Steorts's original article was a response to a paper co-authored by Girgis, Ryan Anderson and Robert George in the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. I think Steorts's article is important because it offers at length a thorough explanation of the thinking that lies behind not only conservative sympathy for gay marriage, but behind that of any and all of its apologists.
Steorts labels those of us who would preserve the status quo - that is, the legal and moral understanding of marriage as a thing that can be undertaken only by men and women, precisely, one man and one woman at a time - as traditionalists. I am happy with the label. Of us he says:
The traditionalist holds that there is a pre-legal fact as to what marriage is, namely “comprehensive union” of two persons, and that only a “reproductive unit” can be a comprehensive union, although marriage qua comprehensive union is intrinsically valuable whether or not a couple reproduce...It is because any instance of coitus belongs to the kind of act that is reproductively oriented that the relationships of infertile couples, but not those of same-sex couples, are potentially marital.There is more, and he gives a fair summary of the traditionalist position. So fair that he re-convinces me that it's right.
He then goes on quite candidly to characterize his own position - "according to which the law should be willing to marry same-sex couples" - as "revisionist." His critique of traditionalism begins thus:
The traditionalist finds a criterion of a certain intrinsic value in the simple fact that a married man and woman engage in the generative act. He cannot condition this value upon the consequence of reproduction, since he sees infertile heterosexual couples as candidates for marriage; nor can he condition it upon the experience of sexual intimacy as the bodily dimension of romantic love, since this would make candidates of same-sex couples.[No it wouldn't, but I'll get to that in a moment.] He then says, "Contra this, the revisionist sees no difference of intrinsic value between coitus and the sexual acts of same-sex couples."
This is quite an admission, forthrightly offered; he is not hiding his cards. That thing that homosexuals most desire - moral parity for their unions and all facets of them, including the sexual - he endorses. To his credit he explains why:
The revisionist may prosecute his view by challenging the traditionalist’s claim that an infertile couple are a reproductive unit...(the) physiological differences between fertile and infertile couples...are natural facts no less than the macroscopic structures of sexual organs are natural facts, and when what is at issue is whether a couple are a reproductive unit, we will want our definition of that kind to overlap as precisely as it can with the facts about whether reproduction is possible.My belief is that he (as do all SSM advocates) gets very hung-up on this point, and the evidence is that after Girgis offers an eight page response, Steorts pounces first on this very matter:
Consider a man who has testicular azoospermia, knows it, falls in love with a woman, and discloses that to a certainty they cannot have children. If these two want to marry, Girgis would marry them. His reason is that the sex they have is oriented to procreation. But it is not. They will never have children, and their knowing this will make it impossible for them to see their union as procreatively oriented. Thus falls apart Girgis’s explanation of why they should follow the norms he and I care about: The reality of their relationship precisely does not call for life-sharing to foster children they know they will not have.Thus we must conclude that since the possibility of procreation does not exist for all man-woman marriages - and yet we would marry them anyway - then moral sanction should be extended to other kinds of unions in which sterility is the norm.
But in order to validate this view of sexual moral parity, he must imbue the sex acts he defends with what he calls 'intrinsic value,' which inheres in the union by virtue of some greater thing which precedes any particular act of sex. This - as against the traditionalist's "comprehensive union" - he calls "maximal experiential union."
This is two persons’ sharing each other’s lives — conceived not as the facts about their bodies plus the facts about their minds, but rather as the facts about their experienced unity of the two — as comprehensively and deeply as possible...It necessarily involves, and is consummated by, sexual intimacy...homosexual and heterosexual persons show the outward signs of finding in committed romantic love the same kind of value. If we grant that they do, we must conclude that the traditionalist indulges an untenable dualism about body and mind as these relate to value. He assigns to the body’s reproductive function a fixed value for two classes of person between whom that function’s fulfillment in experience differs greatly, yet for whom the value of sexual intimacy as the expression of love is the same.Ironically, this will satisfy only if one is first satisfied with the importance he places on the fertile/infertile divide. That is, because we grant intrinsic value to the sex acts of an infertile couple, that value must proceed from, and only from, the fact that it is an expression of love between them, reproduction being impossible. Therefore, since homosexuals also love each other, and since such love "necessarily involves, and is consummated by, sexual intimacy," a like deference regarding intrinsic value should be extended to this latter variation of said intimacy, which assertion will, in turn, satisfy only if one remains unperturbed by the actual and quite manifest difference in outward form these expressions of intimacy take.
To be perfectly clear (I strive for delicacy, but it's not easy), male to male anal intercourse bears only the most superficial resemblance to male to female intercourse, in that a penis penetrates an orifice. The traditionalist holds the former instance to be unnatural and the latter natural, even if the male-female coupling is habitually infertile, since in all its particulars it has (in intention and in form) precisely the same appearance as acts carried out by feritle couples. Except, says the revisionist, that it doesn't. It is only an appearance. Its substance is infertility, and therefore an infertile couple's intercourse more closely parallels that of the homosexual kind since both share this quality.
As confirmation, if any more were needed, he asserts elsewhere that "We have seen that monogamous same-sex unions possess a value equal in kind to that of monogamous infertile unions, and that the norms of marriage make sense for all maximal experiential unions — so there is no reason in principle not to include same-sex along with infertile couples."
Well, I'm afraid that, no, I haven't seen it and cannot see it, for the reason that, even if infertile heterosexual unions are different from the fertile kind, they are still far more different from the grotesque mimicry offered by male anal intercourse, an entirely different kind of act than what heteros do whether fertile or not. It is here that Steorts would probably upbraid me with same charge he levels at Girgis's essay, that it is "of a piece with the judgment that the value of a relationship between two persons in love depends, intrinsically, on the structure of their genitals," and is nothing more than an attempt to reduce Girgis's stance to an absurdity.
Interestingly, Steorts commits one of his own when, in an attempt to demonstrate that he advocates not only for homosexual marriage, but also for the more traditional "maximal experiential unions," and especially for the interests of children, he actually proposes a two-tiered system of marriage with one of those bearing a superiority to the other, and which he introduces as follows:
When a fertile couple have children, they realize an even greater intrinsic value than that of maximal experiential union as such, for they now share experiences with their children as well as sharing with each other the experience of generating and raising children. If one were free to choose to whom one is sexually attracted and with whom one falls in love, one could simply choose the greater value. But these are not choices, and for persons unattracted to the opposite sex, as for infertile persons [italics mine], the greater value is not available. Depths of experiential union, and their corresponding categorical values, are lexically ordered such that any union of two persons who are in love is deeper than that of any two who are not, even if they have reproduced. This is so not just because lack of sexual attraction will undermine and destabilize a union, but more deeply because only in romantic relationships can persons fully and reciprocally share themselves.The second half of that seems to take away what the first half offered, but never mind. All experiential unions, in order to be maximal, require a pledge of fidelity in all things sexual and otherwise, in short, something (I presume) approximating those matters usually enumerated in traditional wedding vows. In the first tier we have all 'maximal experiential unions.' In the second - the superior and more serious tier - we have those that issue in children. (For homosexuals and infertile heteros, these will be either adopted or technologically facilitated.) First tier marriages "will be relatively easy to dissolve, along the lines of no-fault divorce," while the second tier sort will confront more formidable legal obstacles to their dissolution, in the interests of the children, of course. We might even, he ventures, have to "roll back the sexual revolution still further," as if it had ever rolled back at all, and even as his entire enterprise is bent on advancing it.
As I strive (probably unsuccessfully) for delicacy, so would I find a gentle way of conveying just how depraved a view of sex and marriage I think all this is, but I cannot; for I feel deeply that this attempt to draw a perfect moral parallel between the sex acts of homosexuals and those of infertile heterosexuals, is in reality an egregious insult not only to all marriages between men and women who entered into it in the good faith that their love would endure and in the hope that this love would bear fruit in children, but especially to the honored place that women ought to occupy in a scheme of love founded by God Himself. In claiming this moral parity between two categories of sexual relationships afflicted by sterility, Steorts mistakes an accident for an essence, a defect for a norm. For him the sterility of a heterosexual act is its substance, when in fact it is an accident, a defect of nature, and probably a very painful one once discovered by its victims. (In saying 'victims', I do not at all have in mind those couples who intentionally sterilize their intercourse via contraception or any other means.) On the other hand, homosexual acts are sterile by definition. Some fertility problems in heterosexuals are treatable by medication or surgery, while it is a universal quality of all homosexual acts of this kind, from the beginning of time to the end of the world, that they will be afflicted by an uncorrectable absence of fertility. There will be no exceptions.
The reason I think the drawing of this parallel is of particular offense to women is that in yielding to a man (her husband, I would hope), she surrenders as well her whole being to an intrusion by others - first by the man and second by the child that might be conceived - and to her trust in the promises that man made to her. I find the whole endeavor quite sublime, the woman's role at certain stages more heroic than the man's, even should she be found barren, for even then she might long for the child she can never have, praying daily for a miracle. Can any of this be said of homosexual pairings? Certainly a homosexual man might desire a son or daughter, and a lesbian likewise, but with one enormous difference: he cannot desire it by the person with whom he is locked in a simulacrum of carnal embrace. He will have to go outside the relationship for that.
And yet Steorts would have us believe that a barren woman's marital intercourse, sterile by an accident of nature, is of no greater value than that of a homosexual's, barren because it can not be otherwise. For the barren woman we feel sympathy and share her sorrow: "If only it could be otherwise," we say. For the homosexual who bemoans the barrenness of his union, but whose sexual apparatus is in fact fertile, we can say only, "What did you expect?"
Let me ask a question: is a woman any less a woman because she is barren? I think not. We might as well say that limblessness is the human essence of a child born without arms or legs, and yet somehow we never regard him as anything other than fully human. What question would the revisionist ask in response? What is the homosexual parallel? Maybe: "Is a homosexual man or a lesbian woman somehow less a man or woman because each is...?" What, exactly? It quickly becomes clear that the infertility of the heterosexual couple is to be found precisely in a defect of the body, in the very person of one or both, while in the homosexual couple it is to be found in the very nature of the relationship. One defect is bodily, while the other is existential. What is theoretically possible to the former is thoroughly impossible to the latter. In short, that latter relationship, in attempting to realize itself sexually, doesn't even exist.
I have other questions. When Steorts says, "...the revisionist sees no difference of intrinsic value between coitus and the sexual acts of same-sex couples," is he fully aware of the obscene variety of physical machinations to which he is asking us to lend our approval?
When he says, "...any union of two persons who are in love is deeper than that of any two who are not, even if they have reproduced...because lack of sexual attraction will undermine and destabilize a union, but more deeply because only in romantic relationships can persons fully and reciprocally share themselves," he seems to imply that in the absence of sexual attraction or a romantic relationship, love is likewise absent. Some of you who have been married a while may have noticed a diminution of that romantic dizziness and sexual appetite that characterized the earlier years. Are you still in love? Is your love deeper or shallower?
When he says that fertile couples who have children "realize an even greater intrinsic value than that of maximal experiential union as such," what are we to make of couples whose childbearing years are behind them? Must they now return to the first tier of easily dissolved marriages? And is their love as whole and complete as it ever was, or somehow diminished? What about couples (such as the very old) for whom sexual attraction is no longer an attraction at all. Is their union thereby destabilized, and their love likewise diminished and, apparently, devalued because they no longer indulge a maximal experience? Or a couple who marries healthy, but one of whom later is paralyzed in an accident, making sex impossible. Might the romance survive the loss of sex? Great sacrifice will surely be called for on the part of the healthy mate. I imagine that would involve a "maximal experience" of its own, and a sacrifice that can only be made by a love equal to, or greater than, that poured out in any moment of sexual embrace.
As you can see, we are gravitating toward a discussion of the hardest thing in the world to talk about, the spiritual nature of that lovely construct, the "maximal experiential union," and which I suspect is meant to be the lynchpin of Steorts's argument, that thing so sublime that by its presence all manner of sexual whatever might be justified. I don't think it will take very long, but there is only so much time in the day, so it will have to wait for a third installment. A much shorter installment. Sighs of relief will not offend. We'll call it - "All You Need is Love."