Monogamous heterosexual marriage is just one of many ways humans can live. Sorry.

If you haven’t seen the link making its way through social media, I highly recommend Rosemary Joyce’s piece Ask An Anthropologist about Marriage. It’s an excellent anthropological analysis of the empirical claims made in the oral argument over proposition 8 in the US Supreme Court. In addition, it does a good job of linking back to earlier public statements by anthropologists about this issue.

Joyce is exactly right when she writes that

 Stable societies have been based on many different kinds of social relations that provide for the birth, care, and education of children, as well as the many other activities that marriage covers in modern US society: joint property ownership, joint medical and end of life care, joint taxation, none of which– contrary to the somewhat bizarre, reductive view of marriage argued before the Supreme Court– are about “procreation”

She also cites the AAA’s public statement that

The results of more than a century of anthropological research on households, kinship relationships, and families, across cultures and through time, provide no support whatsoever for the view that either civilization or viable social orders depend upon marriage as an exclusively heterosexual institution. Rather, anthropological research supports the conclusion that a vast array of family types, including families built upon same-sex partnerships, can contribute to stable and humane societies.

There may be many good reasons based on one’s personal opinion, religion, or what have you that gay marriage is wrong and should be outlawed. But the claim that monogamous heterosexual marriage is written into our biological constitution is plainly false. Anthropologists have shown this again and again. On one end of the spectrum, the postmodernists challenge the idea that the body can ground gender identity at all. On the other end of the spectrum, you have hard-core sociobiologists who have shown that our species is so successful because pretty much anyone will raise pretty much any child – you can just pop them out of one relationship and into another. It’s because they are so damn cute — Sarah Hrdy calls babies “sensory traps” designed to make you be all snuggly with them. A study in 1971 by Barry and Paxson using HRAF and a ridiculously scientific methodology found that in a controlled sample 186 societies, 54% of infants were not raised primarily by their mother. By the time they’re out of the larval baby stage, that number increased to 80%.

What is human nature when it comes to raising kids? The old anthropological lesson applies here as well: there is no one form of marriage or family that is natural to humans. There are a wide variety of possible forms, and we have not finished experimenting with new forms yet. It’s that simple.


Alex Golub is an associate professor of anthropology at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. His book Leviathans at The Gold Mine has been published by Duke University Press. You can contact him at

5 thoughts on “Monogamous heterosexual marriage is just one of many ways humans can live. Sorry.

  1. Yes, but….

    We need to examine the relationship of normative heterosexual marriage to social class. I recall, dimly, from around the time that my daughter was accepted for the class of 1998 at the U.S. Naval Academy, hearing that a disproportionate number of children of intact nuclear families make it into elite colleges. No reason why this couldn’t be true of children of affluent, intact, gay-parent families as well. On the other hand, children of female single-parents are more likely to suffer the effects of poverty and the disadvantages of education in marginal schools. Not saying that any form of marriage is inherently deleterious; but correlation with other social facts, including in particular social class, may have serious consequences.

  2. “There may be many good reasons based on one’s personal opinion, religion, or what have you that gay marriage is wrong and should be outlawed.”

    What’s wrong with “domestic partnership”? Yes, it doesn’t have the same rights and benefits heterosexual marriage has. Shouldn’t gay people clamor then for that same rights and benefits not marriage?

    Marriage, matrimony, wedding, wedlock are all heteronormative concepts. If you check their etymological origins, they are obviously about the union of a man and a woman that involves a ceremony. “Wedlock” has the images of locking and fastening. Two phalluses or two vulvas don’t lock or fasten. Also because of that ceremony, marriage, matrimony, wedding, wedlock become cultural. Why would gay people want to ruin that heterosexual cultural practice?

    Anthropologists, especially the gay ones, should dig ethnographic accounts about marriage ceremonies for same-sex couples practiced in indigenous communities. Do Native Americans practice same-sex marriage ceremonies for two-spirits and their partners? If they do, the heteronormativity of marriage then is a Western, Christian concept and gays should assert their homosexual definition of marriage that has a cultural history.

    In my country, the Philippines, there are no native same-sex wedding ceremonies even when same-sex couples are accepted and respected by their relatives and their entire communities, and we have more than one hundred ethno-linguistic groups.

    Fighting for equality in marriage that is heteronormative, gay people, it seems, want to do what is heterosexual. Why? Is it because “domestic partnership” is too homosexual and not normal? Why do they want to usurp the concept that defines heterosexual couples? If they are too proud of themselves, they should not equate themselves to heterosexuals. They should not use what the heterosexuals do as a gauge for normality for, after all, homosexuality is not abnormal.

  3. Marriage isn’t owned by heterosexuals any more than it’s owned by Christians or white people. There is no social meaning in “domestic partnership”. If people wish all of the trappings that come with marriage, let them marry. If they don’t, let them define it as a partnership. But let them have that freedom. If you don’t like that, you need not partake. But that doesn’t give anyone the right to make that decision for someone else.

  4. “On the other hand, children of female single-parents are more likely to suffer the effects of poverty and the disadvantages of education in marginal schools. Not saying that any form of marriage is inherently deleterious; but correlation with other social facts, including in particular social class, may have serious consequences.”

    That exact same argument was made about interracial marriage:

    “This book has been given statistical form and basis to the proposition that from the psycho-sociological point of view, interracial marriages are detrimental to the individual, to the family, and to society.

    “I do not say that the author of this book would advocate the prohibition of such marriages by law but we do say that he personally and clearly expresses his view as a social scientist that interracial marriages are definitely undesirable that they hold no promise for a bright and happy future for mankind.

    “And that the interracial marriages bequeath to the progeny of those marriages, more psychological problems than parents have a right to bequeath to them.”

    That was actually made in the Supreme Court in Loving v. Virginia in 1967. And one of the products of those interracial marriage would go on to become the 44th President of the United States. So how did that work out?

  5. In light of this tweet by Rosemary Joyce (, I would like to remind anthropologists not to uncritically reproduce white-supremacist, class-privileged discourses and practices while claiming to support an anthropological critique of monogamous heterosexual marriage. If the marriage-equals-monogamous-heterosexual-couple critique is to be truly anthropological, then we also need to *discuss white privilege*, especially as the ‘old’ civil rights battles have not been ‘won’ such that it is facile, myopic, and racist (relating back to the Faye Harrison definition Ryan quoted in his most recent post on race and how we look mattering) to frame marriage equality (and a certain kind of homonormative ‘gay rights’) as being ‘the new civil rights battle’–or ‘the most important issue of one’s life’, as Professor Joyce does in her tweet). Anthropologists need to realize both how the so-called ‘old’ and ‘new’ civil rights struggles are not separate from each other, and how far too many white anthropologists are able to support and empathize with this civil rights struggle because of the way in which the campaign for ‘gay rights’ and ‘marriage equality’ have been framed/constructed/mediated/marketed in relation to whiteness and white class privilege. Let us support equality (for all) for the right reasons, and not because it aligns with the same problematic blindspots, practices (personal and institutional), structures and discourses which make anthropology ‘white public space’:

    And on blind spots, such that good intentions and claims that one did not ‘see’ racism in an act (speech acts included) or ‘intend’ to be racist, along with the Faye Harrison article to which Ryan already linked in his previous post:

    And no, I am not saying we the two gay marriage cases that went before the Supreme Court last week aren’t hugely historic or incredibly important; nor am I saying that I don’t support marriage equality or equal rights for all regardless of gender presentation, sexual preference, or non-normatively sexed bodies. I am simply asking that anthropologists be more anthropological in their critiques of marriage as monogamous heterosexual couples and realize the ways in which the framing of marriage equality is also very much about race.

    For me it is interesting, and noteworthy, that Rex’s post on (gay) marriage should follow Ryan’s post on race, especially given the (unsurprising) scant response to Ryan’s post. Especially given the history of anti-miscegenation laws and the persistence of the One-drop Rule in the US, it is interesting to me the ways in which race continuously gets excluded from anthropological discussions/analysis to which it should be included, and is in fact constitutive, given the ways in which race is about (constructed as being about) kinship (and thus about marriage), and as Rosemary Joyce writes in the same article which Rex lauds and links to: “If you are getting the impression that anthropologists have a lot to say about marriage: well, yes. Kinship is, after all, one of our historic, signature issues.”

    One more reason for anthropologists to realize that race/racism should not be concepts which should be continuously ignored by anthropologists, especially for the same reasons that continue to make anthropology ‘white public space’.

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