Apr 9, 2023·edited Apr 9, 2023Liked by Sarah Haider

This is brilliant. You remind me of Barbara Ehrenreich's 1983 book "The Hearts of Men", in which she made similar points that the traditional social model was restrictive for both sexes -- girls were expected to become housewives and mothers, while boys were expected to become husbands, providers, and fathers. It was a simple division of labor: in the absence of modern contraceptives, a woman was likely to go through a series of pregnancies and have children of varying ages to care for, so it made sense for her to stay at home and do that while her husband worked for a living to pay the bills. The idea that this was restrictive only for women, as some feminist writers claimed, was completely wrong, but it served the feminist agenda to make that argument, so they did. Even the idea that women should have "lucrative and rewarding careers" like men was wrong, because the vast majority of men don't have lucrative and rewarding careers, just jobs of varying degrees of unpleasantness that enable them to support themselves and their families. (Footnote: I have what many people around the world would consider an incredibly "lucrative and rewarding career". I got sick of it years ago and would happily walk away from it if I could afford to. Maybe I should start my own Substack and watch the subscription money roll in, lol.)

One example that I like to use is this: Imagine a 1960s "women's lib" activist going to a coal mining town and telling the women there that they shouldn't be "just housewives", but have "rewarding careers" like their husbands. Imagine the housewives' look of pitying incredulity at the sheer cluelessness of this. "My husband doesn't have a rewarding career. He wears himself out working in a hot, dusty hole in the ground all week long because it's the only way he has of providing for us, and if he doesn't die in a cave-in he'll probably have black lung disease before he's 40. And you think I should prefer that to taking care of my house and my children? Are you mad?"

One point Ehrenreich makes is that feminism became a mass phenomenon in the '60s only because it was a necessary response to an earlier rebellion by men against their role of provider. In the '50s, two movements in American society, the beatniks and Hugh Hefner's Playboy Philosophy, argued that a man shouldn't have to be responsible for "some parasitic woman and her children" (as if, weirdly, the children had no father), and that a man was better off staying single and picking up women in bars for one-night stands when sexual desire reared its head. But "A woman's place is in the home" doesn't work when men won't keep their end of the bargain. Thus, the rise of the women's liberation movement.

The availability of reliable, easy-to-use contraceptives also changes the social equation: if a couple can have children only when they want to, what is the woman who doesn't have children yet, or who may not plan to have them at all, supposed to do with her time? Shulamith Firestone, in "The Dialectic of Sex", makes the point that until women achieved control of their own fertility, it would have been absurd to expect them to be able to achieve social equality with men. But give them birth control pills, IUDs, and other ways of managing their fertility, and everything changes.

I like the distinction you make between traditional marriage and sentimental marriage. It's not a dichotomy; marriage can be both at once, and that is, even historically, the ideal case. But from society's point of view, marriage as a social institution is the aspect that really matters. The "sentimental" side is important to us as individuals, but society only cares that people live up to their responsibilities.

With regard to the validity of gay marriage (which I'm fine with, by the way, as a social and legal thing; I'm a big fan of the Obergefell decision), there is another aspect that you haven't mentioned. Marriage is, on some level, supposed to be not just about social responsibilities, but about two people becoming one, which to most people probably sounds like either a pretty metaphor or a spiritual thing (or just BS), but there is a perfectly sensible interpretation in which it's literally true. A child, after all, is its mother and father in one flesh. Modern genetics tells us exactly how this works, but even in antiquity people knew that children combine characteristics of their parents. Christian theologians, who have terrible difficulties dealing with sex, have long insisted that the "union" of marriage is spiritual, but it seems to me much simpler, and obviously correct, to say that the true union of a man and a woman is their children. Of course, a couple can be "married" in the legal sense and not have children of their own for one reason or another, but I think historically the assumption has always been that if a man and a woman get married under law, it probably won't be long before they have children. That's the point of it.

If we look at marriage this way, though (rather than as merely a legal/social phenomenon), it becomes obvious that "gay marriage" is physically impossible, because two males can't make a child together, nor two females. I suspect that on a sort of collective-unconscious level, this fact has something to do with not just resistance to gay marriage, but more fundamentally, the traditional hostility to homosexuality itself. It is a very ancient part of our culture that it is everyone's duty to increase the tribe by having children. This attitude has been gradually fading out over the last century or so as modern individualism challenges the idea of duty itself, arguing instead that everyone has a right to do as they please, but these kinds of cultural changes are often curiously inconsistent because the real change occurs on an almost subconscious level, rather than as the result of logical analysis. So even as we move away from the idea that people have a duty to have children, we (well, not me, but some people, anyway) retain a hostility to homosexuality that logically derives from that concept of duty and makes no sense without it. It's not rational, but then again, people aren't rational, not really. They just think they are.

Again, I'm not arguing against gay marriage in the sense of social and legal recognition of gay people's relationships and commitments to each other; I'm not even taking the old halfway position of saying that gay people should have "civil unions" that have the same legal properties as marriage but are nevertheless somehow different from it (which is the sort of "separate but equal" thinking that SCOTUS rejected in Brown vs. Board of Education). I'm just noting that the concept of marriage has a number of different aspects, even beyond the "traditional" vs. "sentimental" modes that you've defined here, and the properties of these aspects are different, which can in some cases affect their applicability to gay or lesbian relationships.

I've been kind of all over the place in this comment because you stirred up a lot of quasi-related thoughts that would take a series of separate essays to expound properly, but I hope I managed to get some of it across, anyway.

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I read the entire post and agree with you, but I would still change the line in your manifesto because I had the exact same reaction as the other reader when I read “Trans people already have the rights accorded to everyone else.” Conservatives said the same thing about gay people.

Yes, you’re right that it’s different—but we already struggle to persuade normies that gender isn’t “the next gay rights,” and echoing old anti-gay arguments works against this goal. So for that reason, I wouldn’t argue that one is about equality while the other asks for special treatment. I know what you mean, but it’s too easy for people to flip it around.

Besides, I think you can make a stronger case in #8. The biggest difference between gay and trans “rights” is that gay marriage doesn’t require us to affirm something that is objectively false. If we allow people to say they’re women when they are not, all sorts of laws and customs break down. This is fundamentally different from the demands of the gay rights movement.

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Apr 9, 2023Liked by Sarah Haider

This not responsive to the current post, but I wanted to share this old article by Martha Nussbaum on Judith Butler that made me think about your overall argument: https://newrepublic.com/article/150687/professor-parody, especially Butler's idea that both gender and sex are social constructs.

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Apr 9, 2023Liked by Sarah Haider

Your position is very well argued and convincing to me. I do look forward to the responses of other folks. Whip smart as you are, one of the best things about being here is the high, and generally polite, level of engagement your posts attract.

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Apr 9, 2023Liked by Sarah Haider

Insightful as always, Sarah. This is why I think the two sides on the gay marriage debate were almost always talking past each other. It’s also why I never thought that being against gay marriage constituted any kind of bigotry or phobia. Debating the meaning of marriage was always legitimate, and while I was totally ok with letting the gays in, I don’t think anyone’s rights would have been infringed if the definition didn’t change. Marriage is a socially-defined institution which is inherently discriminatory, no one has a right to it.

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Apr 15, 2023Liked by Sarah Haider

I'm new here so will ease into actual contributions/reactions to what you're saying but just wanted to say hello and that I enjoy your writing Sarah : )

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This essay by you, though not the only good one, is why I just decided to subscribe! Your understanding of the social and evolutionary roots of marriage is almost unique, as well as your incredible writing talent and your independent and substantive comments. Hats off to you!

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Gays would never have gotten the right to marry unless marriage had already been thoroughly trashed by the sexual revolution and easy divorce.

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*heavy sigh*

Okay, here I have to hugely disagree with you. Not so much about the gay marriage part, but about this: "Sex is a potentially life-altering event for a woman, but costless to men"

Your argument is that it is costless to the man if he's a sociopath. Well, ditto for the woman: if she's a sociopath, abortion & infanticide are options, or abandoning the child to someone else (all of which are far from unknown).

But most people aren't sociopaths. Most men aren't sociopaths. Which means having children is _the_ life altering experience for Men. And it is one that makes them powerless, places them at the mercy of the woman.

Divorce law favours mothers over fathers when it comes to custody, by a huge margin. And if you have any sense of responsibility, you cannot let your child go through a broken home. So a man with children is tied more securely than any other - and, yes, there are women who exploit this. There are women who just say "My way or I'll take your kids". I don't think people understand just how awful that is.

Without in any way diminishing the wickedness of domestic violence, this is worse. Why? Ask any parent: would you rather 1) receive a beating or 2) lose your child? What parent wouldn't chose 1) in a heartbeat?

I love your writing, but please understand that men are also human beings, and most of them are good and not sociopaths.

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The true moral imperative of gay marriage is that it allowed gay couples to have the same governmental benefits as straight couples, in the eyes of the law. That is ultimately what brought Obergefell to the court, and I think it remains the strongest case.

Some religious people will never agree that two women are married--but that’s irrelevant so long as the government provides them with the same benefits allowed to straight married couples.

It is in this particular *legal* way that gays were being discriminated against (denied benefits), and after gay marriage became legal, they gained full and equal rights in the eyes of the law, along with many religious and social institutions.

Contrast this with many of the “rights” trans advocates are asking for, and you enter the realm of special rights--all trans people already have fair and equal access to *a* restroom, or *a* sports team--just not the one that “aligns with their gender identity.

This is distinct from women campaigning to have separate, equally funded sports programs, where none previously existed, and it is distinct from gays asking for the right to marry, just as straights did.

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Gay men and lesbians (gay men in particular) wanting to get married elevated the status of marriage. This after a historically unprecedented period when marriage had begun to seem irrelevant, if not anachronistic. The right to marry was now something desired, fought for. Once again, marriage was a very big deal.

Since the 1970s, conservatives had often decried that single motherhood was no longer taboo. They did this, they assured us, not because they were against these women but because of the societal ills that came from having so many women raise children in poverty. Life was much harder for these women and their children were at much greater risk. Marriage was incredibly important.

With hindsight, we can argue that conservatives should be ecstatic and profoundly grateful that gay men, lesbians, Hollywood and the media did so much to celebrate and highlight the institution that they view as vital for social cohesion, true personal fulfillment, the security of children and the amelioration of post-1960s multigenerational poverty.

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One commenter at least has mentioned the distinction in the US between legal marriage (you get a license from the court) and religious marriage (you get another license -- if you want to -- from your church). To me, the legal / religious distinction may be more important for this issue than the traditional / sentimental distinction made above b/c it helps show how trans rights (primarily b/c of their implications for children) challenge the assumptions of liberal pluralism in a way that gay rights don't.

Most us reading this blog probably agree with Sarah that "traditional marriage" is anachronistic in 21st century America, but that is not a view that we have to impose on everyone else in order to create a successful liberal, pluralistic society. We can accommodate religious communities that still hold the values of traditional marriage, and we can give individuals the freedom to join those communities if it corresponds with their religious beliefs or if they think that a traditional marriage will make them happier. When the state grants a certain set of legal and economic rights to a couple seeking a marriage license, it doesn't have to investigate the deeper reasons behind their decision to get married -- whether it is sentimental, economic, religious or something else doesn't matter to the state. It just has to know that the couple has freely chosen to enter into the relationship that they seek to certify with a license (and that they are not already married to someone else). All we ask of those communities who still hold to more traditional views of marriage is that they don't try to force their version of marriage on everyone else outside of their community.

This is consistent with the broader goals of a liberal, pluralistic society in which we try to agree to a thin set of legal rules that will allow us to live together successfully while accommodating a wide diversity of deeper religious/moral/cultural/philosophical values that we probably will never agree on.

Gay rights and gay marriage fit comfortably into liberal pluralism b/c we don't really need to inquire into why someone is gay. Maybe homosexuality is biological, maybe it is socially constructed, maybe it is chosen. We don't have to agree on that to give gay people rights. The state doesn't need someone to prove that they are "really" biologically homosexual before they can get a gay marriage license. All that matters is that the person seeking a gay marriage is an adult and has freely chosen the relationship with the partner that they seek to marry.

If only adults were involved, trans rights probably could fit into a liberal, pluralistic society like gay rights. I wouldn't have to agree with a trans person about why they are seeking medical transition. I may think that the idea of a gendered soul is incomprehensible metaphysical nonsense. I may believe that they are really motivated by psychological drives that they themselves would consider demeaning. But I don't have to agree with their metaphysical beliefs to grant them their rights as long as I don't prevent informed adults from seeking medical transition (for whatever reason) or discriminate against them politically or economically because of their choice to undergo transition.

The real challenge is that -- for biological reasons -- medical transition is harder if someone has to wait until they are an adult before starting. But we can't treat children as autonomous adults who can make their own decisions about medical transition. Even a liberal pluralistic society has to take on a parental role in guiding and protecting minors. Thus, we need a thicker social consensus about what is appropriate for minors than we do for adults. Trans activists perceive this. They recognize that for them to obtain their full rights as they understand them, it is not enough for the rest of us to tolerate their ideology as we tolerate the conflicting ideas of differing religious traditions. We actually have to agree with their ideology before we will be willing to grant children the rights that activists think that they deserve.

When mutual toleration is no longer tolerable and a group thinks that metaphysical consensus must be enforced for them to obtain their rights, liberal pluralism starts to break down. Trans activism is not the only source of stress for liberalism these days, but feeds into and reinforces a broader sense shared by so many activists on both the left and right that enlightenment liberalism has failed us.

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"This need for certainty in paternity drives society to restrict the female in all manner of ways, limiting her to a life of near servitude. "

How is it, that I, gay and 67, have understood that since almost high school and so many others get livid if you mention that? I am talking about the so-called affluent and well-educated.

I've told them that the need for certain paternity is the reason women have always paid a heavy price for promiscuity, and also have had to suffer things such as burkas, and feet binding, and on and on....Yet again, so often that explanation is met with rage because the mere noticing and saying it can only mean that you agree with it. Again, that is among the well-educated and affluent......

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All I care about is that we as a species stop being tribal. Marriage is tribal.

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Gay marriage may have finished off the concept, as Sarah states, but feminists had fatally undermined it long before.

<i>"A social institution formed to incentivize the carrying out reproductive roles in a manner maximally beneficial for offspring and society"</i>

It is a concept with social, legal, and religious aspects that governs not just reproductive roles (that's far to limited a view) but the whole process of child-rearing. The idea that it makes women subordinate is ridiculous. They acquire the man's social status and control over his financial resources. The fact that they have those additional resources available to raise their children benefits women tremendously. And they can do it without the drudgery of a 9-5 job or the dangers of commuting.

Traditionally, marriage was indeed all about assurance of paternity. The whole idea was a way to go from "it takes a village" of women raising kids in a group to families in which the father provides resources to his children far above what the collective group could. It's an agreement: financial resources for an assurance that the kids are indeed his. Hence the concern about adultery (the etymology of which shows that it was all about mixing sperm). Married men are also expected to be faithful, but women have a much less fierce reaction to cheating, unless the man ends up paying money to the support another family. Whereas if she so much as appears to cheat <i>at all</i>, it's game over. People who think there's a double standard in regard to cheating do not understand this.

For this agreement to work, both men and women have to be able to offer something that the other needs but does not have. Women provide the gestation, delivery, and early nourishment. Men provide the resources and protection, and have instincts to do that. Part of this agreement had long been that providing those financial resources was the man's job, and the woman's was the gestation. I'm certain that that, more so than any sexist ideas about female abilities (and quite likely the origin of such ideas), was behind the restriction on women's employment. One of the early wins for feminists was the ability to get almost any professional job (at least those which women want, which are only the high-pay, high-status jobs that don't require upper body strength). That has pushed men aside and removed their bargaining leverage for winning mates. Public acceptance of single motherhood and out-of-wedlock births finished off any real benefit of marriage for women except grifting. Today, wives still demand all the resources that the father can provide, but also want the ability to get them on their own.

In the traditional view, gay marriage simply made no sense. It only became acceptable when the public understanding of marriage changed to Sarah's second definition.

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One small tiny thing, if I may, as someone with one foot on both sides zigzagging all over the place.... you often use quotes for emphasis which is a legitimate use of "quotes" and I thought nothing of it until I got to "equality" and my reptilian fight-or-flight brainstem (that old thing) whispered in my ear: "SCARE QUOTES!!!!!!"

Are the "emphasis quotes" superfluous? Who are they for if they lose a non-zero amount of readers otherwise following you down this path?

Its a tiny thing, but I was dislodged from my lock-step leftist Real Communism Has Never Been Tried(tm) echo chamber by just a very few tiny things ultimately pointing to a glitch in the matrix once coupled to people's demonstrable willingness to ignore them.

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