Oct 02, 2003

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We should not destroy marriage to save it

In a free and democratic society is it possible to lay down any coherent policy on who can receive the benefits of marriage?

In 1992, the Globe and Mail came out in favour of eliminating the requirement that a marriage must be between a man and a woman. The writer argued that the government, in resisting same-sex marriages, must under the Charter prove the denial of equality is “demonstrably justified in a free and democratic society.” Since then, Canadians have experienced an unrelenting campaign for same-sex marriage.

Indeed, should there be any restrictions on who can marry? Should adult, consenting uncles and nieces be allowed to marry, as they once did in India? What about incestuous marriages? Could that same provision in the charter that the 1992 Globe and Mail editorialist cited in advocating same sex marriages legalize consenting marriages between adult brothers and sisters or fathers and daughters?

In a free and democratic society is it possible to lay down any coherent policy on who can receive the benefits of marriage?

The advocates of same-sex marriages are apparently motivated in part by the desire to make available to same-sex couples those few economic and social benefits of marriage that remain in our society. Their argument is apparently based on the assumption that regular sexual intercourse is the defining characteristic of marriage. However, if we focus only on sexual relationships, we ignore longterm non-sexual, domestic relationships, such as between brothers and sisters and friends, that include a considerable degree of mutual dependency and care. Are these people not as deserving of spousal benefits related to health care, old age security, and community recognition, as are people with a long-term sexual relationship?

Consulting history may provide some insights on the kinds of relationships that should be classed as marriage.

First, we discover that in all known societies marriage is associated with reproduction and child rearing. Second, we discover that although most marriages have been monogamous, the most common marriage system has been polygyny: the marriage of one man to several women. A study of 849 societies found that 16 per cent were monogamous, 83 per cent had some form of polygyny, while only 0.47 per cent were polyandrous (women having more than one husband).

Recent DNA evidence also indicates that ancestral humans were polygynous. Across space and time polygyny is the type of marriage that most societies favour.

Should we consider legalizing, and yes, even encouraging, polygyny? Evolution produces a 1:1 sex ratio in humans yet men vary greatly in their earning power and ability to relate to women. Since our society forbids one man marrying more than one woman at a time, a considerable number of women are condemned to living with second-rate men.

In many species of animals females have the choice of being the second mate of a high quality male rather than the first mate of a poor quality male. In a free and democratic society can we deny Canadian women the same right? In such a society can we deny successful men the right of having more than one wife at a time?

Polygyny might help with the daycare problem. We are slowly beginning to realize two things about day care. First, the cost of national daycare per child, that is equal in quality to mother care, will probably cost about the same as having a mother stay at home to care for her child. The economics of scale seem not to apply to childcare in the same way as to the production of toasters and calculators. Second, because of our fear of male sexual abuse of children, women will likely staff any national daycare centres. The result may be an enormous pink-collar ghetto. In a polygynous marriage the women in the marriage could choose one of their number to be the mother while the others joined the work force.

We now have serial polygyny. A not unusual marital pattern is for a couple to marry, have two children, then divorce. The husband often remarries, has more children, and ends up contributing to the support of two families. Two and sometimes three women compete for his limited resources to support their children. Sometimes the second wife must work to help support the children of the first wife. Lawyers benefit, but the results are often tragic for everyone else. Simultaneous rather than sequential polygyny could help rationalize the situation.

However, I believe there are good reasons for not recognising polygyny, polyandry, same-sex relationships, and personal partnerships as marriage. First, all institutions - banks, schools, legal systems, religions, political parties - must have limits to function effectively. A religion that treats all beliefs equally will have little value for its adherents. A political party that treats all political beliefs the same will not survive. A school that attempts to educate all aspects of its student's lives will founder. To recognize all marriage-like relationships as marriage would make it meaningless.

Second, all institutions have costs. When polygyny is examined carefully it is seen to constrain women's behaviour and peripheralise men who cannot compete successfully with powerful men for wives. The result is often a hierarchical, despotic, and violent society. Similarly, polyandry is not liberating for either men or women.

Third, institutions must have societal functions beyond the personal enjoyment of individuals involved with them. Schools educate. Legal systems provide justice. Banks regulate the flow of money. Although sexuality may be the WD-40 of marriage, it is not the function of marriage. The function of marriage in every known society is reproduction - the production, rearing, and integration of children into their society.

The institution of the male-female, single-family, monogamous marriage that exists in most current societies is not natural. It seems inadequate until we compare it with other marriage systems. Although it has its basis in propensities created by natural selection, it was not created by natural selection. It, like democracy, one-person-one-vote, presumed innocent until proven guilty, child labour laws, and yes, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, is a social invention. Because these institutions are social constructions they are fragile and must be tended and protected.

Although these institutions have many benefits they also have costs. Their costs are felt most keenly by those whose behaviour they constrain: democracy by despots, one-person-one-vote by the rich and powerful, presumed innocent until proven guilty by the authorities who know who is guilty, child labour laws by sweat shop owners, the Charter of Rights and Freedoms by those who would constrain freedoms, and marriage by polygamists and gays and lesbians. We must tolerate their costs if we want these institutions to prosper.

Trudeau was right. The state does not belong in the bedrooms of the nation. But accepting this view does not lead to the conclusion that in a free and democratic society, all continuing bedroom relationships can be marriage. To expand our marriage system to include polygyny, polyandry, personal partnerships, and same-sex marriage will weaken it. Our liberal zeal must not lead us into destroying marriage to save it.

Charles Crawford is professor emeritus in the department of psychology at SFU and winner of the 2002 Sterling prize for controversy.

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