24 October, 2006

Shall We Dance?

What is marriage? I ask because I came across two quite different ways of looking at it recently. One was in a film. It’s rare that anyone ever says anything sensible in a film (or anything at all, much) let alone something thought provoking. In this film ‘Shall We Dance’ which, I confess, I was watching mostly because Jennifer Lopez is in it, one of the characters is asked what she thinks marriage is about and she says it is so that you will have someone to be a witness to your life (‘witness’ in the Jehovah’s Witnesses sense of the word, I presume). This resonated.

The other was on the radio – someone discussing equal rights for same-sex couples, who reminded me that Australia’s Conservative government recently legislated that marriage can only be between a man and a woman – purely so that homosexual marriages could not happen here. I don’t think that this is pure homophobia (although it is clearly a lot to do with that). I think that the legislators are trying to protect some deeply-internalised notion of what a marriage is – even if none of them seems able or willing to put into words what their reasons are.

I’m definitely in the ‘Shall We Dance’ camp when it comes to defining marriage. For me it is to do with finding someone to participate intimately in your life and with whom you too can be deeply involved. It is about declaring to the world the sense you have of the specialness of your chosen partner and the kind of bond you have with them and intend to maintain with them to the end of your days. It is about both of you declaring your intimacy; saying to the world that you are as close as two people can possibly be, emotionally and physically, and that you want the world to know and acknowledge that intimacy and treat you differently because of it.

There is nothing in my sense of what a marriage is that would exclude same-sex relationships. It seems to me that if someone says to you ‘I’m married’ or ‘We’re married’ you know what they mean. It is a request for you to treat them in a way appropriate to that declaration.

Is marriage about children? No, I don’t think so. Not anymore. The social and economic conditions, the financial and legal inequalities that meant that marriage and ‘legitimacy’ were the only safeguards for children are disappearing. Families start these days with single parents, or as couples, but they split and re-form in other, often elaborate configurations. Child support legislation and the divorce laws (when either of them works properly) apportion financial and caring responsibilities as well as access rights. Marriage ‘for the sake of the children’ seems to me a fundamentally flawed idea that has often done more harm than good.

Is it about controlling sex? Yes, I think that it is; certainly in the minds of puritanical Conservative politicians and their religious voters. For the people who think that sex is ‘wrong’ or ‘dirty’ or ‘sinful’ unless ‘sanctified’ by marriage, it will always be their primary means of controlling people. That these same people tend to believe that homosexual sex can never be sanctioned under any circumstances, means that, for them, marriage need only ever be for men and women – it doesn’t work on gays because it doesn’t prevent the sin! But I think it’s about controlling sex in a more rational sense too. By becoming married, a couple assumes a certain status in society such that most people who are aware of this status will not bother to approach them for sex (and certainly not for any deeper kind of relationship). Similarly any approach for sex by someone who is known to be married carries with it the message that that person is an untrustworthy vow-breaker, someone you should be cautious about dealing with.

Marriage ‘takes you off the market’, as they say, even if Jennifer Lopez comes calling.

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