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Stephanie Coontz: The Real Marriage Revolution

[Stephanie Coontz teaches history and family studies at The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Washington, and is Director of Research and Public Education for the Council on Contemporary Families, which she chaired from 2001-04. She is the author of Marriage, A History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage , (Viking Press, 2005), The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap (1992 and 2000, Basic Books), The Way We Really Are: Coming to Terms with America's Changing Families (Basic Books, 1997), and The Social Origins of Private Life: A History of American Families . She also edited American Families: A Multicultural Reader (Routledge, 1999). ]

The demand that society legally recognize same-sex marriages is often called revolutionary. And so it is, but not in the way most people assume. The reason it is revolutionary is not because traditional marriage has always been “one man/one woman.” Nor is there anything historically unprecedented in societies accepting and validating same-sex relationships.

But the kind of same-sex relationships envisioned by most gays and lesbians who seek to wed is indeed unprecedented. The demand that individuals should be able to choose their partner solely on the basis of love, sexual attraction, and mutual interests is indeed a huge challenge to traditional marriage.

And it was heterosexuals who pioneered this revolution. Gays and lesbians have simply asked to join it.

The kind of marriage that we cherish today—the kind that opponents of same-sex marriage believe they are defending against desecration by gays and lesbians, and the kind that has inspired so many gays and lesbians who were once suspicious of the institution to now clamor for inclusion—represents a radical break with thousands of years of tradition. If modern Americans fully understood what traditional marriage actually entailed, few, we can be sure, would want any part of it.

The Many Types of Marriage

There is nothing unusual about forms of marriage that involve something other than one man and one woman.

In a majority of cultures throughout history, the most favored form of marriage was polygyny—one man and multiple women. We're not just talking about exotic island cultures or lost tribes in the African jungle. In 70 percent of more than 1,000 societies described in the Human Relations Area Files, polygyny is the preferred (though not necessarily the more frequent) form of marriage.

Polygyny is the family structure most often mentioned in the first five books of the Old Testament. It was common throughout ancient India, the Middle East, Africa, China, and many kingdoms in South America. The upper classes in several regions of what is now Europe also practiced it prior to the 7th century. A more recent study of almost 400 societies, which excluded smaller and less well-known samples, found that 60 percent of these contained significant numbers of polygynous marriages.

Polyandry—one woman and many men—has also been found in some societies. In Tibet and parts of India, Kashmir, and Nepal, a woman may be married to two or more brothers, none of whom can claim exclusive sexual rights to her.

Some societies have recognized marriages that didn’t even unite two live human beings. In China and the Sudan, when two sets of parents wanted to forge closer family ties through marriage, but no living spouse was available, they sometimes married off a child to the "ghost" of a dead son or daughter of the other family. Among the Bella Coola and Kwakiutl native societies of the Pacific Northwest, when two families wished to establish the trading ties that went with becoming in-laws but didn't have two sets of marriageable children available, they might draw up a marriage contract between a son or daughter and a dog belonging to the desired in-laws.

Nor is there anything revolutionary about cultures accepting same-sex relationships. In fact, the majority of cultures surveyed by anthropologists have accepted same-sex relationships under certain circumstances.

In ancient Greece, such relationships were regarded as purer and deeper than heterosexual bonds. The Greek philosopher Plato declared that love was a wonderful emotion, leading men to behave in honorable ways. But, he quickly explained, he was referring not to the love of women, “such as the meaner men feel,” but to the love of a man for another man....

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