Monday, November 18, 2013

Marriage rites: what’s blood got to do with it?

When marriage laws are amended to bring same-sex couples within their ambit, those couples become subject to the existing restrictions imposed by blood and family ties (consanguinity and affinity) which forbid people from marrying someone too close to them. So if a woman cannot marry her brother, uncle or nephew, neither can she marry her sister, aunt or niece. Simple, right? As far as it goes, yes. But not once we consider the rationale behind consanguinity restrictions and what the application of the “marriage equality” paradigm to them is likely to lead to.

Admittedly, the effect of consanguinity on marriage custom is not quite as straightforward as I have implied above.

In some ancient civilisations, consanguine marriage down to the level of incestuous marriage was obligatory among the nobility – the ultimate way of “keeping it in the family”. In ancient Greece, half-sibling (same father) matches were not unheard of among the aristocracy. First-cousin matches were common among European royal and aristocratic families well into modern times. For the upper classes of yesteryear, inheritance considerations pertaining to the transmission of property and title understandably trumped all other considerations when it came to mate selection.

The first-cousins scenario raises the issue of the arbitrariness involved in judging how close is too close – in some states of the US you can marry your first cousin; in some, you can’t. Cultural differences in attitude arise too: for instance, southern Asian societies, unlike most modern European societies, tend to endorse first-cousin marriages.

Variations notwithstanding, the avoidance of close (as defined by local standards) in-marrying has been a widespread social norm for centuries. To get to the nitty-gritty: sexual relations between people who are too closely related have generally been frowned upon by societies and legal systems throughout history, even inviting capital punishment in some. Incest remains a social and legal taboo – you simply don’t go to bed with your close relatives. So, the gender issue aside, you cannot marry them either. But why not?  (more...)

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