What Straights Can Learn From Same-sex Couples
It’s official, and we’re celebrating the Supreme Court ruling overturning the Defense of Marriage Act and making same-sex marriages legal. The pessimistic pundits of the past who have predicted that same-sex marriage will inevitably change traditional marriage—are right. But the change is for the better.
In the cover story of the June 2013 Atlantic titled “What Straights Can Learn From Same-sex Couples,” Liza Mundy, a fellow at the New America Foundation, describes some of those changes and presents a summary of the research behind her assertions. Mundy claims that same-sex marriage provides a new model of how two people can live together equitably.
Married heterosexual couples are likely to divide household duties along traditional gender lines. Often, there’s hostility from the wife, who has the responsibility for a full time job, meal planning and preparation, laundry, and a host of other household duties. Same-sex couples are far more likely to divide duties evenly. This phenomenon carries over into parenting where both members of a same-sex couple are more likely to be involved in the lives of their children. In conventional marriages frequently the mom is the primary parent interacting with the kids.
Scandinavian studies show that since same-sex partnerships became legal there, heterosexual marriage rates increased 10.7 percent in Denmark, 12.7 percent in Norway and 28.8 percent in Sweden. Concomitantly, divorce rates dropped in all three countries. This is what Mundy calls the “contagion effect”. While it’s impossible to establish a cause and effect relationship between those facts, it’s at least safe to say that since the legalization of same-sex partnerships in Scandinavia, marriage has not been harmed. The data to date indicates same-sex marriage is impacting straight marriage—but for the better.
Mundy acknowledges that the question of whether gays and lesbians will change marriage or visa versa “is at its thorniest around sex and monogamy.” The gay community has hardly been known as a bastion of either celibacy or monogamy. But to their credit, she notes, gay male couples are much more likely to frankly and routinely discuss sex, desire, and the challenges of sexual commitment than their straight counterparts. Whether the increasing number of same-sex married couples will embrace monogamy as their new norm, or straight couples will use the example of gays in a search for greater sexual freedom within marriage, may not be apparent for several decades.
After the Anita Bryant debacle in 1977, I organized the first educational program concerning homosexuality in the church I attended in Philadelphia. I remember at the time the pastor, Ted Loder, saying, “John, it’s not just that the church has a problem dealing with homosexuality. The church doesn’t know how to deal with sexuality.” To their credit, that church followed their original foray with educational programs looking at sexuality more broadly. But it is still true that religious groups among others continue to struggle with issues surrounding sexuality.
Gary Hall, of the National Cathedral in Washington says, “Up until now progressive churches have embraced the part of gay behavior that looks like straight behavior, but at some point, churches also have to engage gay couples whose behavior doesn’t conform to monogamous ideals. …How do we speak credibly to people about their sexuality and their sexual relationships? We really need to rethink this.”
Well, a good place to start rethinking is with the recognition that marriage isn’t an institution cast in stone. It’s an institution undergoing evolution—and always has been. Our Neanderthal ancestors never lost sleep over monogamy, I can assure you. There’s ample scientific evidence that the earliest humans shared resources, child-care and often sexual partners. Nor did King Solomon or King David and others of our Biblical fore-bearers live monogamously. Monogamy is a relatively new addition in the evolution of marriage, and one that may not work—for every one. Part of the re-thinking Gary Hall alludes to must to be a re-evaluation of monogamy itself as the be-all and end-all of relationships for married couples, gay or straight.
Dan Savage, a widely read West Coast sex columnist has long maintained that, “monogamy in marriage has been a disaster for straight couples” in large part because it sets unrealistic expectations—“gay-male couples are much more likely to be realistic about what men are.” A more realistic sexual ethic, in Savage’s view “would prize honesty, a little flexibility, and when necessary, forgiveness, over absolute monogamy.”
My personal experience of 35 years in a conventional heterosexual union, followed now by 22 years in a same-sex union validates Savage’s hypothesis. Honesty, a little flexibility, and when necessary forgiveness, will outperform monogamy any day.
John Siegfried, a former Rehoboth resident, lives in Ft. Lauderdale. Email John Siegfried