Christopher Ryan Ph.D.

Sex at Dawn


Traditional Marriage? Which Tradition?

Would gay marriage threaten real marriage? What's real marriage?

Posted Dec 19, 2008

A common refrain among those arguing against allowing same-sex marriage is that doing so would alter a long-standing trans-cultural definition of marriage. Rick Warren, the controversial evangelist Obama has invited to speak at his inauguration tells Ann Curry in an NBC interview that, "For five thousand years, every single culture and every single religion has defined marriage as a man and a woman."


The prerequisite for this sort of absolute declaration is absolute ignorance of what one is talking about. In fact, the world is teeming with innumerable examples of marriage that would be unrecognizable to Warren and other so-called traditionalists.

Two spirited ones (formerly known as berdache) were commonly found in many Amerindian cultures. They were either biological males who felt the presence of a female soul so strongly that they chose to live their lives as women or vice-versa, females who chose to live as men. Pedro de Magalhães de Gandovo described such women -- whom he called Amazons -- in 1576: "The wear their hair cut in the same way as the men, and go to war with bows and arrows and pursue game, always in company with men; each has a woman to serve her, to whom she says she is married, and they treat each other and speak with each other as man and wife."

The Mosuo people of China practice a form of courtship and sexual interaction anthropologists have called walking marriage, which consists basically of women being completely free to sleep with whomever they like, with children being cared for by the woman's family -- her brothers being paternal figures. Biological paternity is a non-issue. Every night is seen as an independent event, with no expectation of permanence or even continuity.

Anthropologists living with the Aché of Paraguay define a man and woman sleeping in the same hut as being married. But if one up and takes his or her hammock to another hut, they're not married anymore. That's it. Talk about your no-fault divorce!

Among the !Kung San (also known as Ju/'hoansi) of Botswana most girls marry several times before they settle into a long-term relationship. For the Curripaco of Brazil, marriage is a gradual, undefined process. A scientist who has lived with them explains that, "When a woman comes to hang her hammock next to her man and cook for him, then some younger Curripaco say they are married. But older informants disagree; they say they are married only when they have demonstrated that they can support and sustain each other. Having a baby, and going through the fast together, cements a marriage."

Among the Canela, "Virginity loss is only the first step into full marriage for a woman." There are several other steps needed before the Canela society considers a couple to by truly married, including the young woman's gaining social acceptance through her service in a "festival men's society," which includes sequential sex with fifteen to twenty members (no pun intended) and "the mother in law's receipt of meat earned by the bride through extramarital sex" on a festival day.

Got that? Part of the marrying process is group sex followed by a gift to the mother-in-law-to-be of meat gained in exchange for sexual shenanigans with men other than the husband-to-be.

Paging Rick Warren!

In contemporary Saudi Arabia and Egypt, there is a form of marriage known as Nikah Misyar (normally translated as traveler's marriage). According to a recent article in Reuters: "Misyar appeals to men of reduced means, as well as men looking for a flexible arrangement -- the husband can walk away from a misyar and can marry other women without informing his first wife. Wealthy Muslims sometimes contract misyar when on holiday to allow them to have sexual relations without breaching the tenets of their faith. Suhaila Zein al-Abideen, of the International Union of Muslim Scholars in Medina, said almost 80 percent of misyar marriages end in divorce. ‘A woman loses all her rights. Even how often she sees her husband is decided by his moods,' she said"

In the Shia Muslim tradition, there is a similar institution called Nikah Mut'ah (marriage for pleasure), in which the marriage is entered into with a pre-ordained termination point, like a car rental. Often used as a sort of religious loophole in which prostitution and/or casual sex can fall within the bounds of religious requirements, does this, too, fall within the universally-accepted definition of marriage?

Apart from expectations of permanence or social recognition, what about virginity and sexual fidelity? Are they universal and integral parts of marriage? Apparently not. For many societies, virginity is so unimportant there isn't even a word for the concept in their language.

In his book, Anxious Pleasures: The Sexual Lives of an Amazonian People, anthropologist Thomas Gregor reports that on his most recent visit to the Mehinaku, "the thirty-seven adults were conducting approximately 88 extramarital affairs." The figure is inexact, he tells us, because "opinions vary within the village as to who is having a genuine affair, and who is engaging in an occasional liaison." After some back-of-the-envelope calculating, Gregor concludes, "The villagers' taste for extramarital liaisons is limited primarily by social barriers, such as the incest taboo, and only secondarily by personal preference. In short, village men and women tend to have relations with each other unless they are specifically prohibited from doing so by the rules of their culture."

Similarly, Cacilda Jethá (co-author of this blog) conducted a study of sexual behavior among villagers in rural Mozambique in 1990, finding that her study group of 140 men were involved with 87 women as wives, 252 other women as long-term lovers, and 226 additional women as occasional sexual partners, working out to an average of four on-going sexual relationships per man, in addition to whatever unreported casual encounters these men may have been having concurrently.

Among the Warao, another group living in the forests of Brazil, ordinary relations are periodically suspended and replaced by ritual relations, known as mamuse. During these festivities, adults are free to have sex with whomever they like. These relationships are considered to be highly honorable and to have a positive effect upon any children that might result.

In a fascinating New Yorker profile of the Pirahã and a few scientists who study them, journalist John Colapinto reports that, "though [they] do not allow marriage outside their tribe, they have long kept their gene pool refreshed by permitting their women to sleep with outsiders."

As these examples clearly show, many qualities typically considered essential components of marriage in the contemporary western usage are anything but universal: sexual exclusivity, property exchange, the intention to stay together through thick (much less thin), even that the two partners are of different biological sexes -- none of these are expected in many of the relationships considered to be marriage in cultures around the world.

So when defenders of traditonal marriage make their appeals to some universally-accepted notion of what marriage is, they're talking through their hats. No such institution exists, or ever has.