Wednesday, July 06, 2005

The Sexual Revolution Continues

Stephanie Coontz is a socialist feminist and an academic she has written a controversial essay in the New York Times, which I have reprinted below, reminding us that it was the Sexual Revolution of the Sixties that opened the doors to Same Sex Marriage.

The Social Origins of Private Life; A History of American Families 1600-1900, her excellent social history, I reviewed back in 1996 for Labour News.
I used it as a critique of the right wing definitions of 'family' of the time. It is online at: Whose Family Values? The Clash Between Middle Class And Working Class Families .

As I wrote a decade ago:

For the past decade the battle cry of the right wing, in both religion and politics, has been; " return of Family values". Every Reform or Tory politician raises the banner of the Family as the solution to the social problems of their own creating. While the business agenda has been to make Alberta and Canada a lean and mean competitive economy modeled after the United States and wrapped in the rhetoric of laissez fair capitalism, free trade and survival of the fittest. The apologists for the ensuing unemployment, poverty and destruction of social programs hearken back to some golden age of the family as the solution to all our problems.

If the issue is declining education, the solution isn't better funding or ending cutbacks, the solution is the family, giving money to parents to fund their child's education. If John or Jane aren't doing well in school its because they aren't being taught traditional family values.

If there is crime and poverty its probably because of the insidious machinations of the left wing to steal children from their parents and put them into day care centers. If there is unemployment its probably because there are too many women in the workforce, or taking advantage of that insidious day care, and its all the fault of the government which has failed to support the Family.

Canada and Alberta would be a better place if we all returned to the industrious traditions of family values. If we had these values, say its proponents, those lazy bums would get off welfare, the other lazy bums would find jobs and quit draining UI and women would return to their proper place; the home. But whose family values are these that we are assailed with in the Hansard, on the Talk Back radio shows and in the letters and editorials of the newspapers? Are these the family values of the First Nations? The extended families of Canada's aboriginal peoples? Are these the family values of the farm families of immigrant Canadians from before the depression? Are these the family values of the post war era and the nuclear family of mom and pop, two point five kids, a dog, a cat and a two car garage? Are these the family values of the extended families of recent immigrants who come from non European non Christian backgrounds? Are these the family values of the single mother or the gay family?

No this family is the social creation of the Canadian and American middle class. It is a family whose values are thrift, self-help, charity not welfare, pick yourself up by your bootstraps and get the job done, mom in the kitchen, the pleasant patriarchal father and the well behaved children out of the Dick and Jane reader. This family is a myth, a useful political tool of the right wing to blame social problems on us as individuals rather than blaming the capitalist system.

The Origin of the Family, as Frederick Engels pointed out over 100 years ago, is in private property. To understand the different kinds of families, and their class nature it is important we understand their property relations. There are no neutral family values. All values and roles reflect the very material reality from which they originate and which they reproduce. The so called "traditional family values" being extolled today are the middle class values of Dickensian world of dog eat dog. These are not, and never have been, the values of the working class. Our values reflect the traditions of mutual aid and solidarity, values that are not found in the world of high finance or the back benches of the Klein Government.

And in this whole sanctity of marriage debate I come back to my same conclusions as I did then whether the issue is gay marriage, family values (sic), women’s role in society, daycare, etc. What I said back then, still applies today. This can be clearly seen in the vitriolic rantings of the right wing and its religious allies over Same Sex Marriage in Canada. And in the attack on women's rights that I wrote about here in Whose Family Values? Women and the Social Reproduction of Capitalism

Stephanie Coontz also comes back to her original arguments from her 1991 work and those she has published since. In her essay from the New York Times yesterday she reminds us of the forgotten revolution of the sixties, the sexual revolution and its importance in setting the conditions for Same Sex Marriage.

The family changed with the sexual revolution that Wilhelm Reich documented back in the 1920's and by fifty years ago it was in full blown assault on so called traditional family values. Jews were no longer discriminated against by the WASP country club set, Civil rights were being demanded by Afro Americans, and Playboy had just published its first edition.

But inter-racial/ inter-religious marriage was still taboo, whether it was between Jews and gentiles, or between Afro-Americans and whites. Ironically in post war America soldiers returned from the war with Japanese brides, which helped break down the inter-racial marriage taboo, as did the gentrification of the Jews. But it was the sexual and social revolution along with the civil rights movement of the Sixties that the conscious recognition of this taboo appeared in popular culture with the movie Guess Whose Coming to Dinner.

And the same arguments against Same Sex Marriage were used back then to deny inter-racial or inter- religious marriage. You wouldn't want your daughter to marry one applied to the Jewish Doctor, as well as the Black Stevedore and today it applies to the Divorced mother of two.

Common law relations were a sin, divorce was a sin and hard to get. The same arguments about the break down of the family that have surrounded the Same Sex Marriage debate occurred then too over the sin of divorce and the sin of common law relations. No Fault divorce was going to bring down the family and destroy society.

Birth control was a no-no, even after the discovery of the Pill. Always in initial caps, the Pill released women from having to merely have sex for reproduction. Controversial, for the decade of the sixties it was essential to women's freedom and to their pleasure as the feminists advocating birth control in the early 1920's like Emma Goldman and Margaret Sanger knew. The Pill began the modern sexual revolution.

And with it came the outing of the most noxious of the anti-sex secrets of the day; abortions. They were conducted in secret by back alley butchers, with women's sexual freedom came the demand of safe medically delivered abortions, this was a key demand in the new Sexual Revolution. And it remains a demand today as the forces of darkness and moral pulchritude attempt to force women back into the alleys.

And not much has changed with the Catholic Church teachings on these matters even today.

Sex education books were being published in the sixties which discussed 'petting and necking' and whether one should go 'all the way'. Definitely not before marriage, they advised. Sex education then WAS abstinenance education, and that was all it was.

Homosexuality was a deviance that could be cured these little pamphlets explained, and having a crush on your gym teacher was natural and did not mean you would grow up to be a homo.

As Coontz outlines in her essay it was the sexual revolution of the sixties that liberated us from all the old shit that dominated sexual relations. And not without controversy and the usual detractors from the right, who still to this day blame that revolution for all of society’s problems today.

And it was the 'hetero'-sexual revolution that did influence Women's Liberation and Gay Liberation back then, as witnessed even in the support these movements got from Playboy, much to the chagrin of later anti-sex feminists. But once the hetero-Sexual Revolution began it broadened the meanings given to sexuality and loving and living relationships between people. The Women’s Movement and the Gay Liberation Movement originated in the ideals of the sexual revolution of the sixties.

And it is this revolution that is still being fought against the forces of darkness that insist that their Family Values are sacred, traditional and the best for all of us.

July 5, 2005

The Heterosexual Revolution

© New York Times


Olympia, Wash.

THE last week has been tough for opponents of same-sex marriage. First Canadian and then Spanish legislators voted to legalize the practice, prompting American social conservatives to renew their call for a constitutional amendment banning such marriages here. James Dobson of the evangelical group Focus on the Family has warned that without that ban, marriage as we have known it for 5,000 years will be overturned.

My research on marriage and family life seldom leads me to agree with Dr. Dobson, much less to accuse him of understatement. But in this case, Dr. Dobson's warnings come 30 years too late. Traditional marriage, with its 5,000-year history, has already been upended. Gays and lesbians, however, didn't spearhead that revolution: heterosexuals did.

Heterosexuals were the upstarts who turned marriage into a voluntary love relationship rather than a mandatory economic and political institution. Heterosexuals were the ones who made procreation voluntary, so that some couples could choose childlessness, and who adopted assisted reproduction so that even couples who could not conceive could become parents. And heterosexuals subverted the long-standing rule that every marriage had to have a husband who played one role in the family and a wife who played a completely different one. Gays and lesbians simply looked at the revolution heterosexuals had wrought and noticed that with its new norms, marriage could work for them, too.

The first step down the road to gay and lesbian marriage took place 200 years ago, when Enlightenment thinkers raised the radical idea that parents and the state should not dictate who married whom, and when the American Revolution encouraged people to engage in "the pursuit of happiness," including marrying for love. Almost immediately, some thinkers, including Jeremy Bentham and the Marquis de Condorcet, began to argue that same-sex love should not be a crime.

Same-sex marriage, however, remained unimaginable because marriage had two traditional functions that were inapplicable to gays and lesbians. First, marriage allowed families to increase their household labor force by having children. Throughout much of history, upper-class men divorced their wives if their marriage did not produce children, while peasants often wouldn't marry until a premarital pregnancy confirmed the woman's fertility. But the advent of birth control in the 19th century permitted married couples to decide not to have children, while assisted reproduction in the 20th century allowed infertile couples to have them. This eroded the traditional argument that marriage must be between a man and a woman who were able to procreate.

In addition, traditional marriage imposed a strict division of labor by gender and mandated unequal power relations between men and women. "Husband and wife are one," said the law in both England and America, from early medieval days until the late 19th century, "and that one is the husband."

This law of "coverture" was supposed to reflect the command of God and the essential nature of humans. It stipulated that a wife could not enter into legal contracts or own property on her own. In 1863, a New York court warned that giving wives independent property rights would "sow the seeds of perpetual discord," potentially dooming marriage.

Even after coverture had lost its legal force, courts, legislators and the public still cleaved to the belief that marriage required husbands and wives to play totally different domestic roles. In 1958, the New York Court of Appeals rejected a challenge to the traditional legal view that wives (unlike husbands) couldn't sue for loss of the personal services, including housekeeping and the sexual attentions, of their spouses. The judges reasoned that only wives were expected to provide such personal services anyway.

As late as the 1970's, many American states retained "head and master" laws, giving the husband final say over where the family lived and other household decisions. According to the legal definition of marriage, the man was required to support the family, while the woman was obligated to keep house, nurture children, and provide sex. Not until the 1980's did most states criminalize marital rape. Prevailing opinion held that when a bride said, "I do," she was legally committed to say, "I will" for the rest of her married life.

I am old enough to remember the howls of protest with which some defenders of traditional marriage greeted the gradual dismantling of these traditions. At the time, I thought that the far-right opponents of marital equality were wrong to predict that this would lead to the unraveling of marriage. As it turned out, they had a point.

Giving married women an independent legal existence did not destroy heterosexual marriage. And allowing husbands and wives to construct their marriages around reciprocal duties and negotiated roles - where a wife can choose to be the main breadwinner and a husband can stay home with the children- was an immense boon to many couples. But these changes in the definition and practice of marriage opened the door for gay and lesbian couples to argue that they were now equally qualified to participate in it.

Marriage has been in a constant state of evolution since the dawn of the Stone Age. In the process it has become more flexible, but also more optional. Many people may not like the direction these changes have taken in recent years. But it is simply magical thinking to believe that by banning gay and lesbian marriage, we will turn back the clock.

Stephanie Coontz, the director of public education for the Council on Contemporary Families, is the author of "Marriage, a History: From Obedience to Intimacy, or How Love Conquered Marriage."

1 comment:


I recieved this email from Stephanie Coontz:
"Thanks so much for your kind words about my work. I no longer believe I know what socialism is, and I usually avoid the word feminism because so many working people associate it with women of privilege, but I do try to answer conservative distortions of history and make a case for a progressive family policy. And my basic tools of analysis remain the same. See my website for other op eds I've done recently,