The questionability of the traditional family

It’s well-known that when you put people in a position of power over others, some of them will abuse that power. There are ways to try to minimize this effect, for instance by dividing power or multiplying means of supervision or surveillance — but there’s no way to avoid it entirely. If enough cops pull over enough people, odds are one of them is going to take advantage of someone sooner or later, no matter what evaluation or management procedures are in place. The same goes for every situation where there’s a power differential. You can hope that the people in power will be good and responsible, and you can do as much as possible to make sure that only good and responsible people are selected for the job or that the structure of the institution incentivizes good and responsible people — but at the end of the day, people are people, and abuse of power is all but inevitable.

With this knowledge in hand, the model of the patriarchal family makes absolutely no sense. There are no real qualifications for becoming the father other than a functioning reproductive system. There is no effective oversight of what goes on within the private sphere of the home — indeed, the privacy of family life is one of the most treasured values. And the people subjected to the near-absolute power of the father are precisely the most vulnerable people in any society: children. What could go wrong?

Modern society has certainly tweaked with the traditional model to a significant extent, relying primarily on the willingness of the mother to leave an abusive situation and take the kids with her. In extreme situations, the state itself will intervene to take the kids away from an abusive parent’s custody. Yet the primary strategy is to provide exit strategies for when things go wrong. And of course conservatives are constantly fighting to make those exit strategies more difficult — and to cut off the means to avoid becoming entrapped in bad situations in the first place (i.e., birth control and abortion).

This is where gay marriage is absolutely necessary: at its best, it provides a model for a voluntary union of equals. Unless we’re going to go the full Republic route, it seems that more or less autonomous households are here to stay — and so we might as well have them forming without all the baggage of patriarchal presuppositions. This is the good way that gay marriage challenges the traditional family: by pushing it further in the direction of being a realm of love and affinity rather than a regime of property.

Obviously this isn’t a magic-bullet solution, because gay marriage and the changed marriage norms it can hopefully bring with it do not lead automatically to a utopia in which everyone is good and responsible. Yet the patriarchal model is practically begging the father to abuse his power, and so moving away from it can only be good.

Thus I would say that straight people would do well to make their marriages a little more gay.

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20 Responses to “The questionability of the traditional family”

  1. Richard Says:

    “it seems that more or less autonomous households are here to stay — and so we might as well have them forming without all the baggage of patriarchal presuppositions.”

    It seems to me that, though legal marriage of couples is one thing, we should move towards different versions of co-housing, either in non-marriage situations, or even multiple-marriage situations.

  2. Adam Kotsko Says:

    In my experience, “communes” can work really well, but children throw a monkey wrench into the whole thing. Perhaps introducing some kind of formal legal responsibility beyond just the individual parents would help with that — but from what I can tell, the childless members of such communities almost inevitably come to resent their childcare obligations.

  3. Adam Kotsko Says:

    (I’ve never actually lived in one myself, but I was romantically involved with a member of one and observed it closely.)

  4. Richard Says:

    No doubt that’s true. Where we have discussed co-housing, it’s with friends who also have children. Still hasn’t really happened yet.

  5. ben Says:

    Children needn’t throw a monkey wrench in the commune thing too much, compadre. (An ex is the comadre to a couple of kids; as an atheist her role there is obviously not strictly seeing to their religious upbringing, but being part of an extended artificial family.)

  6. mattintoledo Says:

    I would (my wife wouldn’t) consider a commune where I was never, never expected to have childcare responsibilities. I would not consider one where I was.

    Kurt Vonnegut theorized once that the reason families are struggling so badly was our tendency to isolate ourselves too much. He said (I’m really, really paraphrasing, perhaps to the point where I’m missing important parts of his) we don’t rely enough on our extended families and friends and the nuclear family doesn’t withstand all the pressures of trying to solve all of its own problems. I know there’s no real reason to think he was an authority on the matter, but it’s always something that rang true to me. As a result, I’ve always been conscious of my wife and I becoming too insular. When I feel like we’re closing our “circle” in too tight, I always try to push to extend it a bit.

  7. Richard Says:

    I’m confused by your first paragraph, matt. You’re saying you would not consider a commune if it meant you had childcare responsibilities?

    Also, it seems obvious to me that Vonnegut was right. It’s far too easy for extended families to disperse, and too many people don’t stay put long enough to develop neighborhood or community ties.

  8. mattintoledo Says:

    Richard – Yes. I probably overstated it a bit. I’d be okay with babysitting somebody else’s kids every once in a while. But if the discussion turned to formal “responsibilities” when it came to children in the commune, I would bow out. I’d propose taking on other responsibilities in other areas to compensate. I was just latching onto Adam’s comment that children throw a monkey wrench into a commune situation by adding a “I can definitely see how that would happen”.

  9. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The main problem I see is that childcare is always mostly going to be hugely time-consuming and boring — getting people to volunteer is necessarily hard.

    I also agree with Vonnegut. I am deeply grateful that I could be raised in a close extended family. Sometimes it had its drawbacks, but I always remember that it felt lonely when it was just my immediate family. Nevertheleess, there’s something about household formation that seems to create insularity — I think The Girlfriend and I could easily go weeks without hanging out with other people, and we’re not even married (hence her internet moniker). We do make a special effort, but the inertial force of the home is strong, and there’s also a (mostly hallucinated) sense of obligation that others in similar living situations have said they’ve felt, too.

  10. Richard Says:

    Childcare is definitely time-consuming, but I wouldn’t call it boring (certainly not “almost always”; I mean, it is sometimes, but so is everything).

    I think it’s seen as boring because the work isn’t valued, and children are not taken seriously.

  11. Josh K-sky Says:

    There are very concrete reasons to believe that gay marriage poses positive challenges to the power dynamics of patriarchal family:

    In an article published today in the Archives of Sexual Behavior, the 17-year-old daughters and sons of lesbian mothers were asked about sexual abuse, sexual orientation, and sexual behavior.

    The paper found that none of the 78 NLLFS adolescents reports having ever been physically or sexually abused by a parent or other caregiver. This contrasts with 26 percent of American adolescents who report parent or caregiver physical abuse and 8.3 percent who report sexual abuse.

  12. Josh K-sky Says:

    Also, for a brief history of the way the patriarchal family derived its structure from property arrangements, you could do worse than to use Judge Walker’s U.S. District Court decision on Proposition 8. It’s like an advanced survey course on up-to-date family and sexuality scholarship — Nancy Cott is one of the expert witnesses. And what it lacks in article-length arguments it more than makes up for in historical urgency.

  13. jt* Says:

    Adam, aren’t you confusing matters in your post? I mean, for one, the fact that some people abuse positions of power and others don’t seems to suggest to me that in cases where power is abused it has more to do with the character of the individual rather than the position of power itself. So, some cops are abusive while others are not (at least they strive not to be, though I know some will argue that Police are inherently abusive etc), some fathers are abusive while others are not. There is nothing inherently abusive in fatherhood so I’m inclined to chalk this up to character. Yet, you seem to argue that because some fathers will abuse power patriarchal families are necessarily morally problematic and to be avoided. Can you clear that up for me? Is that indeed what you’re arguing or have I missed something?

    Other than that I really only have a few quibbles with the rest of your post.

    There may not be “qualifications” for becoming a father other than a functioning reproductive system but obviously there is more to being a father than a functioning reproductive system. This isn’t a point I feel I need to defend, it strikes me as obvious. Also, yes, many folks live private lives and there is little oversight into what goes on in the home but this isn’t always the case and needn’t be the desired norm. My wife and I live in a communal home with other adults. We are the only married couple and we have a 7 month old daughter who was born there. We moved there intentionally in order that we might learn how to live lives that are open to others. I know we’re not the only ones, in fact, I can think of many other examples where people strive to live more open lives.

    In regards to gay marriage, I fail to see how this provides a model for voluntary union of equals that marriage between a man and a woman does not.

    Perhaps it would be helpful if you elaborated a bit on exactly what you mean when you talk about a patriarchal family.

    Cool. JT.

    Ps – this is my first time commenting, and I’m from Canada, so go easy.

  14. Adam Kotsko Says:

    JT, I think you’re missing my point. I take it for granted that there are people of good or bad character. The problem when it comes to structuring an institution is the ways that you restrain the abusive behavior of the bad people — and the patriarchal family doesn’t offer many safeguards at all. As for what a patriarchal family is, I think I’ve provided enough detail in the post itself for you to figure it out.

    It’s great that you’re trying to live a more open life, but you have to realize that you’re not at all typical, right? I’d promote more people living like you’ve chosen to do, but your lifestyle is irrelevant to the general structure of the patriarchal family, given that you’re intentionally choosing to live according to different rules.

  15. voyou Says:

    Richard, I think you said you were planning on reading Firestone’s Dialectic of Sex? One of the things she proposes is some kind of co-housing agreement lasting, say, ten years, to allow for a reasonably consistent environment for children to grow up in; older children would get to choose their own domestic arrangements with other children and adults. The other thing Firestone argues is that these extended-familial domestic arrangements should only be one option among many, so that those who would prefer to live as hermits or in something like a monastic arrangement should have plenty of opportunities to do so, to.

    “Thus I would say that straight people would do well to make their marriages a little more gay.”

    Indeed – and this is why I like the term “gay marriage” more than “same-sex marriage” or “marriage equality.”

  16. Richard Says:

    Thanks, voyou. Yes, I have Firestone’s book in hand now, from the library, expect to read it soon. Though I know I’ll have issues with some of her arguments re: technology and birth, I’m intrigued by the co-housing ideas, which I’d noticed while flipping through the book.

  17. Dominic Says:

    We want non-oppressive living arrangements, and we know that the traditional forms can be vectors or even intensifiers of oppression. But I take it that gay people are not nicer than other people, and that gay marriage is not not marriage. I wonder whether there isn’t a tendency to project onto gay marriage our hopes for a renovation of the institution in general, which actual gay people getting married are not necessarily any more (or less) likely than anyone else to undertake.

    What is it about gay marriage that would make it not patriarchal? We can imagine two people of the same sex marrying, having or adopting children, establishing a nuclear family unit in which there was a division of labour and authority along traditional lines (with one party taking the male role and the other taking the female role), etc. – how would the same-sexedness of the arrangement guard against this happening? Or, to put it another way, how might gay marriage be *structurally* gay – what would differentiate it from patriarchal marriage other than the sex of the participants?

  18. Adam Kotsko Says:

    The fact that the sex differentiation wouldn’t be “already there” and would thus have to be consciously established is already a significant difference in itself. The patriarchal structure wouldn’t be the “default.” There are plenty of straight marriages that resist the patriarchal model, but there are still social expectations and norms that make that difficult — for instance, the stay-at-home dad is going to have to explain himself and may be made to feel like “less of a man,” etc. The sex of the participants isn’t “merely” the sex of the participants — it’s already a move away from the patriarchal pattern in itself.

  19. Sunday Reading « zunguzungu Says:

    [...] Gay marriage and birth control: Why not? and The questionability of the traditional family [...]


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