What Do You Call a Marriage Between a Man and a Woman?

The National Review‘s Kathryn Jean Lopez handwrings over Bill “too busy walking their dogs, going to bathhouses and aborting their kids” Donahue’s latest email blast about the use of the phrase “opposite-sex marriage” by the New York Times.

A Lexis-Nexis search shows this is only the tenth time the New York Times has ever used the term “opposite-sex marriage,” and only the fifth time it appeared in a news story (some columnists and letter writers have employed it). The first time anyone appears to have used this term was in the 1990s: an editorial in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch in 1994; a Yale Law Journal article that same year; an article by Andrew Sullivan in 1996 in the New Republic; and so on. Which raises the question: Is this the start of one more round of corrupting the English language?

Here’s Donahue’s–and K Lo’s–concern:

Here’s how it will play out in the classroom: kindergartners will be told that some adults choose same-sex marriage and some choose opposite-sex marriage. There is no moral difference—it’s just a matter of different strokes for different folks. Not mentioned, of course, will be that some male-on-male sex practices are dangerous. Nor will it be pointed out that only so-called opposite-sex marriages are capable of reproducing the human race. In other words, the kids will be lied to about what nature ordains.

Boilerplate, red-meat stuff.

But here’s the larger question: what should we call a marriage between a man and a woman? If we call a marriage between two men or two women a “same-sex marriage,” then why not call a marriage between a man and a woman an “opposite-sex marriage”?

The dilemma for journalists is that you have to differentiate between the two types of marriage when discussion political challenges or advocacy.  Can you really have “marriage” on one hand, and “same-sex marriage” on the other when you are making comparisons?

For awhile, it seemed “traditional marriage” was the preferred comparison, but there are even bigger problems there.  “Traditional marriage” is now a political slogan, used by opponents of same-sex marriage as a piece of rhetoric.  So no journalist should really be using the term “traditional marriage” unless it is a direct quote from an activist.

So where does that leave journalists asked to tell stories where both kinds of marriage are being discussed?  Suggestions?

5 Responses

  1. Heteronormative marriage.

  2. Unequal marriage or discriminatory marriage (as contrasted with equal marriage). Same-sex marriage as a term is already problematic, since “sex” itself isn’t always clear – . Marriage by itself includes marriages of queer people, so that’s galling to hear at best. And you’re right, “traditional marriage” is essentially a slogan – and thus politically charged. However, all of these terms are politically charged – “traditional marriage” is what right-wingers actually say, “marriage” by itself reinforces a heteronormative paradigm (especially when contrasted with “same-sex marriage), as does “opposite sex marriage.” Any term that doesn’t reflect queerness in some way (without othering queer people) is inadequate and itself poltiically charged against queer people. There is no objective term. Consequently, I suggest that we look for a queer term as the solution to this problem. And probably the best idea so far would be to second heteronormative marriage (or just call it hetero marriage, as opposed to queer marriage).

  3. I don’t see the problem with using “opposite sex marriage” and “same sex marriage”. The writer never gave an argument against this, or did I miss it?

  4. The problem with the term “heteronormative marriage” is that it implies the same kind of political charge as “traditional marriage”–aka, the idea that anyone who participates in such a marriage is automatically promoting or even just tacitly accepting same-sex marriage’s “superiority”. Hetero marriage vs queer marriage seems like the better distinction to me for the moment because it’s not loaded with potentially false implications.

    Hopefully one day we can just move on to the point where, regardless of who it involves, it’s does become simply “marriage”–or some other term that doesn’t force the creation of false divisions.

  5. can we call it as intermarriage?

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