Andrew Sullivan used to argue, and some people still do, that recognizing same-sex partnerships as legally valid marriages would not harm the institution of marriage, understood as a monogamous and sexually exclusive relationship, and would, indeed, result in greater monogamy among actively homosexual men. The argument always struck me as implausible because the abandonment of the conjugal (or “one-flesh union”) conception of marriage leaves no ground of principle for supposing that marriages should be monogamous. I’ve presented my reasons for believing this in “What’s Sex Got to Do With It? Marriage, Morality, and Rationality,” in Robert P. George and Jean Bethke Elshtain (eds.), The Meaning of Marriage (Spence, 2006).
Evidence is now beginning to pour in that a vast number of persons in same-sex sexual partnerships, including those legally recognized as marriages, simply do not view monogamy or sexual exclusivity as part of the meaning of marriage. On January 28th of this year, the New York Times published an article previewing a San Francisco State University study documenting the huge percentage of male couples whose relationships are sexually “open.” The reporter, Scott James, was “nonjudgmental” about this, even observing that “while [it] may sound counterintuitive, some experts say that boundary-challenging gay relationships represent an evolution in marriage—one that might point the way to the survival of the institution.” He quotes “relationships” expert Joe Quirk, who has no problem with sexually open marriages, saying that “[i]f innovation in marriage is going to occur, it will be spearheaded by homosexual marriages.” Here is the link: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/29/us/29sfmetro.html In other words, recognition of same-sex partnerships as legally valid marriages is indeed likely to alter the social understanding and meaning of marriage in general, and reshape its norms.
This week the San Franciso State study was officially released. Here is the story about it from the San Francisco Chronicle. http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/c/a/2010/07/15/DD4C1EDP1A.DTL The story also reports on a study funded by a (non-monogamous) Bay area male couple (Lanz Lowen and Blake Spears). In the study, “three out of four people described non-monogamy as a positive thing, and said it gave them a sexual outlet without having to lie. Participants reported it helped relationships survive by providing honest options and minimizing deceit, tension and resentment. Some ‘played’ independently, others as a threesome, and about 80 percent agreed to tell all or some details of their encounters, the rest preferring a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ policy.”
According to Spears, “having an open partnership is not incompatible with same-sex marriage.” In words that strike me, for all my moral differences with Mr. Spears, as incontrovertibly true, he said that “it is a redefinition of marriage.” I appreciate his honesty and candor. The real question is not whether the legal recognition of same-sex partnerships as marriages will alter the meaning of marriage and its norms. What seemed logically to follow has been borne out empirically. The real question is whether it is a good thing or a bad thing to redefine marriage in a way that will render the norm of monogamy merely optional—a matter of subjective preference, a “lifestyle choice.” People like Mr. Quirk and Mr. Spears are prepared to argue that it’s a good thing. I think they’re wrong—disastrously so. But even if their answer is wrong, at least it is an answer to the right question.