When the California Supreme Court created a “right” to gay marriage last week, it was entirely foreseeable that opponents of the ruling would organize. For the second time in eight years, Golden State voters will most likely have the opportunity to weigh in on whether to define marriage in California as between a man and a woman.
The response to the court’s decision – positive in many quarters – drove home the hard fact that traditionalists are losing the battle of both language and ideas in the public square. It’s becoming increasingly difficult for gay marriage’s opponents to convince their fellow citizens that the institution of marriage is best reserved for those with the putative ability to conceive, bear and raise children together.
If they are to make that argument successfully, traditionalists must understand that they’re not just grappling with the issue of gay marriage. They’re confronting an increasingly entrenched consensus that “private” sexual behavior is always just an individual matter about which society properly has no opinion – the logical result of a culture that, too often, confuses moral relativism with tolerance. And they’re challenging a host of social and ideological transformations that were set in motion long before this controversy arose – whose influence shapes the debate over gay marriage in particular, and sexual morality in general.
As strange as it seems, it all began with the pill. Decades ago, the invention and ready availability of reliable birth control successfully decoupled childbearing from sex. Certainly, in many ways, this development represented a welcome liberation for women, enabling them to exercise control over their own reproductive capacities and plan their own futures. But unforeseen consequences accompanied that benefit. Most notably, completely divorcing the sex act from the potential for procreation converted sex into just another recreational activity.
In turn, the establishment of “sex as recreation” led to the decoupling of sex from marriage. Since sex was fun – and one could protect against an unplanned pregnancy both through contraception and abortion on demand – there was no real reason to be married in order to do it. With that, couples who wanted to have sex (despite, perhaps, not knowing or even liking each other) felt free to do so.