ON MARRIAGE AS A PROPERTY TRANSFER, OR WHY PROPONENTS OF “TRADITIONAL MARRIAGE” DON’T UNDERSTAND THE
ETA: This rant is dedicated to Jadelyn because she prodded me to actually write it instead of just talking about writing it.
When we talk about marriage equality, Conservatives have a set of arguments they bring to the table pretty consistently. Most of these arguments are fallacious, insulting, or outright ludicrous, but that never seems to occur to them. Folks on the pro-side find themselves sitting here wondering why on earth a Conservative would think legalizing gay marriage is the first step on a slippery slope toward legalizing bestiality - the two are nothing alike! Right? Pedophilia, same thing. Anti-equality folks say it’s the next step after legalizing gay marriage. If we let them fuck people of the same gender, they’ll want to fuck children, obviously! No, wait, how on earth is that obvious?
I’m struck by how, in the face of these arguments, a lot of us seem to be getting upset for the wrong reasons. Well, okay, not the ‘wrong’ reasons, maybe, but reasons that actually have nothing to do with the point. We say things like “They’re comparing us to animals, how dehumanizing!” and “They’re perpetuating the stereotype that all gay men are pedophiles! How disgusting!” but we’re not really looking at the perceived similarities between what anti-equality folks term, ‘abnormal relationships’. WHY are they lumping these things in the same category? Why is child abuse the next logical step forward from a loving relationship between two consenting adults? And why by all that’s holy and good do they not recognize that the difference between a same-gender partner and a child, a dog, a toaster, or even a female spouse in a polygamous marriage where women are treated as property for religious reasons, is the ability to give meaningful consent??? This isn’t hard, for fuck’s sake! It should be obvious!
There’s a parallel here that explains most of it, in my humble opinion, and it exists within our own pro-equality arguments and rebuttals, but I don’t see the connection being made very often, and that’s the perception of marriage as a property-transfer transaction. A lot of times, when the anti-equality crowd brings up what they call “Biblical” or “Traditional” marriage, our side is there reminding them that “Biblical Marriage” involves:
Man + Woman
Man + Several Women
Man + Slave Women
Rapist + Victim (as long as she was a virgin, because if she wasn’t a virgin clearly she wanted it, oh, and also only if she was raped out in the country, because if she was raped in the city she would have screamed and fought and someone would have rescued her, so clearly if she was raped in the city she’s an adulteress who secretly wanted it)
Man + Wife + Wife’s Slaves
Man + Dead Brother’s Wife/Wives
Man + Any Virgin Women Who Survive The Conquest of His Enemies And Can Be Claimed By Him As Spoils of War
Funny thing… what do all these versions of Biblical marriage have in common? Yeah, you guessed it - property and property transfer. In the case of the rapist marrying his victim, he has to actually pay her father for damaging his property. The rest of these either involve dowries or slavery, but regardless, ‘property transfer’ is the watchword of the day. Of course these days we don’t hold with polygamy - in a world where women only outnumber men by 3% and, in first-world countries like the USA, don’t often die in childbirth anymore, we can’t have any one man hogging too MUCH of the property. That’s just craziness. We put a stop to that a long time ago, except for isolationist groups of… oh, right. Extreme fundamentalist Christian sects. Biblical Marriage. Uh-huh.
But let’s look at some of the ways other versions of the property transfer model of marriage have translated in our society. It was only in 1993 (yes, you read that right) that the last state in the USA removed spousal exemption from rape charges, and as of 1999, 33 of 50 states viewed spousal rape as a lesser crime. That’s within my lifetime, y’all. That’s fucked up. Legally, as a culture, we still see sex as something that a woman owes her husband (the legal exemptions are rarely targeted the opposite way, but since men can be raped I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s been tried). If you married him, you owe him sex. Hell, if you listen to Dan Savage, also a proponent of the transactional model of human sexuality, he thinks you owe sex to a person you’re just dating, and if you don’t deliver you have no excuse to complain when they attempt to cajole, coerce, or manipulate you into it then abandon you if you don’t give in. We construct men as the hunters and women as the hunted, men as genital archaeologists and women as gatekeepers. If a man has sex with a woman, he’s won and she’s given it away. Putting aside for the moment all the heteronormative cissexist assumptions of this model, it has another very glaring flaw - it prioritizes acquiring property and conquering resistance over the meaningful consent of two (or more) people. If you’ve ‘popped a girl’s cherry’ there is a perception that you OWN some part of her that can never be retrieved. You ‘took’ her virginity, she ‘gave’ it to you. A transaction was conducted, and you’ve added to your high-value property.
Or let’s look at sexual harassment. Why is it that a woman alone is easily targeted, but a woman walking with a man is usually left alone? I have personal experience with this, and also the stories of friends who relate how when they were alone they were seen as available, as owing any random male their attention on demand. But the minute their brother/father/boyfriend showed up, the other males backed off. A free woman is free game, but a woman with a man is OWNED, is protected, is property. And you don’t infringe on someone else’s property. You see, the thing about property is this: property doesn’t need to consent. Think of how many POC are descended from the rape of slaves, whose consent was not considered necessary, but who had to have permission from their owners to marry or choose their own mates. Their sexuality was controlled by their owners, and the expectation of the right to that control and the expectation of the right to lesser forms of control, such as the type many women experience today, while not equal, stem from the same source.
So we can see how the property transaction model of marriage, or even just of human relationships, still persists in our society and affects the way we view men, women, and the relationships between them. How, then, does it affect the way in which we view relationships between men and men, women and women, people who are genderqueer with people who are binary and vice versa, and people who are trans*, either binary or non-binary? It’s fairly easy to get hold of. We’ve labeled its manifestations ‘homophobia’ or ‘heterosexism’ but I think their roots lie in the transactional model. Think for a moment how often oblivious straight couples demand to know “Who’s the woman” in a relationship between two men. Think about how a gay man is expected to behave effeminately, or a lesbian woman is expected to be butch. Think about how we insist, as a culture, that queer relationships resemble hetersexual relationships through gender-markers and power-structures. Someone has to be the ‘man’ and someone has to be the ‘woman’ even if there’s no man, no woman, or neither man nor woman involved in the relationship! Someone has to top, someone has to bottom. Someone has to be seme and someone has to be uke, to borrow the egregious stereotypical terms of the yaoi genre, which is so heavily dominated by straight women. We expect someone to be property and someone else to be the owner, and we don’t know how to handle it if they’re not.
In a culture where the relationship between property and owner as it concerns human beings has been habitually defined by two factors - gender and skin color - a same-sex or non-binary relationship violates tradition. If two men are fucking, how can one own the other? They’re both men! If two women are fucking, who owns them? Do they imagine NOBODY owns them? How dare they! Lesbians are subject to ‘corrective’ rape at an astronomical rate, and you’ll never convince me it has nothing to do with the transactional model, especially for lesbian POC who suffer the majority of that particular breed of violence. Guess what else is treated like property in our society? If you guessed ‘children’, who generally aren’t allowed full choices, bodily autonomy, or true independence until they’re considered adults, you’d be right. You’d also be right if you answered ‘pets’ or ‘livestock’. Wonder of wonders, those are the very parties anti-equality folks believe we’ll jump to fucking if we’re allowed to fuck someone of the same gender. It doesn’t occur to them that the slippery slope doesn’t exist because our standard is NOT “relationships that violate the standard (transactional) model”, our standard is “who can give clear, quality consent to being in a relationship? Well, then, let’s not restrict them!” To them, the slippery slope exists because if you are allowed to START fucking around with the transactional model, there’s no telling how else you’ll fuck around with the transactional model. They use polygamy as a bogeyman for their own hang-ups and insecurities, claiming we’ll allow a return to “a time when women were treated like property”, not knowing or perhaps deliberately obfuscating the fact that healthy, egalitarian polyamorous relationships exist and their existence harms no one and destabilizes nothing. They just know that the idea of making people property scares and disgusts us - it must, because we insist on having bizarre, abnormal relationships where no one is owned, controlled, or trapped in a power imbalance.
So, to sum up, Conservatives, Traditionalists, and Anti-Equality Bigots in general don’t twig to the consent standard because they are accustomed to a model of marriage that does not involve a consent standard. I’m not trying to say none of them practice, or care about, consent in their own personal relationships; I’m talking about what they were raised to expect, the implications of the model they were given, and how that influences what they see as ‘natural’ or ‘traditional’. The thread of Marriage-As-Property-Transfer runs through all the heterosexist and homophobic arguments I commonly hear. Even folks who mean well fall into that trap. ”Who’s pitching and who’s catching?” and “Who’s the man in the relationship?” are just further manifestations of how our cissexist, heterosexist, and patriarchal cultural narratives all tie into each other to create a gigantic ball of oppressive crap that we have to work constantly to dig ourselves out from under, otherwise known as ‘intersectionality and why it’s important’.
Do I think it’s the only objection they have to marriage equality? No - objections run the gamut from “The Bible says it so I believe it whether or not it makes any sense whatsoever,” to “It’s GROSS therefore it shouldn’t be legal,” and a hundred creative variations in between. But when you hear the watchwords ‘Biblical’ or ‘Traditional’, remember this is what they’re talking about - marriage as a transaction, in which human property changes hands from one owner to another. They’re talking about a marriage in which the husband is the head of the house and the wife submits to him, and they’re acknowledging, whether they realize it or not, that that dynamic is automatically subverted when you’re allowed to have two husbands or two wives.