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A Thin Argument

August 13, 2010

Ross Douthat is continuing to respond to critics of his gay marriage column. I am not one of them — but his post on “Marriage in Thick and Thin” does address a point I raised earlier this week. According to Douthat and Eve Tushnet, the lesbian Catholic whom he quotes approvingly, the state has a special interest in heterosexual relationships due to the “interplay of fertility, reproductive impulses and gender differences” — an interplay Douthat characterizes as “thick,” in contrast to the “thinness” of homosexual relationships. Marriage is, on this account, necessary to bring straight sexual impulses in line with social order.

It is difficult to see why puritanical regulation of human sexuality should be the crux of the marriage ideal, rather than the stability of the family. Douthat would, of course, contend that the “thickness” of heterosexual relationships brings sex and procreation together. But quite obviously it does not. For one thing, there’s contraception, the elephant in this rhetorical room. For another, there is infertility, old age, and a host of other factors that sever the link between sex and childrearing.

Douthat is silent on contraception, but does have this to say about infertility and old age:

Because they’ve grown up and fallen in love as heterosexuals, the infertile straight couple will experience their inability to have children very differently than a same-sex couple does. Similarly, even two eighty-nine-year-old straights, falling in love in the nursing home, will be following relational patterns — and carrying baggage, no doubt, after eighty-nine years of heterosexual life! — laid down by the male-female reproductive difference.

Here Douthat concedes that some types of heterosexual relationships aren’t “thick” in the sense that they link sex and procreation; they are “thick” with reference to a straight couple’s “experience” of infertility and the “relational patterns” of an elderly straight couple. Douthat may be right, but from the standpoint of social order, it is difficult to see why the state should have an interest in such experiences and relational patterns. Moreover, the characterization of marriage as a set of resonances within individuals is presumably what Douthat had hoped to dispute — the line of argument favored by proponents of civil marriage.

I, for one, would prefer fewer flights of lofty rhetoric surrounding marriage, and more discussion of plain sociological facts. And of course ideals. Capitalism has continually undermined social order, while marriage has the potential to help restore it. Given these facts, we can ask ourselves, which is going to have more impact: the set of “thick” experiences shared by all straight people, or the ability of adoptive parents to create stability for the young? If the latter, why straight, but not gay?


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