If you’ve ever been in a debate with someone about gay marriage, one of the conversation stoppers that proponents often throw out is this: “How does gay marriage hurt traditional marriage?” Or more personally, “How does my gay marriage corrupt your straight marriage?” The thinking goes like this. What two people do in the privacy of their own home ought not concern you, even if they choose to reinvent society’s most basic institution. After all, who are you to judge someone else’s pairing? If some people want to call gay unions a “marriage,” what’s that to you?
The assumption in this line of argument is that marriage is a private good with no public consequences. But is this assumption valid? Is it not the case that a redefinition of marriage affects all marriages? Certainly a redefinition of marriage to allow gay nuptials will continue to sever the link between marriage and procreation. But this is not the only public consequence.
Mark Regnerus argues that monogamy might also be a casualty of legal gay marriage. Whereas the vast majority of Americans still consider adultery to be morally wrong (source), the same cannot be said for those in gay unions. Regnerus writes:
Because adultery doesn’t work the same way in a significant share of [gay] unions; instead of a single standard, couples negotiate (and often renegotiate) what their standard will be. It’s why Dan Savage can call nine extramarital partners being monogamish rather than serial cheating. Social theorist John Milbank asserts that when the definition of adultery must be tweaked, the exclusive sexual union risks ceasing to be perceived as having unique relevance—that is, not crucial—for marriage in general. We’re not there just yet, but the bridge is definitely under construction…
This, I predict, will be same-sex marriage’s signature effect on the institution—the institutionalization of monogamish as an acceptable marital trait. No, gay men can’t cause straight men to cheat. Instead, the legitimacy newly accorded their marital unions spells opportunity for men everywhere to bend the boundaries.
In short, Regnerus is arguing that the redefinition of marriage will bring with it a redefinition of marital norms. We’ve already seen this happen with the advent of legal no-fault divorce. No-fault divorce laws have given us unilateral divorce-on-demand as the norm. Thus the norm of lifelong monogamy has given way to serial monogamy over multiple marriages. That is why our culture is quite accepting of a man who has multiple wives—so long as he has them one at a time.
In the same way, I think Regnerus is on to something when he says that the legalization of gay marriage may cause a similar revision to the definition of “faithfulness” in marriage. A study published in 2010 reveals that monogamy is simply not a central feature for many gay unions. The New York Times reports:
Some gay men and lesbians argue that, as a result [of abandoning monogamy], they have stronger, longer-lasting and more honest relationships. And while that may sound counterintuitive, some experts say boundary-challenging gay relationships represent an evolution in marriage — one that might point the way for the survival of the institution.
Did you get that? The article suggests that “monogamish” serial adultery might be the future for all marriages. And not only that, adultery may save the institution from irrelevance! Perhaps this sounds like an absurd suggestion, but should we really be surprised by this? When we redefine marriage, everything is on the table. And there’s no reason to exclude the possibility that the monogamous norm might give way to the “monogamish” one on display here.
So as we appear to be on the precipice of legal gay marriage in this country, here’s a question everyone ought to be asking themselves: How much redefinition are you willing to allow? Is the monogamous norm up for grabs as well? The question is not whether we will define marriage in our culture and in our laws. The question is which definition we will land on. If we abolish the norm of monogamy, that will cause a revision that will affect everyone—both gay and straight.
How does gay marriage hurt straight marriage? Laws establish norms, and norms establish cultures. A thriving marriage culture will not be helped if spouses begin “renegotiating” what faithfulness means. For this reason, legal gay marriage could hurt straight marriage in ways that people never anticipated.