National Library of New Zealand
Harvested by the National Library of New Zealand on: Apr 14 2010 at 10:20:23 GMT
Search boxes and external links may not function. Having trouble viewing this page? Click here
Close Minimize Help
Wayback Machine
GayNZ Logo & Link
Wednesday 14 April 2010

Same-Sex Marriage: Yes, But...

Posted in: Comment
By Craig Young - 8th February 2010

Although I support the eventual attainment of same-sex marriage proper, I think that we tend to over-romanticise marriage as an institution. Here's a corrective to that approach.

In medieval Europe, religious marriages were the only option and somewhat expensive if one wasn't a member of the nobility or monarchy, so cohabitation tended to be the norm amongst anyone below the level of the mercantile classes. They weren't for romance either, but for the extension of whatever dynastic lineage one's parents or others wanted to perpetuate. That wasn't an easy task before the advent of modern obstetric and gynaecological surgery or an organised medical profession, and maternal mortality and infant mortality were rife. Moreover, women didn't have an easy time of it. They could often be married as mere infants and in some cases, were spousally raped shortly before puberty. Domestic violence went unpunished, except in cases of glaring cruelty, and was sometimes not even considered as an ample ground for divorce, which tended to be costly and only available through specific acts of Parliament.

As a tentative solution to this, bigamy was more common than the sanitisers of the institution seem to think. Indeed, a recent historical journal article testifies to its endemic nature in eighteenth century England, whereupon it became a capital offence. Men could get out of it through Latin literacy ("benefit of clergy"), but women weren't so lucky. No wonder most looked forward to widowhood and social and economic autonomy...if they lived that long.

Eventually, though, successive generations of feminist reformers chiselled away at the institution's misogynist aspects, resulting in access to contraception, easier divorce access, an end to toleration of spousal rape and domestic violence and more amenable custody legislation. However, the prior centuries had a delayed effect, producing a hard-head and realist view of marriage amongst heterosexuals, which resulted in rising divorce rates. According to the US Barna Group (evangelical opinion pollsters), US fundamentalist-dominated southern states have the highest levels of divorce in their country, no doubt due to their quaintly polarised gender roles.

Yes, access to marriage is a human right and I oppose legislative and constitutional bans against same-sex marriage proper similar to those that exist in Australia, the United States and elsewhere. But let's be realistic about the institution that we're trying to access. Marriage is a specific ritual and order of ceremony and does not confer some magical durability and longevity to straight couples that undertake it. In the long term, unless we turn out to have an advantage in the deliberative preparations for nuptials, same-sex marriages will be no different once we attain that state of matrimony.


Laurence Stone: Family, Sex and Marriage in England: 1500-1800: London: Macmillan: 1977,

Maureen Waller: The English Marriage: Tales of Love, Money and Adultery: London: John Murray: 2009

Bernard Capp: (2009) "Bigamous marriage in early modern England." Historical Journal, Vol.52:3: 537-556

Craig Young - 8th February 2010

   Bookmark and Share