The Primary Function of Marriage?

This is sort of like a part two to my previous post, but it is actually more like a part three or four, or even five (who knows? I’ve lost count) in an ongoing discussion about asexuality and rape culture. Originally I proposed the idea that sexual coercion and marital rape might be a fundamental human rights issue for asexual discourse to focus on in a comment directed towards the A Life podcast team, who seemed to misunderstand my point and were quite dismissive of the idea. I believe Henrik said something like “Well if you’re going to get raped, then don’t get married.” (I’m not going to go through the podcast to find the actual quote, but if you want to do it, you can find it here. Keep in mind I am also not up-to-date on the more recent podcasts, including the one about asexuality and marriage.) I was kinda pissed off that he would say something like that, because it ignores the reality of the situation that many asexuals are in, and implies a callous attitude towards my own mother’s situation (and mine by proxy). (Why should she have been expected to predict that my father would spiral into alcoholic depression and choose to take it out on the whole family? How could she have known? I think this is called “blaming the victim.”) I’m pointing Henrik’s comment out because it provides context for what I am about to say, and you will see the reason why in a moment.

I posted a clarification here, which recently Britni the Vagina Wig linked to and commented on here. Her post refueled the discussion, and in one of the comments, ignorantarmies said:

For one, this is not so because “marriage is for procreation”. We have long since decoupled sexuality from procreation, thanks to reliable contraceptives. Some Christian groups might promote this, but the reality is different. Relationships involve sex, because one of their functions is to produce spaces where we can have legitimate sex. There are other matters of bonding, belonging, emotional and economic connections, but almost all of those are related to sex in some way. And, I would argue, its good, even necessary to have some kind of institution that does this. Most people want sex and they need some way to satisfy this desire in a socially acceptable way, that is without suffering social sanctions. They do this be having an institution (or several) in place that produces legitimate space for sex. This institution in modern, western society is called the (romantic) relationship. It’s vital for its functioning, that it implies sex (at some point, in some way, details are open to debate).

Yes, social institutions do have coercive force. But this is just a matter of being social beings. Requirements of social spaces like reducing of complexity, producing reliability and stability and encouraging cooperation cannot be had unless we somehow make each other conform to some regular forms of behavior. And to some degree, this is always coercive.
This was a central point in my article on seduction.

The easy answer would be to say that if you don’t want sex, don’t have romantic relationships. If you want other things that romantic relationships produce, find someone who will do that with you without wanting sex. If you do want to participate in a full blown romantic relationship, find a way to communicate with your partner, and find a partner with whom you can communicate your problems on the matter, maybe you will find a solution, maybe you won’t.
Queer people (in the widest sense) have solved the problem of heterosexual monogamous vanilla relationships being unfit for their desires by creating queer interaction spaces where they have set up their own institutions regarding sex. A good solution if there ever was one. I’m not sure if there are enough asexual people for this to be workable, but it makes sense to me at least.

So, I think that attacking that the institution of romantic relationships involves sex is not a good move. Alternative institutions would be better. But any institution requires a semi-stable group of regularly interacting people in order to bring it forth. Then, the requirements of sociality as well as the desires of the individuals can be satisfied.

I posted a response here, and then ignorantarmies posted a reply here. To which I posted the following comment:

I see where you are coming from and I understand that people have different reasons for getting into romantic relationships/marriages. I didn’t mean to imply that people DON’T get into them as a way to have legitimate sex. I also know that people get into romantic relationships without being in love with their partners, in many cases. Usually, I believe this is a temporary thing; either people intend to get into such relationships for sex, or to solve the problem of loneliness. Or, they may see the person as being compatible and give it a try even though they’re not crazy about the person, to see if love grows over time (this I have done myself, with the effect that I did end up falling for the person). Some may just settle.

Of course people have different reasons for getting into romantic relationships: that was actually my point. I probably should have drawn my it out, made the effort to articulate it to a more definite conclusion, instead of leaving it mostly unstated. Sorry for the confusion.

My issue with your original comment was that it seemed far too dismissive of other reasons that people may get into relationships, and seemed to imply support for the idea that upon getting married, a person is automatically assumed to be giving consent to sex with their spouse under every circumstance (i.e. that there is or should be no such thing as marital rape).

People get married for lots and lots of reasons. The fact of it is, not all married couples have sex or ever intend to have sex. Marriage legitimizes a relationship in the eyes of society, and gives a number of legal benefits. That’s why people fight so hard for gay marriage. And that’s why some asexual couples also get married.

I’ve been in a romantic relationship with a fellow asexual before, and it kinda sucks, because the vast majority of people are not willing to acknowledge it as a “real relationship” just because there is no sex involved. My sister was the worst about it; she would belittle me for it constantly, saying that I was too stupid to realize that what my ex and I had was “just friendship.” Few people would just accept it and be happy for me. I almost always had to try to prove that it’s possible first.

Now, you say that marriage “does not work” for asexuals, but are you aware that asexuals DO get married and that it CAN work for them? Getting married would FORCE society to recognize that there really IS a strong bond between two asexuals beyond “just friendship” (although I would contend that friendship is and should be a huge part of a romantic relationship, there is also usually a different kind of feeling to it), at least on some level.

So should asexuals not get married then, just because ONE of marriage’s functions is to provide a space for “legitimate” sex (in the eyes of Christians)? Should asexual couples just avoid that social institution altogether even though it would certainly be beneficial both legally and socially? That seemed to be what your comment was implying. It also seemed to lack awareness of the actual situation that many asexuals are in, with regard to marriage.

My discomfort was never with the idea that some people get into relationships just so they can have legitimate sex, although of course that doesn’t appeal to me. It’s deeper than that. It was because the way you phrased your comment reduced my experience of romance to something that apparently does not count as a “real” romantic relationship. It seemed to imply support for a system that would discount my experiences and enforce my subjugation, should I ever get into a situation where I might be raped by the person I had married. Although this is not likely to happen to me, because I have an unfortunately deep understanding of domestic violence and how to avoid it, as well as a good understanding of my sexual orientation and how to deal with sex in a positive way, there are lots of asexuals out there who did not realize they were asexual until AFTER they had gotten married, because they were waiting until after marriage to deal with sex. They just operated under the assumption that they were heterosexual and would enjoy sex when they had it, but then found out that was not the case. Should they be legally obligated to provide sex for their spouse, in the event that they discover that it is detrimental to their well-being? Should their pain be ignored? Should they be silenced just because one of the functions of marriage is to provide a space for legitimate sex?

I don’t think we should see marriage as primarily a way to provide a space for legitimate sex precisely for that reason. That is one function, sure. But to reduce it to that one single function, when there are plenty of others, is very dangerous, especially if it is used to support laws that discount the possibility of marital rape. I don’t know if that is what you meant to say in your comment or not, but that is what it seemed to imply. I think we ought to acknowledge ALL the reasons why people get married, and make laws based on every possibility, rather than reducing it to one “primary” function. Because all that really does is serve to enforce sexual-normativity, and silence the minority of people who DON’T want to have sexual marriages.

Another thing I want to point out is that what is culturally considered the “primary” reason for marriage changes as culture does, and enforces dominant cultural attitudes. At one time the “main functions” of marriages WERE considered to be procreation and economic union. Now they are not, but those are still functions of marriage, and for some people they are even the PRIMARY function. I know a couple who have been together for years without getting married, but plan to do so when they get pregnant. Lots and lots of people get together just so their kids will be legitimate, and lots and lots of people stay together just for the kids. It’s not accurate to say that the primary function of their marriages is to provide a space for legitimate expression of sexuality.

That is why I do not think your position is justified.

I realized after I posted that comment that I mainly refer to marriages throughout, but the original comment actually said that asexuals should stay out of romantic relationships, not just “don’t get married.” Which is even more offensive, because it does imply that asexual romances don’t count as romances, just like my sister used to explicitly tell me over and over and over again. There’s not really a serious adjective yet to describe what kind of comment this is (“asexophobic” sounds pretty silly), but it is definitely a product of sexual privilege and seeks to enforce sexual-normativity. Asexual romance is being erased from possibility, at least in the minds of the majority. That has got to change.

Asexuals really don’t face much discrimination, if by that you mean outright hostility (although I have heard there has already been a case of a hate crime committed against a woman specifically because she is asexual). But people Other the hell out of us, and refuse to acknowledge our existence even when they have been made aware that such a thing exists. Why should we be barred from having “romantic” relationships (in quotes because I think that what’s really being referred to is just a synonym for sexual relationships) or from having our relationships called romantic and honored as such even though they would fit that description perfectly, just because we aren’t having sex? There’s a word for that, you know: it’s called marginalization.

I don’t want to be too harsh, now. This person probably did not realize why the comment was so offensive, and did not mean for it to be. But it comes from a place of privilege and that should be pointed out. I point it out to the asexual community instead of just leaving it as a comment because of attitudes like Henrik’s which parallel this to some extent (and I think are also indicative of another kind of privilege: that of not being affected by domestic violence). It is certainly an option to create a new kind of alternative relationship space for asexuals to exist in, and I absolutely applaud efforts to do that. (David Jay is doing a great job of exploring these options over at Love From the Asexual Underground, for anyone interested.) But not all asexuals want to do that. Some of us want to get married, and some of us already are married before we know that asexuality actually exists. Creating a new relationship style is fine, but creating a whole new social institution with the same legal and social benefits of marriage would be extremely difficult or (more likely) completely impossible, and would also fail to address the issues of those who are already married and stuck in a painful situation. Therefore, instead of dismissing the possibility of a violent marriage because it is “not relevant” or “does not apply” to most of us who have already connected to the asexual community, I firmly believe we ought to fight to make marriage a friendlier space for our fellow asexuals (and everyone else) to inhabit.

I’m going to finish this post off with a link: via Womanist Musings, here is a call for submissions for an anthology of personal essays dealing with queerness and sexual violence. If you have had any kind of experience with sexual violence and asexuality, I would urge you to submit something for this. I think it is very important that we bring these issues to light!

Why Acronyms are a Bad Idea.

Lately there’s been a bit of a stir around this blog post, wherein some gay dude rants about how asexuals aren’t worthy enough to add a letter to his sacred acronym, because we’re disabled, repressed, traumatized, pitiable, not oppressed enough, and dammit, we all just need to stop being anti-sexual prudes and get laid. And some other ignorant drivel that’s really not worth repeating, and has already been well argued against.

For some reason (likely because I’m bored and bed-ridden, and can’t do much of anything else), I sat there skimming over the comments today, unable to get myself riled up about any of it.

I found the most salient comment of that entire discussion to be the one about how the guy doesn’t seem to care about the trans community either, which rings true with my own experience of GL(bt) groups. Frustrating as it is, there is a ton of in-fighting and prejudice within these types of groups, especially towards the most minor of the minority groups. Nobody gives a thought to asexuals, and trans people are the first to get jettisoned should the group face any major resistance to whatever law they’re trying to pass (case in point: the ENDA debacle).

I know not everyone thinks like this, as I have had some success at getting asexuality included within a few local queer groups, although it is still largely ignored until one of the active asexual members brings it up. As for trans stuff, they will mention whatever PFLAG is putting on, or the things they do every year (out of habit, by this point), but they don’t seem to know or care exactly what it’s about. Mostly, they just seem to care about parties (and fundraising for them). It’s all about social events, and has very little to do with real activism. At this point, people have gotten so fed up with the incompetence and petty drama that the group split into different factions, and active members (which once filled the tiny room we are assigned to bursting) are down to a small handful.

The main problem I have had with these groups (aside from general incompetence) is that they are so very self-interested that they fail to see the larger picture. I think in large part this has to do with the group’s focus, which is reflected quite clearly in the name. I would argue that not only does the intended focus of the group contribute to its name, but that the name also shapes its focus, sometimes in a way that can be quite detrimental to its ability to get anything productive done.

I am not the first to recognize the trouble with acronyms; many groups have seen that, not only is there a linguistic hierarchy clearly visible in the structure of the name (Gay > Lesbian > Bisexual > Transgender > * > * > * etc.) that reflects badly on the group because it points out a real underlying hierarchy with regards to the weight of importance given to the issues of each respective smaller community, but that it quickly accumulates into an unpronounceable alphabet soup in any attempt to include additional minorities. Some people, like the above-linked blogger, seem to take issue only with the latter problem, and advocate a non-inclusive approach. Others have decided, instead, to change the name of the group to one that’s both easier to keep track of and more inclusive: Queer-Straight Alliance, or QSA.

That’s a bold move, because “queer” is a very broad term. It can be re-envisioned to mean almost anything that goes against the norm, although in this context, I would assert that it was originally meant to include not only minority sexual orientations (challenging heteronormativity), but also those challenging sex (as in male/female) and gender norms–because athough you might take a narrow view and claim that trans people automatically challenge heteronormativity just by switching genders, that argument is specious because for such a long time, trans people were only considered to have transitioned successfully if they were straight in their target genders. There is also the issue of the inclusion of an I for intersex, which, while it isn’t universally accepted, also makes it clear that an essential component of this definition of “queer” is the challenging of gender norms, not just heteronormativity.

It has been argued that asexuality is not or should not be considered queer by this definition, and I think a key point here is that gender norms are being challenged on two different dimensions: 1) on the level of the physical self, self-expression, and gender roles; and 2) the idea that the only right way to do things (sexually, but also implies romantically) is to have a male-female couple. A lot of people don’t seem to fully grasp the enormity of what it means to challenge these norms, focusing solely on the male-female couple bit. I think this is why trans, intersex, and asexual people so often get left out, and especially so for asexuals. Some asexuals are accepted as queer on the grounds that they form same-sex couples (with or without sex), or because they are trans or intersex, but cisgendered heteroromatic and aromantic asexuals may find themselves excluded because they are otherwise considered straight (by secondary orientation or by default). So, some asexuals may be considered queer for other reasons, but asexuals, simply by virtue of being asexual, often are not. I would argue, however, that such a view misses an essential part of what it means to be queer, what it means to challenge this particular set of societal norms.

To express the big picture to its fullest: What all of these minority groups have in common is that they challenge the idea that male and female are mutually exclusive categories, which are pairs of opposites, and thus naturally complete one another through (penis-in-vagina) sexual intercourse.

Therefore, any of the following is not natural and constitutes a pathology or defect: a same-sex couple, a transgendered person, an intersexed person, or any person sincerely not interested in copulating (not making the choice to abstain, but sincerely uninterested).

What I am saying, here, is that this set of norms has a specifically sexual component, and to be asexual is to challenge the part of that idea which says that people are completed through sexual intercourse. And so, we should be able to legitimately call ourselves queer. It is, admittedly, a less gendered part of the equation, which is probably why it so easily gets overlooked. But we ARE challenging heteronormativity, even if we don’t directly challenge gender norms (although many of us certainly do). Because the idea that men and women are complementary opposites that complete each other implies that men are supposed to be sexually attracted to women and vice versa, but if there is a naturally-occurring segment of the population which does not experience attraction to either, well. There you go.

In the interest of brevity (ha!), I won’t argue the point too finely, because I’m sure I’m pretty much already preaching to the choir, here. I’m sure there will be people, both asexual and not, that continue to say that asexuals should not (by virtue of being asexual alone) be considered queer, but I wanted to point out that it’s all in how you define things. If you take a broad view, we fit. If you take a narrow view, we don’t–but personally, I think if you’re going to take a narrow view, you ought to just stick to the acronym approach. I think even many of those who have accepted the QSA approach, though, are still thinking strictly in terms of same-sex couples, and not about the larger implications of using the term “queer.” The ugly hierarchies still exist, and many gays and lesbians even question the validity of bisexuality, never you even mind transgender, intersex, or asexuality. I think it’s time for people to stop using acronyms, stop thinking like they’re still using acronyms, and truly give some deep thought to what it really means to be queer. If we’re going to have a more inclusive community, then both the name and the focus of the community ought to reflect that–and that means being more sensitive to the more minor minorities involved. That way, hopefully the members will actually stick around.