How feminism ruined marriage

Oh Dan Savage, how I ambivalent you. [Dear language gods — please make “ambivalent” a verb. Thanks.]

Savage does amazing, important things like the “It Gets Better” project. He does hilarious things like the “Choicer Challenge”. But he also tells young college women whose boyfriends’ predilection for facials (no, not the spa kind) makes them feel degraded that they aren’t “game” enough lovers.

He’s been in the news again for his recent interview with the NY Times magazine in which he discusses his views on and criticisms of monogamy. Somewhat orthogonally to his specific views on monogamy, he seems to feel that marriage and family cohesiveness are in decline. And he knows just what to blame: feminism! (Gee, where have we heard this one before?) Here’s a choice passage from the interview:

“The mistake that straight people made,” Savage told me, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitar­ian and fairsey.” In the feminist revolution, rather than extending to women “the same latitude and license and pressure-release valve that men had always enjoyed,” we extended to men the confines women had always endured. “And it’s been a disaster for marriage.”

To be fair, Savage isn’t saying that marriages shouldn’t be fair or equal. He is, rather, saying that to create equality we should have extended non-monogamous expectations to women, rather than enforcing monogamy on men. Still, there’s a lot not to like about Savage’s comments.

For starters, you might think that if men freely, voluntarily, and without coercion make promises of monogamy and then fail to live up to those promises (causing pain as a result) the thing to do is not to say to women “Hey, it’s all your fault, you never should’ve believed him when he made that promise! Boys will be boys, etc.” Secondly, Savage seems to subscribe to an increasingly common Mad Men-esque myth that all men used to be Don Draper, living large and unconstrained until feminism came along and ruined the party. That’s pretty simplistic, to put it mildly. And finally, one might have thought that higher divorce rates (when compared to, say, the 1950s) have rather less to do with women’s sudden expectation that men be monogamous, and rather more to do with women having more options – socially, economically, personally – should they want to leave a marriage. Just maybe.

Here endeth the rant.

15 thoughts on “How feminism ruined marriage

  1. Along similar lines, it ruined the quality of schools, or the “teaching force”, too, according to this.

    Although this article is kind of a flipside, attitude-wise. I.e., it is more enlightened, in that it concludes just what you have, magicalersatz: that women leaving is a matter of women having more options. What I love about it is that it sees the earlier age as artificial in that it constrained women, and that as as a result there was a kind of “hidden subsidy” to schools in that they got the services of highly qualified applicants for much lower wages than the market would have borne had there not been gender discrimination in other positions.

  2. i knew that when dan savage started touting “sex at dawn” that this would all end badly. and how did feminists get blamed for monogamy, anyway? i thought we were out to destroy marriage. wow have i had my marching orders all wrong!

  3. I agree that it’s the myth of the pre-feminist paradise that comes off as really odd. Feminism’s relationship with mandatory monogamy is complicated and can’t exactly be summarized quickly. But it certainly didn’t *cause* mandatory monogamy!

  4. i think this is a slight misrepresentation of Savage. he is saying that the sexual freedoms once afforded to men should have been also afforded to women. his criticism of a cultural moment of sex-negativity and conservatism is something that 2nd wave feminism was not immune from (as so many feminists have argued before Savage).

    what isn’t captured in the post above is that Savage views monogamy as equally problematic for both men and women and also places blame on both men and women who make monogamous commitments that they cannot keep. sure, he does think boys will be boys, but he also states that girls will be girls (that is, humans will be humans) and many humans cannot keep the monogamous commitments they promise. i think it’s nice to have someone as public as him acknowledging female sexual agency and desire.

  5. Nathan, I don’t think I’m misrepresenting Savage (see in particular the paragraph staring “To be fair. . .” in the post). The particulars of Savage’s criticisms of monogamy are divorceable (ha!) from the blame he lays specifically on feminism for the current decline of marriage. And it’s the latter than I’m objecting to.

    Moreover, I don’t think it’s right that Savage views monogamy as “equally problematic for both men and women”. He explicitly says in the interview that, while monogamy is often problematic for women, it is more problematic and more burdensome for men. Here’s another choice passage from the article:

    “[Savage] agreed that there is something male about his perspective. “Well, I’m male,” he wrote. “And women, straight women, are in relationships with men. Doesn’t it help to know what we’re really like? Women can go on marrying and pretending that their boyfriends and husbands are Mr. Darcy or some RomCom dream man. But where’s that going to get ’em? Besides divorce court?”

  6. I don’t like the verb. I don’t mind verbing nonverbs, but this one doesn’t do it for me.

    how about ‘ambivalate’? ‘I love Dan Savage, but his latest column ambivalates me.’ ‘I ambivalated myself all of yesterday while thinking about sending my paper to a journal.’ ‘The speaker gesticulated and undulated as he communicated, but the audience merely ambivalated in response.’

  7. but the sentence preceding what you quote is Savage saying “there are plenty of women out there who have affairs just for the sex.” also, there is much else he has written that speaks to this point outside of that one NYTimes article.

    and i think it could be more charitably stated that Savage is criticizing a particular feminist viewpoint (a certain flavor of 2nd wave feminism that was popular enough to drown other feminist voices out) and supports another feminist viewpoint (those who fought/fight to deconstruct certain sexual norms). conceptually, he is not criticizing all of feminism, but supporting one feminist perspective and not another. (however, if your criticism is that he could have articulated that more clearly, then i could certainly agree with that).

  8. Nathanj, I know Savage thinks that monogamy is a burden on “plenty” of women. But when pressed on this specific point by the NY Times reporter, he admits that he thinks it’s worse for men.

    Again, though, regardless of what he says about monogamy, the frustrating and objectionable thing is that he’s blaming feminism for the “disastrous” state of modern marriage. So he’s not just criticizing an ideology he doesn’t agree with and suggesting a replacement. He’s claiming a certain kind of cause and effect relationship between feminism and Epic Marriage Disaster. Even if he has a specific brand of feminism in mind for this just-so story, the blame he’s tossing out is still unsubstantiated and unjustified (for the reasons discussed in the post, and in the subsequent comments).

    MM, you’re so right. “Ambivalate” is much better.

  9. i’ll concede that discussing only feminism as the reason for the norm of monogamy is far too reductionist. however, i don’t think that is something Savage typically does or would agree with. it was a larger wave of social conservatism, and something a certain popular flavor of feminism was/is surely implicated with. and plenty of sex-positive 2nd wave and 3rd wave feminists would agree.

  10. The term “sex-positive” shouldn’t be deployed by anyone. SRSLY. Who are you trying to distinguish yourself from? Plato? Let’s be a bit less vague, eh?

  11. I love Dan Savage, like, SOSOSOSO much, but once he got starry-eyed about that Sex at Dawn sociobiological drivel he was bound to get himself in trouble, as someone above pointed out. But overall I think he’s done so much for feminism and just about every other good ‘ism’.

    And I think you took the stuff about ‘facials’ out of context. He encourages people to push their boundaries, for their lovers and on general principle, and to question whether their own ‘ick that’s degrading’ reactions are as ‘natural’ and unchangeable as they appear, or instead alterable reactions that are often sedimentations of bad ideologies and oppressive personal experiences. He always acknowledges the importance of understanding and respecting one’s own limits, though.

    Oh and yo, Anonymous above … you’ve never met anyone who isn’t sex-positive? SRSLY? There isn’t a bloody obvious distinction to be drawn here between Annie Sprinkle feminism and Andrea-Dworkin style “Intercourse is the pure, sterile, formal expression of men’s contempt for women” feminism? I think you are being disingenuous.

  12. I ordinarily love Dan Savage, too. However, the mistake Savage made, if I may parody his word choice, was to venture to speak about subjects which he does not know nearly enough about, especially the histories of marriage and divorce. To read statements as inaccurate as those quoted above, especially the fancy that before feminism, men were “never” expected to be monogamous (by ‘straight people’ anywhere?, in any group, religion, country or culture?), that monogamy is imposed upon men — not all of whom consider it an ‘imposition’ — and the more willfully obtuse-seeming implication that nonmonagomous behavior is a leading cause of divorce, which it really is not.

    I remain enduringly annoyed with men who are fans of polyamory and determinedly insist that they speak for all men. People vary. Men differ from each other. And some men and some women find ourselves extremely inclined to monogamous behavior over time. I think what Savage does for so many people is fabulous, but I also think he gets carried away with his demonstrable success, and starts to skate out onto thin ice.

  13. “The mistake that straight people made,” Savage told me, “was imposing the monogamous expectation on men. Men were never expected to be monogamous. Men had concubines, mistresses and access to prostitutes, until everybody decided marriage had to be egalitar­ian and fairsey.”

    In wich conditions that was made?Do those women were voluntary or they were forced by patriarchal systems?It´s incredible nobody stop to think abpout that.Discussion about monogamy should be taken in this way,i have never known a polygamous system that is not harmfull for women,no matter the culture it belongs to.It is more likely to exist in culture where we are considered commodities.

    There´s no equality if people see each other as sex toys,and we women pay the higher price.

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