Same-sex marriage: A positive step for individual freedom, and for a declining institution

 

Natalie Oliver,

 

In 1940, 470,549 couples got married. By 2009 that figure had almost halved to 266,950. This is something David Cameron is keen to rectify, hoping for a resurgence of family values. While opposition groups propose arguments to the contrary, legalisation and acceptance of same-sex marriage is potentially vital in achieving this. Rather than harm the institution, its renewed promotion as a foundation central to family life could create a more positive perception among young people. Gender is immaterial – homosexuality didn’t cause the decreased popularity of marriage; it has been caused by bad relationships and divorce.

It is a prominent argument that gay marriage allows children of same-sex parents to be “harmed”, according to the beacon of logic and tolerance, Rick Santorum, that is. This seems to overlook that even without legalised gay marriage same-sex couples are able to adopt children. Given that the presumed harm is alleged to be caused by lack of a particular gender influence on these children, this harm should also be true of children in single parent families. Imagine the outrage if an entire nation of single mothers, and fathers, if they were told they were inadequate for only representing one gender? Most people would agree that as long as parents love their children, their gender is unlikely to have a particularly damaging impact.

All the opposition arguments, however, appear to be based upon the premise that it’s everyone’s business how we conduct our family lives. It’s not. It’s no more the business of the Coalition for Marriage, than it is mine, whether two consenting adults should choose marry one another. It’s the couple’s decision and theirs alone.

Same-sex marriage would have the same effect on each of our everyday lives as vegetarianism. Those of us who aren’t vegetarians, feel very little impact at all. Gay marriage wouldn’t either, and this country’s law should reflect that. Marriage is a legal contract that binds two people, and no one outside of those two people. It might go against present UK tradition, but as time goes on traditions change, and then laws change to reflect this. Interracial marriage in the United States was illegal until 1976, but now it’s completely accepted. Gay marriage is the same kettle of fish. For those arguing that reproductive ability makes interracial and intersex marriage different, I would say they’re wrong. Having children is not the be all and end all of marriage; if it was infertile couples shouldn’t be entitled to marry either.

However, a point that is a separate issue is the wild insinuation that same-sex marriage is a stepping stone towards legalising polygamy and incest. If you’ve even considered that as a possibility, you’ve overlooked one rather vital point: polygamy and incest aren’t legal, homosexuality is. If the slippery-slope argument had ever been applicable to homosexuality, it would have been in 1967, when it was legalised. Low and behold, it’s no more legal to conduct a relationship with your sibling than it was 45 years ago.

Personally, I think legalisation of gay marriage will be the most positive change David Cameron will possibly make before 2015. Those voicing opposition are merely making an imposition into people’s personal lives. UKIP have expressed concern that the ECHR will force religious institutions, who do not wish to, to perform same-sex marriages, which seems like a protection of religious freedom. In reality, this view seems to be an avoidance tactic for a controversial issue, as not to anger the large socially conservative voter base, or the prevalent Libertarian wing of the party. Cameron has emphasised that no religious institution will be forced to perform gay marriages, and the ECHR generally shy away from making rulings which impinge upon religious freedoms. Just earlier this year, they declared that “the European Convention on Human Rights does not require member states’ governments to grant same-sex couples access to marriage”, after a ruling which involved a same-sex couple from France. The ECHR’s track-record makes their reluctance to interfere with this issue abundantly clear.

Ultimately, pinnacle of my argument is that; marriage between two consenting adults is of no concern to anyone but themselves; and churches should have the right to deny these ceremonies if they so choose. After all, would you want to get married somewhere that didn’t want you? I doubt it.

9 COMMENTS

  1. “However, a point that is a separate issue is the wild insinuation that same-sex marriage is a stepping stone towards legalising polygamy and incest. If you’ve even considered that as a possibility, you’ve overlooked one rather vital point: polygamy and incest aren’t legal, homosexuality is.”

    This argument works for incest, but not for polygamy (or polyandry). It is not illegal for a man to have sexual relationships with two women at the same time.

  2. It’s true that the increasing age of marriage may lead people never to get married, but it’s important to see how it will also distort the statistic you’ve used without fewer people actually ending up married. Religion is clearly likely to be a factor, and but i’ve not seen longitudinal studies looking at the role of religion (there may not be the data).

  3. “I recognise there are fluctuations in the number of marriages which occur each year, and if I had meant a constant linear decline, I would have specified so” – fair enough, but i’d say your opening sentence strongly implies it, and would a graph of that data really have hurt?

    “However, all available data shows that the number of marriages peaked in 1940.” It does, but 1940 was an anomalous year for the UK in all sorts of ways. It’s somewhat misleading to use that as a starting point. The data shows it was a historic high in terms of the portion of the population married.

    Obviously there’s the puzzle of the slight postwar decline and then resurgence in the late 60s/early 70s, and then the continuous decline to now, which need explaining. A couple of things i’d say, however:

    1. I’d be highly surprised if macroeconomic stability didn’t have a large role to play in fluctuations; it wouldn’t explain why the decline has increased since 1980, although you could probably do an interesting graph looking at median wages and inequality and putting the marriage rate alongside it (why inequality, you might say – this man has an interesting answer: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/003465302317411505 I’ll link to a download of it later).

    2. This is potentially a misleading statistic to use: people getting married later in life will show up in aggregate statistics as a lower section of the population being married at any one time. There are various reasons why it might be good for people not to be getting married at 21 anymore (I can elaborate on these if you can’t think of any), and it’s well-known that people are increasingly cohabiting for a couple of years before they decide to get married – that seems kind of sensible to me, unless you really care about sex before marriage. What you need to do is look at cohort data to see when, in particular generations, people were getting married, and what the number of people married when each generation hits something like the age-40 point is.

    3. It’s worth thinking about why it’s not unambiguously positive for there to be a high marriage rate. Marriage is good for lots of people, and good for children – of that there’s no doubt. However, if people don’t leave a marriage they’re deeply unhappy in because they fear the social stigma of being divorced, or because they don’t think they’d be able to manage financially on their own, the number of marriages in a society will be what we might think of as ‘artificially’ high – it’d be lower if those people were less financially dependent and less hemmed in by fear of social ostracism. So the marriage rate also coming down a bit from the average of, say, the pre-Second World War period might not be too bad a thing.

    To end, an anecdote to illustrate point 3: my grandmother was engaged to an RAF pilot in WWII who was killed in action; my grandfather was a friend of her fiancé, and she married him ‘on the rebound’, basically. They had 5 children after the war, but they came to hate each other and my mother, aunts and uncles have all said how tense and awful their childhoods were because of that. My grandparents stayed married because they both followed that norm not only of ‘you don’t divorce when you have children’, but ‘you don’t get divorced, period’. My grandmother remained married to my grandfather until he died a few years ago, and – sad though it is to say – it seemed like she got a new lease on life when that happened. Now, that’s clearly an extreme case, but it illuminates the way in which the particular norms that played a probably not insignificant role in the high marriage rate that existed in this country once are probably not ones we want to return to, and so we need to think a bit more carefully about the high marriage rates of the past, and what may have gone along with them.

  4. Hi Leo

    I recognise there are fluctuations in the number of marriages which occur each year, and if I had meant a constant linear decline, I would have specified so. However, all available data shows that the number of marriages peaked in 1940.
    It also shows that the annual number of marriages has not topped 400,000 since 1973, and has not reached 300,000 since 1992.
    Data to support this can be found here, and was provided by the Office of National Statistics: https://spreadsheets.google.com/pub?key=phNtm3LmDZEMKNMbsy69Kfw

    While I personally, wouldn’t count the increased rates of divorce, and lower marriage rates as a sign of ‘moral decline’, more just a dissuading factor for couples considering marriage, I realise there are other reasons for the evident decrease. This include the increasing age at which people get married, which can lead to them abandoning the idea all together, and that fewer people now identify themselves as religious, leaving them less susceptible to social and familial pressure. Evidence (from 1982 onwards) can be found in this ONS excel sheet. I suggest referring to tables 1 & 5 in particular. http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/rel/vsob1/marriages-in-england-and-wales–provisional-/2010/rtd-number-of-marriages–marriage-rates-and-period-of-occurrence.xls

  5. good article, and very well-deserved pop at the fragility of the libertarian-ultra conservative pact within ukip. their response, to profit at the expense of the tories over this, is quite despicable.

  6. How about you post a graph showing the fluctuations in marriage rates from 1940 to 2009? Or perhaps from earlier, if data allows? The implied linear decline your first sentence sets out is one I know to be false, from a basic acquaintance with the relevant sociological literature. It might also be worth considering what factors besides some kind of general moral decline in British society might be behind fluctuations in marriage rates, and then whether they are ones which current Conservative thinking on how to promote marriage actually addresses.

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