The XX Factor

Marriage and Family Are Not Concepts Carved in Stone

The media loves a sex scandal, and the scandal cup of late runneth over: Maria Shriver and Arnold announce their divorce, John Edwards is indicted for covering up an affair with campaign funds, and Anthony Weiner tweets nude photos despite a pregnant new bride. It’s often accepted on its face that such behavior represents a lapse in some fundamental moral law. Indeed, above all else, such stories are catchy and popular because most Americans have fierce attachments to particular notions about marriage and the raising of children. Whether one rejoices in or bemoans the momentum gained by the gay marriage movement, one tends to do so passionately. When, in a recent profile of Dan Savage, Slate contributor Mark Oppenheimer explored Savage’s notion that monogamy isn’t necessarily the best indicator of marital or parental success, the comments section was abuzz with sound and fury.

This may be an appropriate moment, then, to remember that marriage, partnership, and child-rearing are more fluid and varied practices than their popular treatment suggests. A new study in Biology Letters on a small tribe in Namibia illuminates that there are many different contemporary models of family life. For example, the Himba permit both arranged and “love” marriages, and a child born out of wedlock is not considered an object of shame to them. In fact, “extra pair paternity,” as anthropologist Brooke Scelza terms it, is quite common: Of the Himba women she spoke to who’d ever been in an arranged marriage, nearly a fourth had children that were the product of extramarital sex. Most interesting, Scelza explains why she could rely on the accuracy of the group’s self-reporting: For the Himba, infidelity is discussed openly, without shame.

Such research reminds us of the obvious point that marriage and family play different roles in different lives, and models of sexuality are no more static than the individuals and cultures they involve. They are extraordinarily complicated subjects, ripe with ideas about value and goodness, which also tend to vary.  If we’re going to engage in a conversation about their roles in American culture, it’s important to at least keep in mind that these concepts are complex and highly contextualized. At the very least, they are more flexible than their media coverage would often suggest.