The Case Against the Sexual Revolution: Part 21, The Cracks in the Place Where Marriage Once Stood

Today we reach the final chapter of Louise Perry's The Case Against the Sexual Revolution (though there is also a Conclusion) entitled "Marriage Is Good."

My hunch is that this chapter will be one of the more polarizing among you, the readers. (Though this whole series has trafficked in provocation.) Defending marriage is a very traditional, conservative thing to do. On the other hand, liberal feminists have long criticized marriage as being a patriarchal institution. So, I expect our deeply and passionately held prior convictions will affect how we react to Perry's arguments in this chapter.

But for today, just to ease into this, I want us to be merely descriptive. 

With the invention of the contraceptive pill and the easing of divorce laws, the institution of marriage has undergone dramatic changes over the last 75 years. (The Pill was invented in 1950). With the Pill, sex outside of marriage could be widely enjoyed by women, something heretofore impossible for most of human history. This lowered the demand and necessity for marriage. And with legal reforms that have made divorce easier, we've seen people increasingly exiting marriages. Divorce rates have climbed.

As Perry recounts, these changes have been a blessing for many women. The Pill liberated women to have casual sex as men throughout history have had sex: Worry free. This was a win for women, or at least a balancing of the scales between the genders. In addition, women who were once trapped in toxic marriages are now able to escape abusive husbands. This is also a great win.

But the trouble with these changes, according to Perry, is that social changes that are great blessings for the few might have perverse impacts upon the whole. This, she argues, is what has happened to marriage. When we see a woman trapped in an abusive marriage, it is compassionate to change the laws to make it easier for her to escape. But a compassionate legal change aimed at helping a minority of women affects the institution of marriage for the entire population. Divorce becomes easier for everyone. I can exit my marriage now simply because I'm unhappy or restless. The fabric of the institution frays as marriage becomes increasingly optional, unnecessary, and provisional.

Now, a liberal response to these changes might be, "True, but that's just the cost of doing business. Vive la révolution!" Society as a whole must carry the costs of protecting the few, and this a good moral bargain. Conservatives, by contrast, think the social costs being carried by the many are too high, and that the institution of marriage needs some shoring up.

Here's a bit of that conservative argument. In America, 5.8% of married couples live in poverty. By contrast, 26.6% of single parents live in poverty. And 19.1% of single persons live in poverty. Among different ethnic groups, the statistics are even more stark. In short, one of the biggest anti-poverty interventions available to us as a society is the institution of marriage. And when we go on to note that the majority of poor single parents are women, we can see how stable marriages exist to help and support women. 

This shouldn't be a surprise to anyone. From the dawn of human history, marriage hasn't been about love and self-actualization. Marriage, as an institution, then and now, has been about material survival. Simply put, it is very hard to survive all on your own. That has been the case in hunter-gather societies, and it remains the case under capitalism. Add caring for children to the mix, and the economic plight of a single parent grows dire. Abusive marriages are horrible for women, but marriage as a stable institution is also good for women. Both these things can be true.

What about the children? Again, the data here are also clear. If you want to protect, care for, and launch your children, staying married is one of the best things you can do. And if you doubt this, ask any unhappily married person about why they are staying married, at least for now. It is because of the children. And the most heart-rending aspect of any divorce isn't the marriage, but the impact upon the children.

But can't we get re-married to help support the children? We can. But there's also the dark statistics about step-parents and child abuse. Now, to be very, very clear, loving step-parents are heroes. I would argue that a loving step-parent is one of the most Christ-like examples of altruism in the world. A loving step-parent is pouring love and material resources into a child who isn't their biological off-spring, and from a Darwinian perspective that is the very definition of altruism, pure love. So, to all readers who are loving step parents: I see you. You are the very best of us.

But that heroism is taking place against a dark backdrop. The statistics report that a step-parent is 40 to 100 times more likely than a biological parent to kill a child, and stepfathers far more likely to sexually abuse their stepchildren. Such statistics have caused Steven Pinker to declare that step-parenthood is "the strongest risk factor for child abuse ever identified."

All of that is very grim to say out loud, but I'm just trying to make a simple point: Getting married and staying married is good for women and good for children.

Again, we're just trying to be descriptive here. The social changes that have affected marriage over the last seventy-five years have had mixed impacts upon women and children. Some changes have been good, and liberals like to highlight those. But some impacts have been bad, and conservatives like to highlight those. And it's very difficult to take in this whole, complicated, and messy picture in our polarized political climate to have a honest conversation about how best to balance out these benefits and costs. We mostly just throw bombs. 

I think the helpful thing Perry is doing, in highlighting the benefits of marriage for women and children, is drawing attention to how, throughout human history, the institution of marriage did important work, economically and in regards to the care of children. And with the institution of marriage now wobbling, much of that work is no longer being done. Women and children are currently falling through cracks that we, with the very best of intentions, created. How best to patch up those cracks is a fraught political debate, but progress starts with the honest admission that cracks now exist in our world in the place where marriage once stood.

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