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Is Marriage Dying?

For better or worse: Marriage promotion, cohabitation and American politics.

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Heath follows the Oklahoman PREP classes over the course of almost a year, and one of the book’s strengths is allowing us to see what this kind of pro-marriage rhetoric looks like up close. The homophobia she encounters is staggering. There are, of course, the hyperbolic displays of hatred that have made pro-marriage foundations infamous: people standing outside the White House with shirts that say, “God Made Adam and Eve, Not Adam and Steve” and politicians who claim of gay rights, “There is no civil right to deny children a mother or a father.” But the prejudice is just as often latent and insidious. When a lesbian couple participates in one of the workshops, Heath interviews the other participants about them. The comments are withering. One man, unprompted, recounts having knocked a gay schoolmate unconscious. Another woman states that she was made uncomfortable by the couple, but still concedes that “they are human. They have needs too.” It’s not surprising that one woman in the lesbian couple says that although she realized in her 20s “who and what I was,” she stayed married to a man for 19 and a half years by “trying to be the best person I knew how to be.” Nineteen and a half years! This is as strong case as any for the reality of what Adrienne Rich described as “compulsory heterosexuality.”

As Heath surveys the administration of the much vaunted “marriage cure” in practice, it’s not hard to figure out what the real disease is. Again and again, the PREP classes stress the importance of traditional markers of gender: as Heath puts it, “men play with toys, women want flowers.” One workshop leader reads out statements about what women need, “All women (guys put on your tape recorder) want to feel like a princess. If you make her feel like a princess, she will make you feel like a king, if you get my drift.” Another recounts how his wife asked what she could do to get him to take out the garbage. His reply, “Pinch my butt and tell me how cute I am. Love them into change!” — as if to say, it’s simply not going to happen. “Back in your place, ladies!” these workshops might as well announce. In case the message wasn’t clear, one workshop Heath attends adds a reading of Ephesians 5:22-24: “Wives submit to your husband as to the Lord. For the husband is the head of the wife as Christ is the head of the Church, his body, of which he is the Savior.”

John Gray, the pop psychologist who wrote “ Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus,” now spends his time rallying at national pro-marriage conferences where he says things like:

We [men] just want [to be] our little master-of-my-own-kingdom. OK, I’m following everybody’s orders at work, they want me to talk a certain amount, I’ll do that […] Give me one place where I’m king, just give me one moment, and that’s what a man needs sometimes.

This speech is called “The Mars/Venus Solution.”

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These battles may seem to be only about reinforcing gender roles and prohibiting homosexuality, but that there’s a class agenda inherent to marriage promotion as well, as the historian Elizabeth Pleck’s “ Not Just Roommates: Cohabitation after the Sexual Revolution“ demonstrates. Pleck surveys the fight for cohabitation rights in a variety of case studies, including the controversy over cohabitation at Barnard in the 1960s and a cohabitation scandal in a small Wisconsin town that drove one of its participants to suicide. What emerges from Pleck’s research is this: the history of the pro-marriage movement is a history of prejudice against the poor. Marriage promotion seeks to counteract living arrangements historically prevalent among the poor, and, as those phenomena spread, punish the most vulnerable for social changes outside of their control.

 
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