Thinking out loud (on keyboard?):
The modern institution of marriage is pretty much controlled by the various legal and regulatory statutes surrounding it. This is a much, much different regulatory, social, and technological environment than has existed throughout much of human history. In my mind there are two important things that separate today’s civil marriages from the concept of marriage that’s historically existed: reliable contraception, and no-fault divorce.
Reliable contraception (and the rise of illegitimate births) has rendered the original purpose of marriage – to constrain sexual impulses that predictably ended in children that had to be cared for – no longer an overwhelming social need. Nowadays, if Single Mom and her Bastard Spawn go on welfare, she just fingers a likely guy for the state to go after for child support. And the existence of paternity testing means that sexual fidelity is no longer a requirement for men to know whether or not any given kid is theirs or not.
Related to this is the rise of sexual incontinence as a “virtue” – Slut Pride. The “sex positive” claim that resisting one’s natural urges to go copulate with as many attractive specimens as possible is no more virtuous than boinking everything that moves, if you feel like it. Do whatever feels good at the moment! It’s empowering!
This social element exists in tension with the social approval granted to exclusive couples: why should marriage – let us consider it, at this point, in its aspect as “I promise not to have sex with anyone but this person while we’re together” – any longer be regarded as a desirable state, if promiscuity is so valuable and empowering? Apparently not everybody has been convinced that an inability to resist temptation is as valuable as a promise to resist temptation. For one thing, resisting is a heckuva lot harder to do than giving in!
The second social element that defines today’s civil marriage is no-fault divorce: essentially, marriage is no longer a lifelong commitment for many couples, but rather a means to engage in serial monogamy, which is the preferred form of promiscuity for women.
These two facts of life mean that civil marriage as formed by government regulation bears no resemblance whatsoever (except superficially) to the concept of marriage as it has traditionally existed in Western cultures (and cultures that engaged in polygamy, which is merely the addendum to traditional marriage that “one man may contract himself to multiple women at a time but not vice versa”). When the trad-cons get into the culture battles with the gay-marriage activists, they’re literally fighting over two completely different things that happen to be concurrently using the same word.
Let me give an example using the most extreme case of a trad-con definition of marriage, using the Christian metrics (because I honestly don’t know the Islamic or Judaic variations, and they’re currently minorities in the US anyway: sorry guys, you don’t matter). In the traditional conception of marriage, ALL sex outside of marriage is illegitimate, including premarital sex (rather than merely sex outside of marriage while you happen to be married as in the modern view) and you only get one shot at it (unless somebody dies). Let me once more use the most extreme case of this: imagine that you’ve been tricked by an honest-to-God sociopath into marrying him, and then after you’re married, he shows his true colors and begins abusing you to the point where you fear for your life if you remain with him. In the traditional marriage metric (using its most strict form), you may separate from him, but you will have to be totally sexually abstinent until the guy dies, because you only get one shot. As long as your spouse is still alive – and no matter what they’re guilty of – you don’t get to have sanctioned sex with anyone else, EVER. Unless your spouse dies before you do, no do-overs allowed. Marriage is Serious Business.
Now, most trad-cons do not subscribe to a view of traditional marriage this harsh. Even historically, a fairly wide range of get-out-of-marriage-and-remarry loopholes have been available, even in Christian-majority lands. Most self-described Christians are actually quite at home with the modern view of marriage as legally- and socially- sanctioned serial monogamy. This is where I’m sympathetic to the homosexual activists’ cries of “hypocrisy!” – because they have a point. If you’re observably living your lives (and conducting your organizations) around a working definition of marriage that coincides with modern civil marriage, which only depends on one making a vow of sexual fidelity to one’s spouse until death or unilateral divorce, there really isn’t any reason to restrict social approbation and civil benefits only to heterosexual couples engaging in serial monogamy. After all, if they split up with kids, there are other civil branches of government, outside of marriage, that now exist to protect the flow of support from the progenitors to the progeny.
But what’s the point of giving social approbation and civil prizes to married couples, anyhow? It’s true that many heterosexual couples don’t deserve pride and prizes any more than a homosexual couple promising similar limited sexual exclusivity for an undetermined amount of time, and yet the heterosexual couple gets the benefits and homosexual couples don’t! That’s definitely not fair!
Here’s the problem I have with a lot of homosexual activists. They look at a situation that is unfair (heterosexual serial monogamists gaining benefits originally earmarked for married couples under a completely different institution of marriage than currently exists), and rather than eliminate the unfairness, they want on the gravy boat, too. Single people can go screw themselves, apparently. That’s why I’m inherently suspicious of claims that all they want is “fairness” because they’d be championing fairness for everyone in that case, rather than waving “gay marriage” around as a magical talisman that will automatically eliminate all gay people’s problems with society if only they could have it. (I wish I were kidding, but I’ve seen this behavior myself.) Also telling is the lengths gay activists will go to DESTROY people who don’t agree with them. People concerned with fairness would not act the way gay people acted in the wake of CA’s Prop 8. By their actions, gay activists are telling people not that they want fairness – but that THEY want to be the bullies on the playground now, rather than the bullies’ victims. (The exact same pattern already played itself out with feminism.) I’m not real interested in merely reversing the polarity of oppression under the guise of getting rid of it.
So, my personal opinion is more or less “a pox on both your houses” – if I were made Dictator of Society, what would I do?
Well, for one thing, let’s consider what business society has for poking its nose into people’s bedrooms in the first place. Obviously if children are going to be resulting from bedroom activities, society has an interest – in making sure its most vulnerable members are cared for and raised to continue the society into the future. So breeding couples ought to get some recognition for this service that they’re providing for the group (raising the next generation), and encouraged to arrange their affairs in the most beneficial manner possible, which history shows us is one household containing the both parents and all their biologically related offspring. In the case of polygamy, this means more than one woman in the house, but all the kids are placed within a single household and cared for by both biological parents. In this case, procreative marriage would be the threshold for a couple to attain civil prizes, like tax breaks. You don’t become eligible for any more state-provided material benefits than a single person has access to until you have kids – and if you dissolve your marriage under this rubric, you would automatically and permanently lose access to civil procreative marriage benefits. Even if you shacked up exclusively with someone new and had kids with the new person, the new pairing wouldn’t be eligible for the tax breaks/benefits of procreative marriage. The “procreative marriage license” granting rights and privileges would only be issued once per pair, unless one of the spouses died. No exceptions even for with-cause divorce: you’re still splitting up a biological pair, robbing the children of that pairing of a unified environment, so even if it is justified for mom and dad to split up, they still have to pay the price for putting the kids through that by giving up their privileged status. Permanently.
Now, let’s say that the establishment of serially monogamous couples not intending to produce offspring is also beneficial to society. I can see various reasons why that might be the case, especially from a public health standpoint. (For the sake of argument we will be assuming that serial monogamy is replacing a certain amount of promiscuity of the one-night-stand variety, rather than abstinence, because if it were replacing abstinence there wouldn’t be a social value to serial monogamy. However, this is post-60’s and antibiotic-resistant STDs are not at pandemic levels yet, so we’ll go with the first assumption.) So, since resisting the temptation to boink every attractive person you meet is a virtue, let’s have a “marriage” institution for those people. This non-procreative marriage civil institution would provide for all the civil rights that gay couples desire (and should have!) – the right of next-of-kin, hospital visitation, power of attorney, what have you. BUT – no tax breaks. No financial incentive. Non-procreative “marriages” would get nothing that a single person wouldn’t also be able to access. This would mean that either non-procreative-marriage spouses wouldn’t be able to share insurance plans, or that single people would all get a +1 on theirs, but since I’m Dictator in this thought experiment, I’m going to end all the regulatory interference in the health care market that makes employer-provided insurance the default anyway, and go towards a more free-market approach to health care access, so that won’t even be an issue. (Because I’m Dictator And I Said So.) In this case, let’s call it a “civil union” – the parties to the contract will have an automatic upgrade to procreative marriage status upon the birth or adoption of their first child, but until that happens, they’re each free to patronize the divorce lawyers as often as they please, for whatever reason strikes their fancy. This tier of “marriage” recognizes that committing to sexual exclusivity has value for society – we’ll grant you that – but that if you’re not producing new members of society, you don’t get cash and prizes, because the value your non-fertile committed sexual relationship has to society is exactly the same value that an abstinent single person’s abstinence has to society. This avoids the incentive for people to form sham marriages for financial gain.
Also… I fully expect to see both polygamy and incest become legal within my lifetime, using the exact same methods and arguments used by the gay activist crowd; in addition, I anticipate that the definition for pedophilia will be revised from its current arbitrary-age format and that consequently relationships between adults and post-pubescent individuals currently regarded as “children” will become legal, also using the same arguments. (For those of you not aware, puberty can begin very, very early in today’s well-nourished children. Eleven is not unusual. And the advocacy groups for these things are alive and well, in case anyone tries to tell you “but nobody’s actually arguing for that!” They are, although they mostly keep a low profile so as not to screw things up for the gay activists paving the way to respectability and social acceptance.) Whether or not you think these are acceptable outcomes or won’t ever come to pass… well, I don’t really care. Having gays claim to be “married” – as if most straight “marriages” bear any resemblance to the real thing – is just a natural progression of modern society’s corruption of the institution of marriage, which will continue until the Gods of the Copybook Headings knock down the whole house of cards. And if it gives some people strength to resist their promiscuous impulses, I think that’s going to be a good thing for society in general. So, whatever.