Sex and marriage are debated in today’s society and within its centers of learning. What continues to dominate this society, however, is not the intelligent debate, but rather the casual and often callous approach extended to sex and the trend to disconnect it from marriage.
How sexual behavior and the notion of marriage affect the rest of society is increasingly rejected as a valid consideration. My purpose, however, is to revisit that consideration.
In today’s society, sex is expected to be healthy and a source of happiness and rightly so. Yet for many, the idea of society defining boundaries for sexual behavior is denounced as an anti-sex position. Yet experience shows that when there are no boundaries, we end up with chaos and misery, not happiness.
The real debate is not whether boundaries are needed, but what boundaries are needed for such health and happiness to happen. Another important question is whether larger society should be involved. Should all matters concerning sex and marriage be considered off limits to the public, or does the public indeed have a say? As we will see, the public does have a vital interest in personal sexual behavior and in the institution of marriage.
To fully understand sex and marriage and their relationship to society, it is good to understand that some aspects are private and some are public. In spite of the growing trend to define all aspects of marriage as private, it must be acknowledged that marriage by its very nature involves the larger community.
Society, for instance, has an interest in reproducing itself. Historically, the marriage of a man and a woman has been the instrument for that to happen. Society also has an interest in stabilizing sexual behavior. Again, marriage has provided for that.
In marriage, beginning with the wedding itself, an agreement is put into place not only between the two spouses but also with the community. A marriage never ceases to be accountable to the larger community and the larger community is continually obliged to support it.
If this is so, then it follows that the public does have an interest in sex and marriage and therefore a right to regulate these activities, at least in part.
At the same time, there are many aspects of marriage that are private. This being so, it would be a mistake to think marriage is therefore strictly private, just as it is a mistake to think marriage is only a public institution. There is tension between these two aspects and wisdom requires that neither aspect be rejected.
What, then, is private? Chief among those aspects of marriage that are private is sexual activity. As a culture, we have agreed that sexual activity should be a marital matter sheltered from public awareness. Indeed there are great benefits to relegate sex to the privacy of marriage. There is a lot of research that shows a healthy sexual life best occurs within the intimacy and privacy of marriage.
Other private aspects of marriage include certain discussions between spouses, most lifestyle choices and decisions about raising children. Two married adults are granted that authority by society by way of a public and legal ceremony.
Again, I reiterate: No private matter concerning sex and marriage is to be seen as absolutely isolated from any and all public governance. There are some actions, albeit private, that by their very nature are wrong, because they are so inextricably associated with oppression, violence, disease and ultimately death. They affect others in such a deleterious way that they warrant public intervention.
In my opinion, the trend to entirely privatize all sexual ethics or to give privileged treatment to all sexual choices cannot be upheld. That way of thinking fails because it is based solely on inward, personal desire and does not take into account the welfare of the larger society. On the other hand, the institution of marriage, as practiced by mature adults, has proven over time to be good for society, for the family and also for the individual, even in the face of many failures. It therefore warrants our continued support and protection.
Michael J. O’Connor is an associate with the MacLaurin Institute. Send comments to [email protected]