Touchstone: A Journal of Mere Christianity
“Sanity & Matrimony” first appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Touchstone.
Sanity & Matrimony
by Anthony Esolen
Most people believe that the principal objections, or even the only objections, to the drive to legalize homosexual “marriage” spring from religious faith. But that is not true. I can offer ten objections that have nothing to do with any religion at all, except insofar as the great religions of the world reflect the nature of mankind. In this essay, I present the first six of these objections; in a follow-up, I will present the remaining four.
These objections spring from three sources. The first is a commonsense observation of man—his needs, his shortcomings, and his aspirations. The second is history: our own recent history, and the history of those who once committed the mistakes we are committing now. The last is logic.
The objections should make everyone uncomfortable, both those who call themselves conservative and are busy destroying the heritage of Western civilization, and those who call themselves liberal and are busy curtailing and denying every freedom but that of the zipper.
1. The legalization of homosexual pseudogamy would enshrine the sexual revolution in law. Forty years ago, popular singers urged us to open our hearts to love, meaning a free and easy practice of sexual intercourse, without what were called “hang-ups.” Modesty was decried as prudishness, and chastity ridiculed as impossible or hypocritical. Experimentation abounded: so-called open marriages, public intercourse, intercourse under the influence of drugs.
A few of the experiments fizzled out, though they are now resurging, as witness the sewer of websites devoted to “swingers.” The pornography explosion, given new life by the Internet, shows no sign of abating. In what they discuss and in the salaciousness of their photos, the magazines women buy at the grocery store are as salacious as anything put out by Hugh Hefner in the 1950s.
What honest observer of our situation dares to argue that the results have not been disastrous? We were told that the legalization of abortion would lead, paradoxically, to fewer abortions and fewer instances of child abuse. Instead, it led to far more abortions than even the opponents ever imagined, and it so cheapened infant life that child abuse spiked sharply upward. No one any longer is surprised to hear, on local television, of a child chained to his bed and allowed to starve in his own filth, or a baby bludgeoned to death by a boyfriend, with the mother as accomplice.
We were told that the legalization of contraceptive drugs would lead to fewer unwanted children, and fewer children born out of wedlock. Anyone with a passing familiarity with the human race should have known otherwise. By reducing the perceived risk of pregnancy, contraception removed from the young woman the most powerful natural weapon in her arsenal against male sexual aggression. She no longer had any pressing reason not to accede to the boyfriend’s wishes. So she agreed; and we now have two of five children born out of wedlock.
The sexual chaos has touched every family in the nation. Who does not know at least one family whose children require an essay merely to describe who under their roof is related to whom, and how?
Some reckon up the losses from this revolution by percentages: of unwed mothers, of aborted pregnancies, of children growing up without a parent, usually the father. It will take artists of the most penetrating insight to reckon up the losses as they ought to be reckoned, in human misery.
2. It would enshrine in law the principle that sexual intercourse is a matter of personal fulfillment, with which the society has nothing to do. It is hard for us to imagine, in a world of mass entertainment and its homogenization of peoples, how central an event marriage is in every culture. It marks the most joyful celebration of a people, who see their renewal in the vows made by the young man and the young woman. For although marriage focuses upon the couple, it does so because they embody a rejuvenation in which everyone, young and old, male and female, takes part.
In his Epithalamion, the English Renaissance poet Edmund Spenser summons everyone to the celebration of his wedding—and after the priest has “knit the knot that ever shall remain,” and the revelers have splashed themselves and the groom’s walls with wine, and the girls have danced and the boys have run shouting up and down the street, and the hours of celebration have been hastened along in glee, he bids everyone to leave him and his bride alone. They enjoy each other’s love, and pray that from their “timely seed” they may raise a large posterity.
Here we have an understanding of marriage infinitely deeper than the meager expression of will we are now left with. This understanding sees that marriage bridges two chasms that must be bridged, lest the culture wither away, and the people separate one from another, into a suspicious privacy.
One chasm is that which divides the generations. At the true wedding, the elders know that the future belongs to the couple, who in their love that night will, in turn, raise up another generation. Sexual intercourse is the act by which we renew mankind. We celebrate the wedding because it betokens our survival, our hope for those to come after us.
But we could not have children without the bridge thrown over the more dangerous divide, that which separates two groups of human beings who seldom understand one another, whose bodies and psyches are so markedly different; who try to love one another, and so often fail, yet who try again for all that.
I mean men and women. The wedding is a symbol of the union of differences. The very word sex derives from Latin sexus, denoting that which separates. It is a mark of our degeneracy that the ugly term “having sex” has come to mean the marital act, with the once delicate term “making love” similarly demoted. What man and woman do in the marriage bed is not “have” sex; the sex, that is, the separation, they are provided with already. What they do is unite, across the separation.
And unless man and woman unite, the culture cannot survive. The women will split away to protect their persons and their relatively few children; the unattached males will pass the dull hours in destruction.
3. It will drive a deeper wedge between man and woman. The unhappy parting of man and woman that I have described is already commonplace. We have these days witnessed the last petering out of a tradition of song and poetry that had lasted eight hundred years, from the troubadours of Provence to its last and decadent efflorescence among the rockers of the 1960s. I am speaking about the poetry and song of love.
What has happened to it? Men no longer celebrate the beauty of women they admire from afar, whose hand they aspire to hold; more to the point, men are no longer inspired by women, as Dante was by Beatrice, and Petrarch by Laura. The reasons are distressing. It takes a good man to admire a woman, and a good woman to be admired by a man. But does a good man snarl at woman, calling her what I do not care to repeat, or, even if he is too polite to use the words, treat her as such? Does a good woman look down with ignorant contempt upon her brothers?
What does homosexual pseudogamy have to do with it? It’s simple: The acceptance of homosexuality is predicated upon the assumption that male and female are not made for one another. It defines male apart from female, female apart from male; or it leaves those terms free-floating, without definition. Young men and young women already are growing up without understanding what they are to be for one another.
The results are predictable. Fewer young people marry. When they do marry, their emphasis on personal fulfillment, rather than on interpersonal and complementary gifts, bodes ill for the survival of the marriage; for a spouse will destroy many a foolish daydream of youth. They will have fewer children. In no Western country does the birthrate now assure even a replacement of one generation by the next; in many countries, the birthrate is so low as to constitute a slow despair, a resignation to cultural suicide.
If this situation is to be reversed, men and women must be brought together again. It is hard for me to fathom how they can be brought together, when we offer them the chance, though delusory, to “fulfill” themselves sexually apart from one another, or when we implicitly affirm that sex is simply a matter of individual preferences.
No Reason for Restraint
4. It makes a mockery of chastity. Every faculty of man has its proper use. If I walk every day, I will develop strong legs for standing and walking and bracing myself. That is what legs are for. Chastity is the virtue of using one’s sexual desires properly. Since the act that is biologically designed to produce babies has the predictable propensity to, in fact, produce babies, and since the desire to perform that act is one of man’s strongest drives, all cultures have attempted to curb that desire or direct it towards healthy ends.
Before the advent of the modern welfare state, most peoples laid heavy blame on those who brought children into the world when they were unfit to care for them. Traditions vary from culture to culture, but one thing at least is constant: If you produce a baby out of wedlock, you are in trouble.
Chastity has all kinds of practical considerations going for it. If you are chaste, you stand a much lower chance of being beaten or murdered by someone driven witless by jealousy; you will probably not contract certain debilitating, even deadly, diseases, and if your spouse is chaste, you certainly will not contract them; your marriage begins in better shape, as you will not be spoiled or confused by memories of previous affairs, many of them painful; you will not help destroy a family with your looseness, your own family or someone else’s.
The psychological considerations are greater still. What insanity, that we encourage boys and girls to set forth on a series of sexual train wrecks, with all their misunderstandings, abuses, and treacheries, as preparation for lifelong marriage! It is a miracle almost if they do not reach their twenties as thoroughly cynical about themselves and the opposite sex as is the most embittered divorcee. How can love survive the acid bath?
But how can we recommend chastity to the young, when we enshrine the principle that what they do with their genitals is their own business, and that such activity is all for personal fulfillment? What value can sexual restraint possibly have, except as some calculating means towards keeping one’s resume clean along the road to wealth and power?
How can we even talk about chastity when we accept homosexuality? For a homosexual defines himself by the action. A teenager calls himself homosexual because he has performed homosexual acts. It is incoherent to suppose that we can recommend to “straight” teenagers a chastity that must be violated by the self-defining homosexual. What homosexual could or would “wait until marriage,” even if pseudogamy were made legal? If homosexual acts are accepted, there remains no reason at all to condemn or even frown upon premarital sex. What you condone in one case will cause you also to condone other things, necessarily. We are not islands unto ourselves.
5. It will curtail opportunities for deep and emotionally fulfilling friendships between members of the same sex, opportunities that are already few and strained. This is particularly true of men. We in America now use the word “friend” to denote a passing acquaintance of whose company we may be rather fond. But modern life has necessarily driven us apart, even as in appearance we seem to be thrust together. For modern life has brought men and women, married and unmarried, into superficial contact with one another, constantly, at work—where most of our contacts are made.
That environment makes almost impossible the depth of friendship described by Cicero, when he said that a friend was another self, or one before whom you could utter your thoughts aloud. Indeed, how many of us can understand the passion of friendship in David’s lament for Jonathan, or Gilgamesh’s lament for Enkidu, without coloring it with the suspicion of homosexuality?
Our sexual customs constitute a language, one that we must all use, whether we like it or not. If, all at once, clothing becomes optional on a certain beach, then that beach is a nude beach. If you wear your suit to that beach, your action has a meaning it did not have before. At the very least it means that you do not approve of public nudity. It may mean that you are ashamed of your body. It may mean that your religion forbids it. It may mean you are a prude. But you cannot say, “It means nothing to me,” simply because language is public and communal.
Suppose the incest taboo were removed. You might say, “I will hug and kiss my niece in any case,” but your actions would have a significance they did not have before. The shadow of the thought must cross any beholder’s mind; it might cross the niece’s mind. If you were considerate of her feelings, you would hesitate before you did it.
The incest taboo is not irrational; it allows members of a family the freedom to share each other’s company in what otherwise might often be embarrassing circumstances, and to touch in ways that would mean something, were it not a brother or an aunt giving the kiss. On pain of expulsion from the group, that taboo must be upheld, so that the deep feelings and intimacy of a family may develop freely and sanely.
If homosexuality is at the least not publicly condoned, that may clear sufficient ground for men to forge the emotionally fulfilling friendships they once enjoyed in the past. Such friendships have been at the base of many a cultural renaissance: the men of France who assisted Louis Pasteur in his work; the Founding Fathers of the United States; the explorers and pioneers of the American West; the friars and monks who built the first universities.
I know quite well that, no matter what the prohibition is, there will always be a few who will violate it. But the point is that the prohibition is public, and so it helps constitute the meaning, to oneself and to others, of one’s attachment to a member of the same sex. One of my students related to me an incident that happened to him in a bar. His closest buddy had been abandoned by his girlfriend, and was weeping freely as the young man cradled his head in his arms. A young lady walked up to them and chirpily asked them if they were gay.
Boys in particular now suffer a pincers attack. The sexual revolution rouses them to interest, or to the pretense of interest, in girls long before they or the girls are emotionally or intellectually ready for it; and now the condoning of homosexuality prevents them from publicly preferring the company of their own sex. This is simply inarguable. If a George Gershwin nowadays shows up at Maxie Rosenzweig’s house all the time, while his pals are outside on the streets playing stickball, then there must be something up with George and Maxie.
If you do not think that this is the way teens and even children now talk, then you are not paying attention. What was once innocent, or what both Maxie and George need never have worried about, now means something. Unless they are comfortable with the meaning, they will shy away from one another; the friendship will not deepen. Confess, reader: if you come upon two teenage boys in a pond skinny-dipping, it is the first thing you will think, and you will think it despite the fact that before bathing suits were invented, it was the only way two boys could ever be found swimming.
Polygyny & Beyond
6. It leaves us with no grounds for opposing any form of consensual intercourse among adults. No culture in history has accepted (even celebrated!) homosexual acts between adult men or adult women—not even the ancient Greeks. But plenty of cultures have accepted polygyny, the marriage of one man to several wives. Certain religions allow it or encourage it: Islam allows a man to have up to four wives, and radical Mormonism is, as I understand it, even more generous.
There are natural justifications for it. A rich man can thereby father, and support, dozens of children; the tribe benefits from the fecundity. A man can beget several children virtually at once. An older and well-established man can continue to father children long after his first wife has grown too old to bear them. As I say, it is culturally common; not as common as monogamy, but common enough not to surprise.
What grounds could we have to deny people the opportunity to marry more than one person? If we establish as a matter of law that marital relations are free to any two people who consent, why limit the number to two? Polygyny, after all, is much easier to justify than are homosexual relations: It does not violate the biology of the people involved; it brings forth many children; it preserves the ideal of the union of male and female.
But what would happen if the door were opened to polygyny? Would we not find ourselves in a world utterly different from the one into which we were born? One might say, “I do not believe in it; I will never marry another.” But what about one’s spouse? What about the members of the opposite sex whom you may happen to meet? In every culture that allows polygyny, the pressure of the possibility of dalliance and marriage, no matter who you are (for it turns married men instantly into eligible bachelors), compels a severe separation of roles for men and women. Is that what we want?
How could we deny any combination of people who wish to “marry”? What of two so-called bisexual men, who want to “marry” one another and their shared wife? If homosexuals claim rights based upon their sexual actions, why not bisexuals? If the marital act is all about the fulfillment of one’s desires, how can even homosexual pseudogamy fulfill the bisexual? Does he or she not have the same “right” to fulfillment as the homosexual? On what grounds could we deny a marriage license to an adult brother and sister? Reasons of health? Not if one or both have been sterilized.
Why stop here? What about people whose desires cannot be fulfilled unless they perform sexual actions in public? Or with animals? Or with precocious children? Logic requires an answer. If you affirm the false principle, you must go where that principle leads. As for now, the only thing preventing the collapse of all sexual constraints is a residual feeling of disgust. That is one rickety door to batter down. •
Anthony Esolen is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island, and the author of The Ironies of Faith (ISI Books), The Politically Incorrect Guide to Western Civilization (Regnery), and Ten Ways to Destroy the Imagination of Your Child (ISI Books). He has also translated Tasso's Gerusalemme liberata (Johns Hopkins Press) and Dante's The Divine Comedy (Random House). He is a senior editor of Touchstone.
“Sanity & Matrimony” first appeared in the July/August 2010 issue of Touchstone. If you enjoyed this article, you'll find more of the same in every issue.
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