to unite kingdoms; peasants married to bring small parcels of land together. But marriage wasn’t something you did back then. Marriage was something that was done to you: Young, marriage-age adults (or preadolescents) didn’t have the power or judgment to craft marriage contracts, negotiate alliances, identify the best acreage in the village. Their families — their fathers or eldest male relatives — did that for them.

Much as the advice business is geared toward the needs of women … traditional marriage arrangements were geared toward the needs of men. Historically monogamy wasn’t imposed on or expected from men. Traditionally men (and “traditionally married” men) had concubines; men had multiple wives; men had mistresses; men had access to sex workers. It was only in the middle of the twentieth century— as marriage was redefined from an inherently sexist and oppressive institution to something more egalitarian (i.e., women could own property; they weren’t property)— that monogamous expectations were imposed on men, with often disastrous results. Men aren’t good at it, as anyone who has read a newspaper over the last ten years can attest (Edwards, John; Sanford, Mark; Vitter, David; Petraeus, David, et al.). But rather than extend the same license to women that men have always enjoyed— you can get some on the side, now and then, if you must, but be discreet— we’ve imposed on men the same limitations that women have always endured.

Complement with the wonderful Gay in America project and some heart-warming illustrated marriage equality for kids.

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