Does A Man Need A Woman?

25 September 2003

By Stentor Danielson

Gender complementarity has become the basis of one important argument against gay marriage. Gay marriage opponents tell us that a man needs a womanly presence in his life, and vice versa. Marriage is a unique way of binding together two populations that come from Mars and Venus. The specialness of this complementarity depends on restrictive gender roles that our society is in the process of escaping.

The model for this complementarity of opposites is biological reproduction. You need a male and a female to produce a child the old-fashioned way, each bringing a necessary piece of the puzzle. Conservatives have insisted that the function of marriage is childrearing, ignoring the benefits the institution brings to the childless. They also attempt to make a parent of each gender necessary even after the sperm and egg have united. The claim that a child needs a mother and a father is offered as if it were an obvious truth, rather than a claim that is refuted by the testimony of children brought up by homosexual couples.

In the past, marriage did fill the role that gay marriage opponents want it to fill today. The structure of society, and the way children were brought up, instilled much firmer gender roles than we have today. Under these roles, men and women really did need each other.

Take for example the problem of getting something to eat. Traditionally, men weren't taught to cook, and were led to believe that it was shameful even to try. So men needed a wife to make their meals. But cooking isn't much use if you have no food to cook, and food costs money. It wasn't long ago that women had barely any opportunities to earn money (and many of the ones available, such as school teacher, were for single women only). So women needed a husband to buy food.

This sort of complementarity worked on a subtler level, too. Men and women were taught different ways of dealing with the world, such as men learning to be rational at the expense of being compassionate and women vice-versa. So long as such a system persists, a person needs someone of the opposite gender in order to be complete. But that system has, thankfully, begun to change. There are undoubtedly inherent differences between the sexes' psychological makeups. But the difference is not like the yawning chasm between Mars and Venus. When left to develop on their own (and even sometimes when cultures put forth their best efforts at gender role creation), there's enough overlap between the inclinations of men and women that picking one of each is not at all a guarantee that they will average out to a happy civilized medium. Yet ever since the demise of the arranged marriage, we've trusted people to find the heterosexual partner who is the best match for them. Why can't we extend this same trust to gays and lesbians?

In the past, the world of men and the world of women were much more separated. Men did man things, like work and politics, and encountered mostly men while doing so. Likewise, women spent their time doing woman things, like childcare and sewing, that brought them into contact with other women. Some deliberate and artificial means was necessary to bridge this divide, to keep the sexes from spinning off into different planets (and undermining society in the process). Marriage served this role.

However, the unique role of marriage (or romance in general) of bringing men and women together is becoming obsolete. Legally speaking, men and women are no longer barred from each other's traditional domains, and there's reason to hope that irrational cultural barriers (such as men's reluctance to join a "pink collar" profession like nursing) can be brought down as well. Men and women freely socialize with each other, putting "similar sense of humor" or "similar taste in music" above "same gender" in the list of criteria that make them feel a bond with someone. The less people's life experiences correlate with gender, the less important gender becomes to social relations.

Some would say that the breakdown in social roles is a problem, and that traditional masculinity and femininity should be preserved in order to give people a guide for how to be a man or a woman (thus preserving the basis for exclusively heterosexual marriage). They point, for example, to the over-feminization of education, which denies boys' natural qualities (such as aggressiveness) and thus produces the documented drop in boys' academic achievement relative to girls'. If that claim is true, it only proves the point that any predetermined role is going to be detrimental to those who are pushed into it against their inclinations, whether they be men who like shopping and hate football in the traditional world, or aggressive boys in a feminized school system. People need a wider variety of models for ways to be a happy and productive member of society - including models that draw strength from, rather than subvert, the love some people feel for members of their own sex.

Our ancestors made men and women opposites, who needed marriage to reconcile them. But we don't need to perpetuate that mistake. Freeing people from imposed gender rules allows each person to choose the partner who best compliments him or her - regardless of that partner's gender.

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