What Is Bodily Union? (A response to What Is Marriage?)

12.21.2010, 4:43 AM

Robert George recently published “What Is Marriage,” an argument against same-sex marriage. Or perhaps I should say, the argument against same-sex marriage; conservatives say that “What Is Marriage” is “required reading… a definitive defense of the institution of traditional marriage”; “one of – if not the best – argument there is”; even calling “What Is Marriage” “‘Momentous’ is not an overstatement.

Robert George and co-authors Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson have written a paper that’s too long and detailed to be responded to in a single blog post, so in this post I’ll concentrate on just section I.B.1, “Comprehensive Union.” This section is, I believe, the core of George et al’s argument. (For ease of typing and reading, I’ll just refer to “George” from now on, rather than “George et al”).

George’s argument is that only opposite sex couples can truly be “married,’ because only opposite sex couples can form a “bodily union” (a phrase used 27 times in “What Is Marriage”). So what is “bodily union”? George’s explains:

Marriage is distinguished from every other form of friendship inasmuch as it is comprehensive. It involves a sharing of lives and resources, and a union of minds and wills—hence, among other things, the requirement of consent for forming a marriage. But on the conjugal view, it also includes organic bodily union. This is because the body is a real part of the person, not just his costume, vehicle, or property. Human beings are not properly understood as nonbodily persons—minds, ghosts, consciousnesses—that inhabit and use nonpersonal bodies. After all, if someone ruins your car, he vandalizes your property, but if he amputates your leg, he injures you.

This is a little too simplistic. I can agree with George that my body is part of me, while still making the distinction that my mind — which is a process taking place within my brain — is central to my personhood in a way no body part apart from the brain is. My toe is part of me, but if a doctor has to amputate it I’m still myself; but if a doctor amputates my entire brain, I am dead. (Even in the case of Terri Schiavo, Shiavo’s parents didn’t argue that she was alive despite brain death; they argued that the diagnosis of brain death was mistaken).

Anyway, George’s point is that people are composed of both body and mind. He continues:

Likewise, because our bodies are truly aspects of us as persons, any union of two people that did not involve organic bodily union would not be comprehensive—it would leave out an important part of each person’s being. Because persons are body-mind composites, a bodily union extends the relationship of two friends along an entirely new dimension of their being as persons. If two people want to unite in the comprehensive way proper to marriage, they must (among other things) unite organically—that is, in the bodily dimension of their being.

Okay, so in order to be a real marriage, two people must “unite in the comprehensive way,” which (since people are partly bodies) includes “bodily union.”

Again, I wonder. Suppose two people — a man and a woman — are each paralyzed from the neck down. They meet in the waiting room of their doctor’s office, fall in love, get married. George would presumably say that theirs could never be a real marriage, but I don’t agree.

But what is it about sexual intercourse that makes it uniquely capable of creating bodily union? People’s bodies can touch and interact in all sorts of ways, so why does only sexual union make bodies in any significant sense “one flesh”? Our organs—our heart and stomach, for example—are parts of one body because they are coordinated, along with other parts, for a common biological purpose of the whole: our biological life. It follows that for two individuals to unite organically, and thus bodily, their bodies must be coordinated for some biological purpose of the whole.

Okay, so by bodily union, they mean something that can only be created by sexual intercourse (“Sexual intercourse, also known as copulation or coitus, commonly refers to the act in which the male reproductive organ enters the female reproductive tract.” –Wikipedia.)

It’s true that our organs are parts of one body; they are physically joined, and together with other body parts form a single individual. But it’s not true that every part of our body is “coordinated… for a common biological purpose… biological life.” The hair on my forearms, too sparse to provide warmth, serves no such purpose; neither do my skin tags; neither does the small benign growth in my left ankle. These things are not coordinated with my body for any biological purpose (they could all be removed at no biological cost to me), yet they’re part of my body.

George continues:

But individual adults are naturally incomplete with respect to one biological function: sexual reproduction.

In other words, reproduction in humans requires men and women to collaborate; no woman can reproduce without a man, and vice-versa.

In coitus, but not in other forms of sexual contact, a man and a woman’s bodies coordinate by way of their sexual organs for the common biological purpose of reproduction. They perform the first step of the complex reproductive process. Thus, their bodies become, in a strong sense, one—they are biologically united, and do not merely rub together—in coitus (and only in coitus), similarly to the way in which one’s heart, lungs, and other organs form a unity: by coordinating for the biological good of the whole. In this case, the whole is made up of the man and woman as a couple, and the biological good of that whole is their reproduction.

If you’re like me, you had to reread that passage a couple of times to make heads or tails of it. And that’s because George’s argument doesn’t make sense. Let’s put it in a simpler format:

1) Individual adults are naturally incomplete with respect to sexual reproduction.
2) Reproduction can only be begun via coitus between a man and a woman.
3) Thus, during coitus, a woman and a man’s bodies are biologically united and become one flesh.

How does #3 follow from #1 and #2? Answer: It doesn’t.

Biologically, the man and the woman are never one flesh; they remain two separate entities, even during coitus. This can be easily confirmed with DNA sampling (albeit at the cost of dire embarrassment for both the couple and the lab technician assigned to gather samples). In fact, they are two separate entities engaged in the act of rubbing together.

In another essay, Robert George clarified that when he says “the spouses become one flesh” he doesn’t mean it “in some merely metaphorical sense.” But there is no non-metaphorical sense in which the spouses become “one flesh.”

Outside of metaphors, collaboration does not transform two beings into one. For example, I collaborate with another artist when we create comic books (I do the drawing, he provides the colors), but that doesn’t make us one artist.

This is important, because George’s claim that men and women in coitus become “biologically united” and “in a significant sense, ‘one flesh’” is the foundation of George’s entire argument. Every positive argument George gives for why marriage must be opposite-sex fails, because his key concept of “bodily unity” — which he mentions over and over in this essay — is not true.

Maybe what makes male-female couples alone marriage material is that coitus is a means to another end, that end being children? But George himself denies this:

Because interpersonal unions are valuable in themselves, and not merely as means to other ends, a husband and wife’s loving bodily union in coitus and the special kind of relationship to which it is integral are valuable whether or not conception results and even when conception is not sought.

And again:

This is because in truth marriage is not a mere means, even to the great good of procreation. It is an end in itself, worthwhile for its own sake.

George continues:

But two men or two women cannot achieve organic bodily union since there is no bodily good or function toward which their bodies can coordinate, reproduction being the only candidate.* This is a clear sense in which their union cannot be marital, if marital means comprehensive and comprehensive means, among other things, bodily.

But no union can be “comprehensive” in George’s sense, because it’s never the case that two bodies “achieve organic bodily union” during coitus (except metaphorically, which isn’t the sense he means). Since comprehensive union — two bodies non-metaphorically becoming one flesh — never happens, it follows that no union, ever, has been marital. So George’s logic leads to the conclusion that no couple, hetero or homo, can ever be married.

Now, George might respond that he doesn’t mean bodily union to mean that the couple is “biologically united” and “one flesh” per se, nor does he mean it to be a mere metaphor; perhaps he means it in some third, as yet unexpressed, sense. But in that case, his claim to having expressed a “clear” sense in which straight couples, but not gay couples, form unions is untrue. The only clear distinction George makes in “What Is Marriage” is his mistaken claim that during coitus heterosexual couples are biologically united as one flesh.

I largely agree with George that a marriage, in nearly all cases, requires a physical, sexual union to become complete. (There may be individual couples who are exceptions, but for the overwhelming majority of couples, it will not feel like a true marriage without a sexual union.)

Of course, two people in love, when they collaborate in really wonderful sex, frequently do feel they’ve become one flesh in a significant (although metaphoric) fashion. They feel increased closeness, lowered barriers, and valuing the other as much or more than the self. For most couples, this fosters an important way in which the two do become one — the two people become a couple, the individuals become an “us.” (In the context of a long-term, committed relationship, this is associated with important physical benefits, including fewer colds, faster healing, lower blood pressure, and better pain control.)

So there’s an important sense in which couples do experience a sexual, bodily union, distinguishing the married relationship from a celibate friendship. But this would suggest that same-sex couples are similar to opposite-sex couples, and able to marry. Anticipating this argument, George writes:

Pleasure cannot play this role for several reasons. The good must be truly common and for the couple as a whole, but pleasures (and, indeed, any psychological good) are private and benefit partners, if at all, only individually. The good must be bodily, but pleasures are aspects of experience. The good must be inherently valuable, but pleasures are not as such good in themselves—witness, for example, sadistic pleasures.

George’s reductive, simplistic view of sex — if it’s not coitus, then it has no content at all, beyond simple pleasure felt individually — has little relationship to the variety and value of sex as many couples actually experience it, and is thus deeply unsatisfying to anyone who thinks arguments should be based on reality. There are literally thousands of witness-participants (both hetero and homo) who have reported having deeper, more meaningful, and more useful sexual experiences than George’s argument credits. How does George account for them all being so very wrong about their own experiences — are they all experiencing false consciousness? Are they all liars, engaged in some bizarre conspiracy? Or is George simply mistaken? Occam’s razor suggests that George is mistaken.

Saying “pleasures are not as such good in themselves–witness, for example, sadistic pleasures” is a little like saying “childbirth is not as such a good in itself–witness, for example, the birth of Hitler.” For any good, one could imagine an instance of the good being used for negative purposes; yet if “can never be used for negative purposes” is the definition of good, then absolutely nothing on this mortal Earth is or ever can be good. That’s silly. In the right context (i.e., not Hitler), childbirth is a good; and in the right context, sexual pleasure is also a good.

* * *

There is no evidence in “What Is Marriage” — none — for the proposition that heterosexual coitus involves a biological fusion of two bodies into one flesh, what George calls “bodily union.” The reason there is no evidence for that is that the proposition is simply, obviously, and clearly not true.

“What Is Marriage” is an attempt to set out a secular argument against same-sex marriage, and it succeeds insofar as the word “Jesus” is never actually used. But at heart, “What Is Marriage” is a faith-based argument. George believes, as a matter of faith (all he has, since he lacks evidence), that there’s something called “bodily union,” a biological merger of male and female bodies, that occurs only in coitus. This “bodily union” is an essential part of reproduction, and yet distinct from the ability to reproduce, which is how George squirms around the problem of infertile heterosexuals marrying.

But basing laws on Robert George’s faith in a mythical “bodily union” is no better than basing laws on my faith in Mork from Ork. Robert George and his fellow-travelers may have faith in magical bodily unions, but they would be morally wrong to force that faith on us through the legal system. Yet without faith in “bodily union,” George’s entire argument for hetero-only marriage collapses. (George also presents a negative argument against SSM, which I will address in a later post.)

If “bodily union” is not a literal claim, then (despite Robert George’s claim that it’s not a metaphor) it must be a metaphoric claim. But now we’re treading on even more bewildering territory. Do we want a society in which people’s civil rights are decided, not by what is just, not by what is pragmatic, not by what is fair, but by a metaphor? Metaphors, unlike facts, can change arbitrarily. Suppose that George chooses to believe in a different metaphor next year — a metaphor saying that comprehensive unity can only be achieved by dog owners, for instance. Would we then be obliged to change marriage laws to exclude cat owners?

If this is really the best possible argument against same-sex marriage, I feel very optimistic for the future of equality.

39 Responses to “What Is Bodily Union? (A response to What Is Marriage?)”

  1. La Lubu says:

    Excellent response, Barry. Bravo!

  2. Maggie Gallagher says:

    Thanks Barry for this.

    George’s strong account of “bodily union” is the most controversial part of his piece. Your response will be persuasive to many.

    But I’m not sure you address in any clear way the core of his and Sherif Girgis and Ryan Anderson’s argument: that gay marriage advocates have no answer to the question “What is marriage?” that actually explains marriage’s core features:

    Why a sexual union? Why can’t close relatives do it? and Why only two?

    Your response does tend to affirm his argument that none of these things are “core” only “commonly preferred” parts of marriage.

    Am I misreading you? Maggie

  3. anonymous says:

    Barry, I appreciate your difficult with Robbie George’s argument. But clearly you are basing your concept of marriage on an entirely different definition — one that recognizes love and committment as the defining feature of marriage, which is the central point of George’s argument. Under the “conjugal” or common law definition of marriage love is incidental (under traditional divorce law, “not in love anymore” has never been grounds for divorce).

    Bodily union through vaginal intercourse, though, is not incidental but fundamentasl. Desertion or abandonment (refusing to have vaginal sex) is one of the traditional grounds for divorce.

    You say you don’t understand what George means by “comprehensive bodily union.” It is very clear that what George means is that male and female each represent one half of a biological system that is only complete when the two are put together. It would be as if one person possessed only a mouth, esophagus, and stomach while the other person possessed the intestines and the rest of the digestive tract. Only by putting themselves together would they form a complete digestive system.

    All other bodily systems are self-contained except the reproductive system. Only a female plus a male makes a whole reproductive system. And even if the reproductive system fails to produce a pregnancy (either through contraception or fertility problems) it is still a reproductive system. Just as a digestive system which does not digest food properly is still a digestive system, if not an effective one.

    The most obvious analogy is of course a socket and a plug. Put the two together and you get — light. But rub two sockets or two plugs together and you get nothing.

    And to deny that men and women become one flesh seems to me deliberate perversity. When the sperm unites with the ovum, the male and female become truly one flesh through their genetic union in a new human being. An absolutely equal blending of the two original human beings at the genetic level.

    Naturally, this would exclude gay couples on both counts — oe flesh through bodily union (of two organs specifically designed for that purpose and that purpose alone) and becoming one flesh through conception.

    You cite the example of two handicapped people getting married and say that according to George, that is not a true marriage. You mention this as if it is an effective refutation of George’s argumen, but that is because you are looking at marriage through an entirely different prism, defining it in a way that would include gay relationships as well as relationships between heterosexuals who cannot engage in vaginal intercourse. Love and committment make a marriage, in your view. But in fact, according to George’s definition, the relationship between two heterosexuals who cannot engage in vaginal intercourse cannot be a valid marriage either Would the government deny them a marriage license? No. It would be an invasion of privacy to check to see if hetersexuals can indeed consummate a marriage. And even if it looks as if they can’t, perhaps one or both will recover from their disability and be able to consummate the marriage at some point in the future.

    The case of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI illustrates this point. Their marriage was not fully consummated for years. Because of this, they could have chosen simply to annull the marriage. A divorce would not have been needed. But Louis eventually got hold of himself (there is dispute over what was causing the problem) and the marriage was “consummated.”

    Common law or the traditional definition of marriage has always required an act of vaginal intercourse carried to the point of male orgasm for the consummation of a marriage. George points out specifically that acts of oral or anal sex between male and female do not constitute consummation according to traditional marriage law.

    If you have difficulty with George’s argument, it may because you define marriage purely as a matter of love and committment accompanied by some form of intimacy involving the sexual organs, under which definition gay people would of course qualify for it. But George is articulating the common-law definition of marriage, which has very little to do with love and everything to do with bodily union of the type which same sex lovers can never achieve. And conception is a side effect of this comprehensive bodily union. This is why a marriage is not considered invalid if the couple is infertile. As George points out, this is why infertile and elderly couples can marry. Only if the man is impotent or the woman has some disability that would prevent vaginal intercourse would the couple not be able to achieve a true marriage.

    So it all comes down to how you want to define marriage, which was George’s big point in the first place.

  4. Jeffrey says:

    Of course, the “common law” understanding of marriage–as interpreted by George via anonymous–is not how marriage law has been created in U.S. law and interpreted by the Supreme Court. By saying prisoners who may never consummate their marriage have the right to marriage, the Supreme Court undercuts the idea that “bodily union” is a mandate for how marriage is defined and given legal rights in the U.S.

  5. Tristian says:

    What George means by ‘bodily union’ and all that isn’t particularly mysterious. Using his and and his co-authors’ analogy, the point is that a couple can come together to form something neither are capable of alone in the same way that baseball players come together to form a single team. In that case the players are united in an entity–a team–oriented around playing baseball. In the case of sex, a man and a woman come together in a biological union–maybe they should have called it a ‘mating pair’–biologically oriented around procreation. Neither can do this alone, and neither can same sex couples. This does seem right to me, as far as it goes. The real question is how important is this, morally and legally?

    I do think as well that George et al. are right to a point that culturally we tend to recognize coitus as the ultimate expression of human sexuality, and treat it differently because of its procreative potential. Even colloquialisms such as ‘doing it’ and ‘going all the way’ seem to suggest its centrality. It seems plausible that this centrality owes to the recognition that coitus and coitus alone (among sex acts) can lead to babies.

    This is not to say I think George et al. make a successful case. I do think their case is quite a bit better and more worthy of a serious response than this post offers. I particularly disagree with calling the article ‘faith based’, as that it clearly isn’t.

  6. La Lubu says:

    The common-law definition of marriage is based in the concept of women-as-property. “Love” did not enter the picture because it was irrelevant–women were property; a means to an end. A woman’s only value rested in her ability to produce children; without that she was worthless—literally.

    And yes, that was “faith-based.” The idea that women were intellectually, morally and spiritually inferior to men was not (and is not) evidence-based. Those ideas were grounded in the patriarchal religious faiths that usurped the matrifocal, goddess-based faiths that preceded them.

    The game-changer wasn’t “love” or “commitment” (magically) replacing childbearing, dty and subservience as the basis for marriage. The sea change was the change in women’s status. When women gained full-person legal status, women gained the power to assert our own desires—the desires being asserted and enshrined in law and custom were no longer just male desires.

    That isn’t customarily acknowledged by conservatives–that their arguments against same-sex marriage are based in a world that requires the subjugation of women. Because make no mistake—the repeated equation of love with selfishness I see on this and other blogs by Family Scholar authors is curious…..in that “love” wasn’t required for marriage, but certainly was a requirement for that other institution of old–the affair. A man didn’t have to love his wife; that’s what mistresses were for.

  7. La Lubu, thank you! I’ve been meaning to compliment you; I think your comments here at FSB are some of the best blogging I’ve read all year.

    Maggie, thank you as well. As I said in my post, I’m planning another post addressing George et al’s negative case against SSM; this post was intended to address just their positive case.

    But since you bring up “Why only two?,” I’ll point out that’s a bigger problem for George et al than for me. As “What Is Marriage” itself says, “Even in traditions that permit or have permitted polygamy, each marriage is between a man and a woman.” (Pg. 247). I don’t see any logical reason, according to the principles laid out in “What Is Marriage,” we shouldn’t permit bigamy.

    Either you can believe that there’s One True Idea of marriage, which virtually all cultures across time (before the last couple of decades) have understood and followed; or you can believe that polygamy is not part of the true idea of marriage. But you can’t believe both at once and be logically consistent. George tries to have it both ways, but (at least in “What Is Marriage”) never resolves the contradiction.

  8. Anonymous writes:

    When the sperm unites with the ovum, the male and female become truly one flesh through their genetic union in a new human being. An absolutely equal blending of the two original human beings at the genetic level.

    That may be what you mean, Anonymous, but it’s clearly not what George et al intended. First of all, the male and female collaborate on creating a new person, but they do not “become truly one flesh”; they remain distinct and separate people, both from each other and from their child (if a child results at all).

    Second of all, if it’s all about the baby-making, then you can’t legitimately solve the “what about infertile heterosexual couples” problem.

    And third, George et al explicitly say it’s NOT all about the baby-making. From “What Is Marriage”:

    Because interpersonal unions are valuable in themselves, and not merely as means to other ends, a husband and wife’s loving bodily union in coitus and the special kind of relationship to which it is integral are valuable whether or not conception results and even when conception is not sought. …

    Marriage is not a mere means, even to the great good of procreation. It is an end in itself, worthwhile for its own sake.

  9. Tristian, with all due respect, I did take George’s case seriously; I read not only this article but several other essays in which he makes the same argument. It’s clear that he really does believe that a hetero married couple in coitus forms “one flesh” in a strong, more than metaphorical sense.

    To change his words the way you do (to “mating pair”) isn’t taking George’s argument seriously; it’s altering the argument to try and make it more sensible than it actually is. George et al chose their words carefully, and if you took out every instance of “bodily union’ and replaced it with “mating pair,” that would radically alter the substance of their argument.

    It would also be a change that would totally undermine their attempt to get around the “infertile people can marry” problem.

    I did try to raise the question of why this metaphor of “bodily union” should have legal importance, something I don’t think George and his authors explained at all; I’m sorry that didn’t come through to you. Thanks for your comment.

  10. Tristian says:

    Barry, the point of interpretation is to render something intelligible. If my reading makes George et al. more sensible, that would surely count in favor of it. In any case, I don’t think there’s that much mystery here to begin with.

    Take a step back. What is George trying to argue here? He’s trying to argue that monogamous heterosexual relations are special and so deserve to be uniquely privileged. What makes them special? Well, he can’t appeal to pleasure, romantic feelings or anything along those lines as those are common to all sorts of relationships. Nor can he appeal to God’s approval, as that would be cheating in this context.

    So it comes down to babies. But what about them? It can’t be that all heterosexual couples procreate, or that unmarried women can’t have babies–they don’t and they can. Instead he argues that heterosexual sex *as such*, as a *kind* or *type* of sex, is itself connected to babies in a special way. What special way? Well, a biological way. By joining sexually a heterosexual couple becomes something tied to babies in a way no other kind of sexual grouping is. I honestly don’t think there’s more to it than this, and as far as it goes, it’s true—heterosexual sex as a kind, or as a type, is uniquely connected to procreation.

    Does this change the meaning of his arguments? No, it renders them perfectly intelligible. Consider the syllogism you find mysterious:

    1) Individual adults are naturally incomplete with respect to sexual reproduction.
    2) Reproduction can only be begun via coitus between a man and a woman.
    3) Thus, during coitus, a woman and a man’s bodies are biologically united and become one flesh.

    Understand 3) to mean that during coitus the partner’s bodies become part of a biological unit uniquely oriented towards procreation and it makes perfect sense. Indeed it’s true. And it’s exactly what George et al. are getting at when they talk about reproduction being the “good” of the “biologically united” couple.

  11. Ledasmom says:

    Tristan, you’re not considering the possibility that George didn’t make a good or coherent argument. If he didn’t make a good argument, then an interpretation that makes it more sensible is not a good interpretation but a distortion.
    It also sounds to me as if you saying that George assumed his conclusion and then figured out the argument that would lead up to it, rather than arguing from first principles.
    To be slightly crude without being overly explicit, it seems to me silly to say that additional bodily contact in the amount of the surface area of a cylinder six inches long and one-and-a-half inches in diameter, makes a significant difference to the nature of a union between two people.

  12. Tristian says:

    I imagine George did start from his conclusions and worked out his arguments in support of them. So what? That has no bearing on their merits whatsoever—they might still work perfectly well.

    If I might be ignoring the possibility his arguments are bad, it’s possible too that you’re ignoring the chance that they’re good. For what it’s worth, I disagree with him about gay marriage—I support it—and I think ultimately his case fails, though not for the reasons you do. So I don’t, in fact, have any reason to be overly kind to him in interpreting his work. I do happen to know a bit about the moral tradition of natural law theory, which is what he draws from.

    Lastly, I have no idea what you’re talking about here: “it seems to me silly to say that additional bodily contact in the amount of the surface area of a cylinder six inches long and one-and-a-half inches in diameter, makes a significant difference to the nature of a union between two people.” No one is suggesting any such thing,.

  13. Peter Hoh says:

    I suspect that George’s argument will be most persuasive to those who have already embraced Natural Law.

  14. anonymous says:

    La Lubu makes an excellent point when she says that marriage is traditionally based in women’s inequality. I think that this fact is part of what makes this whole marriage argument so difficult. Although the old “coverture” idea, whereby a woman was absorbed into her husband after marriage so that they became legally one person, is no longer fully in force, it survives in certain customs like a woman’s taking her husband’s name and in the idea of community property, which, from a purely practical perspective, is deeply unfair (why should a woman who did nothing but stay home while her husband went out to work be entitled to half of all the property amassed through his and his work alone? To say that she provided emotional support and therefore deserves half of the property is an inadequate explanation. Community property only truly makes sense under the idea of coverture. That while they are married, a man and a woman constitute one legal entity, so that when they divorce, property must be halved).

    Also related to La Lubu’s point is that no one wants to say is that there is an aspect of marriage involving the male’s physical protection and financial support of the female. This would be anti=feminist. No one wants to recognize this aspect of marriage because it is so politically incorrect to suggest that a woman needs a man’s protection. But this is where La Lubu is correct. The inequality of women is fundamental to the conception of marriage as we know it.

    This is where the idea of same sex marriage gets scary. Women have not yet reached full equality with men. Because of the nature of women’s childbearing activities, it is difficult for women to achieve full parity with men and many women will never do so. Same sex marriage, by making marriage gender-neutral, may very well clear away the last vestiges of the old conception of marriage, which, based in women’s inequality as it is, is neverthless beneficial for women in many ways.

    With same sex marriage, this aspect of traditional marriage makes no sense. A man is needed to protect another man? To support him financially? A woman is protecting another woman? How long before such concepts as community property go by the boards?
    Why should one man give another man half of his property when one of them worked and the other one lay around the house all day? People will tolerate that when it is the man who works and the woman who doesn’t. I don’t think the law will tolerate it when there are two men involved. Or two women. There is still, in our society, a residual deference given to women’s status as “the weaker sex.” No wonder so many men are so angry about the way divorce settlements go.

    Nevertheless, because women have not yet achieved full equality, marriage law and divorce law benefit them, probably unfairly. Making marriage gender-neutral will wipe out this dynamic. And when the idea of community property goes, so does marriage as we understand it.

    This is why, in a strange and paradoxical way, gay marriage will end up having an effect opposite to what gays intend. By extending marriage to include gays and making marriage gender-neutral, we will so much change the institution that it will no longer resemble marriage at all, but merely a kind of civil contract. There will not even be the remnants of the idea of coverture or of the married couple being “one flesh.” And that will be the end of marriage. Maybe not today or tomorrow. But eventually. All of those features of marriage that gay couples want so much to take part in — the special status of the married couple as a legal and social unity, which is of course based on women’s inequality with men — will no longer be in force, will no longer make sense. By entering into marriage, gay couples will destroy it.

    Of course, marriage can certainly be redefined to include gay couples. It can certainly become gender-neutral and no longer include even the vestiges of the older system based in female inequality. But it will no longer be marriage as we know it. Another way of putting it is that gay couples will not actually become “married” (Robbie George makes a good case for why that is impossible). Instead, both gay and straight couples will enter into gender-neutral civil unions, which will not carry the special weight that marriage does. Civil unions are the only common denominator that could cover both types of couples. And that will be the end of marriage. So that gay couples, seeking the special solemnity of marriage afforded to straight couples, will feel the boat they fought so hard to get into sinking under them.

    Maybe that would be a good thing. But I fear that women are the ones who will suffer.

  15. Peter Hoh says:

    I’m about halfway through, and it looks like George, et al, are finally going to address divorce. Yes, this discussion of marriage does not exist in a vacuum (260).

    In redefining marriage, the law would teach that marriage is fundamentally about adults’ emotional unions, not bodily union or children, with which marital norms are tightly intertwined.

    Wait a second. Does the law currently limit divorce on grounds that marriage is fundamentally about bodily union or children?

    George, et al will address this, won’t they?

    There it is, bottom of page 261. other legal changes detrimental
    to the conjugal conception of marriage . . . .

    Oops. No, we’re going to glide over the whole divorce thing, because it’s not the subject of a “live debate.”

    Yeah, that’s right. Divorce is a settled debate. The whole idea that there are two competing ideas, conjugal marriage and the revisionist view is nonsense. The revisionist view won.

    And it won big.

    Newt Gingrich isn’t treated as a pariah in conservative circles. He still commands hefty speaking fees. (I’ll go out on a limb and guess that he commands more than Robert George.)

    If conservatives aren’t going to censure straight couples for failing to live up to the conjugal model of marriage George, et al, hold up, why should same-sex couples be expected to live up to those standards?

    I see that George, et al, are going to explain why the marriage of infertile couples is still in the public interest (268). Please explain to me why it’s in the public interest to let heterosexual affair partners divorce their respective spouses and marry each other.

    The article addressed the demands of Cornel West and others that multiple partner sexual relationships be given legal recognition (273). Why can’t the article address the very real practice of granting legal recognition to couples like this?

    If heterosexual couples don’t need to abide by the principles of conjugal marriage, I see no reason that same-sex couples should be excluded from marriage.

  16. Peter Hoh says:

    My last line should have been:

    If heterosexual couples don’t need to abide by the principles of conjugal marriage, I see no reason that same-sex couples should be excluded from marriage based on those principles.

  17. Sundown says:

    Anonymous at 2:50,

    I’m seeing a bit of the logic you’re going by, but I’m confused by your comment:

    It[marriage] can certainly become gender-neutral and no longer include even the vestiges of the older system based in female inequality. But it will no longer be marriage as we know it.

    Why is that so? If the most sexist elements – like coverture – have been done away with, why are the vestiges important? You mention the difference with people of the same sex, but haven’t opposite sex couples been working around these issues as well for sometime?

  18. Phil says:

    Peter Hoh wrote:

    I suspect that George’s argument will be most persuasive to those who have already embraced Natural Law.

    That’s probably true. It’s worth mentioning, in any public forum discussion of Natural Law, that it is a religious theory. To be (roughly) accurate, Natural Law is a religious theory about how people who don’t believe in the supernatural ought to be able to come up with the same basic precepts as the divinely revealed “truths.” But Natural Law Theory is not the same as the “laws of nature,” and is often mistakenly used in debate by people claiming, “You don’t have to be religious to believe my claim! Natural Law Theory can get you to the same conclusion.”

    George believes, as a matter of faith (all he has, since he lacks evidence), that there’s something called “bodily union,” a biological merger of male and female bodies, that occurs only in coitus.

    I find it infuriating that the anti-SSM crowd so frequently reduce same-sex relationships to their sexual component, when the entire basis of their arguments–the only thing they have, logically, is sexual. Dismissing love, commitment, the joining of two families, the stability that marriage brings to two people, they can only repeat and rephrase, endlessly, the same mantra: A penis must penetrate a vagina.

    I’ve been called uncouth for pointing this out, but I’m just accurately describing the conservative arguments. Everything that Robert George wrote to define marriage was written to defend this concept: a penis must penetrate a vagina.

    Everything that Maggie Gallagher has ever written in opposition to same-sex marriage rests upon this: a penis must penetrate a vagina.

    It’s kind of a sad, simplistic, and animalistic argument, but at the end of the day, it’s the only thing they’ve got.

  19. Ledasmom says:

    Otherwise known, Tristian, as the surface area of the average male organ of intromission. It seems quite odd to me to say that this amount of contact between the outside of a guy and the inside of a woman makes a fundamental difference in the quality of a relationship.

  20. anonymous says:

    Yes, Phil, it’s infuriating. Opposition to same-sex marrige on whatever grounds will be infuriating to those who support it. What Robbie George is trying to do is explain why the penis penetratinbg a vagina is so fundamental to marriage. He tries to explain why “love, committment, and the joining of two families” are not fundamental to marriage because friends and siblings can participate in all of these things. And, as animalistic as it seems, marriage is indeed all about sex. If it weren’t, we would call it something else. Like deep friendship.

    Heterosexual intercourse, penis plus vagina, is “the main event.” It populates the world, which is why it is “the main event.” Everything else — oral sex, anal sex, etc — is merely foreplay.

    Homosexuals cannot consummate a marriage with each other. How many times do we have to say this? If homosexuals want to enter into legal bonds, they will have to call it something else. It is not “marriage.” By definition it cannot be.

  21. anonymous says:

    Sundown, the reason the vestiges are important is that women have still not achieved full equality. What is making this difficult for some people to understand is that most people assume that all of the “sexist” elements of marriage are bad for women. My point is that some of the “sexist” elements of traditional marriage are good for women. They “even the playing field” a bit.

    Because of their childbearing and childrearing functions it is difficult for women to achieve full equality with men. Traditional marriage takes this into account and makes it up to them with things like “community property.”

    You might say that so long as the vestiges of sexism are in place, women will not achieve full equality. So do away with them as they are holding women back. But this is naive. Until reproduction is performed by completely artificial means (mechanical wombs), therefore freeing women completely, it will be enormously difficult for them to compete with men. I believe there have been studies done showing that having children reduces women’s competitiveness in the marketplace. No matter how good their childcare may be.

    Make men participate more equally in childcare? Doesn’t work too well. Even if their partners are willing, many women prefer to take primary responsibility for childcare. This issue could be debated endlessly. But even after 50 years of heavy feminism, many if not most mothers still seem to be interested in taking primary responsbility for childcare.

    I understand that my argument is somewhat unconventional and politically incorrect. It gives more weight to realities than ideals.

  22. anonymous says:

    Continuing my comment to Phil, I reiterate that you can include homosexuals in the institution of marriage only by changing the meaning of marriage. You can still call it marriage, but it won’t be marriage any longer in the traditional sense of penis plus vagina. Instead, other elements will define it — like “love, committment, and the joining of two families.” But once you redefine it this way, this new form of marriage will have to be open to all kinds of people: brothers and sisters, mothers and sons, best friends.

    Maybe this is how it will end, with traditional marriage abolished and replaced by civil unions for everyone — gays and straights, relatives and friends, polygamists and celibates. Marriage as it is now does discriminate, it does privilege heterosexual couples and there is no way around it. Civil unions for everyone may be the solution.

    What I find interesting is the way the gay marriage supporters want to privilege their own relationships above the others. To include gays in marriage but to leave out other non-traditional relationships is itself discriminatory.

    How long before we see gays making the same kinds of arguments that straights are now making for why their relationships are true marriages and the others aren’t?

    Our relationships include sex and yours don’t!
    Answer: Isn’t that simplistic and animalistic? What about love, commitment and the joining of two families?

  23. Phil says:

    I appreciate the way that you’ve made the case for same-sex marriage by pretending to support the arguments of those who argue against it. Well-played!

    Opposition to same-sex marriage on whatever grounds will be infuriating to those who support it.

    I didn’t say it was the opposition to same-sex marriage that I found infuriating; it’s the rank hypocrisy of those who reduce same-sex couples to sexual components when they have nothing beyond sex from which to argue.

    It’s reasonable to assume that I find opposition to same-sex marriage infuriating. But I do so for different reasons.

    What Robbie George is trying to do is explain why the penis penetratinbg a vagina is so fundamental to marriage.

    First of all, thank you for acknowledging that Maggie Gallagher and Robert George and all the other SSM opponents have nothing else. That’s an important thing to realize in this “debate.” All the pretty, non-animalistic words that George, Gallagher, and others say boil down to “a penis must penetrate a vagina.” Over and over and over.

    He tries to explain why “love, committment, and the joining of two families” are not fundamental to marriage because friends and siblings can participate in all of these things.

    Obviously, that’s not true–except in the sense that, in many cases, friends can get married. But siblings cannot (and do not) pledge to love each other, to commit to each other, and to join their families together–because siblings are already part of a family relationship.

    Fishing buddies don’t pledge to love each other and to commit to each other and to make each other part of their families–unless those fishing buddies get married. Which, in your world, just means that one of them needs to have a vagina, and the other one needs to penetrate it.

  24. Tristian says:

    It seems quite odd to me to say that this amount of contact between the outside of a guy and the inside of a woman makes a fundamental difference in the quality of a relationship.

    It would be odd to say this, but no one is.

    I think Peter Hoh’s line of argument is the most effective against George et al. What they call the “Revisionist” understanding of marriage is in fact the cultural and legal status quo. It’s in that context that the continued refusal to recognize gay marriage has to be evaluated–gay relationships should not be measured against a standards heterosexual relationships haven’t been measured against for quite some time.

  25. Johnny Moral says:

    I agree with anonymous, on every point. The point about the reproductive system not being self-contained, but requiring a man and a woman to form a full system is great. Of course they don’t physically merge into one indifferentiatable mass, that’s the whole point, they are a marriage of two separate beings into one fully human system. The heart and lungs don’t merge into one undifferentiatable heartlung, they remain distinct heart and lung tissue, distinct organs, but they work together to the same end, to sustain the same person. In marriage, they even work to sustain the other half of the fully human system, even though they never oxygenate or pump each other’s blood, they still pump and breathe to sustain their whole fully human unit, they dedicate effort on behalf of the whole. The heart and lungs are already paired up into a single being, they don’t need to be paired together and married to each other, they arrive married.

    We need to explore why a brother and sister aren’t eligible to marry. They can do the whole “bodily union” thing, after all.

  26. Johnny Moral says:

    “But siblings cannot (and do not) pledge to love each other, to commit to each other, and to join their families together–because siblings are already part of a family relationship. ”

    They could certainly pledge to pair up and have children together, rather than with other people, even though they are already part of a family relationship. And actually siblings have no legal obligations to each other, I don’t owe my sister any alimony for being my sister, and if she is in line to inherit my property if I die without a will, it’s only because my property reverts to my parents, and my parent’s property then becomes her’s. The only legal relationship that matters between siblings is that they are not allowed to marry each other. Why is that?

  27. kisarita says:

    seems quite a lot of gobbledygook to say that “gay marriage isn’t really marriage because gay sex isn’t really sex.” Seems to me like the point is to obfuscate.

    I personally have no objections to gay sex. My objections to gay marriage stem from other reasons which I have explained elsewhere in this blog.

  28. kisarita says:

    This is a bit off the topic of this post but I would just like to respond to Maggies “why only 2?” Questions.

    The fact is Maggie that marriage is not limited to only two persons. Most human cultures have been polygynous. This is precisely because marriage is the framework for reproduction, and most societies have found this structure to be an effective reproductive strategy for them.

    Thus, marriage by definition is not limited to 2 partners. It is however, illegal to do so.

    I therefore believe that consenting adults who wish to practice polygamy actually have a much stronger civil rights case that gays, since polygamy after all, is marriage.

  29. kisarita says:

    (Not that I support polygamy, due to its highly detrimental impact on women)

  30. Peter Hoh says:

    consenting adults who wish to practice polygamy actually have a much stronger civil rights case that gays, since polygamy after all, is marriage.


    Polygamists might have a case that, according to Natural Law, their marriages are valid, but that doesn’t mean that they can prove that their civil rights are violated if the state won’t sanction their marriages.

    I have a vague idea of what’s meant by Natural Law. But what exactly are civil rights? While proponents of Natural Law like to claim that it has remained unchanged, it’s clear that our ideas about civil rights — and who has those rights — has changed over time.

    The Constitution has provided a way for us, as a nation, to extend civil rights to groups that our forebears did not recognize as having such rights.

    I’m not sure how prohibitions against polygamy were justified at the time they were put in place, but I’m pretty sure that to overturn them, polygamists would need to do more than appeal to the historic fact that the concept of marriage used to include polygamous marriages.

  31. lead answer says:

    If you really want to understand the marriage then please first of all prepare yourself to get married because only then you are gonna believe the marriage threats, because who suffer only they can explain the real thing.It all start with he/she.

  32. Peter Hoh says:

    I’ve been married for 23 years, Lead Answer, and I have yet to discover how same-sex marriage is a threat.

  33. Johnny Moral says:

    Karen Clark: “It’s already being debated.”

    Even the “agnostic ethics” PlanetHospital guy refused to join a mother’s egg and her son’s sperm. When we prohibit mother-son marriage, that is what we are prohibiting. We allow mothers and sons to live together as dedicated exclusive couples, but not to marry, by which we mean, not to form a bodily union and potentially procreate. The idea of procreating without forming a bodily union is causing problems, it should not be allowed. Some people are under the impression that petri-dish incest is legal because it is not penis-in-vagina sexual intercourse, they think it is and ought to be legal in spirit as well as in words.

    “If it’s btw 2 consenting adults why not?”

    All we need is a general feeling that it is bad public policy. Some of us may find some reasons to be more important than others. Also, we need to be extra prudent to protect whatever concerns the person being created might have, even if we don’t know exactly what they are, or if they will all have them.

    “Genetic mutations could always be avoided through PDF/IVF and/or “donor” sperm/egg/womb.” [Did you mean "PGD" there? Pre-implantation Genentic Diagnosis, aka, testing multiple embryos and implanting the best ones and discarding the rest?]

    Well, the question is, do we let them procreate with their own sperm/egg/womb, without doing PGD and IVF? It’s not really “bodily union” if we aren’t allowing them to procreate with their bodies. It’s not marriage either, if we say they cannot procreate with their bodies, but if they want kids they have to use donor sperm. We shouldn’t even be talking about the possibility of doing genetic tests on couples to make sure they would produce healthy babies, it would be terribly expensive and unsustainable and a huge violation of basic human rights and the principle of equality.

    “AND since there are so many half-siblings being produced through the same “donor” sperm, don’t know who each other are, don’t legally share the same “father” and therefore aren’t legally siblings – wouldn’t it be discriminating not to allow them to “marry”?”

    It’s not discriminating to not allow siblings to marry. It is unethical and unfair to the child to have only one grandfather or grandmother, it deprives them of an equal dual origin. The child could discover the truth later in life even if the couple did not know it when they married. We need to correct the record and fix everyone’s birth certificates, force open the sperm bank records. It would probably be too intrusive and expensive to verify every baby’s paternity and maternity, so there will be many people who still do not know their “real” father (and some who don’t know their “real” mother) and hence still some risk of unknown incest, but we try to minimize that by socially enforcing marriage as being the only place sexual intercourse takes place.

  34. Johnny Moral says:

    Peter, I think for something to be protected as a civil right, it has to be a fundamental or basic right, which are also natural rights, found in the Lockean paradise of the natural state. Thus, there is no civil right to drive a car, or to create cloned dinosaurs, because those aren’t things that were done in the Lockean paradise.

  35. Peter Hoh says:

    Did women vote in the Lockean paradise?

  36. Johnny Moral says:

    Sure, to the extent that anyone voted in the Lockean paradise. They probably had final say, and the most influence, and ate the male after copulation.

    I guess I should have expected that would be the only response I’d find to all my comments about incest and marriage rights. The comment to Karen was especially important, as she seemed to be saying that we could force a marriage to use donor gametes rather than their own. Yes, we could, but that’d be a major change to marriage and a violation of natural and civil rights. I hope everyone responds to say they agree.

  37. The comment to Karen was especially important, as she seemed to be saying that we could force a marriage to use donor gametes rather than their own.

    This seems to me to be very off topic for this thread. I’m pretty tolerant of people wandering off topic, but you’re not only off topic, you’re demanding that everyone else here respond on the the off-topic subject. Please take it to a more appropriate thread.

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