Thursday, April 25, 2013

Experimental Marriage? From Oneida to Marriage Equality

In a recent article in the Atlantic, Noah Berlatsky attempts a comparison between modern discussions of gay marriage and the 19th Century marriage experiments, mentioning Mormons and Shakers but focusing on John Humphrey Noyes's Oneida Community (which, the article omits, is the origin of Oneida silverware, though originally the company made animal traps).

As Jillian Keenan reiterated last week at Slate, gay marriage opponents often assert that allowing same-sex marriages will lead us to polygamy and other perversions. It's an odd rhetorical move, inasmuch as, in terms of chronology, the slippery slope from gay marriage to polygamy appears to run in the wrong direction. The major American experiment with multiple wives in one marriage, occurred, after all, in the 19th century with the early Mormon Church. To talk about polygamy, then, doesn't raise the specter of a dystopic future. It points instead to the past. And it also underlines the extent to which marriage experimentation in the U.S. goes back a long, long way. 
As far as the history of that experimentation goes, the Mormons were not even the most radical. That distinction goes to the Oneida community, several hundred strong, founded in upstate New York in 1848 by John Humphrey Noyes. Noyes was a graduate of Yale Theological Seminary and a preacher—though his license had been revoked after he began to develop his own shocking social and theological doctrines.

Their sexual practices included "complex marriage" (in which everyone in the community was married to everyone else, and, therefore, could have sex with everyone else--though I do believe they kept to opposite sex pairings) based upon the passage in Luke that in the age of the resurrection "they are neither married nor given in marriage."  Noyes believed the age of the resurrection was now (or then), and the reason why people are not given in marriage is that we are already married to everyone else.  Another practice is "male continence" in which men learn how to control their orgasm in sex so that they do not accidentally impregnate a woman.  As typical of the age, all of this was "scientific."

I recall writing a paper on the Oneida community as an undergraduate, likely for my "Religions in the United States" class with Paul Bushnell (who is retiring this year after 47 years of teaching at Illinois Wesleyan University).  So, much in this article was familiar to me, though I begin to wonder whether the analogy between the (religiously motivated) great marriage experiments of the 19th century and marriage equality movements is apt.  Indeed, it seems the article raises the specter of Noyes only to show how different it is from gay marriage and, in fact, how gay marriage is by far less radical:

Gay marriage, then, is both less and more radical than the Oneida experiment. On the one hand, the gay marriage movement does not challenge basic cultural ideas about romantic love and individuality. It doesn't create a new model of society, nor make sex a semi-public, communally regulated act. Noyes, as Vickers told me, "openly defined his endeavors in opposition to the mainstream social order of his times." Gay marriage doesn't do that. 
What gay marriage does do, though, and what Noyes did not, is to try to speak to, and change, society as a whole, rather than just a small subsection of it. The transformation that's required for gay marriage—including a greater number of people in a traditional institution—isn't as radical as it was for complex marriage. But, precisely because it seeks to expand rather than to reinvent, it's likely to be more lasting. Oneida is a measure of both how limited and how sweeping gay marriage is—as well as a reminder that "traditional marriage," and the tradition of marriage encompass a good bit more variation than its proponents like to remember.

It seems, therefore, that marriage equality is hardly "experimental" in the same way that the Oneida community was:  it is still marriage between no-more-than two consenting adults (though that has not always been a requirement for heterosexual marriage throughout history, which often has included non-consenting partners, especially with the female partner) that generally involves the same social structures as heterosexual marriage.  Another major difference is that interest in, support for, and perhaps even (or therefore?) opposition to marriage equality is far more widespread:  gay and lesbian couples throughout the U.S., Canada, and Europe are seeking recognition for their commitments, instead of being just one small community in upstate New York.  It makes marriage equality a rather conservative gain.

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