“Are you f***ing kidding me?”
Jon Stewart asks that question often on The Daily Show, but I don’t think it has ever seemed as applicable as when he asked it in response to the state of Virginia forbidding two heterosexual people to live together while unmarried.
Yes, you read that correctly. Up until last week, the state of Virginia had a law in place that forbid men and women to cohabitate while unmarried. The law was in place until Friday, February 22, 2013, when the House Courts of Justice Committee unanimously approved Sen. Adam Ebbin’s bill repealing the 136-year-old law against what the state calls “lewd and lascivious cohabitation.” There are three other states in the United States that render cohabitating a crime.
Image: Chris Hunkeler on Flickr
According to census data, about 140,000 people in Virginia are cohabitating while unmarried. This law was last enforced in Virginia in the 1990s, when an elderly daycare operator’s license was held up because she was living with a man. The bill passed in the Virginia Senate last month on a 40-0 vote and now faces the House.
Yes, thank goodness we will all be protected from…other people’s private relationships. Morality and good Christian values will be upheld…in a country that is not exclusively Christian. This action, the latest of numerous recent attempts to restrict sexuality in America, is justified under protecting the institution of marriage. But it begs the question: what exactly is being protected?
Ridiculous legislation such as this, claiming it is trying to “protect the institution of marriage”, which many claim is threatened with extinction. And with the institution of marriage, to those who have a misty-eyed, nostalgic view of it, comes the enforcement of traditional gender roles, with the man at work and the woman at home, as well as monogamous sexual relationships that aren’t even consummated until the wedding night, when a heterosexual man and woman are joined in some kind of religious ceremony.
There is no denying the fact that marriage is changing. According to an an analysis of U.S. census data by the Pew Research center, 51 percent of Americans are married. This number will decrease, according to a prediction by the Center, if current trends continue. (This is in contrast to 72 percent of all adults 18 and older being married in 1960.) They might be right; after all, the number of new marriages in the United States declined by 5 percent from 2009 to 2010.
This data sent much of the right wing into a panic; apparently less marriages mean the end of the world! But what's missing from the analysis of this data by the right wing is that more marriages don’t necessarily mean more happiness. Nostalgia for “the greatest generation,” rendered with fondness for Norman Rockwell, seems to conveniently forget the depression that plagued so many housewives of that era, as well as infidelity and desperation that lurked beneath the seemingly happy young couples. It’s no surprise that Valium is known affectionately as “Mother’s little helper.”
Some benefits of marriage have been proven, namely the improved physical and mental health of men. People who are happily married are more likely to eat healthily, have more friends and take better care of each other, according to John Gallacher, a Cardiff University academic, who said, “Marriage and other forms of partnership can be placed along a sliding scale of commitment, with greater commitment conferring greater benefit.”
Note that he included “other forms of partnership.” So are those benefits tied to marriage, or to long-term relationships? One doesn’t necessarily mean the other.
But even articles that report on and analyze these trends seem to be staunchly pro-marriage. If you scroll to the end of the article on The Daily Mail, note the caption that says, “Advantages: Married people were found to be less likely to die premature.” That registers as little more than a cheap scare tactic, and my first response to the image and caption was not that I’d better find me a husband, but the thought, “Maybe because so many people marry just because they want their spouse’s health insurance.”
These increasingly desperate attempts of the right to push the benefits of marriage, and even frighten people into getting married, all tie into the attempts to reinforce traditional gender roles on women. Whether it’s restricting rights to safe and healthy birth control, calling women “prostitutes” because they want their birth control to be covered by health insurance, preaching that women must “surrender to their nature – their femininity” in order to find a husband, or simply reinforcing the idea that women working outside the home are doing something wrong, all of these actions tie back into the theme of women returning to traditional, glorified, “feminine” gender roles – that caused countless cases of depression and suicide in the 1950s and 1960s – and that women’s roles in life are defined by who they are married to or mother of – not who they are independently, on their own.
I recently heard a middle-aged, heterosexual man speaking about the death of a relative. When a friend expressed her condolences, he said the death wasn’t too bad, because the woman wasn’t married and didn’t have kids. I am paraphrasing because I can’t remember his exact words, but the sentiment surprised me greatly. It sounded like, simply because a woman wasn’t taking care of someone else, her death was not considered sad by this man. Is that really how women are viewed today – only through the spectrum of who they are taking care of?
I have nothing against marriage as an institution. I have witnessed numerous happy marriages of equal partners that are filled with respect, as well as love and affection. They are inspiring to me. And I believe strongly that homosexual people should be able to enjoy the same benefits of marriage that heterosexuals have. But I do think the evolution of marriage is a good thing, and continuing this evolution will help the institution of marriage to shed some of its hypocritical and materialistic attitudes as well as, often indirect and unintentional enforcement of sexism and misogyny. And I also firmly believe that rather than desperately trying to force the country back in time to an area when less options and less equality existed for so many people, I would prefer to see our state and federal government working to promote other rights rather than restrict ones that have already been fought for and won.
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