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MARRIAGE PARTNERS SHOULD BE COMPLEMENTS?
I’ll let you in on a little secret: most people who raise objections to equal marriage are obsessed with sex. Well…at least strongly preoccupied by it. But this preoccupation is usually so disguised that sometimes they themselves don’t even recognize it.
Let’s have a little demonstration, shall we? Let’s look at the objection we’re dealing with in this chapter: that marriage partners are not supposed to be the same, but should complement each other. In this argument, people usually say that men and women are essentially “different,” and a true marriage is a union of complements and differences.
But what “differences” do they mean, exactly, when they say this?
It always boils down to some sort of claim that men in general have certain attributes, and women in general have certain other attributes. And those sets of attributes supposedly complement each other in a heterosexual marriage, in a way that you’ll never find with two men together, or two women. But even that still doesn’t make it clear what the “differences” are supposed to be.
Okay, perhaps the one big difference is obvious. But aside from that one, proponents of keeping marriages only for heterosexuals always speak very eloquently about the other differences too. In fact, they often claim that those are the “real” differences, and that they have pre-eminence even over physical ones. So let’s have a look at those.
Differences in Temperament
This is where the “complements” argument primarily focuses, and it relies heavily on sweeping generalizations about men and women. Men are said to have certain attributes, for example being supposedly more aggressive, hard-nosed, and logical. Other attributes, meanwhile, are allotted to women: sensitivity, a nurturing nature, the ability to build consensus, and stronger emotions. When you combine these opposite-but-complementary attributes in a relationship, says the argument, this makes a stable, happy, workable marriage, especially for any children who are raised inside it.
After all, the argument reminds us, if you have two aggressive, hard-nosed men trying to form a relationship, it can’t possibly go well. The men are likely to end up with either a sort of cold, rational machine of a marriage, or an endless contest of testosterone-fuelled one-upmanship. And the combination of two sensitive, emotional women would result in a relationship that was either a happy-but-naive cocoon with no mechanism for dealing with the hard realities of the world, or something wildly unstable with emotions flying back and forth without an anchor.
In marriage men are needed, people say, to provide the firmness, drive, and stability, while women supply the care and nurturing, and keep everyone human. A perfect combination, making a complete whole.
Except, of course, for the exceptions.
The problem is that there are as many different temperaments as there are people in the world. Everywhere we look, we see independent, hard-nosed, driving women and also sensitive, nurturing, consensus-building men. And we see a lot of people who can go either way, depending on the circumstances (e.g. women who can go toe-to-toe with any man in a business context, and then bake cookies later with the kids at home).
It’s true that many medical and sociological studies seem to suggest that the two genders really may have different innate characteristics, with men being more aggressive and assertive (all that testosterone), and women more caregiving and conciliatory. It’s also true, though, that other studies suggest that even if you agree that the two genders start out with these inherent qualities, much of our behavior in society is still learned rather than innate.
But even when we’ve got these very general qualities vaguely applied to men and women, we still find heterosexual relationships in which those stereotypes simply don’t fit. An awful lot of supposedly “aggressive” women have to be taught to be docile and compliant and “agreeable,” while many men considered “weak” have to be taught to be assertive and aggressive and “manly.”
I myself saw this enterprise going on, for example, at a religious post-secondary school I attended, where people firmly believed in the male-female innate gender characteristics. In spite of the confidence with which the teachers stated this assumption, for some reason these qualities had to be learned with considerable effort, by people of both genders. Why was it so hard for so many people to learn to live in a way that was supposed to be entirely natural to them?
I have also had strong, naturally independent female acquaintances who believed the theological teaching that their husbands were meant to be the leaders in the marriage – and who spent years maintaining this fiction while trying to force their gentle, nurturing husbands to be the “head of the family.” These women have never been docile and submissive, but have always been the leaders in their relationships, despite all claims to the contrary. And I’ve known gentle men who tried to adopt the “manly man” model themselves, because they also believed in it, but they remained nurturing and non-assertive no matter what they did.
None of these people have ever succeeded in changing themselves to fit the stereotypes. And frequently, the insistence on the partners playing their “proper” role in the marriage relationship did nothing more than put stress on the marriage. It would seem that these stereotypes don’t come nearly as “naturally” as we are told, if men and women have to work so hard to learn and live up to them.
What’s even more important, this struggle shows that even if you can apply some vague, average characteristic very broadly to one gender, there are so many exceptions, and so many variations within that characteristic itself, that you simply can’t paint the entire gender with one single-colored brush.
This means every individual male-female marriage is going to be very different from all other male-female marriages when it comes to the temperaments of the couple and how they are able to “complement” each other. In fact, very often the temperaments of the two people will clash vehemently. But it’s a funny thing…in those cases, even when the people clash rather than “complement” each other, we don’t deny them the right to marry, nor do we deny them the right to parenthood.
It’s only same-sex marriages, apparently, in which a clash of similar temperaments is considered such a horrendous bar to marriage.
As stated before, there are as many different temperaments as there are people. Meaning that there are as many possible temperament combinations among gays and lesbians as there are among heterosexuals.
Meaning, in fact, that “differences in temperament,” or the “complements” argument, doesn’t carry any weight. Not unless there are other differences more crucial than these.
The real objection
What about trying to think of other differences between men and women, aside from their supposedly innate temperaments? Think of things like personality, outlook, or nurturing impulses. Wouldn’t those count? Not really, because every one of those is really a subset of temperament. That means they all run into the same problems as the “temperament” or “complements” argument.
What about other things like the individuals’ ultimate values? Do we really expect that the members of a couple should have great differences there? Wouldn’t that lead to the sorts of clashes that could be harmful to the harmony of a marriage? Nobody who tries to use the “complements” argument ever tries to say that a couple’s internal value systems should be that different. In fact, most people using this argument would want the couple to have pretty much the same value system.
And nobody who genuinely believes in genuine democracy and freedom of choice would argue that the two people in a marriage should base their marriage on either a similarity or difference of racial identity or skin colour, or other matters of physical appearance. So these can’t possibly be part of the “complements” argument either.
Where does that leave us, then, when it comes to something inherent to a man and a woman that meets the “complementary” requirement and can be used to allow them to get married? Something that’s lacking between two women, or between two men?
You know what it is, of course. If differences in temperament, values, or other physical characteristics aren’t really enough to prevent two men or two women from getting married, there’s really just one obvious “difference” that’s left, between men and women. Just one indisputable “complementary” factor that could lead anyone to decide a man and woman should be able to marry, but two men or two women should not.
And so we return to the claim that opened this chapter. The “complements” objection, at its root, is about nothing but genitals. There is absolutely nothing else that is distinct enough to provide a clear dividing line between men and women. When it comes to the real crux of the matter, this argument boils down to the idea that only male and female genitals should bump together, and never male-male or female-female genitals.
This argument takes no account of anything else that makes a good marriage – commitment, shared values, dedication, love, the desire to form a family of support and nurturing – nothing. Even people whose genitals don’t work are allowed to create a marriage when those other qualities are present. But make those genitals similar to each other, and those values apparently mean nothing.
This objection to same-sex marriage – the “partners as complements” objection – is based entirely on genital sex, and nothing else. The surprise is that the people who use this objection are often the same people who claim that it’s the homosexuals who are sex-obsessed, and that all their own objections are based on higher values.
Yet all the arguments homosexuals make for wanting marriage are based on how much they value the institution with all its traditional responsibilities and characteristics, including the support, dedication, love, shared values – and especially the commitment. And yet the “complements” argument made against them ignores those truly great values and is based solely on genitals instead.
After learning the underlying reason beneath the “complements” argument, a sceptic might begin to wonder which side in the equal marriage battle actually is sex-obsessed, and which side really seeks the supposedly “higher values.”
This isn’t a sarcastic or snarky question either, because we’ll find, as we continue exploring the other arguments used against same-sex marriage, that the “genitals” argument is at the root of most of them. This troubling truth leads to another big question: Why?
There needs to be further study on this. But some have advanced the theory that the reason for the big push against equal marriage, and against homosexual people in general, is that their very existence seems to threaten the masculinity of the men who oppose them.
We have all known men whose concept of their own masculinity seems to be centred in their genitals and virtually nowhere else.
We have also known men who believe that all that’s needed to turn a lesbian into a straight woman is a good dose of hard sex with a man – and the men who say this are usually imagining that they are that man. They regard the very existence of the lesbian as a personal affront to themselves, and insist that the threat must be removed, forcibly if necessary.
And the last thing they can tolerate is a man who “acts like a woman.” This claim – that gay men are “like women” – is immune to all the evidence that contradicts it, for example the fact that a large percentage of gay men work out in a gym or are in such good shape and have such great muscles that they’d make an average straight man weep with envy. The fact that there is as wide a range of aggressive versus conciliatory behavior among gay men as there is among heterosexual men is completely ignored. No, gay men are “like women,” and this claim is repeated and repeated by those who oppose equal marriage, even though it’s easily demonstrated not to be true.
This leads to another issue: that those who oppose equal marriage for gays and lesbians frequently tend to be the same people who oppose equal rights for women. Men who believe they should dominate women, and women who believe they should be dominated by men, all similarly oppose women’s rights and gay rights.
It’s very possible that these people look at homosexuals as some kind of threat to the ongoing dominance of men over women. At the very least, homosexuals are a kind of visible betrayal of that supposed ideal. Lesbians are not dominated by men (which is why they can supposedly be “cured” by some enforced sex with a dominant man), and gay men have no interest in dominating women. In fact, since the dominant-male/submissive-female idea of marriage is what these opponents have in mind, then in their view, some gay men even “take the place of” women in a marriage relationship.
If such theories are true (and as I say, there may need to be further study), then it would not be surprising if men who oppose equal marriage feel genitally-threatened or betrayed by that idea of marriage, and by the existence of homosexuals themselves.
Support for this idea will be found, as we continue, in the fact that this “genital” basis appears again and again as the root of so many other supposed arguments against equal marriage.