An Anthropologist Critiques Focus on the Family’s “Anthropological” Report on Marriage

Patrick M. Chapman, Ph.D.

March 25th, 2008

Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Patrick M. Chapman, biological anthropologist and author of the forthcoming book, “Thou Shalt Not Love”: What Evangelicals Really Say to Gays (Haiduk Press: 2008).

I was honored when Glenn Stanton, Director of Family Formation Studies at Focus on the Family, asked me to provide a critical review of his recent Focus on the Family report, “Differing definitions of marriage and family: comparing and contrasting those offered by emerging same-sex marriage advocates and classic anthropologists.” (PDF: 80KB/10 pages) I have had previous positive encounters with Mr. Stanton and appreciate his openness to professional criticism. I am also grateful that Box Turtle Bulletin offered to make our discussion public.

As indicated in the title, Stanton’s report compares and contrasts the anthropological understanding of marriage with definitions provided by various same-sex political advocates, apparently to undermine the case for same-sex marriage. I find the report significant for several, presumably unintended, reasons:

  • The appeal to anthropologists as the authority in understanding marriage;
  • The appreciation that marriage is primarily a social and economic institution, not a religious one;
  • The acknowledgment that same-sex marriage is traditional;
  • The recognition that Focus on the Family’s “one biological man with one biological woman” definition of marriage is flawed;
  • The admission that gay males are capable of stable, long-term relationships.

Allow me to elaborate on these points.

Appeal to anthropological authority
It is true that the same-sex marriage advocates quoted in the report do not use anthropological definitions. However, they do not claim to be experts and do not use their definitions to restrict other people’s access to marriage. As such, I am not very concerned with their definitions, particularly because the anthropological understanding of marriage, which is based on how it is expressed cross-culturally and over time, is inclusive of same-sex marriages. This is demonstrated in that many of the quotes Stanton provides avoid specifying the biological sex of the spouses. For example, Stanton references George Peter Murdock’s 1949 definition, suggesting marriage is “between a sexually associating pair of adults.”

While Stanton highlights that many same-sex marriage advocates do not employ an anthropological understanding of marriage, he neglects to mention this is also the case for those who oppose same-sex marriage. For example, Focus on the Family’s definition of marriage is contrary to anthropological reality. Many cultures throughout the world traditionally accept same-sex marriage; opposite-sex marriages are often arranged, not based on love, and polygamous. Polygyny, one man with more than one wife, is by far the most commonly preferred form of marriage; polyandry, one woman with more than one husband, also exists. In many societies that prefer polygyny to monogamy, the wife is often viewed as the husband’s property. This helps explain why polygyny is considered immoral in Western society: it often reduces women to the level of property.

What is particularly important with Stanton’s report is the recognition that anthropologists are the experts when it comes to understanding and defining marriage. As such, it increases the importance of the American Anthropological Association’s 2004 official statement condemning marriage amendments that exclude same-sex marriages from official recognition. Anthropologists recognize that same-sex marriage is one of the many legitimate forms of marriage practiced in cultures throughout the world. Stanton’s selective application of anthropology suggests to me that he is more concerned with Focus on the Family’s political agenda than promoting an honest, accurate, and representative definition for marriage.

The non-sanctity of marriage
In his summary of how anthropologists define marriage, Stanton states they are “informed by how marriage is largely universal, transcending culture, law, religion, time and social development” (I presume he refers to technological complexity here – all societies have a high development of social complexity, although not all are technologically complex). Marriage is largely universal, “transcending” the various aspects and dimensions of culture, but it is constructed differently by different societies. The forms marriage takes are varied, ranging from monogamous to polygamous, from same-sex to opposite-sex, and from same-states of being to differing-states of being: some cultures recognize “ghost marriages” where a living individual marries a dead one. Marriage often involves sexual activity, although this is obviously by no means a requirement. Anthropologists recognize marriage is primarily a social and economic union that serves many and varied purposes, evidenced by the various quotes Stanton provides.

I find it significant that Stanton specifies marriage “transcends” religion. Although marriage is sometimes incorporated into religious traditions and practices, it is not religious in nature, evidenced by religion’s omission in the definitions provided by Stanton. Thus, arguments promoting the “sanctity of marriage,” suggesting it is a religious institution with an inherently religious quality, are not supported anthropologically. This is a refreshingly honest acknowledgment from Focus on the Family.

Same-sex marriage is traditional
In the report’s appendix Stanton highlights one form of the same-sex marriages found in many traditional African cultures. The marriages are modeled on heterosexual ones in that one of the individuals performs the tasks of the other gender, and is often recognized as being the other gender by society. This situation is a common expression of traditional same-sex marriages throughout the world. Significantly, the cultures recognize the marriages as equal, using the same term for both same-sex and opposite-sex marriages.

However, Stanton argues the same-sex marriages “are not similar in nature or spirit of same-sex families being proposed today,” primarily because of the gender transformation component. Gender transformation is often necessary because traditional societies usually sharply delineate gender roles: men perform one set of activities while women perform a separate set. Thus, in order to have a properly functioning household in a same-sex marriage, a biological male must often perform the activities of a woman, or a biological female those of a man: same-sex households mimic opposite-sex ones. However, although an individual may perform the tasks of the opposite sex, and may even be identified as the other gender by society, the individual may retain gender qualities considered to be consistent with his or her biological sex: a male performing the tasks of a woman may remain masculine in other ways, and a female performing those of a man may remain feminine.

Modern American society does not strictly delineate gender roles: it is common in opposite-sex marriages and relationships for both men and women to contribute economically, attend to the needs of the children, manage the household, and so forth. Thus, modern American same-sex marriages and relationships once again mimic opposite-sex ones. Importantly, as historian Stephanie Coontz indicates in “Marriage, a History”, there are few precedents for the modern American expression of opposite-sex marriage. Therefore, if lack of historical precedent is to be used as justification for banning same-sex marriage, as Stanton seems to imply, then modern opposite-sex marriages should also be banned. Regardless, it is refreshing to have Focus on the Family finally admit that same-sex marriage is not a new phenomenon.

Gender and children
I assume from other Focus on the Family literature that Stanton raises the argument about the gender transformation because of the belief that children need parents of different sexes to become properly socialized: a belief that is flawed for several reasons.

First, gender does not inherently correspond to biological sex. Stanton acknowledges this in his discussion of the gender transformation in some same-sex marriages. A biological male is able to perform the gender of a woman and a biological female is able to perform the gender of a man. Of relevance, the Bugis of Indonesia recognize five genders: two of which are masculine, two feminine, and one androgynous. The Bugis allow marriage between two masculine individuals, two feminine individuals, a masculine with a feminine individual, two biological males, two biological females, and a biological male with a biological female, always provided the spouses belong to different gender categories: the androgynous gender is excluded from marriage.

Second, gender expression, as opposed to gender norms, is highly varied within a society and between societies. Gender is not binary: masculinity and femininity exist on a continuum. Even in American society there are some fathers who are masculine and some who are feminine, some mothers who are feminine and some who are masculine. Thus, there is no guarantee that opposite-sex parents will express the differing gender norms, or that same-sex parents will express only one gender norm. Furthermore, cross-culturally, gender norms for males and females demonstrate tremendous variation, highlighting that men can be protectors, providers, and nurturers, as can women.

Third, a child is neither socialized by, nor learns gender from only the parents. As acknowledged in Stanton’s report, marriage is an important component of a family, but the family includes more than just parents and children: there are also grandparents, aunts and uncles, cousins, and sometimes even co-wives or co-husbands and their relations. In other words, families include both male and female. As such, children raised by parents in a same-sex, same-gendered marriage still have family members of different sexes and genders. Furthermore, the society at large plays a significant role in socializing a child into its gender norms. For example, any child who watches Disney movies learns the traditional American gender expectations for a male and female: a society’s gender expectations and instruction are impossible to avoid because gender is so strongly infused into society. Finally, in traditional societies that allow same-sex marriage, the couples raise children who demonstrate no social or developmental problems.

Interestingly, as demonstrated by his discussion in the appendix, Stanton effectively changes Focus on the Family’s “one biological man with one biological woman” definition of marriage to “one gendered man with one gendered woman.” However, once again this definition is not inclusive of the varied forms of marriage found cross-culturally. Regardless, I find it significant that because of the anthropological evidence, Stanton apparently recognizes that Focus on the Family’s definition of marriage is flawed.

Long-lasting relationships
In footnote 11 Stanton provides biographical information on the famous anthropologist Colin Turnbull. Turnbull, a “British-American” as Stanton calls him, had a 30-year homosexual relationship with an African-American man, both of whom died of AIDS-related complications. I find Stanton’s admission that Turnbull and his partner had a long-lasting relationship to be important because Focus on the Family often uses the supposedly “transient nature” of gay male relationships to justify banning same-sex marriage.

However, I ask of what relevance is the biographical information to Stanton’s report? The differing ethnicity of Turnbull and his partner is irrelevant: if the partner had been white or Turnbull black, I doubt Stanton would have mentioned it. That they died of AIDS-related complications is irrelevant: had Turnbull been a heterosexual who died of AIDS-related complications, I doubt this would have been mentioned. Certainly Stanton does not provide marital, racial, or death-related information for the other anthropologists he quotes. Turnbull’s sexual orientation is also not relevant. Perhaps Stanton mentions it because he incorrectly presumes that Turnbull’s argument implies the sole validity of opposite-sex marriages, and having a homosexual say this would supposedly add credence to Stanton’s unanthropological view of marriage.

However, this is not the case. Turnbull is correct in his assessment that being an adult normally includes making a living, being married, raising a family, and assuming “ritual” responsibilities that benefit society, the family, and the individual. Turnbull is also correct in stating that marriage has been an important or essential component in the continuity of societies and social orders. However, none of Turnbull’s comments indicate that only heterosexuals and opposite-sex marriage serve these purposes to the exclusion of homosexuals and same-sex marriage. So I ask again, of what relevance to the argument is Turnbull’s sexual orientation, long-term and interracial relationship, or manner of death? Regardless, I find refreshingly honest Focus on the Family’s admission that gay men are capable of having relationships lasting 30 years.

Concluding remarks
Finally, I would like to address the summary of the anthropological view of marriage provided at the start of Stanton’s report. All eight itemized points apply to both same-sex and opposite-sex marriages. Both types of marriage provide for the continuation of a people and culture. Both pair-bonds serve the good of the nuclear and extended families, and the larger community. Both focus on the rights and responsibilities of the family members. Both provide for the needs of children and adults. Both represent the complex relationships found in a community. Both are included in the near universal, yet varied expressions of marriage that transcend culture, law, religion, and time. Finally, the remaining two items on the list, which focus on the male and female components – issues related to gender, not biological sex – are as equally relevant for modern opposite-sex marriages as they are same-sex marriages.

As more cultures have been studied and data gathered, the anthropological understanding of marriage has altered over the past century, becoming more generalized and more inclusive. Drawing upon the available evidence, the American Anthropological Association condemns efforts to restrict marriage solely to opposite-sex couples.

I welcome Glenn Stanton’s report. In it Focus on the Family finally acknowledges anthropological authority in defining marriage, that “sanctity of marriage” arguments are not valid, the existence of same-sex marriages in traditional societies, that biological sex is not an important consideration in defining marriage, and that gay males are capable of long-lasting and stable relationships.

As an addendum, I call upon Focus on the Family to acknowledge they deceived their readers when they recently said anthropologists agree with the so-called “traditional definition of marriage” and issue a public apology and correction. They must honestly inform their readers that the American Anthropological Association has previously and publicly condemned attempts to exclude homosexuals from marrying, declaring that marriage, as defined cross-culturally, is inclusive of same-sex marriages. A failure to do so simply reaffirms the view that Focus on the Family is more concerned about its political agenda than its Christian identity.

See also:
Round 2: Stanton Replies to Chapman
Round 2: Chapman Replies to Stanton
Glenn T. Stanton Responds to Professor Patrick Chapman
An Anthropologist Critiques Focus on the Family’s “Anthropological” Report on Marriage


March 25th, 2008

I’ll be standing on my head in the corner and holding my breath waiting for that apology.


March 25th, 2008

I wanted to thank Box Turtle Bulletin and Dr. Chapman for continuing to bring an honest discussion on gay families and their role in American society. Hopefully Focus on the Family can take a breath, and perhaps start to re-evaluate their position.


March 25th, 2008

Hmm, Will Glenn Stanton re edit his report? Typical cover-up of truth and reality.


March 25th, 2008

I am confused. According to this, Focus on the Family literature claims that gays cannot make long-term commitments. Yet they wish to effectively continue the ban on Gay Marriage, the main recorded form of making a long term-commitment in American society. How could statistics possibly show that gays can’t commit to long-term relationships when they have never legally been allowed to do so in this country? In the past three hundred years there is little recorded evidence of long-term gay relationships in America because that information was never recorded, by law or by history, and only occasionally by the partners themselves when they had the courage to do so in a hostile environment. That being a given, how can there possibly be any real statistics about gay commitment to long-term relationships at all? And isn’t it possible that this devaluing of gay relationships and gay people in general is one of the causes for supposedly short-lived relationships in Mr. Stanton’s Christian-funded surveys?

In my family for example, there are four siblings. Three heterosexual, one homosexual. All three of the heterosexuals have been married and divorced, some of them many times. But my uncle Terry and his partner have been together longer than I have been alive. Nearly 40 years. They do not have AIDS, they have never been apart, and to hear them tell it, they have never even cheated on each other. In fact they are the only stable happy long-term relationship in my entire family. I would like to know from Mr. Stanton how I am to reconcile that reality with his group’s statistics.

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