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Marriage then and now

Elliott Pearce | Sunday, April 14, 2013

Opponents of gay marriage have often protested that allowing gays to marry will constitute a backdoor “redefinition” of marriage. However, I believe Western societies have already substantially redefined marriage over the past 60 years. I hope to provide some necessary context for the current gay marriage debate by outlining a few of these important changes, how they took place and what they mean for the future of marriage, whether gay or straight.
Marriage used to be the only relationship in which legitimate sexual relations could take place. Now, largely as a result of the invention of artificial birth control and abortion, this view has changed in the eyes of many Westerners. Sustained extramarital sexual relationships do not always produce children they, their parents or their communities must acknowledge and care for (though more often than people would like, they still do), so the taboo on pre-marital sex has been lifted. Many people still see sex as more legitimate within marriage, but outside of marriage, it is at least acceptable.
Furthermore, marriage used to have a strong economic component as well. Most of the jobs that existed in pre-industrial and early industrial societies required hard physical labor men could perform better than women. Therefore, it made economic sense for the men to devote themselves almost exclusively to these occupations while the women handled the domestic tasks they could do as well as men or better. Women depended on men for the income they could not earn themselves, while men depended on women for cooking, cleaning, child care and the other services they didn’t have the time to do. Now, with the proliferation of advanced technology, almost all jobs, including the most lucrative ones, do not require hard physical labor and can thus be done as well by women as by men. Women can now earn their own income and maintain themselves independently.
Finally and most importantly, marriage used to be the only legitimate institution for the bearing and rearing of children. A child born out of wedlock 100 years ago would likely be disavowed by its father and raised by its grandparents, other relatives or in a charity home set up for that purpose, none of which are ideal options. However, thanks to a number of societal and technological factors such as the aforementioned greater financial independence of women, the invention of reliable paternity tests, the enactment of child-support laws and the development of all-day public schools and child care centers, a single woman – or man – can obtain the financial and educational resources to adequately raise his or her child without a spouse. Therefore childrearing, just like sex, has become acceptable outside of marriage as well.
Three of the main reasons people used to get married, namely, to have sex, raise children and efficiently divide up labor, now have less power than before because people are now doing these things outside of marriage. Today, people get married simply because they believe they want to spend their entire life with a certain person. One can easily see why this new conception of marriage is more amenable to gay marriage than the old one was. Traditional marriage was in many ways based on the biological differences between men and women. Women carried and gave birth to the children men fathered, while men did not. Women were physically weaker, while men were stronger. These were the facts of life to which people had to adapt their behavior. Many think now we have mastered biology with technology, these differences no longer matter, and traditional marriage has become obsolete for everyone – gay and straight.
I would suggest many aspects of traditional marriage are still relevant to us today. Most people want to get married, but both scientific evidence and common sense suggests having more sexual partners before marriage makes it harder to bond with one’s spouse within marriage. Almost everyone agrees children raised by two married parents fare better than children raised by one. Finally, though women do not need men to support them financially any more, many want to take time off from work at some point to be with their children. They would benefit in that situation from having a working spouse to provide a steady source of income for the family. Traditional marriage is no longer the only possible option for couples and for society, but there are still good reasons why it may be the best. Before we decide who can get married, I think we should reexamine what marriage is and what it should be.
Elliott Pearce is a senior Program of Liberal Studies and mathematics major from Knott Hall. He can be reached at [email protected]
    The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.