Friday, September 05, 2003

The Marriage Pool

Conservatives like Jonah Goldberg subscribe to what I call the “public swimming hole” view of marriage. In their concern about the possibility of gay couples undermining the institution of marriage, they seem to think there is only one great big marriage for everyone, and therefore the behavior of any married couple affects everyone else. People who have promiscuous “open” marriages are basically pissing in the pool and ruining it for everyone.

I, on the other hand, think marriage is a lot more like a private pool in your back yard. If you want to pee in it, fine. If you and Jonah want to fill your pool with so much chlorine it makes your eyes smart, well, that’s okay too.

Critics of my view might point out that, by its very nature as an institution, marriage is necessarily a social phenomenon affected by all individuals who take part. “If people don’t perceive marriage as a desirable state of affairs, fewer people will try it out. If more people believe that marriage need not imply sexual loyalty, then more people will think it’s okay to cheat in their marriages.” But the monolithic character of the institution should not be taken as given. There is not just one model of marriage to which everyone must submit. The fact that some people have “open” marriages hasn’t changed the fact that, for the vast majority of married people, sleeping with other people is considered a serious violation of trust. And every marriage has its own idiosyncratic norms that other couples might find bizarre.

Unfortunately, the current one-size-fits-all legal regime encourages the notion that all people must swim in the same marriage pool. Anyone who gets married -- even once gays are allowed to take part -- faces the same obligations, the same rights and privileges, the same rules for jumping ship and dividing the property (at least within any given state). If conservatives are really concerned about saving their own vision of marriage, they ought to get behind privatizing marriage, thereby reducing the state to the role of contract enforcer. If marriage were privatized, many concepts of marriage could flourish, each with its own set of pool rules.

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