What is marriage, and what are its major functions?
In many cultures, marriage is a cultural method of regulating sex and reproduction. While not all married couples have sex and reproduce and not all reproducing couples are married, there is a strong correlation between marriage and reproduction. While marriage is universal, cultures have various characteristics and components of marriage.
One identifier of marriage is a wedding. Cultures may recognized weddings as the rite of passage from being unmarried to married. Weddings typically require witnesses, and often invite the supernatural to bear witness as well. While weddings are obvious markers of marriage in cultures such as our own, other cultures recognize marriage through a process rather than an event.
Another identifier of marriage is the creation of sexual priority or limiting sexual access. Because around 50% of cultures allow extramarital sex in some form, this cannot be used as a defining feature of marriage. Marriage as a sexual prerequisite is also purely cultural – many cultures allow premarital sex, so sexual access is only a trait of marriage in some cultures.
Economic responsibilities were likely the original cause of marriage due to the helplessness of human infants, which created the necessity of couples and division of labor into men’s and women’s work. Marriage could strengthen the bond of the couple, helping create more successful offspring. This is no longer a human universal, however. In many cultures, homes include extended families, and it is often the mother’s brother who raises her children, not the child’s father.
Marriage is also used to socialize children. Similar to the economic responsibilities role of marriage, parents share the responsibility of raising their child to be part of the society. Marriage bonds the parents together, allowing an easier socialization process. In some cultures, all adults share parenthood responsibilities, eliminating the need for marriage to socialize children. Some cultures put responsibility on the grandparents or on professionals, such as teachers.
The birth of legitimate children is also a function of marriage, although not definitional for marriage. In cultures that value the afterlife and sacrifices made to ancestors, marriage creates legitimate children who then help create a good afterlife for the parents. Even if the child is not biologically related to the father, marriage creates a legitimate lineage to benefit him in his afterlife, as the child will make sacrifices to honor him.
Likely the most important role marriage serves is the creation of alliances. Marrying for alliance creates the guarantee of help when it is needed. This function of marriage is so important in some cultures that parents take control of picking partners for their children through arranged marriages. Because the safety and continuation of a family may depend on the alliances created, parents may want to make sure the alliances being made are beneficial. This is the reason behind bridewealth and brideprice – as money and resources are brought into marriages and alliance building, alliances will be stronger and more carefully chosen.
Why does the average age at marriage vary between the sexes and among cultures?
Men typically marry around the ages of 18-21 while females typically marry around the ages of 12-17. The differences between the sexes in marriage age is largely because of what is expected in a marriage. Females are expected to reproduce. Because this is their primary purpose, females can be married as soon as they can start having children, at menarche. Early marriage allows the longest reproductive life cycle for females. Males are expected to bring more into a marriage than just sexual maturity. Because of this, additional time is needed for males to learn skills before marriage. Males are expected to be able to provide for the females and children, so a male that cannot hunt or bring in resources is not a good partner for marriage, regardless of sexual maturity.
The age of social maturity is more important than the age of sexual maturity in determining marriage age. Even within the same culture, the age of maturity may vary depending on an individual’s goals. In the United States, a person may reach social maturity at 18 if high school graduation is a major goal. For others, social maturity may not occur until after graduating from college. Other cultures define social maturity for females at menarche because of what role they are meant to play, so the age of biological maturity and social maturity are the same.
Cultural levels of attraction also dictate when people get married. Women are considered to be at their most beautiful when they are at the typical age of marriage. Females are typically younger than their husbands, playing into cultural power dynamics, as well. Females marry males that are older, richer, more educated, and wealthier. In doing so, females can help ensure that they are provided for by their partner. Males marrying young, in exchange, receive a greater lifespan of sexual reproductivity and beauty in their partner.
What factors make divorce easy or difficult?
Most cultures have ways to leave a marriage – only 17% do not allow divorce at all. The easy or difficulty of divorce can be based on a multitude of factors. These factors may include economic wealth and children.
In cultures such as hunter gatherer cultures where all of the resources are shared, divorce can be very easy. In these cultures, marriage often has a trial period, and if the husband is determined to be a poor fit, the couple can be divorced easily. There is no economic responsibility to the wife or to any children they share because of the sharing of resources among the community.
In other cultures, economics make divorce impossible. In societies with bridewealth and brideprice, the money involved in the marriage ensures the couple will perform their expected roles. Because the wife’s family is paid by the husband and his family, the families pressure the couple to stay together. If the husband does not perform his duties, the wife can leave and the money does not have to be repaid to the husband’s family. This prevents the husband from marrying again, as his family will not help pay for another wife. If the wife does not perform her duties, his family may demand the brideprice be returned. The wife’s family likely used the wealth to pay off another debt, so the family pressures the marriage to succeed.
Most cultures make divorce hard, and this is often because of children. In patrilineal societies, children belong to the father. If the mother wants to leave the marriage, she would also have to leave her children. Her options are either leave her children or wait until her children are old enough to provide for themselves. While she stays, she also risks pregnancy, leading to more dependent children, until menopause. This effectively traps her in a marriage at the risk of losing her children.
How do cultures take control of birth, which is essentially a natural, and not a cultural process?
Culture dictates every aspect of birth. Cultural rules exist dictating where birth should occur and who should be present. Only 2% of cultures promote giving birth wherever a woman happens to be. 21% promote giving birth at home, and the other 77% promote giving birth in a special place. This may be in a hospital, a special birthing room, or even the menstrual house.
Culture dictates who gets to be present during birth. Because of the positioning of the baby at birth, the mother often needs help giving birth. Most cultures limit the birthing audience to only women, but a few do allow the husband to be present. In some cultures, the husband’s job is to make a scene in the center of the village to help distract evil spirits away from the birth process. In American culture, the birth process has become industrialized to favor profits over the health, safety, and comfort of the mother.
The cultural rituals of American birthing creates unnecessary stress. Women are put in special places, denied their ordinary clothes, and forced into behavioral expectations. When a woman’s water breaks, she is immediately placed on a timeline regulating her birthing process, rather than letting nature run its course. This is an additional source of stress, in addition to being attached to machines and largely ignored by medical staff in favor of medical monitors.
The medicalization of childbirth has even lead to harmful birthing practices in American hospitals. The typical birthing position in America is on a woman’s back. This pinches the blood supply, cutting off oxygen to the uterus and making labor pains worse. The baby also has to traverse more curves and travel against gravity to be born, extending the amount of time the woman spends giving birth and heightening the pain. The medicalization of childbirth in America is an example of applying cultural norms to a biological process.
What were the health consequences of attitudes towards sex and the body in the 19th century in the United States?
The 1800s presented an emphasis on sexual repression in America. As people moved from farms to cities, men competed for jobs as women stayed home. This competition among men was accompanied by the idea of a finite amount of energy within the human body. Energy was either allocated to the brain or to the body. Sex was, therefore, a waste of energy that could have been used for strength or knowledge.
Women were expected to aid husbands in conserving energy because women were believed to have no sexual appetite. Sex was not expected to be fun. Women who enjoyed sex were often scared and would even turn to operations to limit sexual pleasure.
Because of the asexual expectations of women, men often visited prostitutes, which led to the spread of diseases. Gonorrhea was rampant, and there were no antibiotics at the time. While the body eventually rids itself of gonorrhea, but the scarring is causes is permanent.
In addition to the regulation of sex leading to diseases, a lack of knowledge about the human body led to sanitary developments. Corpses were studied and found to have colons full of feces. Feces were deemed toxic, and efforts were made to keep people away from fecal waste. This led to the development of underground sewage.
The lack of knowledge of the female body led to the medicalization of childbirth, and increased death rates among infants and laboring mothers. Men began taking childbirth away from midwives, but sanitation standards were low. Doctors would treat a sick patient and then deliver a child. During childbirth, the woman was knocked out because there was no way for the women to give birth with dignity. Being unable to participate in the labor, the woman would be left with tears. This would leave her confined to the home, as she would be leaking urine and fecal matter without public restrooms at her disposal.