Patriarchal Traditional Marriage, Equality in Marriage, Gay Marriage
For thousands of years many theologians and religious body authorities have opined that intercourse is only sinless and acceptable to their god(s) when done by a male husband and his female wife with the purpose and hope of pregnancy and progeny. These authorities have had varied views about what activities and positions before, during, or after are acceptable, but all of those making this argument say that the climax must be uninterrupted and unimpeded coitus.
I have not studied those arguments in depth nor yet read the major original sources, ancient or modern. I will keep my mind open to the possibility that, when I do, they will convince me. I am sharing my considerations now as a seeker of learning, truth and meaning and not as an authority. I hope and expect to learn much from reader responses.
Orthodoxy versus Common Sense
Common sense says that this orthodox teaching is nonsense. Those making the argument traditionally have framed it as EITHER marital relations to hopefully produce children if and as God wills OR sinful prohibited sex for selfish pleasure. Not mentioned is doing it as a selfless gift of pleasure to one's mate, to express affectionate, caring, committed love, including in situations in which pregnancy is unlikely or impossible. When a wife has gone through menopause, is sex forbidden to her? Among my relations, a couple, both widowed and once each other's high school sweetheart, married when he was in his 90s and she was in her 80s. If they had sex after marriage and not for the purpose of having children, was that immoral?
The Anglican clergyman and scholar Robert Burton (1577-1640 expressed the common sense, moderate view in his book The Anatomy of Melancholy (available online at Project Gutenberg), writing: “Ambrose concludes in his comment upon [the Gospel according to] Luke, ‘They that are coupled together, not to get children, but to satisfy their lust, are not husbands, but fornicators.’ In a word (except they wed for mutual society, help and comfort one of another, in which respects ... without question old folks may well marry)...‘Matrimony without hope of children is not a wedding.’”
It’s the omission of that common sense “except” of Burton's, that third option besides “to get children” or “to satisfy their lust,” that renders traditional morality inadequate and unsatisfactory. The corollary of that “except” for folks too old to procreate is that sex in marriage to bond emotionally in a mutual expression of affection, companionship, caring, and committed love is morally acceptable. It seems evident to me that such sex is morally good and a path of spiritual growth.
The same “except” applies to a married couple in, say, their 20s when one (or each), due to war, accident, or disease, is physically unable to impregnate if male or to be impregnated if female, but is capable of intercourse or of otherwise giving and receiving the loving gift of gratification. Is that mutual giving for them a sin? Some think so. Burton quotes a saint who actually said that it is a mortal sin for any husband and wife to kiss.
Patriarchal Traditional Marriage
The orthodox view of sexual ethics has been in the context of the patriarchal traditional marriage of the past few millennia -- a relationship of ownership and domination of a husband over his wife. Remnants of traditional marriage are still commonly found in modern American marriages, and elsewhere. In a traditional wedding ceremony, the father “gives away” the bride to the groom. This property transaction is, I speculate, a remnant of the practice of the father selling his daughter to the groom for a bride price, such as for a negotiated number of goats or ounces of gold. It is still common for the bride to take her husband's last name. Some Americans still use quaint dominant-subordinate expressions like “head of the household” in reference to a husband as a matter of right of position lording it over his wife. It was less than 40 years ago that American law gave a woman the right to bank credit in her own name.
In traditional marriage, the basic concept is: this man owns this woman, given (or sold) to him a virgin by her father, and henceforth her body is his alone. Her children will be his from his impregnating her. She and they have his surname. They are bound by laws of state and religion to serve and obey him. Traditional marriage is all about domination and possession.
Traditional marriage as a relationship of domination and ownership by a man over a woman is defined and enforced by dictates of clergy. That is why orthodox theologians teach that intercourse other than in marriage for producing children is immoral. Recognizing that sex between spouses may with moral goodness be an expression and gift of mutual love, affection, companionship, and pleasure, aside from whether pregnancy and parenthood are tried and hoped for and possible, implies equality of the sexes in dignity and authority and in the right of the pursuit of happiness.
My hunch is that, through the ages, many couples have managed to create together a relationship of affectionate companionship, with the male-dominated model of traditional marriage minimized as much as possible. Different societies have varied in their mores. But these private accommodations and cultural differences have been variations within the violence and fear based social system of patriarchy that mandates and enforces the domination of man over woman. An individual man who regards and treats a woman as his equal cannot alone buck the laws of state and church that dictate otherwise. However, collective and communal alternatives are beginning to take hold.
New Traditions of Marriage
The high and low points of the millennia-long struggle for women's liberation are beyond the scope of this essay. The women's liberation movement of recent centuries, say since the publication in 1792 of Mary Wollstonecraft’s Vindication of the Rights of Women , is bringing a new age in which the old assumptions of patriarchy, of male dominance, do not compute. People of both sexes, and of all countries, classes, and ages, struggle within and among themselves to form the social norms of the new age. In various countries, such as here in the United States, in the past half century or more, after innumerable arguments, breakups, and divorces, the marriage relationship is less and less based upon fear, force, patriarchal taboos, oppressive laws, and the pontifications of orthodox moralists. Marriage based on the domination and ownership of husband over wife is being replaced by marriage based upon mutual love, commitment, respect, and shared power. The concept of raising girls to be docile, submissive, and obedient to their husbands and of raising boys to presume their right to marital authority and to control of every aspect of their wives' lives is now seen by more and more -- maybe most -- women and men as absurd.
Efforts to continue to use the force of law to deny the free choice of marriage to two adult men or two adult women and to undo the gains of women's liberation are rearguard reactions against this transformation. There is growing consensus that the equal legal right of sound-minded adults -- whether of the same sex or of opposite sexes -- to marry is a matter of due process of law, equal protection of the law, freedom of religion, freedom of association, right of conscience, contractual rights, taking a stance on the side of love, and repudiating male privilege and supremacy.
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