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Gay marriage and changing concepts of marriage

By Eric Porter - posted Monday, 3 August 2015

To start, consider the logic of the campaign for gay marriage. Advocates demand the legal right to marry as proper recognition of their love for their partners. To deny them this recognition, is to deny the authenticity of that love, and to suggest their love is less worthy than heterosexual love.

This view of marriage is surprisingly widespread. Increasingly, it treats marriage as legal recognition bestowed upon heterosexual couples to confirm and authenticate their love. Extending marriage to homosexual couples would thus make this official approval available more equitably. The campaign for gay marriage wants homosexual love to have the same recognition as heterosexual love – primarily legal recognition, but by extension also social and even moral recognition as well.

But is this true? Is marriage, in essence, a stamp of approval for a couple's love? Is that the purpose or even the function of marriage as an institution? Or is this a distortion of marriage, something that might impair its broader social function? And thus, on these grounds alone, should gay marriage be rejected?


Certainly, over the past two hundred years or so in western countries, "love" has become the preferred mechanism for sorting men and women into couples in preparation for marriage. Similar trends are now evident in other parts of the world but these have the same source, stemming directly from cultural globalisation.

But before that, things were quite different. Other means were, and still are, preferred for sorting men and women into couples. This distinction is important. Using "love" is not just one option among others of equal value. Rather, "love" is qualitatively different. Those other options, however varied, have one thing in common – they all indicate the social nature of marriage – that it is a "social" institution. That is, until the rise of "love" as the preferred sorting method, marriage did not simply serve the need for individual recognition but instead served a broader social function. Sorting men and women into couples was a community responsibility and it was thought appropriate for the community – represented by family, elders, tradition, the church or religion – to make the selection.

As a social institution, the purpose of marriage was to provide the nucleus of the family. The family was valued because it formed the bedrock of society. Society in this view is bigger than the sum of its parts. It has a life that transcends individual mortality, ensuring that a way of life is available to all independently of the individuals that compose it. It provides continuity, stability, security and predictability, all essential for its inhabitants.

Family is fundamental – even if family structures have varied widely through history and across cultures. It is the purpose, not strictly the structure, of the family that testifies to its importance. Unless it accomplishes this purpose, it fails. Family is responsible for the continuous regeneration of society. It establishes the essential and irreplaceable link between the past, the present and the future, guarding the past against betrayal and the future against negligence. Moreover, as Burke observed, it is these 'little platoons' that instil in us that sense of belonging, security and loyalty that makes social life possible.

In essence, the family combines biological with social reproduction, making biological parents jointly responsible for bringing up the next generation. This ties action (sex) to consequence (offspring) in a moral bond that links past, present and future. The association of sexual pleasure with procreation is not simply a throwback to a past of unreliable or unavailable contraception. Rather, that association prevails because children are a responsibility and their upbringing is essential to the community and its future. Thus sexual indulgence is set within bounds that curtail the behaviour of men in particular, guarding women against abandonment and allowing children to grow and learn in security, sufficiency and stability.

Family remains essential to society – and its breakdown in recent decades parallels the broader social breakdown. Substantial contemporary research, combined with millennia of experience, substantiate the necessity of the family. To sanctify the marriage bond because it provides the nucleus of the family and, hence, the life blood of the community, is thus perfectly reasonable and rational. Any action that undermines this bond, however well-intentioned, strikes at the very basis of society.


By contrast, using "love" to determine who married whom is distinctive because it constitutes a major step in the rise of modern individualism. Lodging the decision of who marries whom in the individual does not just remove the decision from the community – it says this relationship is entirely personal, separate from the community. At this point, the social role of marriage is already in question.

This trend became significant in the 18th century. As Lynne Hunt has argued, this century saw a rapid growth in social empathy – through literature in particular, subjective feeling and interior reflection became more accessible to others, regardless of their backgrounds. Hunt links this to a growing belief in natural and equal rights and, hence, to individualism. I want to link it to the rise of "love" as the means for sorting men and women into couples.

The key moment was the so-called 'Romantic revolution' that bridged the shift from the 18th to 19th centuries. The rise of "love" embedded the choice of a partner in what the Romantics considered the most authentic source of individuality – an individual's feelings. Feelings were, then as now, treated as spontaneous, unmediated expressions of one's inner being. True freedom meant unrestrained expression of one's feeling. Anything which inhibited this was condemned and rejected. Through the Romantic revolution, the individual supplanted the community in the choosing of partners, and feeling supplanted reason as the basis of individual freedom and authenticity.

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About the Author

Eric Porter is an historian who until recently taught politics and political economy at RMIT.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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