Friday, March 09, 2007

Marriage across cultures

At Beliefnet the other day, I pointed out that marriage has always meant male-female, despite all the ways has otherwise differed. This drew the following rebuttal:
It took me all of five minutes to find this interesting article on same-sex marriage in non-European traditions:

A quote: Woman-woman marriage has been documented in more than 30 African populations, including the Yoruba and Ibo of West Africa, the Nuer of Sudan, the Lovedu, Zulu and Sotho of South Africa, and the Kikuyu and Nandi of East Africa.

No doubt if I were a professional anthropologist and willing to devote hours to research, I could present more evidence, but this seems enough to cast some doubt on your statement.
I decided my response was too long for a combox (plus Rod quickly afterward said the thread had jumped the shark). But here it is:

First of all, as a matter of general background, I am extremely suspicious of accounts of primitive societies that seem to dovetail with current concerns and/or the ideological predilections of the Western intellectual classes. I think it was that Christianist-godbag Nietzsche who warned about how study of the Other or of the past becomes a dig for what you yourself buried (in other words, finding what you're looking for).

There is precedent for this skepticism -- there's the now famously debunked Margaret Mead among the Samoans (and among others). And there's an important example (John Boswell) that I'll go into below. More generally, in his criticism of "feminist science," sociologist Steven Goldberg (The Inevitability of Patriarchy) wrote of how rampant is the misuse of semi-understood ethnography to back the wishes of a contemporary form of liberal activism (feminism).
When its explanations manage to avoid refutation by a cursory logical glance, they invoke bogus empirical evidence whose misrepresentation can be exposed by spending 90 seconds with the source invoked. (I have checked well over a hundred claims -- never made by the ethnographer who actually studied the society in question -- that a specific ethnography describes a nonpatriarchal society; it has never taken over 90 seconds with the invoked ethnography to demonstrate the ludicrousness of the claim. I have never found anyone willing to attempt to back up such a claim once it became clear that I had checked the ethnography that had been invoked.)
If some anthropologist were to have written in, say, 1980 that "Tribe X marries men and men," that's one thing. I'd sit up and pay attention. But such a claim made afresh in 2007 (or any time after, I'd say, about 1990) I just yawn. It should have to be looked at with, not just a grain, but a whole salt lick.

Second, there are severe problems with any attempt to analogize social relationships across societies. As I said when I last broached into this subject, many societies, especially primitive ones, have defined social relationships that may involve persons of the same sex and/or same-sex love in some sense of "love" — sponsorship, adoption, brotherhood and what Boswell tendentiously tries to turn into homosexual marriage — adelphopoiesin. Other societies have long been known to have social relationships that involved same-sex sex acts — Greek pederasty, and rites of passage and periods of testing for manhood, especially.

I quite realize that erotic love as we understand it has not always been the exclusive goal of marriage — as often as not, property and, particularly among the upper class, political-dynastic considerations have been. But there will often be in a society other arrangements between persons of the same sex that also have something to do with property or politics (adelphopoiesin being one, in fact). That doesn't make those arrangements marriages.

Third, we are truly crippled in avoiding presentist eisegesis by the fact that English uses a single word "love" to cover a host of relationships. Thus even a good-willed person can leave the wrong impression (and Boswell does too). But it's not just the language, because Shakespeare could write (Laertes speaking to Hamlet before their deadly duel):
... But till that time,
I do receive your offer'd love like love,
And will not wrong it.
No ... it's more the present-day sexification of everything. We can hardly conceive any more of love that doesn't either involve sex or isn't smirkingly winked at as a denied or repressed form of sex (visit the local U.'s gay-studies department on a day ending in "y" for examples of "queering" everything under the sun). But because sex is in fact a feature of marriage, we thus "read in" sex and so see "marriages" where there are not. People can love one another, actually mean it, and even enter into a formal arrangement of it. That doesn't make it "marriage" any more than it does two college fraternity brothers (who love one another) signing a contract (i.e., a formal arrangement of property) to share their apartment.

With these considerations in mind, I conclude that citations from civilized societies about themselves, ones capable of self-conscious self-presentation from within, count for far, far more than any number of "anthropologist among the primitives" field work. I would also say that whatever classifications might work best in other societies, the relationship cannot meaningfully be called a "marriage" unless
  • it is supposed to involve sex (whatever the relative importance of eros or love may have been)
  • it is supposed to be exclusionary (I don't mean monogamy, but rather whether entering the union precluded someone from marriage, whatever the existing understanding of it)
  • it is supposed to be permanent (I mean it doesn't have built-in impermanence, not whether dissolution was ever possible)
  • it has substantial social approval (people always behave badly; that doesn't make, say, robbery or murder a lifestyle, or a gang of thieves or the Mafia the government)
I say "supposed to" in most of these formulations because practice obviously never perfectly follows understanding. And the one exception is the ultimate "supposed to" -- in fact, it's hard to imagine what a "socially-disapproved marriage" could ever mean (especially to a social constructionist) or what the value of marriage would be except for approval of some other (society or God).

With all that in mind, much of the information here on supposed same-sex "marriages" simply dissolves, even on the brief descriptions given there. Even the one that most-closely resemble marriage was hardly more than a socially-disapproved deviation. After all, the biological argument for the centrality of male-female to family formation is so simple, obvious and universal that it hardly needs stating.

The African "female husband" practices do not center on same-sex sex (the only sex mentioned is opposite-sex) and so have nothing apparent to do with lesbianism. They seem more like family-line/ancestor-worship accommodations of either solitary females in a family or a general male-shortage (the later would be common in a warrior or hunter tribe, as all the there-named groups I know anything about are).

The African and Fujianese male practices are clearly rites of passage or adult-boy sponsorship, analogous to Greek pederasty in our own tradition. The page even says the younger boys married and the older man was expected to pay for his wedding.

The Guangdong Golden Orchid Societies, as presented here, come closest to marriage. But as this source indicates (even while breathing the m-word and saying that erotic pleasure was sometimes involved) they were first and foremost a group arrangement of women who eschewed marriage and lived in community, like nuns or monks. Hence "societies." The ceremonies being referred to occurred within the group (and no doubt some hanky-panky may have gone on, homosexuality as behavior being universal). Further, as McGough and other sources indicate, it was a secret society that was not socially approved.

The American Indians described actually point to the opposite. Having "alternative gender roles" proves nothing about marriage and, in the one specific case cited (the Mohave), actually undercuts any claim that any ceremony with two penises or four breasts was "homosexual." Especially if this is occurring in the context of shamanism or multiple-spirit soulcraft. If a biological male has, for whatever reason, been socialized into female gender role, then his marrying a socialized male proves that even a socially-constructed marriage is "male-female."

So I stand by my statement: I am unaware of any society which we know from their accounts had an approved same-sex sexual relationship conceived as a marriage alternative or parallel for a particular class of persons.


entropy said...

Wonderfully interesting post. Keep it up!

Jeffrey Smith said...

Good work. Keep it up.

Byron M. Rae said...

Then, since we can't use colonial investigations into other --"primitive", as you call them, which sounds like "lesser"-- cultures to help us in our quest to "define" marriage, then we've got to look at Western traditions and governments. In some Western countries same-sex marriage is defined, legally, exactly the same as opposite-sex marriage. So, marriage is a legal union between adults, regardless of gender. The end. I don't think you help our argument much with that one. I think we need a little cross-cultural and cross-historical analysis. And the idea that there are people on earth who live out lives that are [or were, but why should that matter?] hard for Westerners to make sense of or "define", then we've got a problem sticking to our guns on what we think marriage is.

Then there's the idea that "marriage" seems to be a common sense thing. We all know what it is, because it is what it is, one might argue. If someone asked me what marriage is, I'd have an answer in my head. It's commonsensical, It's irrefutable, because the image and definition of it popped in my head as part of a cultural, linguistic, social, religious and political tradition. Because it occurs to me as not needing defense, it simply is the thing that I think it is [granted, I think in English, as a Westerner, a "non-primitive", a Christian, a heterosexual male, an Arkansan, etc.], but I KNOW what marriage is . In that sense, I agree with you 100%. But after I read your blog I turned to my wife and said, "What is marriage?" She replied, "It's when two people spend their lives together as a team." I said, "ANY two people?" She said, "Well, not children." I said, "What about gay people?" She said, "Yeah, I think so...makes sense to me."
Well, I'm not arguing that my wife is the zenith of sensible, but her commonsense definition of marriage didn't have anything to do with gender. She's a regular gal from Texas, but she didn't have the same restrictions in her head that I did. So I think we've got to define the issue legally, so that common sense, which changes over time [check Lincoln's thoughts on African Americans' intellects] can't be the thing that defines it. "Common sense" is starting to forget that there is a difference between men and women.