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Sex & Consequences

An anthropologist vindicates the traditional family.

Anthropology—hometown to cultural relativists and all-night diner for disaffected intellectuals—may not be where you would most expect to find good reasons to defend traditional American family values. But anthropology, in fact, guards a treasure house of examples of what happens when a society institutionalizes other arrangements.

Want to know what it really means for a society to recognize “gay marriage”? Or for a society to permit polygamy? Or when the stigma on out-of-wedlock birth disappears? Care to know what happens to a human community that tolerates sexual experimentation among pre-adolescents and teenagers? Are fathers and mothers really interchangeable? Anthropology actually has a large amount of empirical evidence on all these matters—and many others that are now on the table in the United States thanks to various advocacy movements.

The Leftist political convictions of many of my fellow anthropologists tend to keep them silent about some of the scientific findings that have accumulated over 150 years or so of systematic ethnographic study. But these findings strongly suggest that the family is a bedrock institution and that the kinds of modifications to the family advocated by gays, feminists, and others who speak in favor of relaxing traditional restrictions on sexual self-expression will have huge consequences.

Let’s take an anthropologically informed look at two of these proposed changes to the family: gay marriage and polygamy.

Institutionalizing Male Homosexuality

It is not especially difficult to find examples of societies that are considerably more relaxed about male homosexual behavior than American society has been, at least until recently. Some societies such as pre-communist China and Vietnam officially disapproved of homosexuality while tolerating large numbers of male homosexual prostitutes. Today’s boy prostitutes in Thailand carry on a trade that was remarked on by Western travelers of centuries past. A fair number of North American Indian societies made room for a homosexual “man-woman” (a berdache, as the French fur traders called him) who dressed and acted the part of a woman. But the berdache was an exceptional creature and did not represent anything like normalized homosexuality.

For that, we have to look to Melanesia, where there are perhaps dozens of very small-scale societies in which male homosexuality is given ritual significance and fully incorporated into the life of the community. This happened for example in the New Hebrides, New Caledonia, and in many parts of New Guinea. Here is one example:

Among the Etoro, a tribe of about 400 living by hunting and small-scale gardening in the Stickland-Bosavi district of Papua New Guinea, from around age 12, every boy is “inseminated” orally more or less daily by a young man who is assigned to him as a partner. Late in his teenage years, an Etoro boy is formally initiated in an event involving many male sex partners, after which he becomes an “inseminator” rather than an “inseminee.” In due course, the former older male partner often marries the younger man’s sister.

Somewhat similar customs are reported for many other tribes in the remote mountains of New Guinea, and these cases collectively serve as proof that it is not beyond human ingenuity to channel homosexual behavior into a social system. But what kind of social system? For the Etoro, it is one that radically discounts the value of women as mothers and wives. Etoro men defer marriage as long as possible and, when they do marry, are concerned mostly with the advantages to be gained from reinforced links with their male in-laws. The Etoro, as it happens, put significant obstacles in the way of heterosexual behavior. Husband and wife, for example, are permitted to have sexual relations only outside the communal household and only under conditions that rule out about two-thirds of the calendar year. The birth rate, unsurprisingly, is very low.

Does the behavior of a small tribe in New Guinea have any bearing on the debates in contemporary America about “respect” for homosexual lifestyles? Perhaps not. After all, requiring homosexual behavior is far from merely permitting it. But the Etoro and similar societies do illustrate something about the logic of homosexual male relations in human societies. When such relations are subject to cultural elaboration they almost always fit into a pattern of initiation into secrets, male exclusivity, and a low status for women.

Why this should be so is a complex question, involving both biology and the underlying nature of human society. A short answer is that heterosexual marriage is shaped by the complicated interplay of marital sex, pregnancy, child-care, and the sustained dependence and interdependence of husband, wife, and children. Male homosexual relations, because they are sterile and because they channel relations of male dominance, are built on a narrower base of sex, subordination, and control.

Can it Work Here?

Vermont already has approved “civil unions,” and as I write it looks very much as though the Massachusetts courts are about to give the United States some form of officially sanctioned “gay marriage.” Many of its proponents say gay marriage is just the extension of a civil right to an unfairly excluded minority, and that liberal-minded argument sounds convincing to large numbers of Americans. I, however, am skeptical. The anthropological record, as I read it, shows that if a society treats male homosexual behavior as a fully legitimate option, it will end up not with a more expansively defined system of marriage, but with a dual-track system in which “marriage” is reduced to a bare transactional relationship, while male homosexuality will flourish according to its own dynamic. As a social scientist, I am perfectly prepared to admit that American society can normalize male homosexuality and that “gay marriage” moves us in that direction. Other societies have run this experiment, and, in a fashion, it “works.” If America normalizes male homosexuality through gay marriage, our culture is not suddenly going to become exactly like the Etoro, or the Big Nambas of the northern New Hebrides, or other such tribes. Rather, we will follow out the biological and cultural logic of homosexuality in our own fashion. The general results, however, are predictable on the basis of the ethnography: heterosexual marriage will be weakened; the birth rate will decline; the status of women as mothers will further erode; and young boys will be a much greater target of erotic attention by older males.To say these things, I understand, is to excite vigorous disagreement from those who advocate gay marriage as just a step in the proper expansion of civil rights. The link between homosexual desire and erotic interest in children is especially contentious. Gay activists and their supporters frequently point out that most child molestation is perpetrated by heterosexual males. And they emphasize that homosexuality has no necessary link to pedophilia: a great many gay men are primarily interested in other adult gay men. I grant both points, but we are also left with the stubborn empirical fact that societies that have indeed institutionalized something akin to “gay marriage” have done so in the form of older men taking adolescent boys as their partners. To imagine that we could have gay marriage in the United States without also giving strong encouragement to this form of eroticism is, in light of the ethnographic evidence, wishful thinking.

In any case, the American experiment in “gay marriage” looks to me all but inevitable. We will see for ourselves in the next generation or two who is right.

Plural Marriage

The advocates of making America safe for plural marriage or polygamy are less visible than the advocates of gay marriage, but they certainly exist. A substantial percentage of Americans now believe that the government “has no business” enacting or enforcing laws on what adults do “in the privacy of their bedrooms,” and those who believe this have already ceded that, in principle, polygamy is a legitimate option. What concern is it of the government whether a man has more than one wife or a woman more than one husband, provided that all the partners enter into the relationship of their own free will?

In this sense, polygamy is a good stand-in for the larger attitude that sexual relations and marriage are a “private” matter in which the larger community should have no say. That libertarian ideal applied to sexual relations is based on profoundly false assumptions about human societies. The relations between men and women in the family and between parents and children always have far-reaching social consequences.

In the United States, polygamy is illegal and relatively uncommon but nonetheless practiced by a few. The best-known examples are those 50,000 or so breakaway Mormons who reject the 1890 Mormon-Church edict that ended the practice of polygamy begun by their prophet Joseph Smith. Smith had cited biblical precedent and divine revelation for adopting polygamy, but the institution provided an expedient solution for a movement that initially attracted many more female converts than male. As the Mormons became a self-reproducing community in their own right, polygamy made less functional sense and continued only on the remote fringes of the movement.

Even so, Mormon polygamy follows a pattern thoroughly familiar to anthropologists. In societies where a man is permitted to have more than one wife, typically a minority of men actually do so; the members of that minority marry not just twice but several times; some of the co-wives are often sisters or cousins; the age difference between the husbands and wives is substantial and typically greater with each additional wife; and new wives are often teenagers. Polygamy (technically “polygyny” when it is a man with several wives) in other words is a system by which powerful older men assemble a household of young desirable women. Polygynous marriages almost always are part of a system of arranged marriages in which the women have little or no say about the matter.

That does not mean that the wives in a polygynous household are necessarily unhappy. For every Lu Ann Kingston, the Mormon woman who recently testified about being pressured at age 15 to become the fourth wife of her 23-year old cousin, there are many others who accept the situation and take pleasure in the fellowship of their co-wives. Polygyny, in fact, is a perfectly workable way of arranging human affairs. But it has highly predictable consequences that most Americans would find unacceptable.

We probably don’t want to embrace a system that shunts young girls into motherhood before they have an opportunity to get an education or that leads to fathers arranging the marriages of their teenage daughters.

But surely we are in no danger of heterodox Mormons imposing their system of polygyny on Methodists in New Hampshire or Baptists in Florida? No, we aren’t. But polygyny has a brand-new set of apologists who have emerged all over the country in a little-heralded movement called “polyamory.” The polyamorists might be thought of as a fetid blossom of the Swinging Sixties’ free-love movement. They favor a redefinition of marriage as a combination of any number of men and women who join together in a kind of group family. Polyamorists expect and encourage sexual relations within this tangle to be both homosexual and heterosexual. And they are very far from any thought that their licentious groupings would provide an avenue for the emergence of a patriarch with a retinue of teen-wives.

But that just shows that the polyamorists are too busy groping toward their particular form of sexual self-expressions to understand the consequences of abolishing monogamy. Eliminate the one-man-one-wife rule and, yes, the polyamorists could openly do their thing but so could a lot of other people. Should the polyamorists have their way, plural marriage would, almost of a certainty, emerge in its classic form of rich older males dominating much younger vulnerable females.

This is not a “slippery slope” forecast. It is more definite than that, since we know for a fact that everywhere and at every time human societies have made plural marriage an option, this is what happens. Given a free market and no rules against plural marriage, human beings will find themselves in a hierarchy dominated by older men with multiple younger wives.

But why? Why wouldn’t the polyamorist utopia of coupling, tripling, and quadrupling emerge instead? Or at least some tame version where most people are monogamists, but a fringe avails itself of the new option? The answer lies in something anthropologists don’t like to talk about: human nature. The human sexes accommodate fairly easily to a dominant male hierarchy; human males are biologically primed to seek sexual variety; and the systems of reciprocity on which all human societies are based lend themselves very easily to dominant males consolidating their status by taking young wives.

There is a lot of argument in anthropology over these matters, and, for the moment, I would prefer to avoid a more strenuous attempt to explain why polygamy tends to crystallize in one particular form. What matters is that we have studied many hundreds of human societies, large and small, and in doing so have a pretty clear picture of polygamy as an institution. One version of polygamy, polyandry—the marriage of a woman with more than one husband—is very rare. (Various Himalayan tribes and the extinct culture of the Marquesan Islands in the Pacific provide examples.) But polygyny is common. Ask an anthropologist why and you are bound to hear a lot about the numerous variations and particularities that distinguish one case from the next. But in the end you will still have this essential truth: polygamy is inseparable from older men imposing themselves on young women.

Nor do the consequences stop there. A society in which older men collect younger women creates a series of follow-on problems for itself in matters such as dealing with a large number of youngish widows who missed getting an education and have few marketable skills; disputes over inheritance among the children of co-wives; and a large cohort of young men who find it much more difficult to find wives of their own. Young men competing for an artificially limited number of young women tend to be extra aggressive. Hence it is no surprise that polygynous societies are often violence-prone.

Would the United States be an exception? Possibly. Perhaps our emphasis on “companionship” in marriage and the ideal that spouses love one another would tame the spirit of male domination that polygamy typically unleashes. But I doubt it.

The Libertarian Illusion

Recently, Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) provoked an outcry when he observed, “If the Supreme Court says you have the right to consensual [gay] sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery, you have the right to anything.” Among the replies posted on the Internet, I noted these:

“Bigamy, polygamy, incest, and adultery—could you please tell me what, in a practical sense, is wrong with these from a ‘public policy’ point of view?”

“What principled case can be made that any private-between-consenting-adults sexual expression should be off-limits?”

“If all laws against consensual sex in the privacy of one’s home are unconstitutional or should be—which seems to be the position of Santorum’s critics—I can’t imagine why laws against adultery, incest, polygamy, and (possibly) bestiality should be spared from this sweeping claim.”

As the editorial page of the New York Times saw it, Santorum “equate[d] homosexuality with bigamy, polygamy, incest, and adultery.” Well, no, he didn’t equate these practices, but Senator Santorum did enunciate a context for thinking about the broader implications of treating “sexual expression” as something that ought to be of no concern to society at large.

The anthropological evidence is overwhelmingly on the side of those who argue that large social consequences follow from a society’s decisions about which sexual practices are legitimate. The rules that govern marriage and sexual relations are, directly and indirectly, the basis of family life and have enormous influence over the formation of good (or bad) character in children. Marriage channels the primary relations between the sexes and the generations, and it is the template for most other relations in society. This is true not just in the United States. It is true everywhere. Alter the rules of marriage, and society will reshape itself around the new situation. But it doesn’t necessarily reshape itself in the ways that the reformers hoped.

The sexual privatizers imagine a society in which adults can seek their pleasures without interference and somehow children will get born and properly raised. It is a sheer illusion. A society that doesn’t restrict human sexual relations in effective ways is a society that doesn’t have much interest in reproducing itself. People left to their own sexual whims will sometimes form stable families, but that is the exception, not the rule. The more we treat sex as merely recreational, the less important we make procreation. De-mystifying procreation—making it just another event that may or may not require heterosexual married parents in a long-term relationship—leads to both low procreation and badly raised children. A society that abandons the effort to restrict and channel human sexual urges into approved forms loses control of the strongest emotional/biological force known to our species and invites a progressive dissolution into unconnected or randomly connected individuals.

It is indeed possible to have a viable society that puts a very low value on women’s reproductive capacity. All the society really needs is a reliable way to attract new members. It can do that by raising children, or it can encourage high rates of immigration. Increasingly, it looks like we are choosing the latter. The dream of unfettered sexual expression is very powerful. The advent of effective birth control and abortion on demand, along with a revolution in attitudes towards pre-marital sex and cohabitation, and the de-stigmatizing of out-of-wedlock birth, divorce, pornography, and homosexuality have gone very far towards creating a popular view that we can create a society in which sexual behavior has no public consequences. But, in the end, this is merely a fantasy.

Forms of “sexual expression” are, at a deeper level, modalities of social relationships that do have very real public consequences. Whatever a society accepts as legitimate “in the bedroom” inevitably becomes a choice affecting the status of husbands, wives, children, and many others. In this sense, every society in effect chooses to have a strong version of marriage in which husbands and wives are bound by public expectations of good behavior or it chooses a weak version in which people work out their dissatisfactions and hurts in private and walk away from the marriage when they can’t. Likewise, a society chooses to respect women as mothers or treats them primarily as income-earners. It chooses to create families that invest love and attention in their children or alternatively to treat children as a luxury good. Society chooses whether children will be the focus of adult sexual interest; and it chooses whether it will cultivate families that care deeply about education or delegate the whole task to strangers, and so on. If we indulge the fantasy that “sexual expression” is only an individual matter of no valid concern to society at large, we choose our high rate of divorce, our ambiguous regard for motherhood, our unhappy children, and our poor schools. It doesn’t seem like an especially good choice.

Of course, you don’t really need an anthropologist to see that a breakdown in social rules governing marriage and the family has disastrous consequences. Consider some statistics: 1.35 million children in the U.S. born outside of marriage in 2001—33.5 percent of the total; 947,384 divorces in 2000, excluding those in California, Colorado, Indiana, and Louisiana, states that don’t count divorces; by age 14, 14-20 percent of American girls and 20-22 percent of American boys are “sexually experienced”; about five million Americans are addicted to drugs, and 52,000 die each year from their addictions; 15 million new cases of sexually transmitted diseases occur in the U.S. each year, a quarter of them among teenagers; about 100,000 American children engage in prostitution, and about 85 percent of street prostitutes report being incestuously molested by a male family-member as a child.

The breakdown in the family is also a sadly familiar part of everyday life for most us. Who doesn’t know a single mom struggling to do her best for her children but inevitably coming up short? Who doesn’t know of couples sundered by the small difficulties that, in previous generations, would have been taken in stride? And you don’t need an anthropologist to sense the transformation of America from a family-friendly culture to a culture of me-first.

But if you want to see where these social trends are leading, anthropology has some answers. Humanity has been experimenting with ways to organize itself into viable social groups for many millennia. Almost any combination of sexual partners has been institutionalized somewhere and often in multiple places. We can and should read that record as a realistic check against the dreams of consequence-free sexual liberation that have seized the imaginations of so many of our fellow citizens.


Peter Wood is an Associate Professor of Anthropology at Boston University and the author of Diversity: The Invention of a Concept.