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‘Dignified Promiscuity’

Via Andrew Sullivan, I see that the gay journalist Marc Ambinder has come up with a provocative neologism in his latest Week column. Excerpt:

Where will we end up? Will promiscuity define young gays forever? I don’t think so.

But I also think that society will become more tolerant of what might be called dignified promiscuity: open relationships and marriages, where the negative externalities of promiscuity are dealt with at their source, and where safe sex is respected, even within an ethic that allows for a more interesting sex life. I’d guess that straights will be come more promiscuous and gays will become less promiscuous, and some middle ground will be carved out.

Sex isn’t going away. Gays aren’t going away. Marriage among gays will become much more common. There will be different types of gay role models than there are today. The ease with which men (and women) of all sexual orientations can find sex is increasing. People are getting married later in life, and fewer (percentage wise) straight people decide to get married at all.

“Dignified promiscuity”? Look, if we’re going to become French, can we at least get better bread out of the deal?

Seriously, though, as ridiculous as the concept may be, this concept illuminates the concerns of social conservatives about the normalization of the gay male sexual ethic within broader heterosexual society. If gay men can marry, and if they normalize non-monogamy within the institution of marriage, then of course our understanding of what marriage is will change. (Whether it will change in a negative way — decay, you might say — or whether this will be good for marriage, as Dan Savage claims, is a separate question.)

This also gets at another point that some social conservatives struggle to see: that this would be happening if gays did not exist. That is, the normalization of homosexual marriage and the loosening of heterosexual norms within marriage exist in reciprocal relationship. It’s not that one “caused” the other. In fact, if anything I would say that the decay of traditional sexual and marital norms are more likely to have caused gays to demand marriage rights, because they correctly saw that heterosexual marriage had become the sort of institution (e.g., expressive, contractual) that their relationships fit into well.

To focus on the decline of marriage culture as something caused by the rise of gay marriage is fundamentally misleading. All those working-class and poor heteros shacking up and starting families without benefit of marriage aren’t doing it because they see gay people getting married.

At the same time, the pro-SSM people often fail to grasp what it is about SSM (as distinct from gay relationships) that alarms social conservatives: to grant that gay relationships can be recognized in civil law as marriage represents the codification of a view of marriage that has been emerging over the past decades. That is, as long as the law still saw marriage as one man + one woman in a monogamous union designed primarily for the procreation and stable formation of children, then all the deviations from that norm in actual behavior could have in theory been corrected. But once the law no longer recognize that norm, and instead sees marriage as expressive of the desires of two autonomous individuals to form a union, then an irreversible line has been crossed.

Anyway, “dignified promiscuity.” Man. What a world.

(By the way, did you know that research shows there are six countries in the [industrialized — thanks Hector] world whose people are more promiscuous than the French — and that the United States is ahead of France on the list? So much for stereotypes.)

UPDATE: From Alan Jacobs’ philosophical comment on Ambinder’s piece:

Ambinder assumes two points here without, I suspect, even realizing it, so obviously true are those assumptions to him: first, that it’s important for one’s sex life to be “interesting”; and second, that “interest” derives from variety and novelty of partners.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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