Marriage, Sex, Incest, and Tradition

By Cyberquill 04/09/20136 Comments

Jeremy Irons has flung gay marriage proponents into a bit of a tizzy over his announcement—in an interview with the Huffington Post of all forums—that “I don’t have a strong feeling either way” about same-sex wedlock and conjuring up a slippery-slope-style scenario should the traditional definition of marriage be tinkered with in order to accommodate heretofore ineligible types of union.

“I think the lawyers are gonna have a field day with same-sex marriage,” Mr Irons predicted.

As an example of what might happen if “we change what marriage is,” the British thespian floated the hypothetical that a father could be able to marry his son if he wanted to pass on his estate without having to pay death duties.

Reacting like Fido the schnauzer at the sight of the mailman, the HuPo interviewer instantly got all huffy—pardon the pun—in response to this line of argumentation, calling it a “total red herring,” for “there are laws against incest,” i.e., even if same-sex marriage were legal, these laws would still prohibit a father from getting hitched to his son. Moreover, there was a “moral approbation [sic] associated with incest.” (He probably meant to say disapprobation.)

Mr Irons countered that incest laws were meant to preclude “inbreeding” and explained that “men don’t breed.” Hence incest laws didn’t apply to situations in which procreation was a biological impossibility.

May I suggest that the question of whether anti-incest laws cover sexual relations between blood relatives in general, or between opposite-sex blood relatives only, was the real red herring in this exchange.

The more pertinent question is this: why did the interviewer so readily associate the specter of incest with the idea of a parent marrying their child?

In other words, whence derives this reflexive expectation that the concept of marriage entails sexual relations between the spouses? Where is it written that a marriage must necessarily be “consummated” in the conventional sense? Who says that being married causes or facilitates carnal knowledge to any greater degree than being unmarried does?

The tenacious assumption that married folks engage in sexual congress (with their spouses, that is), of course, stems from our traditional understanding of marriage, on which romping in the marital hay for the purpose of procreation forms an integral entry on the connubial to-do list.

But as same-sex marriage advocates are eager—and correct—to retort every time the propagation of our species is being invoked as the central pillar upon which the institution of marriage was founded, if procreation were an expected and necessary ingredient in marriage, then why does society so happily permit opposite-sex couples to exchange vows even if they either cannot or refuse to reproduce?

The fact is that, with the possible exception of suspected Green Card fraud, marriage licences have long been issued without questioning the motives of the applicants. Just as non-reproducing marriages are allowed, so are purely platonic ones. For all the state cares, you can get married because you lost a bet and then never so much as shake hands with your better half until death or divorce do you part.

In short, the reason why immediately upon hearing mention of blood relatives getting married the word “incest” flashed on the interviewer’s mind, is that his mind has remained very much stuck in the traditional view of what marriage is, namely a union that involves sexual intimacy between the spouses.

Accepting and advocating same-sex marriage, however, necessarily requires a measure of flexibility regarding the traditional understanding of marriage.

Yet somehow, most gay marriage supporters will quickly and effortlessly drop into a full side split when it comes to demonstrating such flexibility in the gender and procreation departments, but then they can’t seem to reach their ankles with their hands when asked to imagine away various other aspects of traditional marriage as well.

So yes, lawyers and courts will have a field day using same-sex marriage as a precedent for the malleability of marriage overall.

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  • Richard

    You are right to talk of lawyers. Marriage is a legal concept, not a moral one, and in English Law is vastly complex. It varies greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction and therefore recognition of foreign marriages in English law is also complex.

    The policy of the British government is to remove gender requirements -- quite easy, I would have thought -- not the other requirements. Thus father and son would still be within the prohibited degrees and the marriage void.

    The difference between a void marriage and a voidable marriage is that the former never exists but the latter can be brought to an end only by action of one or both parties.Thus where lack of consummation renders the contract voidable, the marriage exists, though terminated.

    Approbation has a special meaning in this context. It happens when a party loses the right to petition for for nullity by conduct which confirms the marriage.

    So, sex, incest and tradition are of little significance to a discussion about legalising gay marriage and are red herrings.

    Morality, as opposed to legality, is a private matter and should be left to the parties. For my own part, I have no objection to a change in the law if third parties are not harmed. I try not to be a nosey parker.

    • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

      Of course, legalizing gay marriage would not, in and of itself, entail that a father could marry his son. Welcoming into the marriage tent inherently non-romantic types of unions that are neither meant nor expected to be consummated—and where the spouses would actually be violating the law if they engaged in sexual relations with one another— would require an additional modification to the traditional definition and understanding of marriage.

      What legalizing gay marriage does is to establish that the definition of marriage is malleable.

      So malleable, in fact, that the one and only thing that marriages have always been (in spite of a multitude of variations in other areas, such as regarding age, race, religion, the exact number of wives a man could marry etc.), namely a union of male and female, is subject to being declared non-essential to the core concept of marriage.

      It follows that if the most traditional aspect of marriage can be tossed, why should any other traditional aspect of marriage have to remain in place?

      So what lawyers will be having a field day with is haggling over which traditional aspects of marriage are “core” aspects (i.e., not subject to change) and which ones are not.

      Is the number two (as in “exactly two spouses”) a core aspect of marriage? If yes, why?

      Is romance (i.e., the assumption that sexual relations between the spouses will take place) a “core” aspect of marriage? If yes, why?

      And if you’re inclined to answer any of these questions in the affirmative, keep in mind that going down the because-it’s-always-been-that-way road has been rendered an invalid line of reasoning via the legalization of same-sex marriage.

      Ergo, if I wanted to marry myself, my dolphin, or a ketchup bottle, I cannot be denied on grounds that such unions have never been considered marriages. Of course they haven’t. Neither have same-sex unions. Past does not equal future.

      Even in the unlikely even that the interviewer used “approbation” in the sense of the right to petition for nullity by conduct which confirms a marriage, the sentence “There’s a moral approbation attached to incest” makes no sense. I’m pretty sure he meant to say that, anti-incest legislation aside, society disapproves of incest on moral grounds. Slip of the tongue. No big deal.

      I remember I first heard the term “approbation” many years ago in Woody Allen’s Husbands and Wives—a movie about marriage, incidentally—where a writing student (Juliette Lewis) tells her teacher (Woody Allen) that his “approbation” means a lot to her in response to him praising one of her papers.

      In fact, Damage with Jeremy Irons was in theaters around the same time, and I went to see both flicks about a dozen times.

      Funny how it all comes together now.

    • Richard

      I think you are talking theology rather than law or politics.

      • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

        My point is that if we lay to rest the traditional notion that marriage necessarily involves sexual relations between the spouses, just as we’ve laid to rest the traditional notion that marriage necessarily involves a man and a woman, then marriage between blood relatives won’t run afoul of any incest laws. I don’t see the “theology” in my argument, neither explicit nor implied in its penumbras and emanations.

        • Richard

          Yes, but that is not how English law defines marriage. You can already have a legal marriage without consummation. It wouldn’t be very practical if, for example, your tax return had to ask whether you had consummated your marriage. With respect, you over-complicate the issue.

          Incest is not dealt with as such in the law of marriage, only indirectly through the prohibited degrees. In canon law the prohibited degrees were much, much wider. It was found that people from the same village often came from within the prohibited degrees and couldn’t marry each other. The result was a simple ceremony that fell short of full marriage but in time came to be fully recognised.

          The purpose of marriage before the contraceptive pill, legal or otherwise, was to protect the woman against the philandering male. It was thus immaterial if there was after all no subsequent consummation. In such circumstances a degree of nullity enabled the parties to remarry.

          The most famous refusal of nullity on the ground of consanguinity was by Pope Clement VII in relation to the marriage of Henry VIII and Catherine of Aragon, a refusal which led to the creation of the Church of England because Henry wanted to marry Ann Bullen. The question turned on what exactly were the prohibited degrees.

          btw I’ve just bought Michael Heatly’s biography of Shakin’ Stevens for a £1. Is it worth reading? Could you do a post on Shaky some time?

          • http://blog.cyberquill.com/ Cyberquill

            I was actually gonna do a post on him some time ago. The opening paragraph languishes somewhere in my drafts folder, along with dozens of incipient post fragments on a wide variety of topics that are unlikely to ever see completion. We’ll see.

            Haven’t read the Heatly biography. May I suggest that you read it, and then you tell me if it’s worth the quid. I’ve only seen the recent *BBC documentary* about Shaky.

            And I’m not over-complicating anything. It was the guy from the Huffington Post who brought up incest laws and insisted those laws would prohibit a father from marrying his son. And the reason he brought up those laws, I contend, was that his mind is hopelessly tethered to a very conservative view of marriage as an institution where the spouses have sex as if it couldn’t be any other way.

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