The Sexual Illusion
The changing culture around sex and marriage.
Outside of my family, most people are probably unaware that I am only two generations removed from the practice of arranged marriage. My paternal grandparents were brought together by my grandmother’s eldest brother after their parents had died in a pandemic in Cyprus. My yiayia was in her teens at the time and my great-uncle was expected to provide her dowry. Married in the second decade of the last century, they remained together until my pappou’s death in 1979.
A custom that seems so foreign to us now made sense to possibly most of the world until very recently. Sexual activity was not merely a private predilection, but belonged to the entire community which had a vital interest in ensuring its own existence into the next generation. A prospective match might be the product of two families seeking an alliance. A wide variety of motives, including social, economic and religious, would have played a role. In the middle ages, the consummation of a marriage might even require witnesses, as bizarre as that seems to us!
Former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau once said that the state has no business in the bedrooms of the nation. On the surface this sounds right. What a husband and wife do in the privacy of their own quarters is presumably no one else’s business. Such activity should certainly not be policed by an intrusive government. This seems more obvious to us now than it did to our parents and grandparents fifty years ago when Trudeau uttered this adage. What has changed in the meantime?
SEPARATING SEX AND MARRIAGE
The short answer is that the sexual revolution happened. Gathering steam even before the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, it exploded in the 1920s with the coming of the jazz age. Depression and war temporarily halted its progress, but it moved forward again during the 1960s and after. Arranged marriage had yielded to the love match unevenly in different cultures, but by the late 20th century the assumption had become widespread that social and familial considerations must take a back seat to the “in-love-ness” of the prospective spouses. The musical play Fiddler on the Roof movingly portrays the shift in social mores in a traditional Jewish community in western Russia.
The overall aim of the sexual revolution was to separate sexuality from marriage, reproduction and communal expectations, and to affirm instead the goodness of all forms of consensual sexual expression. Now mutual love is seen as the justifying feature of a sexual relationship. Is this progress? Have we gained more than we have lost with this tectonic shift in sexual mores?
LIVING WITH THE CONSEQUENCES
I think we would have to admit that the aims were utopian and the benefits illusory. We have now lost the consensus that marriage is a fundamental institution without which a society cannot survive, let alone flourish. Little by little, marriage’s intrinsic characteristics have been whittled away, beginning with its covenantal character and progressing to permanence and sexual complementarity, both of which are no longer obvious to an increasing number of North Americans, including Christians. Marriage is now considered little more than a private contract between (thus far) two persons, little different from an ordinary friendship or even a market transaction.
All of this is part of the historical development of liberal individualism, which strives to extend the voluntary principle into the most basic of institutions. What will be the consequences of this? We are already seeing the decline of birth rates in western countries, along with a rise in the numbers of people living alone. This is probably not sustainable over the long term.
We cannot bring back arranged marriages, of course. But it might be good if our communities, including families and churches, were to be somewhat more involved in matching young men and women rather than leaving something so significant to the vagaries of in-love-ness.