My latest foray into the growing body of alternatives-to-marriage literature has been Judith Stacey’s Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China (New York: New York University Press, 2011). Part of NYU’s Series in Social and Cultural Analysis, Unhitched offers readers a whirlwind tour through Stacey’s research into various forms of family organization around the globe. Stacey is a Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and Sociology at New York University and her previous publications all tackle the question of modern family arrangements. I haven’t read any of her previous work, but this volume reads a like a tip-of-the-iceberg account of her research, and those who want to delve into the whys and wherefores of various studies might do best seeking out her previous books and (I’m assuming voluminous) journal publications.
What this book does do is encourage us (implicitly Western, largely heteronormative readers) to rethink the way our culture has elevated monogamous hetero marriage (and even same-sex marriage) to its status as the ultimate basis for family creation. Stacey does this by offering us snapshots of alternatives to that husband-wife-and-(maybe)-kids family formation: gay male families of many kinds in West Hollywood, polygynous marriages in South Africa (where it is legal for some) and the United States (where it is illegal for all), and matrilinial households of the Mosuo in China. By opening up a window onto the successes and failures of different strategies for family formation, Stacey suggests that “no family system is ideal, and no family form can be best for everyone.”
I’ve read more coherently argued works along this same vein (on the top of the list is Nancy Polikoff’s Beyond (Straight and Gay) Marriage), but Stacey’s contribution is useful both for the myriad concrete examples, drawn from her years of fieldwork within the populations she profiles and for her global perspective. I particularly appreciated the chapters on polygynous (one man marrying multiple women) marriage practices in the U.S. and South Africa because Stacey avoids a knee-jerk rejection of plural marriage — and polygyny particularly — as inherently patriarchal and challenges us to support the right of all adults to form the type of relationships that work for them and their communities. I am increasingly frustrated by the rejection of poly relationships (whether traditionally polygynous or queer) as a form that can, and should, be recognized as a legitimate family form — particularly when such rejections come from people who otherwise support the right of adults to form intimate partnerships of their choosing. Is it so hard to believe that sometimes the family form that works best for those involved is one that expands to involve more than two people? Maybe I was just exposed to ElfQuest and Ursula LeGuin’s Birthday of the World at too impressionable an age. In any event, I appreciate that someone with Stacey’s research background is willing to speak up in favor of honoring plural unions — and to frame that argument in terms of feminist respect for individual choices:
To be sure, a polygynous brew of intimacy is no feminist cup of tea. Yet that does not make it our provenance, or anyone else’s, to dictate the beverage of choice for any woman by ourselves. The proper mission for feminism and for a democratic society is to upgrade the menu of love potions on offer and to make them available to as many women, and men, as possible (151).
I don’t precisely agree with Stacey that polygyny is inherently un-feminist. I would argue that what makes a feminist family has more to do with the egalitarian nature of the relationship(s) involved — including those between parents and children — than it does with the combination of bodies or gender expressions present. However, I also agree with her that, even if one believed polygyny was harmful to women — our energies would be better served as feminists improving the quality of “love potion” options available, and ensuring equality of access to those options, rather than condemning families that make choices different from our own and trying to outlaw their chosen (consensual) practices.
The chapters on gay male kinship networks did not offer anything radically new to me, but this is possibly because I have spent a fair amount of time reading studies of kinship among queer folks. Likely I’ve read some of Stacey’s research in the past, I just haven’t remembered her name! She uses her research on kinship among gay men in West Hollywood, California, to explore how gay men establish families, both with and without children. She makes the argument that gay men, more than lesbians or other segments of the queer community, are re-defining family life in ways that might offer us a useful model for the future. She bases this argument on the fact that gay men, more than lesbian women, must rely on alternate means of procreation. I’m not sure I buy it, and she doesn’t present as much comparative evidence as I would have liked. The lesbian women I know have been incredibly creative in establishing kinship networks, whether or not they have biological children, and many of them share characteristics that Stacey identified in her gay male subjects: the tendency to remain close to ex-partners, for example, and relationships that are at times surprisingly heterogeneous in terms of race, class, age, religion, etc. While I only have anecdotal evidence at the moment, my sense is also that queer women are no more or less likely than queer men to form relationships that are either non-monogamous or monogamous but made up of more than two persons (all women or plural gendered).
The chapter on the Musao describes a culture in which families are centered around women and their children. Siblings create a home together and raise the children of the family’s women. Lovers form relationships outside of the family structure, so that male lovers visit their female partners but return to their home and help parent their sister’s children on a day to day basis. The story of this culture was described in detail from an insider perspective in the memoirLeaving Mother Lake: A Girlhood on the Edge of the World by Yang Erche Namu (Boston: Little Brown, 2003). It offers, even more than polygyny and the gay male relationships profiled in this book, and example of familial organization that separates out sexual intimacy from the practical aspects of daily family life and child-rearing. While, as Stacey points out, it would be impracticable (and likely undesirable) to try and replicate such a family system wholesale, the Musao do offer us an example of human beings who have thrived without the type of family system that modern Western society — particularly U.S. mainstream culture — views as synonymous with a functioning society. Moral panics about the “breakdown” of the family and young peoples’ supposed disinclination to form lasting dyad relationships are the perennial subject of political initiatives and best-selling polemics. What Stacey’s book can offer us is the assurance that human beings thrive in many different family forms. Not just that, theoretically, they could but that they have … and are currently doing so. Hopefully, Unhitched will provide just such thought-provoking reassurance to any fence-sitters who are lucky enough to pick it up and peruse its pages. I admit to being skeptical that this book will end up changing minds, but perhaps it will help to create a greater flexibility of thought on how human beings are best supported in their quest to form intimate bonds.