I actually don’t know if that’s true, but the closer I get to standard marrying age, the less I think it’ll ever happen — first because I think marriage is kind of a crock, and second because I’m becoming fairly certain that there just isn’t anyone out there who I want to be forever bound in marriage with.
Before anyone gets mad at me for calling marriage a crock, let me just say that I think marriage can be a good thing for a lot of people. I think that, in rare instances, it can be egalitarian. I think it offers a valuable support system, and that it is an important cultural symbol.
I’m just not sure it’s for me. As far as I can tell, most people end up getting married — yet I can’t imagine that every one of those people, or even most of them, found someone who, social constraints and cultural expectations aside, they would actually want to spend the rest of their life with in a monogamous relationship. I don’t think it’s cynical for me to point out that most people settle. And there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that. Marriage is the cultural norm. It brings tons of benefits with it, including important social ones — men and women of a certain age are expected to be married; married people socialize with other married people; not being married is often viewed as an indicator that something is wrong with you. At some point (early 20s in much of the country, early 30s in places like New York), it seems like everyone around you is getting married, and if you’ve been with the same person for a while and you get along well enough and love each other, then marriage just makes sense. And of course, there are those rare people who find the love of their life and enter into a fabulous marriage that they whole-heartedly want to be in and that trumps all other aspects of their life in its perfection. But those people are few and far between.
Which isn’t me making a judgment about the goodness of marriage, or saying that a less-than-storybook marriage isn’t worth having. For most people, it is. Marriage is a powerful social and economic institution, and ain’t nothing wrong with wanting to enter into it.
But, being that it is a powerful social and economic institution, it continues to reflect cultural norms that are wrapped up in gender and power. Same-sex marriage rights are perhaps the best example — same-sex marriage is offensive to social conservatives precisely because so many of us rely on gender difference as a way of organizing society and our experiences, and marriage equality challenges those notions. “Traditional marriage between a man and a woman” is valuable because men and women are presumed to be fundamentally different, and because marriage is reflective of an ingrained power structure. Within traditional marriage, there are gendered requirements that go along with the roles of “husband” and “wife.” The roles and the requirements are different, and with delineated, sex-based roles and requirements comes a power differential. Traditionally, men held most of that power. They still do — even in our modern, supposedly egalitarian construction of marriage. Without that gendering of power, same-sex marriage would not be an issue.
And then there’s the engagement ring thing. I’ve honestly never given much thought to the politics of engagement rings — I long assumed I would get married and would have a fancy engagement ring, I had a general idea of what I liked (platinum band, square-cut stone, maybe a blood-free diamond but probably an emerald) and that was that. When I started doubting the whole marriage thing, the issue of the ring was the last thing I was concerned about. As for marital politics, issues like name changing and distribution of domestic labor seemed more important, or more visible. I didn’t think much about it until I read Jessica’s take on engagement rings in Full Frontal Feminism. Like O’Rourke, Jessica thinks that they’re very problematic. And I’m inclined to agree.
…which is guaranteed to piss a lot of people off. So read O’Rourke’s article, and remember that this isn’t about you being a bad feminist. It’s about a fucked-up cultural practice, which is but one of many fucked-up cultural practices that we have to negotiate every day. Sometimes, out of ease or in the name of personal pleasure, we engage in them. Sometimes we opt out. None of these practices are simple, and none of them mean one thing, or the same thing to every individual who engages in them. This is about the practice, and the broader implications and assumptions that it rests on and perpetuates — it is not about you, or your value as a feminist or progressive, any more than my constructed desire for a shiny diamond ring is just about me.
But behind every Madison Avenue victory lurks a deeper social reality. And as it happens there was another factor in the surge of engagement ring sales—one that makes the ring’s role as collateral in the premarital economy more evident. Until the 1930s, a woman jilted by her fiance could sue for financial compensation for “damage” to her reputation under what was known as the “Breach of Promise to Marry” action. As courts began to abolish such actions, diamond ring sales rose in response to a need for a symbol of financial commitment from the groom, argues the legal scholar Margaret Brinig—noting, crucially, that ring sales began to rise a few years before the De Beers campaign. To be marriageable at the time you needed to be a virgin, but, Brinig points out, a large percentage of women lost their virginity while engaged. So some structure of commitment was necessary to assure betrothed women that men weren’t just trying to get them into bed. The “Breach of Promise” action had helped prevent what society feared would be rampant seduce-and-abandon scenarios; in its lieu, the pricey engagement ring would do the same. (Implicitly, it would seem, a woman’s virginity was worth the price of a ring, and varied according to the status of her groom-to-be.)
On the face of it, the engagement ring’s origins as a financial commitment should make modern brides-to-be wary. After all, virginity is no longer a prerequisite for marriage, nor do the majority of women consider marriageability their prime asset. Many women hope for a marriage in which housework, child-rearing, and breadwinning are equitably divided. The engagement ring doesn’t fit into this intellectual framework. Rather, its presence on a woman’s finger suggests that she needs to trap a man into “commitment” or be damaged if he leaves. (In most states today, if a groom abandons a bride, she is entitled to keep the ring, whereas if she leaves him, she must give it back.) Nor is it exactly “equitable” to demand that a partner shell out a sixth of a year’s salary, demonstrating that he can “provide” for you and a future family, before you agree to marry him.
It’s certainly not very egalitarian. Of course, neither is the fact that women are generally expected to shell out far more money for the costly business of looking like a woman — make-up, clothes, shoes, haircuts, lotions, skin-care products, hair products, hair removal, and on and on. Yes, men invest in many of those things too, but not to the same extent, and it’s not as much of a cultural requirement. Which isn’t to say that beauty culture justifies engagement rings, just to point out that we often seem more concerned with gender inequality when a man is losing money on it.
For those who aren’t bothered by the finer points of gender equity, an engagement ring clearly makes a claim about the status of a woman’s sexual currency. It’s a big, shiny NO TRESPASSING sign, stating that the woman wearing it has been bought and paid for, while her beau is out there sign-free and all too easily trespassable, until the wedding.
Which is kind of the point, right?
O’Rourke also points out the conspicuous consumption aspect to engagement rings. They also serve as a physical indicator of how much someone more powerful than you thinks you’re worth. They don’t just symbolize commitment — they demonstrate how wealthy your partner is, how much he can afford to adorn you with, and how vicariously valuable you are.
None of which seems very egalitarian, progressive or feminist.
The engagement ring thing isn’t enough to drive me away from marriage — but the bachelor party might be. Especially when it serves as a nice reminder that even the “progressive” dudes don’t mind a little exploitation in anticipation of a future tied down to the ol’ ball-and-chain.
Consider that Emily Post has not had anything fresh to say on the subject since 1922. “The groom’s farewell dinner is exactly like any other ‘man’s dinner,’ ” she lied, continuing, “Usually there is music of some sort, or ‘Neapolitans’ or ‘coons’ who sing, or two or three instrumental pieces, and the dinner party itself does the singing. Often the dinner is short and all go to the theater.” The other day, I queried the adorable Neapolitans who frequent an Italian social club in my neighborhood as to whether they’d consider singing at my BP. They demurred, telling me they thought it was “real funny” that I “had the nerve” to ask, and we all enjoyed a good laugh.
While you might correctly venture to a sporting event as one element of the fete—a Triple Crown race, say, or a carefully selected cockfight—the crux of the BP is enjoying lively conversation with other men keenly interested in society, literature, and the arts. Naturally, “the arts” include exotic dancing: The bachelor should be teased, humiliated, and possibly oil-wrestled by a professional ecdysiast. Some of you may object on feminist grounds, but strippers claim to find their work empowering, and this is no time for a debate. It is sufficiently progressive to treat the dancers with respect and to tip generously.
Entitled white boys used to be entertained by Italians and blacks. Now it’s naked women. But that’s totally cool, because they say it’s empowering. And it’s international:
Adventuresome sorts might consider a trip overseas, or at least to Montreal, home of Club Super Sexe and its DJ, who brings the most charming Quebecois lilt to such phrases as “Lesbian show, lesbian show!” Amsterdam, Ixtapa, Reykjavik, and Cartegena have also become popular, but who can keep up with extradition treaties? Why not see America first? There’s always New Orleans, a jaunt with a humanitarian vibe: The tragedy of Hurricane Katrina may have slipped from the front pages, but the ladies of Larry Flynt’s Barely Legal Club still need your support. Those of you planning a summertime event in the Hamptons should bear in mind high-season hassles—the notorious traffic, the scarcity of great oysters, the fact that Long Island strippers are hideously susceptible to sunburn in early July. Those of you going to Las Vegas manifestly lack imagination. No, New York City, more than ever, is the best place to have a bachelor party: In the fall of 2001, celebrating the pending nuptials of a college chum, I had occasion to admire the American flags management had installed on either side of the main stage at Scores and found myself so moved by New Yorkers’ collective courage that I started misting up. That, or I had some body glitter in my eyes.
Bachelor parties where the boys get together and go fishing or out to a nice dinner are one thing. But the “take the groom-to-be out to watch naked women dance around” is problematic not only because of the feminist issues with paying women to strip,* but because it strikes me as a direct statement of power over his to-be wife — the message is that marriage is such a burden and a bore that he has to get all of his youthful energy out before he enters into it, even at his fiancee’s expense.
And then there’s the fact that if marital bliss with my strip-club-going husband wasn’t all puppies and rainbows, it would be my fault for not giving it up enough.
The penis rules. Or should, anyway. “If men don’t feel respected or loved, if they don’t feel like a man, if they have to walk around on eggshells when it comes to their sex drive, if their horniness is treated like an inconsiderate act of selfishness – like typical male behaviour – then they will reassert themselves with another woman,” says a man I will call Mr. Multiply Divorced.
Clearly, Mr. Multiply Divorced is the victim, and there’s nothing wrong with him — something is wrong with everyone else.
It’s children that change the sexual energy of a marriage. I remember an acquaintance of mine complaining about her husband’s expectation of sex. She had two young sons at the time, and she was a wonderful hands-on and attentive mother. There were lunches to be made, laundry to finish, dinner to make, homework to help with, errands to run, and just before she passed out from exhaustion, a husband to do. And she did, because if nothing else, she is highly responsible. (And still married, by the way.) The whole yummy-mummy trend is really a statement of denial, if you ask me. Most young mothers will tell you that after having their bodies taken over by pregnancy, and then the demands of breastfeeding and constant monitoring of a baby, what they would really like at night is to be left alone for a bit, untouched. They’ve overdosed on closeness for the time being.
But husbands still want their wives to view them as the primary relationship. Another man I know – okay, we can call him Mr. Former Boyfriend – told me that in his marriage of 20 years and three children, his ex-wife, who gave up work to devote herself to the care of their offspring, denied him sex so often he had to beg for it. And when she relented, he felt it was out of pity or obligation.
Such a dynamic is common and emasculating, notes Esther Perel, a New York-based couples therapist and the best-selling author of Mating in Captivity: Reconciling the Erotic & the Domestic, published last year.
“It’s not healthy for men to feel pathetic about their urges and shame about their desire. It’s not just their masculinity they are expressing through sex but also their lesser masculine qualities, their tenderness, their vulnerability, their desire to give pleasure and receive it,” she explains.
So Mommy is exhausted from running around all day and cleaning up after her husband and the kids, but she’s driving him to another woman if she doesn’t enthusiastically have sex with him at night. Would it be silly to suggest that maybe he could contribute to the household tasks so that she isn’t totally exhausted and stressed at the end of the day, and might then enjoy sex a little more?
“Men marry for two reasons,” she states. “They’re proud to be with that woman socially. Look,” she adds in best-girlfriend whisper, “we both know women who have sex with men who aren’t seen with them publicly. The second reason men marry is sexual compatibility.”
Which brings me to a final bit of good advice. Be a lady in public and a whore in the bedroom. And help him understand that before talking dirty, the whore sometimes needs to have a cuddly chat about her day.
Oh, dichotomies, I love you. I also love how the most anti-feminist people are always the most man-hating: Saying that men marry for social status and for sex is a little reductive and insulting, and if I were a dude it would probably tick me off. But if you’re using it to further blame women for every possible shortcoming and relationship problem, it’s apparently acceptable.
Hence my commitment to ending up an old maid.
Thanks to Shannon, Anne and Oni Baba for the links.
*Here I should add that I’m not opposed to stripping as a job or as a way to make money. But I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that men who attend strip clubs make me very, very uncomfortable.
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