My guilty pleasure is watching the reality TV show Married At First Sight. Each season a team of “experts” pair 6 strangers into 3 couples who marry, honeymoon, and move-in together. At the end of 8 weeks, the couples decide if they would like to stay married, or get a divorce. This show captivates my imagination, and I am equally horrified by and hopeful for the participants of this public social experiment.
Part of my fascination with Married At First Sight is my own intellectual curiosity about marriage rooted in my life experience and inspired by Adrienne Rich’s, notion of ‘Compulsory Heterosexuality.’ Rich argues that heterosexuality is not a natural state, but an obligatory political institution that insures men’s physical, economic and emotional access to women. First published in 1980, Rich considers heterosexuality not merely in sexual terms, but in the many ways women contribute to their own subordination by being obliged to focus their energies (erotic and otherwise) in the service of men.
Heterosexuality as conceptualized by Rich, is not a biological or naturalized state, but is rather, an institution of control that requires ongoing propaganda and social conditioning to perpetuate a particular outcome. Like other institutions such as religion and education, heterosexuality promotes a particular moral ethic and prescriptive behavioral expectations in the advancement of ideological goals that perpetuates the subservience of women to men. Rich challenges the heterosexual moral assumption that healthy, mature women will naturally gravitate to focusing their energy (both romantic and otherwise) on relationships with men.
What I find particularly compelling about Rich’s argument is her identification of ‘heterosexuality’ as an institution of control rather than a biological or naturalized state of sexuality. Almost 40 years have passed since Rich penned her essay, and although heterosexuality remains the assumption (we assume someone is heterosexual until they inform us otherwise) and extraordinarily privileged (heterosexuality remains the norm by which other sexualities are considered), the compulsory status (or the obligation to be heterosexual) has weakened somewhat in Western societies. This transition is marked by the inclusion of same-sex couples into the institution of marriage.
Although same sex marriage is not without its resistance, particularly from religious conservatives that continue to naturalize heterosexuality, but also from queer critics who problematize marriage as an indicator of equality, the longstanding and successful efforts of LGBTQ advocates to have “marital rights” extended to same sex couples, demonstrates a nuanced softening of compulsory heterosexuality while simultaneously reaffirming compulsory monogamy.
In other words, it’s ok to be lesbian or gay, but it’s not ok to form committed sexual, social and economic relationships in any numeric reconfigurations beyond “the couple.” As stated by Elizabeth Emens, “friends and foes of same-sex marriage seem to agree on one thing: whatever happens with same-sex marriage, multiparty marriage should never come to pass.” The inability to conceptualize numeric alternatives to “the couple” affirms the compulsory nature of monogamy.
Using Rich’s frame of reference, compulsory monogamy can be conceptualized as an institution that perpetuates and naturalized the romantic dyad for sexual, psychological, social and economic completion. Like heterosexuality, marriage (or compulsory monogamy) is an institution of control, which I have a deep intellectual itch to critically consider.
Over the next few months I will be exploring the writings of feminist and queer thinkers who have considered the institution of marriage and compulsory monogamy through the lenses of citizenship, colonization, law, and neo-liberal governance. I want to understand how marriage has been, and continues to be, a controlling agent in society that is so thoroughly integrated into law, culture, religion, and economics that it is difficult to disentangle. The assumption of marriage (and monogamy) operates in stealth mode – barely perceptible until violated—we rarely notice all the ways it is institutionalized in our everyday lives. We are conditioned to idealize a linear path of romantic progression wherein we ultimately secure sexual, social and economic fidelity with a life partner. I would like to understand how marriage is idolized to the point where sincere people are willing to marry complete strangers to fulfill their desire for lasting “couple-hood.”
If you would like to join me on my journey, then I ask you to keep one important consideration in mind—my study is not about you (not that I wouldn’t find your personal stories interesting). If you are single, common-law, married, divorced or separated, this journey is not about you – its actually about me, and my intellectual curiosity rooted in my own life experience (some of which, I will share through my writing.) Your choice is exactly that, a personal choice, and I am not judging those who find happiness and comfort in the ideal and the embodied experience of marriage. Likewise, I do not judge those who choose life paths that oppose normative standards of “couple-hood” – I cheer you on as you bravely ride into the headwinds of resistance.
The books and journal articles that I will be exploring over the next few months have been piling up on my desk at home. Noting the accumulation of these texts, my beautiful, smart and intelligent 16-year-old daughter felt the need to, “come out” to me a few nights ago. With tears in her eyes, she explained that one day, she might like to get married, and she hoped that I would not be disappointed in her. I assured her that I would not be disappointed, and as her mother, it would be an honor for me to support the decisions she makes in her personal life. Her path and journey are her own, and I feel disinclined to meddle with her life choices or impose my beliefs onto her.
My curiosity about the institution of marriage is situated on the plane of critical critique not personal criticism. Naturally, this critique will filter down to my own way of being in the world and the choices I make, and I hope that it will influence my daughter (and those who read my work) to critically consider marriage as an institution that perpetuates a particular outcome and moral ethic. But my curiosity is not rooted in control – I have no desire to be proscriptive about what people should and should not do, I simply want to enjoy the intellectual labor of deconstructing an institution that underscores all avenues of life.
- Rich, Adrienne. 1980. “Compulsory Heterosexuality and Lesbian Existence.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society. 5: 631-660. ↑
- Emens, Elizabeth F. 2009. “Compulsory Monogamy and Polyamorous Existence.” In Martha Albertson Fineman et al ed. Feminist and Queer Legal Theory: Intimate Encounters, Uncomfortable Conversations. Taylor and Francis. ProQuest Ebook Central: 259-285 at 259. ↑
- Wiley, Angela. 2015. “Constituting compulsory monogamy: normative femininity at the limits of imagination.” Journal of Gender Studies, 24: 6, 621-633 at 622. ↑