It is not difficult to feel that the general Australian population is being worn down by the constant media coverage of the politics, opinions, ugly exchanges, and even harsh reprisals arising from discussions and views over the potential introduction of same-sex marriage into Australian legislation. In fact, many probably feel a certain sense of inevitability about the introduction of a ‘new’ view on marriage within our society, and are inclined to think, ‘Let’s just get it over with and move on—live and let live!’
In fact, based on the broad indifference I sense from the general population that I rub shoulders with on a daily basis, I gather that many Australians don’t see it as a matter of great consequence; they would rather move to other more significant issues that have a direct bearing on their personal lives, such as matters which lead to a more economically prosperous society.
But, before we too readily resign ourselves to the so-called ‘inevitable’, we should briefly consider the other potential ‘inevitability’ of what might unfold should social change occur as a result of the upcoming vote on the redefinition of marriage.
History teaches us, especially on a societal level, that giving up one thing in favor of another new thing is never without its consequences, as Social Anthropologist J.D Unwin reminds us, ‘… the smallest change in the fundamental principle of a social law will revolutionize the social tradition.’
And, if the social tradition pertaining to the current view on marriage is changed by law, what then will be the social consequences of this particular revolution?
Interestingly, the aforementioned author, J.D Unwin, devoted a significant amount of energy in conducting a in-depth study examining the impact of social views on sexuality, marriage, and relationships on any given culture’s ‘energy’ capacity for expansiveness and productiveness. His views, published as the book Sex and Culture in 1934, examined 80 primitive tribes and 6 well-known civilizations (ancient and modern) considering the relationship between their rise and/or fall and their ideals pertaining to marriage and sexual liberty.
Unwin found that no matter what culture, race, and religious orientation, the following factors were consistently true: 1) The reduction of liberal sexual opportunity by the adoption of absolute [heterosexual] monogamy resulted in the greatest social energy, 2) Society was dominated by the group that displayed the greatest relative energy, 3) As soon as sexual opportunity of the society was extended beyond this absolute monogamy, the energy of the society or group declined and then disappeared, 4) No matter what the culture, the manner in which absolute monogamy was modified was the same in every case.
The author provides numerous examples in support of his observations, a case in point being the ancient Athenians, of whom he writes, ‘By the end of the fifth century, however, the old customs had disappeared, the sexual opportunity of both sexes being extended. There was no compulsory continence; sexual desires could be satisfied in a direct manner. Divorce became easy and common; pederasty appeared; the men possessed mistresses as well as wives; the women broke bounds, consoling themselves with both wine and clandestine love-affairs. The energy of the Athenians declined. Three generations later the once vigorous city, torn by dissension, was subject to a foreign master. (Sex and Culture, 390)
Incredulous about the monotony of how sexual/marital practices consistently modified societies in the same ways, Unwin states, ‘In every case the same situations arose; the same sentiments were expressed; the same changes were made; the same results ensued. The history of these societies consists of a series of monotonous repetitions; and it is difficult to decide which aspect of the story is the more significant: the lamentable lack of original thought which in each case the reformers displayed, or the amazing alacrity with which, after a period of intense compulsory continence, the human organism seizes the earliest opportunity to satisfy its innate desires in a direct or perverted manner.’ (Sex and Culture, 412) It seems that history teaches us, that people just don’t learn from history!
At the conclusion of the book, the author offers this summary: ‘… if any society should desire to control its cultural destiny, it may do so by decreasing or increasing the amount of its energy. Such decrease or increase will appear in the third generation after the sexual opportunity has been extended or reduced.’ (Sex and Culture, 432) By this statement, the author affirms that inevitable social decline or advance will occur after energy is dissipated or concentrated by social views on sexuality and marriage, and that it the consequences won’t be immediately obvious.
Therefore, changes in social views and practices vis-à-vis sexuality and marriage have a significant role to play in any people group’s rise or fall, even their economic rise or fall, but at the time of change these people don’t fully realize the gravity of what they have undertaken.
I am sure that there are those on both sides of the same sex marriage debate in Australia that could seize upon Unwin’s research and employ it for their own cause, as Unwin also has views on gender equality. But, it is not my purpose to offer extended commentary on this work, or argue strongly for or against what is proposed in the upcoming Australian vote (there are already enough people doing that); though I do have my own opinions which will be conscientiously expressed as a concerned voting citizen.
My chief goal within the charter of this brief article, is merely to provoke into thoughtful action those who are indifferent or those surrounded by a culture of indifference, who might consider the change of marriage definition inevitable and of little consequence. It seems the record of history teaches us that there is more than one potential inevitability at play where matters of sexuality and culture are concerned, and as J.D Unwin’s research suggests, when major societal change in views on sex and marriage are proposed and enacted, the consequences are never minor.
If J.D Unwin is right, and I have read him rightly, it seems certain that when any given society’s views and practices on sexuality and relationships shift toward liberal expressions away from absolute monogamy—which allegedly diverts social energy away from more productive goals—that society is predisposed toward steady decline and hence open to be overthrown by others with more expansive and productive energy; others who do have strong views on heterosexual monogamy (and I’ll leave it to your imagination who that might be in our context).
So it seems that in the case of the matter before us, that inevitability is a doubled-edged sword. Being indifferent to any upcoming vote on the legal definition of marriage, simply assuming its outcome is inevitable, may result in a greater inevitability coming into play— an inevitability, if not practically felt by you, then the generations for whom you have a responsibility to bequeath a future. No matter which view you support, make sure you consider its potential consequences before you vote on it; because, as we have seen, the consequences in a case like this are great indeed!