Paper delivered to Third International Symposium on the United States and the United Nations, “Governance and trhe Challenge of Contemporary Crises,” June 18-19, 2002
There was a very interesting story in yesterday’s newspaper. There’s been a huge fire in Colorado, so big that it is getting ready to burn up the city of Denver. It now appears that the person who started this fire worked for the Forest Service ... It was a lady forest ranger whose job it was to go around and make sure people weren’t starting campfires. But it turns out that the lady was having trouble with her husband and he had sent her a letter that upset her. So she made a campfire and burned that letter. But the flames of her fire jumped out of the pit and set part of the woods on fire. She tried to throw dirt on the fire but it kept growing. She radioed for help but the fire grew too big and moved too fast. The fire burned more than 100,000 acres, destroyed 25 homes, caused 5,340 people to evacuate, and cost at least $6.7 million in damages. Maybe some of you know people who feel the same way about their marriage.
I thought this tragedy was a good metaphor for how when men and women fight, the consequences can go far beyond them. I’d like to talk about three family issues that the United States is struggling with right now:
No. 1: Should people even bother to marry, or is cohabiting just fine?
No. 2: Should marriage only be between one man and one woman, or is it okay to have other configurations…such as one man and many women, one woman and many men, two men or two women together, or how about a group of people marrying each other?
No. 3: Should sex be reserved for married people, or is it just another physical activity that should be conducted responsibly and safely by consenting adults?
Let’s start with the question about whether marriage is even necessary.
Marriage used to be the normal rite of passage for young Americans after graduating from high school: they married their high school sweetheart or met their future spouse in college or the workplace. The average age of marriage was twenty-two, and couples expected to stay married until “death do them part.”
But around forty years ago three things happened: The birth control pill was invented, so men and women could have sex without worrying about pregnancy. A few years later the Playboy mentality was created, the sexual revolution began, and sex became something that unmarried people did. And finally in the 1970s, states began to change their divorce laws so people could divorce each other without proving that one of them had been abusive, or cruel, or abandoned the children. This is called no-fault divorce.
Today in America, most people marry but they do so at a late age—25 for women, 27 for men. Couples still want to marry forever, but the US divorce rate is such that half of all first marriages end within twenty years. And sex remains a common activity for unmarried people—in 1990 there were 3.9 million cohabiting households in America. A decade later the number had risen 74 percent, to 5.4 million.
In America there is a group of people (including academics, researchers, and counselors) who say that the changes in the American family are okay…the family is evolving, they say, and the idea that a young man and young woman would marry, have children, and live happily ever after like they did on old TV shows is pretty much a myth. Male-female relationships are changing with the times, says this group of academics, and we should stop trying to go back in time and start figuring out how we can “build support services that modern families need” to care for the elderly and the young. (Council of Contemporary Families).
On the other side of this issue is a “marriage movement” that is aimed at shoring up marriage as an institution, stressing its importance to adults and children, and helping couples work out their problems instead of divorcing. I would say that the marriage movement has the most momentum:
Next month in Washington there will be a huge marriage conference that will gather the top thinkers, authors, counselors, therapists, and marriage groups. Also, our President, George W. Bush, believes in healthy marriage and has proposed spending up to $300 million a year to promote healthy marriages in a welfare reform law. But this battle over whether marriage is important or not is far from over.
Let’s move to the question of whether sex should be reserved for marriage. This is fundamentally a religious question, and America’s laws have reflected its JudeoChristian roots in outlawing sex outside of marriage, such as fornication and adultery. But since the 1960s, these morals have been broken down:
• Many teens expect to have sex on prom night,
• Many college students think nothing of sexually “hooking up” with other students they barely know, and,
• Millions of young couples live together without marrying.
Adultery is still condemned, but it now depends on what your definition of sex is: After all, to some people the statement, “I did not have sex with that woman, Monica Lewinsky” was both morally and medically accurate.
So has sex become divorced from marriage? I would have to say that in this battle, libertines have won most of the battles, but they haven’t quite won the war…. Since the 1990s, a growing group of Americans has been teaching teenagers that they should stay sexually abstinent until marriage and faithful after marriage. Hundreds of thousands of American teens have responded and taken virginity pledges. Also, US teen birth rates, which started falling in 1991, have now fallen to record lows. One of the good reasons for saving sex for marriage is the explosion of sexually transmitted diseases in America. We have around 15 million new cases of STDs diagnosed each year, including 40,000 new cases of AIDS. And so the tug of war between abstinence and safe sex continues.
Finally, let’s talk about who can marry. In America, which is founded on Judeo-Christian principles, marriage is restricted to one man and one woman at a time. Bigamy and polygamy are against the law. But today the law about who can marry is being challenged by another group of people—homosexuals, who want to be able to marry each other. In the mid1990s, homosexual couples sued the states of Hawaii and Alaska, saying that it was discriminatory to deny them civil marriage licenses. In both these states, a majority of residents found a way to block homosexual marriage. But two years ago in Vermont, a court ordered that state lawmakers give homosexual couples the legal benefits of marriage, and Vermont created something called a civil union. To date, nearly four thousand homosexual couples have gotten a civil union, even though it’s legal only in Vermont. This issue could get more serious: There’s a lawsuit in Massachusetts in which seven homosexual couples have sued for the right to legally marry. There is a good chance that the Massachusetts judges will legalize homosexual marriage because they have been very sympathetic to gay legal appeals in the past. And if Massachusetts legalizes homosexual marriage, it will open legal battles in the forty-nine other states.
Some Americans and advocacy groups think it’s a good idea that homosexuals should be allowed to marry. But other people think that once marriage is redefined so that two people of the same sex can marry, there will be no reason not to redefined it further and allow bisexuals to marry both their boyfriend and girlfriend and make other kinds of legal marital combinations. This, of course, would have huge consequences because the family is the basic unit of a society.
There is now a group of religious and community leaders who are working with Congress to pass an amendment to the US Constitution to define marriage as a man and a woman. If there were a constitutional amendment on marriage, it would settle the marriage issue in the courts.
Which side will win on any of these battles? As of now it’s a coin toss; no one has the clear advantage. But it’s absolutely clear that male-female relationships are way too important to take for granted, don’t you think? After all, just remember the lady, the letter, and the forest fire.