We live in a time and place of unprecedented claims of the right to privacy. Typically included in this notion of privacy is the idea that sexual acts are purely private matters, the business of nobody but the people who mutually consent to engage in them.
However, though it is proper that our sexual acts are done in private, the results are anything but private. Sexual intercourse leads most naturally, and frequently, to children. The resulting children, and the family life engendered, are the very public consequences of our sexual behavior, affecting the entire community. The community, therefore, has a huge stake in what people do sexually. At the same time, the man and woman who have found themselves with responsibility for children due to their sexual acts will quickly find that it is very difficult to carry on alone. We need the help of our extended families; we need the community at large.
Thus, it has never been sufficient that the couple’s promise to one another be simply a private pledge between two people. It is a public declaration, a promise to each other before the community (or its representatives), of lifelong self-gift and fidelity to one another. The community assumes the couple will take responsibility for the offspring who may result, bringing them up according to the parents’ best lights (within the bounds of justice). At the same time, the couple receives the support of that community, often in the form of specific legally mandated benefits conducive to the strengthening of family life.
There is a name for this very important social arrangement: Marriage. It is a state and a social institution, anchored in the reality of what is proper and fitting for human beings in terms of our anatomical sexual design (i.e. sex makes babies). Indeed, if sex did not lead to children, it is quite impossible to imagine why anyone would have come up with the idea of marriage in the first place. Come to think of it, it is quite impossible to imagine why we would have sex organs at all. Imagine a world in which children sprouted from the ground. To what end would those things we know as sex organs have evolved?
Imagine a world in which we used some part of our bodies to express affection and even give a certain level of pleasure to another—for example, using your hands to scratch someone’s back. Would it have occurred to anyone to commit, before the community, to a lifetime of backscratching, forgoing all other backscratching partners, combining all of their worldly goods to the common backscratching project? If it had occurred to someone, wouldn’t everyone have asked what the point was of such a commitment? Do we find it necessary to commit for life to our friendships, or to regulate and limit through law and custom our use of handshakes and hugs?
For the entirety of human history, every society has had marriage, and every society has held it to be a unique relationship by which a man and a woman are joined for the main purpose of bringing children into the world, and then maintaining these families. Marriage is universally acknowledged as the most fundamental social institution. It has been variously celebrated; the number of spouses one man or woman may have has not been consistently accepted across cultures. People have married for good reasons, and bad reasons. But it is always a sexual union, a joining of lives for the sake of the children they may beget.