Should a free society based upon human equality view the sexual union of a man and woman in a marriage relationship as a pre-eminent expression of human sexuality worthy of special recognition in its laws, or not?
To address this key question we must firstly look at the definition of marriage. It came to us as part of the great democratic reforms of the late 18th and the 19th centuries that also abolished slavery and child labour, allowed wives to own property, enlarged the vote to women and unpropertied folk, and facilitated trade unions and religious freedom.
In defining marriage in 1866, English judge James Wilde also wrote of a wife’s “social equality with the husband” and how she stands “upon the same level with the man”.
Adapting Wilde’s wording, Australian law defines marriage as:
“the union of a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others, voluntarily entered into for life.”
Let’s look at it more closely.
While it’s understood that an involuntary or forced relationship likely involves a criminal offence, it’s also important to realise that you don’t need a wedding to have a marriage. Registration of the marriage is simply a voluntary public declaration about the relationship. Many couples in a relationship that fits the definition of marriage don’t register it at all, and it seems to suit them just fine. The law describes the relationships we recognise as marriage, not just their registration.
Also to be noted is that people are not perfect. All marriages have periods of greater and lesser unity, and some marriages fail, but lifelong is what we all hope for and intend. Human imperfection doesn’t wipe out the principle.
Regarding exclusivity, it’s clear that polygamy is incompatible with equality.
Then there are three main points to consider regarding union.
Firstly, it’s true the starkest differences in humankind are between men and women. This sexual difference, the everyday reality of our bodily structure and function, has ramifications on virtually every level of life. It is a source of both wonder and bewilderment to either sex. Every married couple knows that.
Secondly, it’s because of, not in spite of, those stark differences that marriage can produce such wonderful union. In a marriage the man and woman obviously want to be understanding, to know what makes their spouse tick, but they can never really grasp what sex is like for each other, because they are so different. Yet they are equal and in union. This great leap; this plunging into the mystery, wonder and bewilderment of union with one of the opposite sex makes what they have something very different, special and unique.
The voluntary, exclusive, lifelong relationship that involves the equality and union of both halves of humanity therefore represents the democratic principle itself. It is only the equality of men and women that can result in the actual human unity we describe as marriage. The most dramatic division in humanity becomes the source of its deepest unity.
Thirdly, the definition of marriage doesn’t mention sex because the sexual unity of husband and wife cannot be understood as separate from their overall personal unity — the free gift of the whole of their lives, including their future, to one another.
This shows that we humans are not wild, uncontrolled slaves to our own passions. We can also exhibit self control and free will for the betterment of another — the highest expression of our autonomy and a behavior crucial to a well functioning democratic society based upon human equality.
So in marriage, husband and wife are a self governing democracy, in and of themselves: different, equal, united.
AND IN DOT POINTS (at a glance)
- It describes a unique equality that can result in complete union, and from which flows all other democratic rights and freedoms.
- It’s all about the equality of men and women; not the equality of all sexual acts.
- To suggest that all behaviour is equal, is a recipe for ongoing bitterness and division, with a weak understanding of “equality”.
- Men & women are biologically different (that’s science), but are ‘created equal’.
- In marriage, the most dramatic division in humanity becomes the source of its deepest unity.
- The deepest expression of human equality, and therefore democracy, is the unity of a man and woman in marriage.
- Marriage can make democracy real on a personal level. It is freely entered into by two members of the opposite sex with a goal of unity and harmony, with neither seeking to dictate or control the other.
- In marriage, husband and wife are a self governing democracy, in and of themselves: different, equal, united.
- The voluntary, exclusive, lifelong relationship that involves the equality and union of both halves of humanity therefore represents the democratic principle itself.
- Inclusiveness is based on human unity; inclusiveness in marriage is both sexual halves of humanity brought together.
- Marriage affirms equality of the sexes by creating a unification and celebration of both complementary sexes.