For thousands of years, women have been held in marital bondage, tasked with producing a “legitimate” heir for their husbands. Even today, marriage remains an economic institution working for the benefit of property owning patriarchs. Yet many men view marriage with suspicion and fear while women are stereotyped as dreaming of marriage from girlhood. Why is this? The answer can be found in examining historical and contemporary property relations.
The Old Ball and Chain
In its infancy, marriage was a nakedly economic institution with love coming second, if at all. With the invention of agriculture, early pastoral peoples, previously possessing little in the way of permanent wealth, now had large swaths of land which became the private property of familial patriarchs who could now utilize the labor of others. As Engels writes in The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State:
[Under pre-state communism] human labor-power still does not produce any considerable surplus over and above its maintenance costs. That was no longer the case after the introduction of cattle-breeding, metalworking, weaving and, lastly, agriculture.
Here the domestication of animals and the breeding of herds had developed a hitherto unsuspected source of wealth and created entirely new social relations. … Now, with their herds of horses, camels, asses, cattle, sheep, goats, and pigs, the advancing pastoral peoples … had acquired property which only needed supervision and the rudest care to reproduce itself in steadily increasing quantities and to supply the most abundant food in the form of milk and meat.
Where a man once had to hunt, working tirelessly to produce only the essentials, a man with a field could now employ slave labor, usually taking the form of captured prisoners of war, to produce in abundance. This new class of slave owners, ruling every corner of the ancient world from the city states of ancient Greece to the rice kingdoms of Yayoi Japan, needed a new way to keep property within their class. Thus, marriage arose alongside private property and slavery as a means to establish a male line of inheritance and safeguard patriarchal class rule.
As Engels later notes, familia, the Roman word for family, referred only to a body of slaves and without sentimentality. It was not until much later that marriage and family would become related to romance and love. Historian Stephanie Coontz writes in Marriage, a History that, though love marriage existed in Europe conceptually as early as the fourteenth century, it was not commonly practiced until well into the seventeenth century. For the rich and landed, love marriage would remain a hopeful fantasy until at least the middle of the nineteenth century.
Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, with love firmly an ideal inseparable from marriage, men were encouraged through all avenues to exercise dictatorial power over their wives. At the same time, women were encouraged to submit fully to their husbands and carry out their wifely duties both in the kitchen and the bedroom without question or complaint. This was reinforced in literature, radio, film, television, and especially advertisements as the general public was literally sold patriarchal values and monogamy.
Patriarchy was further reinforced through political and racial tensions. Red Scare propaganda warned that, should the communists ever get the upper hand, “our women would be helpless under the boots of the Asiatic Russians.” Segregationists labeled interracial marriage or “race mixing” a communist plot and constantly talked of non-whites coming to ravage white women and destroy the “white race.” The message, that our women need to be protected, reinforced the role of the husband and father as patriarchal, as the protector, provider, and model for the family economically, spiritually, and politically.
The same was done in anti-feminist propaganda. From the earliest days of the suffragette movement, ugly, unmarried women with an ax to grind attempting to emasculate men has been a reoccurring anti-feminist trope. This kind of rhetoric is still used, as can be seen everywhere from Brietbart’s infamous 2015 “Birth Control Makes Women Unattractive and Crazy” article to Evangelist Pat Robinson’s 1988 declaration that “The feminist agenda is … a socialist, anti-family political movement that encourages women to leave their husbands, kill their children, practice witchcraft, destroy capitalism, and become lesbians.” The message is once again that, if left to their own devices, women will only bring about ruin and so need to be controlled.
Religious teachings played a significant role in this, with Christian and Jewish theologians using the story of Adam and Eve to justify male chauvinism. Just as Eve is said to have mislead Adam into eating the forbidden fruit, women were perceived as harbingers of temptation whose own simplemindedness would lead to familial ruin without the leadership of a man. Religious leaders across denominations spoke often of the place of woman and the Godly hierarchy of the family. While men were encouraged to lord over their family, religious literature aimed at women taught them to be docile and serve their husbands as they would God.
Even pornography reinforced patriarchal sexual roles, playing upon themes of domination and temptation. Throughout the twentieth century, women played very few roles in pornography: either as the damsel in need of rescuing, the victimized “whore” who is powerless before her male pursuer, or as the seductress luring men to immorality with her feminine wiles. In the case of the damsel and the whore, little attention is needed to see sexist and patriarchal themes. The lessons are, of course, that women are helpless before men, that women need men, and that men are entitled to women sexually.
With the seductress we see, however, a return to the old Puritanical view of women as sinful temptresses. The seductress, rather than being a risk to herself, is a risk to men. In pornography, this figure flips the script of the “natural” order of things, placing women in the position of power. Similarly, there’s also the genre of cuckold porn where a man’s wife or daughter has sex with another man before her helpless husband or father. This genre plays upon sexual anxiety in a similar way as the seductress; the women now has the power to cheat. Though in some cases she too is a victim, the message is the same. Ultimately, she is just as in need of male authority as the damsel. The cheating wife or promiscuous daughter always ends up needing either to be protected or controlled.
Pornography also sexualized lesbianism in order to cater to heterosexual male appetites. Transgender women too have become sexualized through the abhorrently named “shemale” or “trap” genre. The result is that female sexuality in all its forms have been made a subject of the male gaze, made to serve the sexual fancies of men even without their active participation.
In this way, all sexual and gender expression has been perverted and warped to suit the needs of the patriarchy. As feminist Catharine MacKinnon writes, this hegemony over romance and sexuality can be seen even in non-traditional relationships, such as “lesbian culture’s butch/femme, and sadomasochism’s top/bottom” which have been “socially coded as heterosexuality’s male/female.” Thus, sexuality was reduced to the terms of binary, Freudian essentialism with heterosexuality seen as the “natural” default whose free, promiscuous expression is stifled only by religious and/or societal mores. Gender too followed along these binary lines, with expression limited to the contents of ones pants.
Ultimately, this culture was only sustainable due to the fact that the United States saw genuine economic growth in the period following the Second World War. Having received foreign military bases formerly belonging to the British Empire in exchange for battleships and supplies, the US was suddenly in the position to become the largest imperialist power the world has ever seen. Having oceans between itself and the fighting also meant that the US was the only industrialized nation not ravaged by war. Thus, in the period between 1948 and 1973, the nation’s real GDP rose 169%, overall employment increased by 75% with manufacturing jobs increasing by over 30%, and per capita personal income increased across every demographic by over 50%. The then prevailing Keynesian school of economics helped create a vast consumer base by increasing government spending to public works projects. The post-war Veterans Affairs loans to returning service members in particular created a boom in the housing market which helped even their civilian counterparts.
With a newly unprecedented amount of property to safeguard, marriage became more common than any other point in American history. By 1950, 82% of adults were married. Moreover, these marriages began very early, usually between the ages of 17 and 25, and lasted often until death. The average American woman wed around this time, for example, would go on to spend a full 88% of her life married according to the National Bureau of Economic Research.
Monogamy was the only socially accepted form of pairing available, with women on average having, at most, three sexual partners during their lifetime. Men, on the other hand, averaged almost double that, having around five or six sexual partners. This was largely due to popular perceptions of divorce and the role of the wife. Divorce was hugely frowned upon; and with only 34% of women employed by 1950 compared to 86% of men, marriage was seen as a wife’s profession. It was infinitely more common for a husband to be unfaithful than for a wife to. Though a man could walk away from marriage safely, a woman would often end up on the street if she suddenly found herself without a husband. These marriages, though economically safe, were often unhappy. From 1960 to 1980, with the widespread adoption of no-fault divorce laws and a growing number of women in the workforce, the rate of divorce more than doubled.
The New Ball and Chain
Not everyone was content with miserable marriage and monogamy, however. With the sexual revolution of the 1960s, 70s, and 80s, coupling and sexuality were reexamined. Pioneering sexual studies, such as those done by the famous Masters and Johnson research team, were made accessible through books and television. Popular works like Alex Comfort’s The Joy of Sex and Sue Johnson’s long running Sunday Night Sex Show (or Talk Sex with Sue Johnson as it was known in the US) urged millions to explore their sexuality, shifting moral and social views of sex from being more reproductive to more pleasure centered. The development of more and improved forms of contraception allowed more people to do so both inside and out of marriage. Premarital sex, open marriage, and sexual promiscuity became increasingly acceptable.
It’s this movement that laid the foundation for shows like Three’s Company which dared to do real sexual humor and explore sexual tension among the unmarried on television. Film too became significantly more sexual between the 1970s and 90s. Blaxploitation made pimps into superheroes. Sexed up, macho men like Superfly’s Priest and Shaft’s John Shaft glorified and normalized male promiscuity while the portrayal of hypermasculine pimps glamorized the sex trade. Meanwhile, sex comedies and slashers cemented horny teenagers into American cinema. These films often fetishized patriarchal concepts like virginity and made lighthearted jokes of nonconsensual sexual activity like peeping. Even well into the late 1990s and 2000s, movies like American Pie causally had their protagonists engaging in such detestable acts as recording themselves having sex without their partner’s knowledge.
Pornography, especially in the age of the internet, has seen a dramatic shift in theming. Pornography has largely abandoned the traditional temptation porn and is focusing instead on commodification. Series like ‘Property Sex’, a series about young women exchanging sexual favors for rent, and ‘Money Talks’, a series literally just about paying random women to do sexual stunts, present female sexuality as a commodity for male enjoyment. Whereas the porn of old fetishized the control of women, today’s porn sees women shared among multiple partners. Instead of selling men one woman, they’re presented with an endless stream of women who can simply be paid for sex whenever and wherever.
With this in mind it becomes unsurprising to note that, across mediums, a trend has emerged wherein marriage is seen as women’s endgame but a chore and even a trap for men. Naturally, the man has to be coerced into marriage, dragged to the altar kicking and screaming by a man-crazed harpy who will inevitably drop the girlfriendly facade during marriage and come to dominate and emasculate her new husband.
The cliche has been pounded into the head of the American public for decades if through no other medium than television. The nagging, put-upon wife and the thoughtless, even oafish husband have been repeated ad nauseam just in sitcoms. To name a few more well-known ones, there’s All in the Family’s Archie and Edith Bunker, Married With Children’s Ed and Peggy Bundy, Home Improvement’s Tim and Jill Taylor, Everybody Loves Raymond’s Ray and Debra Barone, and Family Guy’s Peter and Lois Griffin. Their level of dysfunction may vary, from Ralph Kramden’s iconic threats of domestic violence on The Honeymooners to George Lopez’s constant lying and causal disrespect in his titular family comedy, but the same miserable stereotype remains constant.
The unmarried aren’t spared either. Countless straight male characters, be them Seinfeld’s George Costanza or The Big Bang Theory’s Howard Wolowitz, seem pathologically afraid of commitment. Men, if we go by the sitcom, would greatly prefer constant causal sex with zero emotional investment.
For women, the opposite it true. Straight female characters like Will & Grace’s Grace Adler and The Nanny’s Fran Fine work desperately to find some man to tie down. Marriage, we’re told, is apparently every woman’s greatest goal in life with even relatively empowered, promiscuous women like Friends’ Rachel Green and Frasier’s Roz Doyle inevitably breaking down and having at least one episode where they put on a wedding dress, eat ice cream, and bemoan being single. Even in real life, wedding magazines are aimed almost exclusively at brides, never grooms, while television and movies focus on the “Bridezilla” and saying yes to the dress.
With no other source but pop culture, one would think women get the most out of marriage. This, however, is still not the case. Studies have shown that women consistently rate the quality of their marriage lower than their husbands do. According to a 2015 survey by the American Association of Retired Persons, over two thirds of divorces are initiated by wives, not husbands. And while the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence reports that 1 in 9 men will experience domestic abuse, the risk for women is significantly greater, with over a quarter of women expected to be victims of domestic abuse sometime during their lives.
In the face of such a grim reality, why do the stereotypes persist?
Money Over Everything
The problem is that the fundamental purpose of marriage is being undermined in the age of neoliberalism. With more and more capital concentrated into fewer and fewer hands, vast swaths of the population have little reason to marry beyond tradition. With capitalism’s natural tendency towards proletarianization, marriage finds itself undermined by the very forces which necessitate it.
Ever since the late 1970s, small business ownership in the US has been on a consistent decline. The Census Bureau’s Business Dynamics Statistics show that, while small businesses comprised over 12% of all US enterprises in 1980, by 2012 they were reduced to less than 8%. Even among those remaining entrepreneurs, few are willing to start from scratch. Starts-ups, defined as those new businesses unconnected to a preexisting chain, have been completely outpaced by franchise establishments. From 1983 to 2006, the number of new start-ups grew by only 36% while new established franchises like McDonald’s or Walmart grew by 50%. Employment too has favored chains, with the number of jobs offered by establishments more than doubling those offered by start-ups.
The Census Bureau also reports that more small employers close than open every month. 75% of all small business are nonemployer and over half of all small businesses are actually home-based, with the vast majority bringing in on average barely over $40,000 a year before expenses. Even more worrying, studies from Harvard and Princeton have shown that 94% of all jobs created since 2005 have been temporary. The number of Americans working these “gigs” jumped significantly from 2005 to 2015, from barely 10% to well over 15%. With the success of companies like Uber and AirB&B, that number continues to rise.
The result is that more Americans than ever have almost nothing to pass on. All across the country, poverty is on the rise due to the increased cost of living and the lack of sustainable job opportunities and affordable housing. As of 2018, more than half of all Americans are in or near poverty. A 2017 study from Stanford University showed that, since 1940, people’s ability to improve their living conditions have been “cut in half.” Despite low unemployment and the generally healthy state of the economy, the working class is struggling to get by and the petty-bourgeoisie is weaker than ever.
Unsurprisingly, compared to the 1990s when well over 50% of all adults married, today, only 29% of poor and 39% of “middle class” adults have tied the knot. Meanwhile, 56% of wealthy adults are married. Though much higher, this too is on the decline.
Even sex is on the decline with the Center for Disease Control reporting the number of young people engaging in intercourse having dropped a whopping 14% since 1991. This is not confined only to the US. Japan, for example, reports more deaths than births every year. Despite generally growing populations due to immigration, the EU reports the same. In South Korea, birth rates have become so low that the government has taken to forcing students to date as part of their college curriculum.
Without property to secure, more and more people have no reason to marry. Existing for their benefit, marriage now offers no incentive to men who, with no other alternative, prefer to secure themselves in the comfort of pornography and, in the case of so-called “incels“, self-righteous bitterness and misogyny. Women, on the other hand, still being sold Rockwellian domesticity, have entertained thoughts of marriage much more seriously than men. With women poorer and hungrier in every state in the US and across the world, marriage continues to represent their hope for a safer life, for economic security at the cost of marital bondage. Though marriage is hardly worth mourning, it is nonetheless a sad time for the working class which finds itself driven further and further into destitution and atomization under the decaying capitalist order.