Canada’s decision to permit same sex-marriage and the recent Supreme Court decision striking down anti-sodomy laws have once again filled the air with familiar conservative arguments featuring “traditional morality” and “family values.” It is a rhetoric that allows talk of marriage without explicitly mentioning sex. “Traditional morality” means, in the words of California’s “Defense of Marriage Act,” Proposition 22 (which was overwhelmingly approved in 1999), “marriage between a man and a woman.” “Family values” ties marriage to procreation or, as the director of the Institute for American Values maintains, a “biological bond between parents and children.” What the rhetoric obscures is another end of marriage: the regulation of sex.
To be sure, marriage is related to the nurturing and socialization of children, but historically that has never been its only purpose. For example, marriage has been used to cement alliances between families with common interests-particularly economic ones-and to create alliances between nations. But whatever the purpose, its attainment depends on the successful control of the sex drive.
Sex is a constant threat to the routines that constitute everyday life and that allow people to live, work, and play together, whether in corporations, the military, universities, or country clubs. Terms such as “harassment,” “escapade,” “fling” underline its disorderly possibilities. Sex, however, can be channeled or disciplined; its potential for creating chaos in relationships and institutions can be, if not eliminated, at least moderated.
One promise a marriage ritual exacts of a couple is the vow of “faithfulness” or exclusivity: no sex outside the marriage. In exchange, as it were, each assumes the responsibility of providing the other with the satisfactions of sex. These vows are typically part of a religious ceremony, and when civil law prohibits adultery or “fornication,” secular and divine power together generate pressures supporting the marital promises. Honoring the dictates of law, religion, and public expectation domesticates sex. Still, even in the most “god-fearing” and “law-abiding” of times, to say nothing of “dissolute” or “decadent” eras, marriage vows have a chancy career. Marriage, then, to understate the case somewhat, is not wholly effective in regulating sex.
We are tempted, though, to overestimate its lack of success; the moralist’s jeremiad and the gossip’s snicker focus attention on the failure of marriage rather than on more prosaic realities. In 1992 the most sophisticated and statistically rigorous national survey of American sexual behavior asked more than three thousand respondents between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine how many “sex partners”...
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