The meaning of marriage

Yesterday, the Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Bill passed through the final parliamentary hurdle; all it needs is royal assent (which it will almost certainly get) and it will become law before the end of the week.


The new law will allow gay and lesbian couples to marry, and for transsexuals to remain married after their sex change. Religious organisations will ‘opt-in’ if they wish to offer same-sex marriage, except for the Church of England and the Church in Wales, which are banned by law from marrying any but heterosexual couples.

Opponents of the bill have criticised it as devaluing the concept of marriage, and encouraging promiscuity and making a nonsense of faithfulness in marriage. Marriage, they say, is supposed to be between one man and one woman. Some also say that the purpose of marriage is for the procreation of children, and since homosexual couples cannot reproduce, this makes a nonsense of marriage. The bill has even been criticised as opening the door to polygamy.

I have to admit, I find the logic of these objections… difficult to understand.

Taking the reproduction argument first, yes, Christian marriage is “ordained for the procreation of children”. But logically speaking, this presents a problem for heterosexual as well as homosexual couples. Historically, it was reasonable to assume that any male-female pairing was potentially fertile, even between persons of mature years – the Book of Genesis has Sarah giving birth at the age of 90. However, science has moved on. We know that post-menopausal women are infertile; women who have had hysterectomies are infertile. And then there are all the other men and women who are infertile for a whole variety of other reasons. If marriage is for the procreation of children, then should infertile people be allowed to marry? Should fertility be tested before marriage, or marriages be annulled after one partner proves to be infertile? Should couples who choose not to have children be forced to reproduce or forfeit their marriage? If we are to deny marriage to homosexual couples on the grounds that their union will not produce offspring, then we logically cannot extend marriage to any infertile pairing.

The promiscuity/faithfulness argument is one that I just flat-out don’t understand. My understanding of promiscuity is ‘having sex with lots of people’. Sequentially, not necessarily simultaneously. My understanding of marriage is that it involves promising to only have sex henceforth with the person you are married to. If we take a legalistic view of sexual practices, gay people (laying aside civil partnerships) are currently free to be as promiscuous as they like and the concept of faithfulness to a partner doesn’t exist, because they have no means of making a binding promise to ‘cleave to their partner and no other’. With the introduction of marriage, same-sex partners now have the opportunity to make those promises. Surely this should reduce promiscuity? Getting married is certainly supposed to reduce promiscuity amongst the heterosexual population, so why should homosexuals be any different?

As for making a mockery of faithfulness within marriage, why should providing more people with the opportunity to be faithful within marriage make a mockery of it? Unless, of course, you believe that homosexual people are inherently promiscuous and incapable of faithfulness. I see the introduction of same-sex marriage as strengthening what marriage means, not weakening it: if you love your partner and want to be with them for the rest of your life, you marry. Marriage isn’t just some extra twiddle on a committed relationship that is only open to a certain class of people, it’s now going to be the natural way for any couple to express their love for and commitment to each other.

Those persons who are worried that this week it’s the gays, next week it’ll be the polygamists, have also likely got nothing to worry about. Unless, of course, their real objection is simply that they want marriage to be restricted to one man-one woman because that is the only form that their religion endorses. There are significant differences between same-sex marriage and polygamy. The major difference is that same-sex marriage is a difference in quality, and polygamous marriage is a difference in quantity. Restricting marriages to male-female pairings means that one sector of society (homosexuals) cannot marry at all. Allowing homosexual marriage extends the right and opportunity to have a legally-recognised lifetime loving partnership to every member of society, not just those in the majority. Polygamous marriages, on the other hand, do not extend the right to marry to anyone who did not already have it. In fact, one could say that male-female and same-sex paired marriages are more similar than polygamous marriages; the new law merely allows a different constitution of the pair. But it is still a marriage between only two people. Arguably, allowing polygamous marriages would be a greater change to the definition of marriage than allowing same-sex marriage, as it would obliterate the current definition of marriage as involving a promise to be faithful to one person (regardless of the gender of that person).

Another difference between same-sex and polygamous marriages are the known benefits, or harms, to the persons involved. We know that heterosexual paired marriage tends to have health benefits. There are also indications that the same is true for same-sex marriage. On the other hand, the reverse may be true for polygamous marriage, at least for polygynous marriages. So the public health implications of legalising polygamous marriage are exactly the opposite of those for legalising same-sex marriage.

Interestingly, there has been a less emotive suggestion for a new form of marriage that I think actually does threaten the nature of marriage as we know it. Currently, marriage is – let’s face it – about sex, and sexual fidelity. Human beings, like swans, naturally form pairs in which to engage in reproductive behaviour (even if that behaviour is obviously never going to result in actual reproduction), and these pairings tend to be long-term. This tendency has been legalised as marriage, and has become associated – as society has become more complex – with certain inheritance rights and tax benefits (I do not believe the same is true for swans, however). There has been a suggestion, in the wake of the same-sex marriage bill, to allow siblings who live together to marry, or carers to marry the person they care for, in order to secure the financial benefits accruing to married couples. To me, this does constitute a threat to the nature of marriage, because it turns marriage from an expression of (sexual) love and commitment to a procedure pragmatically decided upon in order to maximise one’s financial security.

I do think it is right that such long-term pairings as unmarried sisters (or brothers) living together, or carers and the cared-for, should have access to the financial advantages currently associated with marriage, if their level of commitment is the same. However, I don’t think that marriage is the way to do it – and neither does the government. I think this situation is to be considered at a later time, with a view to creating a new solution, and this, to me, is how it should be.

Marriage – whoever you are marrying – is about romance. As long as we keep romance at its heart, the meaning of marriage will stay constant. The minute we make it about money, that’s when it dies.

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