Future marriage

I support the recent Supreme Court decision expanding marriage rights to include gays and lesbians in the United States. It may be that I support it from a different point of view than many other people.

I look at same-sex marriage as one small step in the process of keeping marriage up to date with changes in the world, culture and civilization, while staying consistent with the values enshrined in the U.S. constitution.  In a sense it had to happen, to clear the path for greater changes.  

The notion that marriage has been the same for “thousands of years” is inaccurate.  Marriage has transformed itself many times in the past, and is sure to change again, perhaps startlingly, in the decades ahead.   The whole notion of marriage for love, for example, did not become popular until about two and a half centuries ago.

The world has changed a great deal since the constitution was ratified, and will go on changing.  The Supreme Court is correct that the question needs to be considered in the framework of applying time-honored principles flexibly to new situations, not pretending the world been frozen in stasis since the mid-18th century.  

The founding fathers of the United States lived in a different world, in which white males could and often did own slaves, women could not vote or own property independently, and women, children and people with more melanin in their skin pigments were all regarded as property.  Slaves in the U.S. could marry, and were pressured to do so, but one of the horrific things about their situations was that their husbands or wives could be sold off at any point, tearing apart the family at the discretion of the slaveowner.  

The point being: What constitutes a marriage has never been locked in stone.  Many of the traditions we think of as time-honored and eternal date back to particular social and economic circumstances which don’t exist anymore, and once represented something very different.

So, taking the long view of history, where we’ve come from and where we may be going, the question is not just what needs, or needed, to happen with gay marriage, but where things may need to develop in the future. 

My own point of view is that several forms of marriage which are not currently legal, or were until recently not legal, or may not have even been imagined, should all be legalized and brought into the mainstream:

1) Gay marriage (really just monogamous marriage, expanded to include lesbians and gays) is a fait accompli and should continue to be legal. It’s a done deal. There is no going back, and no need to.

2) Polyandry:  A version of polygamy in which one woman has several husbands.  Should be legal under some conditions (see below).

3) Polygany:  A version of polygamy in which one man has several wives.  Should be legal under some conditions (see below).

Polygamy (particularly polygany) has a deservedly bad rap.  As feminist blogger Jillian Keenan wrote, polygany has historically been a devastating experience both for many of the women who had to endure it, and for the young men who were often discarded or driven out of their homes early to prevent them from completing with the patriarch.

But, Killian goes on to say, these abuses are not necessary or innate to this form of marriage. A version of polygamy could be created which respects equality between the sexes, and is consistent with the values and aims of feminism. (See Keenan’s article here)  

Critics will point out that women were historically abused and disempowered in polygamous marriages. This is true, but the same is true of monogamous male/female marriages until fairly recent times.  Just as monogamous heterosexual marriage has changed in recent decades to acknowledge the rights of women, non-monogamous marriage can also change in a way that respects women’s rights. 

Rethinking polygamous and polyandrous marriage will take some thought and care, but is not unthinkable or impossible.  The main challenge would actually be working out property and inheritance rights.  When those are solved, it’s just a matter of bringing it in line with current norms.   Keenan makes a good point that legalizing polygamy in its various forms, and bringing it out of the shadows, will be part of an effective remedy for preventing its historical abuses.

4) Multiple partners of both sexes in the same marriage should be legal. (A marriage in the future might include, for example, three women and two men.)  I’m not sure if there’s a name for this type of marriage, but it has been imagined many times, most recently in the SF TV series “Caprica.”

5) Looking toward the future: If machines at some point gain sentience and a sense of individual identity and autonomy, marriages between autonomous sentient machines should be legal. 

6) Again assuming the machines are actually sentient and have free will, marriage between autonomous machines and humans should also be legal.  (This issue will likely be on the agenda within the next fifty years.)

7) Looking even further into the future: If the human race encounters other sentient races, or other sentient, intelligent species come into existence through the intervention of science or the natural process of evolution on earth, marriage should then be legal and allowed between humans and other living intelligent sentient beings.

What would not be allowed?

Does this mean all imaginable forms of marriage would/should be legal, and respected by the state?  No. Obvious abuses, like marriages between adults and children who are too young to give consent,  or “marriages” between human beings and species such as animals who by nature can’t give consent, should never be allowed.  The people who’ve claimed that gay marriage “would lead to people marrying their dogs” seem to miss this point somehow, but it’s the rational dividing line.  The common thread should not be gender or sexuality, but the ability to give informed consent.

Religious authorities may have problems because (some of) the precepts discussed here aren’t covered in the bible.  But any religion with anything valid to offer will adapt to it just as churches which initially opposed interracial marriage in the 1960s, adapted to the change. 

Legalizing gay marriage is a small step, kind of a blip really, in the direction of what marriage may look like in the future, i.e., moving beyond the notion that it’s about one man and one woman.  It will have many, many forms in the future that will make today’s issues seem irrelevant by comparison.  Science fiction is an interesting venue for exploring some of these possibilities. But some SF precepts, such as the emergence of artificial intelligence and the questions it will raise, are almost guaranteed to be part of our real future

I’m sure there will be struggles and questions raised around the changes in the types and forms of marriage described above, as the years go by.  If the U.S. is to remain a viable and forward-looking nation, in my opinion, they should all eventually be allowed and accepted into the mainstream.

P.S. Yup, I really do mean it.  People marrying robots, aliens, multiple adult partners and all those folks marrying each other.  I hope to see it in my lifetime, and wish the newlyweds well.