There has been a ranging debate as to whether polygamy or same-sex marriage should be legalized in the United States or not. Contemporary philosophers such as Judith Stacey basing their arguments on research conducted from different countries have argued that decriminalizing polygamy and same-sex marriages or matrilineal child-rearing are the most badly destructive course for any society. She therefore advocates for the removal of policies or regulations that are constituted to regulate the forms of acceptable family settings and marriage organizations especially in U.S. It is in this regard that this paper reflects on the content of Stacey’s book on Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China published in New York by the New York University Press in the year 2011.
It can never be doubted that the family value, the family dis-value, as well as whether or not and the manner in which the family as a unit can be projected to certain regulation has become a vivid question especially among today’s contemporary philosophers. In the book, Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China, published in New York by the New York University Press in the year 2011, the author, Judith Stacey, explains to her readers the meaning of a family in the first place. In this regard, Stacey plainly indicates that contemporary families seems to have come from a variety of forms and therefore, it is an illusion that one can adequately find morphological definition of the term family (p.5). In most cases, anthropology and sociology have been used in pointing out to heterosexual, nuclear, and monogamous families which are all perceived as normal organizations in Western societies.
However, in this book, two types of families that are not well known even through enlarged imagination of families are explored. The first category of the families is that which compose of families created by individuals that belong to sexual minorities. Such individuals pursue their own models of the family shared life and parenting with others. In this regard, Stacey focuses on gays’ rather than lesbians’ families. Secondly, the reader is made to be familiar with contemporary matriarchal family that forms part of Mosou minority families living in West China. By considering family diversity in United States, South Africa, and China, the author helps the reader to gain more understanding on the variety of construction of families and intimacies that exist in this contemporary age. It is in this regard that this paper finds it essential to review this book.
One of the reasons as to why Stacey wrote this book was to make the readers know that in order to understand families, the many forms of intimacies as well as the existing forms of inequalities generated and exacerbated by the marriage-based system of organizing families must be recognized. She argues, “the sooner and the better our society comes to terms with the inescapable variety of intimacy and kinship in the modern world, the fewer unhappy families it will generate” (Stacey, 2011, p.12). This is the reason why in the first two chapters of the book, she looks at families from a marriage-like partnership as well as parenting between two or more partners in the United States.
As indicated by Stacey, the very chapters in her book are “eclectic set of research projects on family diversity” that are intended to explore some species of family life that are “quite new, some old-fashioned, and one that lies very far from the beaten trail” (p.8). In Chapter 1, “Love, Sex, and Kinship in Gay El Lay” Stacey focuses on exploring the “familial bonds” that gay people usually forge with their lovers, friends, ex-lovers, and others in order to form marriage-like partnerships (pp.8-48). This chapter tells stories of several gay men whom Stacey has followed up over decades to enable her gain more understanding of the evolution of gay families. Unlike the 1970s and 80s where gay or lesbian wedding or family was regarded as unusual, through the acknowledgment of the sexual desire in pursuit of romantic for long-term partnership with or without aim of raising children, gay families have evolved into another normal set of families in this contemporary world.
Based on her contributions above, it is clear that the author wanted to establish that, given their places on the fringe of the society, gays are more likely to accept their erotic identifiers even if they are culturally pressured to conform to the norms of monogamy. Stacey (2011) argues that since gay males lack biological equipment, conventional institution, and legal resources for forging families because they are not subjected to formal socialization associated with famine labors, they can only pursue masculine erotic desires without any cultural hope that a child can appear (p.15). This is the reason why, unlike the cultural constrained, gay men are more likely to pursue sex across social boundaries of races, education, age, income, language, nationality, and religion.
Similarly, in Chapter 2, “Gay Parenthood and the End of Paternity as We Knew It”, the author, while telling stories of several gay men, continues with the gay cruising culture that establishes issues of status, wealth, or education as less important to these people than they are in other social contexts (pp.49-88). Conspicuous in this chapter is how the author treats parenthood among gay men who raised families or partner with others against the odds. It is clear from this chapter that gay-parent families have challenged the widely held prejudice about the necessity of both a father and a mother. The families have also demonstrated various ways in which a parent’s sexual orientation or marital status does or does not matter.
For instance, Stacey gives out stories of gay men who were able to bring up children either on their own or with the help of male partners. She notes that “over the past two decades, they (gay men) have built a cornucopia of family norms and supportive communities where they are raising children outside the conventional family” (p.49). In this case, the author wants to bring to the attention of the reader the fact that there seems to be underlying social forces that have contributed to the decline of conventional paternity where a child is raised by both father and a mother. It is such forces that have led to the emerging new form of paternity. In particular, Stacey notes that “access to effective contraceptives, safe abortion, and assisted reproductive technologies (ART) unhitches traditional links between heterosexual love, marriage, and bay carriage” (p.50) are some of the factors that have led to change from conventional parenthood. Significantly, the fact that having children today imposes economic and social responsibilities on parents means that most men and women who decide to have children do not do so for economic advantage as previously known, but mainly for their emotional needs. It is in this regard that most gay men have adopted children and raised them simply to enjoy the dominant sexual norms of gay culture that brings out the value and meaning of “promiscuity” (p.51).
Significantly, in Chapter 2, Stacey introduces the concept of “planned parenthood” especially in as far as the understanding of why and how people today do and do not choose to become parents is concerned. Unlike the social character of paternity where a married woman who have given birth has her husband being presumed as the legal father of the child, gay male paternity seems to emphasize on the social aspect rather than on a biological basis in defining parenthood. In this case, some gay men have provided sperms to their female friends or relatives or even pioneered other forms of surrogacy, extended parenthood, just to ensure that they can be as well are presumed as the legal fathers of the resulting children (p.50). Stacey notes that since the route to genetic parenthood for gay men is very expensive, most of them do pursue purely social paths of adoption or foster caring (p.51). This is why majority of gays do foster and adopt children of varying ages across all manner of racial, social, national, physical, religious, and emotional boundaries. Therefore, by choosing to voice life through illuminating social forces that undermine conventional paternity, the author has enabled her readers to understand why new forms of gay parenthood have emerged in today’s world.
Whereas polygamy, traditional form of family life, is banned and generally considered depraved within United States family organization, it seems that is amongst the oldest as well as the most practiced family organization especially in South Africa. In is in this regard that Stacey revisits this stigmatized family system and compares it with gay intimacy in contemporary South Africa especially in Chapters 3 and 4.
In Chapter 3, “A South Africa Slant on the Slippery Slope”, Stacey compares de factor family policy in South Africa, one of the oldest constitutional democracies, with that of de jure family policy in the contemporary world (pp. 89-121). In this case, the author addresses the genuine constitutional question raised by slippery slope argument that legalizing same-sex marriage would lead to the decline of legal polygamy families. In order to dig more into this debate, Stacey compares de factor family policy in United States and the de jure family policy in South Africa. She acknowledges that South Africa is the only nation in the world that legally bans discrimination on grounds of sexual orientation and marital status (p.91). In essence, South Africa legally acknowledges both same-sex marriage and polygamy. This was not in doubt in 2008 when the South African President, elected on African National Congress (ANC) ticket, celebrated his “Zulu wedding ceremony for his polygamous marriage to a mother of two of his many children” (p.91).
However, this is contrary to the contemporary family law in the United States where the recalcitrant family, including the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) and anti-bigamy statutes of Mormon polygamy, does not legalize both polygamy and same-sex marriage (p.94). Based on this comparison, it implies that South Africa offers the best opportunity of scrutinizing family debates in Unites States from another angle. However, what comes out from this chapter is that, instead of ridiculing the popular conservative notion that legalizing same-sex in South Africa would pave a slippery slope to legal polygamy, the authors takes the reader into unsuspected cross-cutting trails in explaining the difference in heterosexual monogamy between South Africa and United States. The fact that polygamy appeared long before gay marriage in both the two countries leaves no room for one to conclude that there will be a slope tilt from plural to same-sex marriage than the other way round. Therefore, it is only the constitutional commitment to gender and sexual equality as in the case of South Africa that has made same-same marriage as inevitable.
Similarly, in Chapter 4, “Paradoxes of Polygamy and Modernity”, Stacey suggests that even though formal polygamy generally does lose its grip when a society modernizes, as predicted by theory and common sense, it does not result into unadulterated victory for monogamy (pp.122-151). It comes out clear from this chapter that most of the U.S policies that are constituted towards bigamy and adultery are only based on cultural antipathy of undermining polygamy. However, it is more destructive to decriminalize polygamy than legalize it. This is due to the fact that the nature of globalization has unleashed forces that have and continuous to promote transnational forms of polygamy. It is in this regard that both polygamy and gay marriages should be formalized and legalized.
Evidently, the most significant section of Stacey’s non-fiction book emanates from the final chapter, Chapter 5. The chapter is on “Unhitching the Horse from the Carriage: Love without Marriage among the Mosou” (pp.152-187). The Mosou people, that are the object of the last chapter before conclusion, are a minority group living in Southwestern China. However, their tradition is peculiar because children of both sexes are usually not allowed to leave their mothers’ homes. Moreover, they are also not supposed to share household with their romantic or erotic partners even if they fall in life-long monogamous relationship (Stacey, 2011, p.155). Consequently, the author points out that the Mosou language lacks a word for “marriage” (p.157). They therefore actively separate their entire family life of economic and childrearing activities from their romantic life, where they are free either to pursue none, one, or even multiple relationships.
In this regard, Stacey wants the reader to understand how families can protect romantic relationship from the threat of every-day’s burdens of family obligations. The fact that in Mosou culture, children are raised with their biological mothers, grandmothers, aunts, and uncles, denotes that women are encouraged in forming egalitarian choices to romantic partners thereby avoiding any double standards towards sexual morality. Unfortunately, Mosou traditional families are in the risk of disintegrating due to globalization that has allowed most of its children to study far away from home. Such children marry and join regular family arrangements that are beyond their traditional culture. This chapter therefore continues with Stacey’s concern that globalization is affecting the cultural conformity of many families such as those of Mosou.
Finally, Stacey’s book concludes by focusing the issue of child-rearing that was previously mention chapter 2 (pp.188-208). According to her, the book should enable us to understand that based on the fact that marriage is never one of the universal institutions, it can never be used as the basis for constituting a successful society (p.200). In this case, fatherhood, whether for gay families or not, cannot be viewed as being necessary in promoting the interests of children. This is true because from the work of Stacey, fatherhood, in reference to nuclear monogamous family, is just one model of the family. Since children from Mosou societies, as depicted in the book, seems to a father figure from both their uncles and maternal grandfathers, it implies that the same can be and is the case of children being brought up by multi-parent gay families.
In conclusion, this book has a strong normative stance especially in advocating for rules that are constituted to regulate families from forming some sort of marriage or marriage-like association such as those of polygamous marriage, gay marriage, or matrilineal child-rearing families. While the author uses comparative evaluation in denoting why the U.S government uses some regulation unlike in the case of South Africa to free Mormon women and children from polygamy, I believe that we should equally remain wholehearted in advocating for individual’ freedom. This is what would allow people such as gay to freely form private associations.
Stacey, J. (2011). Unhitched: love, marriage, and family values from West Hollywood to Western China. New York: New York University Press.