A critique of Ryan Anderson

Zack Ford critiques Ryan T. Anderson:

Inherent in his definition of marriage is a concept Anderson refers to at times as the “comprehensive act,” his euphemism for when a man inserts his penis into a woman’s vagina and releases sperm to fertilize her egg…. Countless caveats are also required for Anderson to make this argument work. As for infertile couples, he claims, “It is the procreative nature of marriage” — whatever that means — “rather than the actual procreative results of individual marriages that explains government policy in this area.”

1.) The quotation Ford cites both changes the topic and belies the point he is trying to make. The “government policy” Anderson is speaking about is clearly the law, and just as we can’t write a law for each person in atomo, we can’t write laws for each married couple in atomo. We write laws based on the sort of thing that falls under the law, and all Anderson has to mean by “nature” in the quotation is “sort of thing”. Leaving aside the question whether marriage is in fact procreative, which Anderson is not trying to prove in the quotation, the statement he is making is as obvious as the claim that we don’t write one marriage law for Billy, another for Socrates, another for Sue, ad infinitum.

2.) Minimally, all “marriage is a procreative sort of thing” means is that we have a reasonable expectation of procreation following marriage, as most people do. That’s why the “first comes love, then comes marriage…etc.” kid’s rhyme makes sense in a way that that other kids rhymes don’t (“and the dish ran away with the spoon”). We might not expect kids to follow from the marriage of Frankie and Johnny, but Anderson wasn’t speaking about individual cases.

3.) Marriage is procreative because sex is. Ford would certainly balk at this claim, but his attempt to explain himself again belies his “whatever that means” dismissal of Anderson’s claim:

Anderson knows very little about sex, why anybody has it, how anybody has it, or just how deep, intimate, and meaningful it can be for any couple regardless of their chance of fertilizing an egg and regardless of their gender pairing.

And what if Frankie and Johnny have sex with neither of them finding it deep, intimate and meaningful? Whatever else you want to say about them, it would be ridiculous to take this as evidence against the claim that sex is a deep, intimate, and meaningful sort of thing.* But then why cite non-procreative sex as evidence against sex being a procreative sort of thing?

While the phrase “act of a procreative character” or some equivalent is crucial to most broadly traditional sexual ethics, no description of sex can avoid talking about it as “an act of _____ character”. Not every sex act ends in reproduction, or orgasm, or increased love or unity, but it would be nonsense to take these cases as showing that sex was, say, just as ordered to not having an orgasm as to having one.

4.) There are any number of ways to recognize that sex is procreative without conceding Anderson’s moral conclusions about homosexuality, birth control, gay marriage, etc. But Anderson’s arguments are actually simpler and more radical than Ford seems to recognize. Anderson, following George, is arguing that those incapable of acts of a procreative character can’t get married because they can’t have sex.** We can obviously speak of “gay sex” or “contraceptive sex” or “marital sex” but the adjective doesn’t have the same relation to the noun in all these cases. One can speak of a gas engine, a steam engine, and a half-finished engine, but this doesn’t give us three sorts of engines. Sometimes modifying a noun indicates or requires its absence. 

5.) I’ll concede that there is a difference between biological and moral/ social questions, but trying to get this to do work in sexual ethics frequently sounds very strange. The social and biological dimensions of, say, eating are clearly different, but the full biological dimension is integral to the social considerations. One could spit out his whiskey after tasting it (as the guys at the distillery do) but you couldn’t share a drink in that way, or have dinner by following the analogous practice. Whatever the guy at the distillery is doing, it’s not drinking; and for analogous reasons whatever bulimics are doing isn’t eating. If you wanted to have a dinner party, you’re actually logically unable to invite bulimics, and there would be something ridiculous or cruel in doing so. Anderson’s arguments, which apply equally well to gay marriage or contraceptive marriage of forced marriage, are comparable to this.


*What I mean is that we take the sex itself as giving rise to the resulting intimacy, even if in some cases this doesn’t arise.

**Obviously, Ford would take this claim as beneath refutation or as the ultimate modus tollens. If this site had a following of even a modest size, I’d be swamped with troll comments and pictures with taglines like “Look! I’m not having sex!” For all that, small things in the beginning can grow large by the end – and if Anderson were to admit that the sorts of sex he critiques were divisions of a genus he’ll have to admit them as integral, whole, and morally proper species of a human act.


  1. July 29, 2015 at 3:56 pm

    Very impressive analysis. Thank you for sharing it.

  2. thenyssan said,

    July 30, 2015 at 6:46 am

    #4 (“they can’t have sex”) is a fascinating problem. I am torn between thinking it’s an overreach and thinking it’s a perfect diagnosis. There’s definitely something odd (for me at least, a product of this age) in saying that none of the things Aquinas lists as parts of lust are sex acts. If the George approach is right, it gets hard to see how, say, masturbation is a defective sex act. To steal a Tarantino line, it ain’t even the same sport.

    My best explanation for my own confusion here is that I (we the decadent) think of sex acts as something I do by myself. Any other is accidental to the thing. Trying to define the act from a “we” starting point just doesn’t feel right. That’s pretty perverse.

    • July 30, 2015 at 10:25 am

      I wanted 5 to be a fresh approach to 4 – the idea is that the division we make between sex and gender is odd, and I think ultimately untenable (though I’m impressed with some of the defenses I’ve read). The difference between sex and gender is clear, but it is the same sort of difference one can observe between eating as a biological and animal act (call it “feeding”) and eating as a distinctively human social act (call it “having a meal”). To be sure, there is a florid and infinitely diverse set of practices for having a meal, but it would be extremely odd to have any of them defined apart from the demands of feeding. But it’s just this sort of extremely odd division one has to make in order to avoid the sort of argument Anderson and George are giving. We need an idea of gender (or sexuality) that is independent from sexual reproduction, or into which the latter is only a contingent element. We could say that the biological urge is to love or pair bonding, but this would make for strange descriptions of the biological world (are sea sponges “pair bonding” in a way that isn’t just “reproduction”?)

      That said, the analogies between eating and sex don’t line up point for point, and in higher animals pair bonding and a variety of social ties do become essential to the members of the society. At this point I think Anderson has to say that human beings have a moral imperative to a complete integration of all the dimensions of their nature, even if it is the case that other species of animal who engage in other sorts of practice carry no such demand. At this point, what traditionally got called marriage is an attempt to integrate human animality in both its social and sub-social orders, while other sorts of life (traditionally, the virginal or celibate life) are ways of trying to transcend animality altogether (“in the life to come, they are neither married nor given in marriage but live as angels in heaven”). Taken in this way, the gay movement (and perhaps the whole Sexual revolution) is either striving for or parodying movements like the monasticism of both Christian and Eastern religion or the vestal virgin cult of Rome, which wanted a transcendence of human animality. If this is right, logic demands that it come to see it self as a higher, purer form of life (as it was among the Greeks, though for different reasons than we would give) and that “equality” can only be a transitional stage to superiority. Brandon’s comment above suggests that queer theoriest are seeing queerness in this way, and for similar reasons Saint Paul would give (a straight person is drawn down by the needs of her husband, but the queer person…).

  3. July 30, 2015 at 8:26 am

    It’s ironic that so many defenders of gay marriage have such difficulty with the notion of marriage as procreative when actual queer theorists tend not to do so. Judith Halberstam has a widely quoted article in which she describes being queer as distinctively “the potentiality of a life unscripted by the conventions of family, inheritance, and child rearing” and as involving futures that “lie outside of those paradigmatic markers of life experience-namely, birth, marriage, reproduction, and death”. Notice that it’s not merely not happening to have these things but not having a life that is ‘scripted’ by these things. And Susan Ahmed in her article “Queer Phenomenology” puts the matter in terms of horizontal and vertical lines in a genealogy: a family tree is structured by horizontal lines that can have vertical lines; straight relationships are those that could be given such horizontal lines. And it doesn’t actually matter whether there is something that causes this particular horizontal line not to have a vertical line: it’s still the case that marking down the horizontal line raises the possibility of the vertical line. There are lots of other examples. It’s why so many queer theorists are so ambivalent or even outright opposed to gay marriage: it operates in their view under the fiction that homosexual relationships are just heterosexual relationships with different decoration, and involves the insistence that queer sexual relationships are just the same old horizontal lines and that queer lifestyles have really been scripted by the “paradigmatic markers” and “conventions” of family, inheritance, and child rearing all along.

    • July 30, 2015 at 9:59 am

      I was deeply impressed with Roger Lancaster’s The Trouble with Nature as well, which continues Foucault’s line of thought that any rigid designation of sexual activity is contrary to what one finds from simply observing how people act, whether in different places or at different times. He doesn’t deal with the obvious hard questions (if there’s no nature to be violated, what about pedophilia or rape? If sex isn’t a sort of thing, how do we even identify it or figure out the word for it in other languages or know when remote tribes are engaging in it?) But he’s definitely a critic of the idea that queer has some sort of essence that cries out for the fulfillment of within an equally rigid essence of state-defined stability, monogamy, and focus on children. I was thinking about Lancaster’s objections in (3) above, but I went ahead and wrote it without mentioning him anyway since, as convincing as he is, it’s simply another Nominalism.

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