The feminist case for marriage

29 May 2022

7:00 PM

29 May 2022

7:00 PM

I regret to inform you that your kitten heels and morning suits will probably not be seeing service this wedding season: once again, marriage rates are down. In fact, this year the rate for heterosexual marriages is the lowest on record.

What’s more, fewer than one in five of these marriage ceremonies are religious, in keeping with a downward trend of several decades standing.

As a wedding guest, I slightly regret this turn towards the civil ceremony, only because the secular liturgy is so oddly anaemic. Seeing someone from the local council officiate on this most solemn of occasions, I can’t help but be reminded of the Simpsons episode in which a Las Vegas casino worker marries Homer and Marge with the words ‘by the power vested in me by the state gaming commission I pronounce you man and wife.’

But then everyone knows that the modern wedding is a bit of a farce, particularly since April of this year, when no fault divorce was introduced in this country. For the vast majority of couples, swearing an oath before God doesn’t mean much anymore, and the legal bond itself is now easier and quicker to wriggle out of than a bank loan. The only requirement for a divorce in England and Wales is that you must have been married for at least one year (I’m sure my husband and I weren’t the only couple to joke on our first wedding anniversary that the traditional gift of paper could very well include divorce forms).

When the wedding ceremony itself is increasingly drained of meaning, couples must cast around for another way of adding a sense of importance to the day. Thus, over the last century, the proportion of average household income put towards a wedding has doubled, and the extravagant receptions that were once confined to high society are now common among the middle and working classes. That only adds a further incentive for couples to hold off on getting married until they can afford a big do.

It used to be that the most crucial few minutes of the wedding ceremony were the most consequential minutes of most people’s lives, since they produced a profound and (almost) irreversible change. Those rare couples who sought out a divorce in the period before the Divorce Reform Act of 1969 must have desperately wanted to be rid of their marriages, since they had to work so very hard to get divorced, and could then expect to be marked with stigma for the rest of their lives.

The sexual revolution’s liberalisation of divorce law has consigned this stigma to the past. In the decade following the Divorce Reform Act, the number of divorces trebled and then kept rising, peaking in the 1980s. Since then there has been a slight decline in the divorce rate, not because of a genuine return to marital longevity, but rather because you can’t get divorced if you don’t get married in the first place, and marriage rates have not stopped falling. In 1968, 8 per cent of children were born to parents who were not married; in 2019, it was almost half. The institution of marriage, as it once was, is now more-or-less dead.

Of course, some marriages should end. Although married women are not at greater risk of domestic violence than unmarried women – the opposite, in fact – it is obviously better when abuse victims do not face legal obstacles in trying to leave their spouses. There are some couples who really should divorce and, before the reforms of the mid-twentieth century, they often couldn’t.

At the same time, only an ideologue could fail to recognise that a culture of widespread divorce has its casualties. There are, of course, the adults who later feel that they made a mistake: between a third and a half of divorced people in the UK report in surveys that they regret their decision to divorce. But just as importantly – more so, I would say – there are the children who are harmed by their parents’ divorce. Several studies in recent decades have revealed that children suffer more from the effects of a divorce than the death of a parent.

The outlook is similarly grim for those children whose parents were never married in the first place. Unmarried parents are about twice as likely to split as married ones, and children then find themselves either in a single parent family, or living with a stepparent – in practice, usually a stepfather.

Despite the often valiant efforts of single mothers, the data clearly shows that, on average, children without biological fathers at home do not do as well as other children, with higher incarceration rates for boys, higher rates of teen pregnancy for girls, and a greater likelihood of emotional and behavioural problems for both sexes. This is because single mothers are obliged to take on the almost impossible task of doing everything themselves: all of the earning, plus all of the caring, socialising, and disciplining of their children.

Meanwhile, less than two thirds of non-resident parents in the UK – almost all of them fathers – are paying child support in full. A perverse consequence of half a century of feminist opposition to marriage is that deadbeat dads are now protected from the consequences of their fecklessness.

The monogamous marriage model had many flaws, and the sexual revolutionaries were correct in pointing them out. But this model is also the best solution yet discovered to the problems presented by the asymmetrical investments that men and women make in the process of reproduction.

For all of its trade-offs, there was wisdom in the traditional model. The father was primarily responsible for earning money; the mother for caring for children at home. Such a model allows mothers and children to be physically together and at the same time financially supported. In an age of labour saving devices like washing machines and gas boilers, it has become less time consuming to run a household, and thus more feasible for mothers of young children to do paid work outside of the home – as most of us do. But attempting to play the traditional roles of mother and father simultaneously – as single mothers are forced to – is close to impossible, particularly on low wages.

Despite all of these costs – to poor women, and even more to poor children – some people still consider the death of marriage to be a good thing, and many of those people are feminists. Opposition to marriage was a common theme in much of the writing of the Second Wave, with feminists of this era describing their goal as ‘women’s liberation’. Womankind was in chains, they said, and those chains had to be broken.

‘Liberation’ was always a gnarly feminist goal. The reductive feminist analysis of marriage sees it as a method used by men to control female sexuality. And it does do that, of course, but that was never its sole function. There is also a protective function to marriage, but it’s one that makes sense only when understood in relation to children.

We are a sexually dimorphous species with distinct reproductive roles and substantial differences in size and strength between adult men and women. What’s more, there is also plenty of good evidence for some innate psychological differences between the sexes, including higher average male sex drive and greater desire for sexual variety. This empirical finding may be controversial in some quarters, but it should not surprise anyone who has eyes and ears.

In a world of sexual asymmetry, you cannot simply press the ‘more freedom’ lever and expect men and women alike to joyfully ascend to some new utopia. Not when one half of the population are far more physically imposing, are much more interested in pursuing casual sex, and will never be able to get pregnant, while the other half of the population bear (literally) the consequences of a sexual encounter that goes awry. Our biology is such that, when sex unexpectedly results in pregnancy – as it still often does, despite modern contraception – it will always be the woman left holding the baby.

The task for practically minded feminists, then, is to find a way of protecting the vulnerable from the problems presented by sexual asymmetry. Our current sexual culture does not do that, but it could. In order to change the incentive structure, we would need a technology that discourages short-termism in male sexual behaviour, protects the economic interests of mothers, and creates a stable environment for the raising of children. And we do already have such a technology, even if it is old, clunky, and prone to periodic failure. It’s called monogamous marriage.

Many feminists who lived before the 1960s knew this better than we do now. They looked at the asymmetries inherent to heterosexuality and they concluded that the male libido needed containment not liberation. Which was why two of the thirteen chapters in Mary Wollstonecraft’s A Vindication of the Rights of Women were devoted to bemoaning the lack of chastity in men: the sex with the higher sex drive, and thus – to Wollstonecraft’s mind – the greater responsibility for containing their passions. ‘Votes for women, chastity for men’ was a real suffragist slogan, now forgotten.

But perhaps we are on the brink of rediscovering such ideas. My friend Mary Harrington has written in the Spectator’s American edition of a coming ‘sexual counterrevolution’ as young people brought up in our hyper liberal culture react against the principles of sexual liberation. The same trend is evident here in the UK, as whispers of discontent among young women grow louder and louder on social media platforms like TikTok. Earlier this year, the Guardian announced that Gen Z was ‘turning its back on sex-positive feminism.’ This ideology is, according to the New York Times, ‘falling out of fashion.’

At times if feels as if young people are reaching towards the traditional notions of marriage without quite realising it. Take the group of American students who set up the ‘Affirmative Consent Project’ and marketed a ‘consent kit’, containing a condom, two breath mints, and a contract stating that the undersigned had agreed to have sex. Couples were encouraged to take a photo of themselves holding the signed piece of paper. (‘Why not invite family and friends to witness the signing?’ joked some. ‘Why not hire a professional photographer? Dress up? Make an event of it?’)

Or consider the feminist commentators who responded to the expected overturning of Roe v. Wade with the suggestion that men ought to be somehow legally bound to the women they impregnate and compelled to provide, not only financial, but also social and emotional support. Vice magazine recently announced a ‘new type of relationship’ called ‘radical monogamy’ that sounds very much like an old type of relationship. ‘Radical monogamy will offer a totally new portal to a joyful, healthy, magical kind of love’ promises one of its clueless proponents.

For all of its flaws, it seems that marriage as an institution has a way of reinventing itself. For better, for worse.

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