Thursday, May 28, 2009

Why gays are lucky to be marriage-free, according to Michael Scott

There's an episode of The Office from a couple years ago (Season 3) where the boss, Michael Scott (Steve Carell), calls a meeting to reveal that one of the other employees is gay. Predictably, he uses the opportunity to lecture the office about homosexuality, and he says this:

MICHAEL: Gay marriage currently is not legal, under U.S. law. I bet a lot of straight men wish that applied to them -- so they could go out there and have some torrid, unabashed monkey sex, as much as they could. You know, that sounds pretty good, right?

KEVIN: That sounds great.
I've watched that episode many times, and I've always laughed at that interchange because of how cheerfully Michael has become convinced of his own fallacious reasoning. But no one would say something so dumb in real life, right?

Well, the Weekly Standard saw fit to print this argument by Sam Schulman, in a piece entitled, "The Worst Thing About Gay Marriage":
[M]arriage changes the nature of sexual relations between a man and a woman. Sexual intercourse between a married couple is licit; sexual intercourse before marriage, or adulterous sex during marriage, is not. Illicit sex is not necessarily a crime, but licit sexual intercourse enjoys a sanction in the moral universe, however we understand it, from which premarital and extramarital copulation is excluded. More important, the illicit or licit nature of heterosexual copulation is transmitted to the child, who is deemed legitimate or illegitimate based on the metaphysical category of its parents’ coition.

Now to live in such a system, in which sexual intercourse can be illicit, is a great nuisance. Many of us feel that licit sexuality loses, moreover, a bit of its oomph. Gay lovers live merrily free of this system. Can we imagine Frank’s family and friends warning him that “If Joe were serious, he would put a ring on your finger”? Do we ask Vera to stop stringing Sally along? Gay sexual practice is not sortable into these categories—licit-if-married but illicit-if-not (children adopted by a gay man or hygienically conceived by a lesbian mom can never be regarded as illegitimate). Neither does gay copulation become in any way more permissible, more noble after marriage. It is a scandal that homosexual intercourse should ever have been illegal, but having become legal, there remains no extra sanction—the kind which fathers with shotguns enforce upon heterosexual lovers. I am not aware of any gay marriage activist who suggests that gay men and women should create a new category of disapproval for their own sexual relationships, after so recently having been freed from the onerous and bigoted legal blight on homosexual acts. But without social disapproval of unmarried sex—what kind of madman would seek marriage? ...

Few men would ever bother to enter into a romantic heterosexual marriage—much less three, as I have done—were it not for the iron grip of necessity that falls upon us when we are unwise enough to fall in love with a woman other than our mom. There would be very few flowerings of domestic ecstasy were it not for the granite underpinnings of marriage. Gay couples who marry are bound to be disappointed in marriage’s impotence without these ghosts of past authority....

Every day thousands of ordinary heterosexual men surrender the dream of gratifying our immediate erotic desires. Instead, heroically, resignedly, we march up the aisle with our new brides, starting out upon what that cad poet Shelley called the longest journey, attired in the chains of the kinship system—a system from which you have been spared. Imitate our self-surrender. If gay men and women could see the price that humanity—particularly the women and children among us—will pay, simply in order that a gay person can say of someone she already loves with perfect competence, “Hey, meet the missus!”—no doubt they will think again.
How do you think his wife -- or his ex-wives -- feel about this article?

To be clear, the above block quote is not a parody. The Weekly Standard is one of the most respected conservative periodicals, and it published this in all seriousness.

(Thanks to Isaac Chotiner for pointing out the Weekly Standard article in TNR, and this site for The Office dialogue.)


UPDATE: A comment on my mom's blog pointed out that I never actually explained my objection to Michael Scott and Sam Schulman's reasoning. Here's my response, for those who'd like to see this spelled out:
Let's concede the point that there are a whole lot of men out there (of all sexual orientations) who would rather have unrestrained, promiscuous sex than be tied down by being married. Does it follow that men are more fortunate if they're gay? Of course not, because straight men aren't forced to get married! Men who want promiscuous sex so much that they'd rather not be married are in the same position whether they're gay, straight, or bisexual: they just shouldn't get married. For those men, the legality of marriage is a wash. But there are still plenty of men, of all sexual orientations, who would rather be married. Among that group of men, the ones who want to legally marry a woman are in a more fortunate situation than the ones who want to legally marry a man, since the former but not the latter are allowed to do what they want.

18 comments:

Hoosier Daddy said...

How do you think his wife -- or his ex-wives -- feel about this article?.

Well he admitted he had three so I'll wager this wasn't much a surprise.

I think the story here is that having ilicit sex while married carries a much bigger stigma than say cheating on your girlfriend. Once a guy gets married he's committed to that one person. Period, till death do em part. That means the same nookie forever. When you're just 'going together' you're still a free man or woman for that matter. If caught cheating the standard response 'there ain't no ring on my finger' was and still is a classic excuse and pretty much accepted because there is no real formal commitment and recognized bond other than the sweet nothings you both whispered to each other.

That is one of the casualties of the sexual revolution. There was a time when sex was to be only with person you married. Once that became archaic it really doesn't mean much that you run around on your girlfriend.

Jennifer said...

Can we imagine Frank’s family and friends warning him that “If Joe were serious, he would put a ring on your finger”? Do we ask Vera to stop stringing Sally along?

The man can't possibly know any gay people at all. OF COURSE the same relationship concerns crop up and OF COURSE friends and family still are free flowing fountains of advice.

All that said, it's not just Michael Scott or The Weekly Standard. I've heard that silly "logic" many times. It's always seemed akin to a mid-40's comment along the lines of "those lucky blacks don't need to worry about mortgages!" Ridiculous.

Anonymous said...

Why is marriage is considered highest standard of being ?

We are placing unreasonable burdens on the institution, that can't possibly be met.

The highest state, the apothesis of life, is to be one with God. I don't know that marriage gets you there any quicker than unmarried.

Maybe it does.

Dylan said...

The debate over gay marriage isn't simply about gay marriage. For me it's about state sanctioned marriage. I've talked about this with my gf, and i've told her that the legality of a marriage means nothing to me, that her verbal commitment is infinitely more important than any signed document. What if the state didn't recognize marriage at all? Is that not an equally valid solution? Why does the state need to regulate marriage?

John Althouse Cohen said...

What if the state didn't recognize marriage at all? Is that not an equally valid solution? Why does the state need to regulate marriage?

The thing is -- this isn't going to happen. Marriage is regulated by the state, and it's going to continue to be. It just affects too many areas of life for it not to be.

As one example, there was this WaPo article about a woman whose fiance died while serving in the US military in Iraq. She ended up fighting in vain to get rights to any of his possessions that have enormous sentimental value (aside from monetary value) to her. It would have made a big difference in her life for the state to have a record of their relationship. For same-sex couples in states where they can't get married, their whole lives are like this. This blog post has other stories about the concrete ways being married, or the inability to marry the person you love, affects people's lives.

Musing about "what if the state didn't regulate marriage?" is fine, but it doesn't get to the real-world issue that matters to people. The issue is: given that the state does regulate marriage, who should be included?

Jason (the commenter) said...

But without social disapproval of unmarried sex—what kind of madman would seek marriage?

Which reminds me: when is Jaltcoh going to marry his girlfriend?

I'm surprised whenever I see two people who are dating and haven't yet given in to the enormous social pressure to be married. I can only imagine how often they must be refused service at restaurants and how hard it must be to have to hide their relationship status from their employers. Not to mention the shock when they are seen together without the proper rings on their hands.

Think of all the actors and actresses who have had careers ruined by having children out of wedlock, like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.

But if it weren't for this stigma, no one would get marred at all.

paul a'barge said...

Marriage is a covenant between a man and a woman.

Chris Althouse Cohen said...

Think of all the actors and actresses who have had careers ruined by having children out of wedlock, like Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie.Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's lives were ruined? I don't remember this happening.

Excellent post, btw.

John Althouse Cohen said...

Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie's lives were ruined? I don't remember this happening.

Jason was being ironic. It took me a minute to get it, too. He's responding to this sentence from the Weekly Standard article: "But without social disapproval of unmarried sex—what kind of madman would seek marriage?" That's implying that there's a huge stigma against unmarried sex -- so huge that it motivates people to dramatically restructure their lives (i.e. get married). But that's just not the case: for the most part, unmarried people go ahead and have sex if they feel like it, without fearing that they'll be ostracized from society.

Excellent post, btw.

Thanks!

Chris Althouse Cohen said...

Ah, ok. I find it hard to detect sarcasm online. And usually when people mention Brad and Angelina it's in the context of making fun of them.

Hoosier Daddy said...

I've talked about this with my gf, and i've told her that the legality of a marriage means nothing to me, that her verbal commitment is infinitely more important than any signed document..

That's sweet but verbal comittment doesn't go far when you or her decide it's time to part ways. Then its about who gets the house, the cars, the dog or cat, how the joint bank account is divided up.


What if the state didn't recognize marriage at all? Is that not an equally valid solution? Why does the state need to regulate marriage?.

The state regulates marriage in manner that it is a contract between two people. Unless you and your GF sit down and draw up an actual contract specifying how the goodies are shared, you have no cause of action later if you or her decide to go your seperate ways.

Even though I'm a conservative, I could care less about gay marriage. It has zero impact on my life. Gay couples live together now, all state sanctioned marriage does for them is legally bind the relationship.

peter hoh said...

One of my favorite cartoons on the topic -- one guy at a bar says to another guy: Marriage for gays and lesbians? Haven't they suffered enough already?

I have been certain that I'd see same-sex marriage in my lifetime, but even so, things seem to be shifting so fast. It's been fun watching those opposed to same-sex marriage attempt to keep up.

Did you hear that Ted Olson is part of a group filing a federal suit against prop 8?

Jason (the commenter) said...

CAC : I find it hard to detect sarcasm online.

You know, I don't think I can detect it well online either! Or maybe there just isn't very much of it to detect.

Sarcasm is a way of lying that is supposed to show truth. In being sarcastic are we subverting lies or subverting the truth?

Hoosier Daddy said...

And usually when people mention Brad and Angelina it's in the context of making fun of them..

Well its not like there isn't enough material to work with.

Dylan said...

As one example, there was this WaPo article about a woman whose fiance died while serving in the US military in Iraq. She ended up fighting in vain to get rights to any of his possessions that have enormous sentimental value (aside from monetary value) to her. It would have made a big difference in her life for the state to have a record of their relationship.But how do we fix this through additions to the law? Are you suggesting a solution that involves "registering relationships"? Great food for thought, btw.

John Althouse Cohen said...

But how do we fix this through additions to the law? Are you suggesting a solution that involves "registering relationships"?

No, I'm not saying we should change the law to help fiances. I'm saying that when you look at that person's real-life situation, you feel sorry for her. But people in opposite-sex relationships (like her) have it relatively easy, since they're allowed to get married. For people who would like to, but are unable to, get married to someone of the same sex, it's as if they're always in the situation of the engaged person whose fiance dies.

Maybe you're right that there should be a legally recognized grey area for fiances, but that's not my argument. I was just responding to someone who questioned why there's any need for the state to legally recognize marriages. When you think about the unfortunate real-world situation of the woman whose fiance died while serving in the military, it brings home the fact that marriage law actually affects people's lives in ways that are tangible and profound. The hand-waving about "Why does the state regulate marriage at all?" is naive.

kentuckyliz said...

The Iraq soldier's fiance situation doesn't enlighten us one whit about gay couples. You can leave whatever property and money you want to anyone you want by the way you title it and how you write your will.

She didn't get anything because he didn't want her to. Otherwise he would have married her and/or changed his will before he went to Iraq. The military discusses this sort of stuff with people about to be deployed abroad.

Why should anyone grant her any more status than he did? (Or didn't.)

John Althouse Cohen said...

Why should anyone grant her any more status than he did? (Or didn't.)

Again, I'm not saying anything different should have happened with her.