Marriage and Family Are Not Concepts Carved in Stone

What Women Really Think
July 7 2011 6:10 PM

Marriage and Family Are Not Concepts Carved in Stone


The media loves a sex scandal, and the scandal cup of late runneth over: Maria Shriver and Arnold announce their divorce, John Edwards is indicted for covering up an affair with campaign funds, and Anthony Weiner tweets nude photos despite a pregnant new bride. It’s often accepted on its face that such behavior represents a lapse in some fundamental moral law. Indeed, above all else, such stories are catchy and popular because most Americans have fierce attachments to particular notions about marriage and the raising of children. Whether one rejoices in or bemoans the momentum gained by the gay marriage movement, one tends to do so passionately. When, in a recent profile of Dan Savage, Slate contributor Mark Oppenheimer explored Savage’s notion that monogamy isn’t necessarily the best indicator of marital or parental success, the comments section was abuzz with sound and fury.

This may be an appropriate moment, then, to remember that marriage, partnership, and child-rearing are more fluid and varied practices than their popular treatment suggests. A new study in Biology Letters on a small tribe in Namibia illuminates that there are many different contemporary models of family life. For example, the Himba permit both arranged and “love” marriages, and a child born out of wedlock is not considered an object of shame to them. In fact, “extra pair paternity,” as anthropologist Brooke Scelza terms it, is quite common: Of the Himba women she spoke to who’d ever been in an arranged marriage, nearly a fourth had children that were the product of extramarital sex. Most interesting, Scelza explains why she could rely on the accuracy of the group’s self-reporting: For the Himba, infidelity is discussed openly, without shame.


Such research reminds us of the obvious point that marriage and family play different roles in different lives, and models of sexuality are no more static than the individuals and cultures they involve. They are extraordinarily complicated subjects, ripe with ideas about value and goodness, which also tend to vary.  If we’re going to engage in a conversation about their roles in American culture, it’s important to at least keep in mind that these concepts are complex and highly contextualized. At the very least, they are more flexible than their media coverage would often suggest.




The Self-Made Man

The story of America’s most pliable, pernicious, irrepressible myth.

The GOP Senate Candidate in Iowa Doesn’t Want Voters to Know Just How Conservative She Really Is

Does Your Child Have “Sluggish Cognitive Tempo”? Or Is That Just a Disorder Made Up to Scare You?

Naomi Klein Is Wrong

Multinational corporations are doing more than governments to halt climate change.

The Strange History of Wives Gazing at Their Husbands in Political Ads


See Me

Transparent is the fall’s only great new show.


Lena Dunham, the Book

More shtick than honesty in Not That Kind of Girl.

Rehtaeh Parsons Was the Most Famous Victim in Canada. Now, Journalists Can’t Even Say Her Name.

Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD

The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
Sept. 30 2014 12:04 PM John Hodgman on Why He Wore a Blue Dress to Impersonate Ayn Rand
  News & Politics
Sept. 30 2014 1:38 PM Mad About Modi
 Why the controversial Indian prime minister drew 19,000 cheering fans to Madison Square Garden.

Building a Better Workplace
Sept. 30 2014 1:16 PM You Deserve a Pre-cation The smartest job perk you’ve never heard of.
Sept. 30 2014 1:48 PM Thrashed Florida State’s new president is underqualified and mistrusted. But here’s how he can turn it around.
  Double X
The XX Factor
Sept. 30 2014 12:34 PM Parents, Get Your Teenage Daughters the IUD
  Slate Plus
Slate Picks
Sept. 30 2014 11:42 AM Listen to Our September Music Roundup Hot tracks from a cooler month, exclusively for Slate Plus members.
Brow Beat
Sept. 30 2014 12:42 PM How to Save Broken Mayonnaise
Future Tense
Sept. 30 2014 11:55 AM The Justice Department Is Cracking Down on Sales of Spyware Used in Stalking
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Sept. 30 2014 7:30 AM What Lurks Beneath the Methane Lakes of Titan?
Sports Nut
Sept. 28 2014 8:30 PM NFL Players Die Young. Or Maybe They Live Long Lives. Why it’s so hard to pin down the effects of football on players’ lives.