This is my small effort to question what I think are some quite dangerous ideas in our society. Marriage, and long-term stable exclusive relationships, is becoming less popular among young people, which I think is unfortunate. It's often attacked from the position of feminism, or from ideas about personal freedom, and I feel I should explain why I think it's still an important and relevant idea in a free and secular society, and it's not only a Christian institution.
Although it's difficult to be sure of exactly how early people structured their lives, we do know that homo erectus lived in kinship groups with pair-bonding. In more recent history and the present, there are various different types of family and ideas of marriage, but non-Christian peoples do understand marriage. This sounds obvious, but there are both conservative-minded Christians and strong critics of marriage who behave as if marriage hatched as the unique brain-child of Jesus himself. For example, the Mal Paharia in West Bengal and some Native American groups of the Pacific Northwest are monogamous. In pre-Christian Europe, both monogamy and polygamy were practised by the Early Germanic peoples. The Vikings of northern Europe had a concept of marriage before the introduction of Christianity—although it was also common for women to co-habit with a man to whom she was not married—and, although arranged marriage was common, in other respects women were quite independent. Unmarried women with no sons sometimes became head of the family and women could divorce their husbands. The ancient marriage customs of northern Europe may not be the same as Christian marriage, but marriage did exist. If I had years and a library of anthropological data, I could describe the marriage customs of the entire world. As it is, excuse the focus on Europe, it's where I'm from. In countries where polygamy is still common, most women's movements want to encourage monogamy, as increasing women's equality.
As for the image of the Church as the Great Defender of the Family, well…. The Church is no defender of marriage, because it quite explicitly forces individuals to place God above all earthly concerns. The early Christians often renounced their spouses and families the better to devote themselves to God. It was when Christianity spread for a tiny sect to the religion of the Roman Empire that it had to adjust to… well, people's real lives. There is the famous Bible verse "if any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters" he cannot be a disciple. And that's the Church, the Defender of the Family, ladies and gentlemen. Because, you see, Thou Shalt Have No Other Gods Before Me. It's remarkable how many people get misty-eyed about Christian marriage, as if God were all that stands between Civilisation and an Orgy, while conveniently forgetting the bit about hating your entire family. It's also worth remembering, when liberals and certain feminists (I wish to emphasise, not all feminists) begin talking about how "historically" and "traditionally" marriage represents the subjugation of women that History and Tradition are not monolithic entities with capital letters. History goes on a long time. There are many, many traditions in society, some of them older than others. Most of the oppression comes with Christianity (although the pagan Germans could be pretty oppressive as well—buying wives, for example). The basic idea of mating for life does not.
Even after Christianity arrived on the scene, it was fairly common for Medieval peasants to simply marry themselves, in some form of oath or vow or ceremony without the Church's involvement. When later these peasants had to prove in Church courts that these vows were valid, they seldom mentioned God. They mentioned the promises they had made to each other. Which is, I think, the gist of the matter. A promise is a promise. A deal is a deal, whether you're religious or not. You don't need "the eyes of God" on your lawfully wedded wife, it's enough—or should be—that you've promised.
It's common to criticise marriage from the point of view of individual freedom, but free people make free contracts. They undertake commitments and do their best to keep them. Of course, there are circumstances in which keeping that commitment is simply impossible, unrealistic or unfair, but often it's a source of great strength and stability in life. I think a problem in our society is that we're fed a very unrealistic image of marriage. There is an expectation that True Love is easy, all the time, and that it's not worth sticking with something that's not perfect. The truth is that nobody is perfect. The perfect spouse would be the perfect person, and that does not exist. I don't mean that any woman should stick with a man who makes her unhappy. Every woman deserves better than that. She deserves someone who makes her happy, loves her and respects her, brings out the best in her and encourages and supports her to be the person she wants to be. I can't state that clearly enough. But that's not going to be easy, sometimes it's going to be tiring, stressful, and involve arguments about cleaning the hob. That's what real married life is like.
Often, superficially, it seems easier to take the sex without the commitment. In practice, I think the bond of marriage strengthens over time, and that the commitment and the shared life experiences are very important. Other relationships, without these commitments, often aren't as satisfying. Sometimes I feel that free love has become a new kind of religion in some groups in society, and I'm not sure that it really is as liberating as it's supposed to be. I think it can easily encourage hedonism, a "no strings attached" attitude to relationships which can objectify people. I think it brings out the worst in men, and actually doesn't liberate women, because a lot of men who have casual sex don't respect the women. They see them as "conquests" and dating as a "game". The fantasy is of having as much sex as they like with any woman they like, with no obligation to her or any resulting children (although the family courts often step in to remind him of their existence). But of course, children never feature in the fantasy.
Because sex is presented as so common, I think it encourages the dangerous belief that Everyone Else has a lot of sex, and there's something abnormal about sexual inactivity. I think this then leads to pressure to have sex, especially among single people. For some young men, it becomes proof of their manhood, while young women are damned if they do and damned if they don't, because if they have a lot of sex they're a "whore" or a "bad girl", but if they don't, then they're "stuck up" or "frigid". The casual sex fantasy is very shallow. I genuinely wonder what the appeal is. Is it the idea of choice—of picking and choosing anyone they like, whenever they like? Sometimes I wonder if the appeal is in the sex itself or in proving to other people how modern, mature and cool they are, or—even more tragically—in proving their own self-worth to themselves, that they're attractive and can get other people to like them. Because, the truth is, while married people often complain about their spouse, people who have casual sex seem to do nothing but complain about and disparage the people they have sex with. The men boast about the girls they conquer, objectifying them. The girls mostly mock the young men and see them as pathetic. There's something very tragic about listening to the men and the women talking to their respective friends, each convinced that they're the one who's successfully wooed, won and bedded someone whom they don't respect.
Casual sex has loosened the bonds of marriage—but hasn't ushered in the new Garden of Eden of feminist sexual freedom. There are just as many men who see women as sex toys as there always have been. True, women can now have their share of the fun and see men as sex toys—but is that really better? I'd rather see a society in which fewer people see each other as sex toys.
I think part of the problem is that most of the people who point out that casual sex might not be a good idea are Bible-thumping gay-hating brimstone-brewing wife-beating God-fearing fanatics. They seldom discuss the idea of mutual love, respect and affection, of seeing another person as a person or of respecting yourself as an individual without craving social approval. They usually take either the explicitly theological approach, or the you-will-get-pregnant-and-die approach. God is increasingly irrelevant to young people, and most young people are clever enough to know that the scare-mongering you-will-get-pregnant-and-die approach is usually bull shit. The real damage caused by casual, loveless sexual relationships is less visible, less dramatic and less easily condensed into memorable sound-bites. Often young people, recognising bull shit as bull shit and feeling patronised and disrespected, want to rebel, and the heavy-handed approach does more harm than good.
I think part of the problem is the way sex education is taught. I think it's important to properly understand the scientific facts of sex and reproduction. However, I think it's quite common in families for "that stuff" to be fully handed over to schools, rather than discussed as a family. And so there's a lot of talk about hormones and, if you're lucky, a bit of legal stuff about not raping anyone. Which is better than nothing. But personal relationships with other people are, well, personal, and the truth is that however modern we might be about discussing the details of our reproductive organs, we still cringe at the thought of talking about love. After all, we're British. Love is one of these soppy Continental notions, like driving on the wrong side of the road and food which tastes nice. We have no emotions. When an Englishman loves his wife very, very much… he might tell her so. But only when no one else is listening. So, our inconvenient inner worlds are ignored, and young people look for guidance and inspiration in trashy and cynical teen movies. Which aren't renowned for honest, in-depth conversations about a person's life philosophy, their feelings, their expectations from another person or a relationship.
Well, that got long. One thought led to another.