As the oldest of human institutions, marriage has regulated the one human relationship amongst all others which serves the future of the human race through the procreation of children. Over the millennia there has been a remarkable near-universal consensus that marriage governs parental responsibilities, creating the most stable environment to safeguard the welfare of children. Marriage predates civilisation and particularly the emergence of the state, making marriage neither the state’s invention nor its plaything, yet in the last fifty years it has presumed to redefine it. With the ascendancy of the sexual revolution’s alternatively-conceived “marriage” destroying the central focus of that multi-millennial consensus, the primacy of children’s welfare has been trumped by a very different primacy, the gratification of adults’ sexual and emotional desires.
The vows of marital permanence (“till death us do part”) and exclusivity (“forsaking all others”) provide children with a level of stability which cannot be matched by any other family structure. With the sexual revolution’s introduction of no-fault divorce, as legislated in Australia in 1975, the public accountability of wedding vows was no longer matched by an equal public accountability for divorce, where the three As of adultery, abandonment and abuse had historically been the only grounds for dissolution. As a triumph for compassion, where couples were no longer subject to messy, intrusive and sometimes expensive proceedings, no-fault divorce treated a marriage contract as no contract at all. As Ryan T. Anderson correctly points out in his book Truth Overruled (2015), a person cannot tear up a contract with his plumber without legal consequences. Anderson perceptively asks, “How much domestic stability do we expect when a man is under a more serious legal obligation to his plumber than to his wife?”
The breakdown of the family, recognised as devastating by both liberals and conservatives, has been the predictable consequence, as marriages stumble and fall under the weight of unresolved marital conflict which overwhelms initial romance, sexual desire and common interests. The intense feelings of alienation, upheaval and disorientation visited upon children transitioning into single-parent, step, blended or adopting families are precisely the reason divorce had historically been made difficult— compassion demanded it. Individuals were forced to choose a partner carefully before entering marriage and to work through conflict to minimise any pain and suffering for their children. By contrast, modern young people are now culturally kraaled towards porn and a hook-up culture which will very likely predispose them to non-marital child-bearing and extramarital sex, which certainly gratifies adult desires at the expense of the needs of the child. Today, 35 per cent of Australian children are born out of wedlock.
There is very good evidence that children raised by both biological parents have significantly better lives than those in other family models. The removal of traditional obstacles to divorce has made television’s Married at First Sight a bankable spectacle with its presumption of consequence-free exits from “marriages” for no other reason than sentiment. The modern pre-nuptial agreement stands as the iconic symbol of the lack of commitment and trust between parties entering modern marriages, where “till death us do part” is repeated for the sake of sepia-coloured nostalgia but as nothing more than a romantic proxy for “till love runs cold”. In the current discussion about gay marriage, the first recognition should be that the destruction of child-centred marriage has been a particularly heterosexual achievement. Nevertheless, any assessment of the pros and cons of gay marriage must be measured against the millennial consensus on marriage rather than against this latter parody.
The near universality of child-centred marriage is beyond contention. Unanimity exists amongst the world religions on the importance of marital permanence and exclusivity, as with the less-clad tribes of the other continents. In various cultures with an early history of tribal wars where too many slain men created too many empty wombs, polygamy served both to protect those women and to increase tribal numbers, yet permanence and exclusivity are still requirements within that marital context. Significantly for the current debate, heterosexual marriage lies not within the sole domain of religion—secular Greek philosophers such as Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, residing in a homoerotic culture where Socrates himself boasted his love of young men, never contemplated homosexual relationships as being the equivalent of a marriage. Across all eras and societies marriage has been firmly defined by the act of human procreation—as attested by the many cultures with arranged marriages—rather than by romantic attachment, important as it is.
Coitus, the sexual act of procreation which is beyond the reach of trendy social constructivisms, has been both the heart and arbiter of marriage. Marriages have historically been open to annulment whenever impotence has prevented coitus. Crucially, with procreation as the chief focus of marriage, so-called marriage equality loses all meaning, because equality is about comparing like with like. The very nature of same-sex unions means they can never be biologically capable of procreation, therefore gay sex can never be a marital act. While gay relationships as a rule are not child-centred, heterosexual relationships almost always are. Marriage cannot become inclusive of same-sex couples without losing its meaning.
Gay-rights advocates argue that discrimination denies gay couples the higher status belonging to the institution of marriage. As Australian gay relationships are already accorded most of the material and social benefits accruing to civil unions and marriages, denying the higher status of marriage is no more discriminatory than denying that a cleaner has the same status as a doctor. The differing status here is hardly the result of discrimination—they are rather governed by very different roles and societal contributions. Procreation ensures the survival of humanity, and children successfully raised ensure the good of society. It is both of these roles that confer a status on marriage.
If enacted within Australia, gay marriages would become the most visible and influential signifier of the desertion of the child as the new focus of marriage. Centred on adult romance, and with coitus set aside as its rationale, marriage loses any inherent constraint limiting it to two partners. Coitus can only ever be enacted by two, while romantic emotions can be the domain of three or more. What amounts to an entire redefinition of marriage precipitated by gay marriage laws will necessarily cement into place that newer conception of marriage which frees it of any intrinsic rationale prohibiting threesomes or any greater plurality.
There is nothing intrinsic within romance demanding permanence and exclusivity—emotions come and go—emptying the word marriage of any content. Freed of the internal child-centred drivers for “till death us do part” and “forsaking all others”, marriage becomes an empty edifice, a shell of its true meaning. Those US states which have enacted gay marriage have already seen the increasing abandonment of marriage by heterosexuals; despite marriage rates in other states remaining stable, Vermont has seen declines of 5.1 per cent, Connecticut 7.3 per cent, Massachusetts 8.9 per cent and Iowa 9.2 per cent. When marriage has been rendered meaningless, it is predictable that couples will back away. In 2004 same-sex-marriage proponent Professor Ellen Willis stated in an article in the Nation that, “conferring the legitimacy of marriage on homosexual relations will introduce an implicit revolt against the institution into its very heart”.
Willis’s urgings raise an important issue. Those promoting gay marriage have charged the defenders of marriage with overstating the damage done to marriage via its redefinition. The most eloquent voices for maintaining the historical view, though, are indeed its detractors. Take the sentiments of the Huffington Post’s Michelangelo Signorile, another gay-marriage proponent who implores gays to “demand the right to marry not as a way of adhering to society’s moral codes but rather to debunk a myth and radically alter an archaic institution”. He presses them to “fight for same-sex marriage and its benefits and then, once granted, redefine the institution of marriage completely, because the most subversive action lesbians and gay men can undertake … is to transform the notion of ‘family’ entirely”. Masha Gessen, a lesbian gay-rights author and activist, is even more direct:
Fighting for gay marriage generally involves lying about what we are going to do with marriage when we get there—because we lie that the institution of marriage is not going to change, and that is a lie. The institution of marriage is going to change, and it should change. And again, I don’t think it should exist.
If gay-rights proponents believe that redefining marriage will ultimately destroy it, defenders of traditional marriage most certainly cannot be cast as either alarmist or mean-spirited.
These statements by gay-rights activists pivot on the admission that gay norms will definitively change or destroy the meaning of marriage, rather than age-old marital norms altering gay lifestyle. And there can be no doubt that gay norms are less child-friendly than traditional marriage. David McWhirter and Andrew Mattison, a gay couple who set out in the 1980s to disprove the notion that most gay partnerships fail to be exclusive, concluded that “the expectation for outside sexual activity was the rule for male couples”. Colleen Huff, the principal investigator of a 2010 San Francisco study, said of gay non-exclusivity, “With straight people, it’s called affairs or cheating, but with gay people it does not have such negative connotations.” A 2006 study of same-sex civil marriages in Norway and Sweden led by Gunnar Andersson found that “unions of lesbians are considerably less stable or more dynamic than unions of gay men” (my emphases). These studies are representative of many others. Any notion that accession to marriage will radically alter gay lifestyles is clearly misguided.
A substantial body of scientific research on family structures is unequivocal in its findings that children raised by their biological parents have the best outcomes. There is also a strong body of evidence that the parenting of mothers is quite different from the parenting of fathers, to the point where some advocate dropping the term “parenting” for “mothering” and “fathering”. David Popenoe, a sociologist of Rutgers University, explains:
We should disavow the notion that “mommies can make good daddies,” just as we should disavow the popular notion … that “daddies can make good mommies” … The two sexes are different to the core, and each is necessary—culturally and biologically—for the optimal development of a human being.
Mothers focus on the child’s immediate well-being, and tend to be more responsive in discipline, providing flexibility and sympathy, while fathers tend to focus on the child’s long-term development, be firm in their discipline, offering ultimate predictability and consistency.
Studies controlling for poverty and genetics indicate that children raised by their biological parents have better outcomes in terms of educational achievement, including literacy and graduation rates, and better emotional health, with lower rates of anxiety and depression, substance abuse and suicide. They have a stronger sense of identity, later onset of puberty, lower rates of teen and out-of-wedlock pregnancy, as well as lower rates of sexual abuse. They fare better in terms of rates of aggression, attention deficit disorder, delinquency and incarceration, and require less hospitalisation and less need for costly government intervention—in short they represent a healthier society.
The left-leaning Child Trends research organisation has concluded that “it is not simply the presence of two parents … but the presence of two biological parents that seems to support children’s development”. In a 2008 speech Barack Obama said, “We know the statistics—that children who grow up without a father are five times more likely to live in poverty and commit crime; nine times more likely to drop out of schools and twenty times more likely to end up in prison.” In 2013 he said, “I was raised by a heroic single mom … But I sure wish I had had a father who was not only present but involved. Didn’t know my dad.” Yet Obama has put his weight behind same-sex marriage, which will institutionalise fatherless homes for all married lesbian parents. Governments have protected marriage throughout recorded history because of the greater social stability it creates, but Obama is one of the first to desert that overwhelming historical consensus. Misfortune and other circumstances too often deprive children of a mother or a father, but why intentionally deprive a child of what nature provides it?
What of the many studies indicating that children of same-sex parents have the same outcomes or better than children in other family structures? The American Psychological Association lists fifty-nine studies on its website, most of which conclude that there are no differences in outcomes between children of opposite-sex parents and children of same-sex parents. However, these studies first compare children of same-sex parents with children of married, divorced, cohabiting, step-family and frequently single parents treated as a single comparison group, eliminating the most widely-attested single cause of difference in child outcomes—intact families. Second, they use small, self-selected samples, such as from advertising in a gay coffee-shop then getting respondents to invite their friends, too often drawn from disproportionately affluent and educated parents unrepresentative of the study population. No internationally recognised reviewers of social sciences give any credence to such studies.
There are only eight studies which are large, random and population-based that can be considered scientifically adequate. Allen’s 2013 study of 20 per cent of the Canadian census found that children of same-sex parents were only 65 per cent as likely to graduate from school as children of married opposite-sex parents. Two 2015 studies by Sullins analysing more than 512 children drawn from 207,000 cases in the United States NHIS public health survey found that the risk of emotional and developmental problems, including ADHD, was twice as high for children of same-sex parents as for children of heterosexual parents. Children from intact families, which would have made the results even more marked, were actually excluded from this comparison. A fourth 2012 study by Regnerus of more than 3000 cases in the New Family Structures Study compared children whose parent had been in a same-sex relationship, but cannot be used because not all children lived with that parent.
The remaining four studies had corrupted samples. Rosenfeld’s 2010 study, using US census data from 2000 to judge schooling outcomes, failed to recognise that it had known coding errors that misclassified up to 40 per cent of same-sex couples as different-sex couples, thus invalidating the study. Three studies by Wainright of children of forty-four lesbian couples drawn from 20,000 cases in the US National Longitudinal Survey of Adolescent Health nevertheless had twenty-seven of the forty-four living with both their mother and father despite the lesbian relationship. When the remainder are separately analysed the children show similar negative outcomes to those in the Sullins studies. Perhaps the most troubling finding in the separate analysis was that more than a third of children with same-sex parents reported being sexually violated by a parent or caregiver before Grade 6 and 70 per cent whose same-sex parents identified as married had been forced to have sexual intercourse against their will. Clearly the weight of evidence fails to support equal outcomes for children living with same-sex couples.
Two remaining objections to historical marriage remain. The first maintains that resisting same-sex marriage laws is no different from supporting the now universally condemned racial marriage laws that once applied in the United States. The analogy fails, though, because race-based laws have never been seen as intrinsic to the meaning of marriage, as attested by so many cultures over so many millennia which never included considerations of race in marriage. English common law, existing at the same time as US racial laws, entertained no notions of marriage bans based on race.
The second objection asserts that if infertile couples are allowed to marry, then the definition of marriage cannot have been linked to procreation. However, it is the procreative nature of marriage rather than its procreative results for individual couples that has driven governments’ historical understanding. Governments simply do not wish to make fertility tests or questionnaires about procreative intention the basis of marriage, nor do they will minor exceptions to the rule to become the rule. Rather, the permanency and exclusivity occasioned by the needs of children are too valuable to all marriage partnerings to be discarded on the basis of a failure to procreate. What is more, many couples resigned to infertility end up conceiving or adopting children later, and of course, any conscientious objectors are always capable of a change of mind. Amongst older couples who marry, one partner often remains fertile, and marriage is a safeguard against other sexual liaisons creating families outside that marriage. To repeat an earlier point, coitus, not conception, birth or adoption, is the event which consummates marriage.
The central problem in the marriage debate is that there are two compassions at play. One compassion focuses on the emotional well-being of a relatively small number of couples in the gay community who have or want children. The other compassion is for a very large number of children made more vulnerable by broken marriages. The problem is that one compassion cannot be satisfied without detriment to the other. That is the invidious choice that faces our legislators.
Gary Christian is the secretary of Drug Free Australia. He has worked in the Australian welfare industry for twenty-two years, including seventeen years in senior management for Mission Australia and ADRA Australia. He wrote on drug legalisation in the April issue.