In 1996, I was newly independent – living on my own for the first time. While at the time I was in a relationship with someone 90 miles away, I was not married spiritually or legally.
I was changing over my driver’s license, plates, and car insurance. When I called around to find out insurance rates, I was told that my insurance rates would be considerably higher since I was not married.
I thought about all of my friends who were getting married that year and how they were sharing living expenses with their spouses as well as registering for new items for their house and getting better deals on taxes and insurance.
I suppose that may have been the first time I thought about the privilege of marriage and the slights unmarried people face from time to time.
Now, there are privileged states with each part of our lives. I don’t necessarily think that being unmarried is a significant marginalization like being an ethnic, racial, gender, sexual orientation or gender/identity/expression minorities. I am extremely privileged in most ways and do not want to distract people from the serious marginalization that goes on in our communities – from being arrested due to color to being beaten due to religion or sexual orientation.
But from what I’ve seen, heard, and experienced, there is more privilege to being married. It’s an experience that I have never experienced but friends who are aware of their privilege have noted how they now feel more privileged now that they are married.
I suppose that’s why something did not sit well with me when I read Katherine Willis Pershey’s article “Field Notes on Sex and Marriage: Fully naked, fully known” in the September 28, 2016 Christian Century. First of all, I have so much respect for Willis Pershey as a writer, pastor and colleague and have enjoyed her writings. The progressive/Mainline Protestant community is blessed by her talents, and I want to make sure to lift her up for what she gives to her colleagues and those to whom she is ministering. I believe it has taken much courage to write some of the things she has written, and I thank her for her vulnerability.
What challenged me is the article’s tone towards sex before marriage and the lack of another perspective in the publication – maybe a choice by the editors. Now, I think many of us are on the same page when it comes to making sure that everyone is in a healthy situation when becoming intimate. I don’t necessarily think a 14, 15, or 16 year old has the emotional and intellectual development to engage in sex at such an early age. Are they willing to ask the hard questions of their partners before engaging in physical intimacy? Are they willing to get tested for sexually transmitted infections or make the decisions needed when having an unwanted pregnancy?
I suppose the way I picked up on the article’s premarital sex perspective is what many of us have heard over and over again: “Now that I’m married, I’m allowed this extra privilege. You must wait until you are married.”
So add sex to the long list of privileges that married people can enjoy – from discounts to companionship to house furnishings.
Again, I don’t want to place the burden on this one writer. She should not face the blame of the message that has lasted from decade to decade. She was expressing what worked well for her. Unfortunately, to me it seemed as though because it wasn’t good for her, others should live a certain way.
Why I needed to write about this now: single people are tired of hearing what we can and can’t do from another married person, or what we haven’t experienced, or for what we must wait. With a space like the fairly-progressive Christian Century, I was hoping that it was a safer space for single, divorced, widowed, cohabitating people, and anyone who doesn’t fit into a traditional marriage. Because they chose not to have another perspective included in the same issue, it did not feel like a safe space.
We aren’t all ready to marry at 22, or 25, or 30, or even 40. We consistently and ethically evaluate when the right time to get married because we don’t want to marry at the wrong time, or in the wrong situation, or the wrong person. We make the best decisions for us – and they’re not always perfect (no one person’s choices are completely perfect).
Many of us make choices throughout our lives to adhere to what is considered the popular Christian ethic regarding intimacy and others of us don’t. Since shame was the first major thing that divided humans from God, we don’t want to place shame on others so that their relationships with God, neighbor and self is destroyed.
Looking at history, it seems as though people have been restricted from getting married – from slaves in the 19th century to racially diverse couples in the 20th century to LGBT people at the beginning of the 21st century. It seems as though some people want marriage reserved for some and not other – maybe to keep privilege for themselves. And even though some are open to marriage equality for all, they aren’t open to marital status equality for those who aren’t married.
If you are a true friend to single people, are you willing to advocate for equal tax breaks? Are you willing to ensure that their insurance rates aren’t higher? Are you willing to help them find a way to furnish their house instead of waiting for their magical significant other to arrive and wedding registries to become available? Will you stop criticizing and shaming them on their relationship and sexual choices, knowing that not everyone can fit in some pretty marriage box?
I don’t think I can no longer sit silent as both conservative and progressive married people continue to “marriagesplain” us on how we should live our lives. No person of any type of privilege should pigeonhole us and shame us even the slightest into fitting into another’s box no matter who we are on our life journey.
As the church and as faith leaders, please think about how you talk to someone of a different marital status. How do your words encourage them, validate them as full humans, give them a sense of hope? How have your words shamed them in the past, and what can you do differently with the next unmarried person you meet?
More needs to be written from the progressive single perspective as there are plenty of writings by married people telling singles how to live – and usually it’s same perspective: be chaste, save sex until marriage, if you don’t wait, you will be damaged. Yet, single people are authentically wonderful just as they/we are, made in God’s image, and we want to be heard as well.
I hope someday I will have the mindset to read Willis Pershey’s book Very Married as I have heard amazing things about it and want to honor her work. At this point of my life, being very single for 43 years, watching everyone I know and love walk down the aisle to privilege, I don’t think I have enough strength at this moment to do so. It’s just another painful reminder for me that the very single still dwindle in some purgatory until mindsets change or we change to fit into their view of what a complete human looks like.