It’s a strange time to be a pervert in America. Donald Trump may well be elected the 45th president, running on a platform of protecting the traditional family by rolling back newly-won, sweeping marriage rights for gays and expanding the first amendment to protect outright anti-gay discrimination. At the same time, the New York Times ran a human-interest story last week about an interracial, sadomasochistic relationship involving a well-known musician and Columbia University professor, calling it, blandly, “A Composer and His Wife.”. Just a few years ago, both would have seemed equally improbable, perhaps even farcical. There’s something vertiginous about both the speed of the progress made by gay marriage advocates and the severity and far-reach of the backlash. How do we understand the simultaneous expansion of marriage regimes and the increasing public articulation of “alternative sexualities”? Are they, as many queer thinkers lament, impossible bedfellows? While public discourse about polyamory and kink is all but ubiquitous, we are still unbearably, insufferably held hostage to the marriage discourse. As Katherine Franke has so beautifully elaborated in her new book Wedlocked, marriage, particularly reproductive marriage, is increasingly the sole vehicle through which we can make space in public to talk about sex. That is one of the many unanticipated and vexing consequences of the push to legalize same-sex marriage. It used to be that marriage was “the place where sex goes to die,” but now I think marriage is just, somewhat disappointingly, where sex goes, period. But is that the end of the story?
As a “recovering” lawyer-turned-sociologist, I’ll focus here on some of the more general socio-legal claims in Franke’s book, which press us to approach the current moment with sobriety rather than celebration. As marriage expands its umbrella to shelter the dyadic, reproductive (“homonormative”) gay family, rights to marriage risk ossifying into obligations. Intermediate forms of relationship recognition, like domestic partnerships, begin to fall by the wayside, and a crag separating the legitimacy of the legal marital form for all other forms of kinship widens to a chasm.
Freedom has rules, Franke tells us, and they are not always the ones we might choose if we were in charge of our won freedom (3). History is instructive here. Attempts to force the plurality of kinship ties forged by newly freed slaves into legal, marital families required a series of arbitrary distinctions (for example, which of a succession of female partners would qualify for an emancipation or pension tied to one man’s military service). Coincident with the transfer of African American families from the “private control of owners to the public control of law” (5) was the political sentiment that any kinship tie outside of those marriages was either unimportant or the sign of social pathology. While we may think of marriage as a means of escaping the burden of social abjection (60), marriage regimes themselves produce that abjection. They are self-reinforcing. Communities with weblike, inventive kinship networks, which often serve protective functions for disadvantaged groups like racial minorities or sexual dissidents, are simultaneously invited into the dominant family form and told their existing affiliations are signposts of their unfitness.
I felt a familiar sense of hopelessness reading Wedlocked. As I’ve watched the gay movement rebrand itself from one focused on sexual and gender liberation to a “focus on the family,” I’ve wondered how we might recuperate some of the radical potential of queer kinship. And now, I’m left wondering how we might use marriage, since clearly it isn’t going anywhere, to assist in this project. In that spirit, I’d like to add a point to Franke’s “Progressive Call to Action for Married Queers,” for which I think we might take inspiration from Mollena Williams and Georg Friedrich Haas, the subjects of the Times story I described above.
It’s a rich story with a banal headline: world-famous composer and college professor finds love after three failed marriages—but this is not just any kind of love. Haas, a white Austrian, meets Williams, a black American, on a typical, bland dating site, and they commence a deep, negotiated power exchange, in which Williams submits to serving Haas, to making his life “as comfortable as possible.” Though the text of the Times story is less direct, this is a configuration familiar to those schooled in sexual diversity. Haas is a dominant; Williams is a submissive. He likely controls much of their joint life, and Williams derives satisfaction from being controlled. (This is not conjecture; Williams, a well-known sex educator, writes openly about her submission on her blog, The Perverted Negress.)
The rich layers of complexity in such a dynamic are, I’m sure, not lost on this readership: the juxtaposition of a feminist consciousness with female submission, the racialized power dynamics inherent in the configuration, the likely illegality of some of the sexual practices they admit to engaging in (when was the last time we saw the word “caning” in the New York Times?), the fact that such a relationship can also be, and indeed is, a marriage. Yet, while each of the dynamic concerns appears in a single sentence, the word marriage weaves its way through the narrative, the most dynamic portrayal being his failed previous marriages and his journey into this one.
But BDSM, a “compound acronym that connotes sexual interactions involving bondage/discipline, domination/submission, and sadism/masochism” often leans into and not away from the law. It is likely that Haas and Williams have both a marriage contract and an extra-legal bdsm contract detailing the terms of their Dominant/submissive dynamic. And perverts are not the only ones making such creative use of law. Martha Ertman’s new book, Love’s Promises, profiled in an earlier symposium on this blog, describes those used by a range of what she terms “Plan B” families to negotiate the terms of cohabitation and parenting in ways formal law fails to address.
If marriage “cleaves the sex out of homosexuality” (6), we certainly shouldn’t see marriages like this one in the popular press. But, increasingly, we do. And while gays have struggled mightily to distance ourselves from this type of depiction to preserve our standing as viable legal and political subjects, now that we have attained it, perhaps it’s time to let some of that abjection back in. In a context of legal and social exclusion, both racial minorities and non-heterosexual people form a variety of kinship structures that mediate relations of intimacy and of care and dependence. Think, for example, of the “army of ex-lovers” responsible for caring for the first sufferers of hiv/aids. What happens to forms of non-marital intimacy under a marriage regime? They risk disappearing. Perhaps one thing we might do is take a lesson from Haas and Williams and make sure we don’t lose our precious perversions to the marriage discourse.