Friday, November 21, 2008

Social institutionalization of heteronormative families

By LindaBeth

In sociology, one of the things we investigate is how the social forms we take as given are actually particular socio-cultural, historical forms. Another aspect of sociological analysis is how ideologies guide the shape of our social institutions, as well as the way our identities are formed, as particularly races, sexed, gendered, and as people of particular sexual identities. One thing I encounter in teaching introductory sociology is how we often assume that the way our society is set up is the only option--or that it is the necessarily best option. I think part of this comes from American arrogance that "we" do everything right and we do it the best--the whole "envy of the world" bit. No more do I see this than in talking about the family.

"Families come in many forms." Yes, this is what we say, but does this hold true in terms of our institutions, representations, and social supports? There is a difference between merely accepting diversity and supporting a diversity of families. The latter sees families as a system of supports that can take several forms, conferring legitimacy to many types of families and accounting for those valid and differentiated families when creating or reforming social policy; the former sees one type of family as ideal, and that there are others that exist, but their existence stems from an individual flaw (being pregnant-while-unmarried, divorce, cohabitation), and that no one really wants to have or should be encouraged to have "those" kind of families.

I also talk a lot about how dominant identities and exclusionary thought become institutionalized in our society--ie institutionalized racism sexism, and heterosexism. The idea behind something being "institutionalized" is that these -ism ideologies are carried out even if no one actively is discriminating, or hating, or believing the ideologies; such institutionalization also means that our society compels particular (appropriate) behaviors by making some practices and identities more valid and viable than others. This happens by the way our society and its institutions are structured, taking a particular group or way of thought as the norm (privileging marriage, and excluding homosexuals from it), or by building damaging assumptions about particular groups into our social practices (i.e. racial profiling).

Our society is marriage-centric, and as marriage is becoming less the rule while remaining the expectation, our society continues to be couple-centric (see the blog Onely for an excellent anti-heteronormative perspective on life). The heterosexual married couple continues to be the assumed, ideal family, and any option types of families and they are responsible for dealing with the consequences of their non-normative family. We may individually define our families in particular ways, but they are not socially or legally recognized as such.

I've been kind of vague so far, but I'm setting this up to propose a list I have been thinking about of how our society might be organized differently if single parent families, rather than two parent ones were the assumption for adults. In other words, we would assume that all adults, with or without kids, work; adults working would be the "norm" and adults being expected to fill traditional gender roles would not be.

  • we'd have universal daycare or graduated tax credits for daycare expenses, since we would never assume that an adult should stop working to care for their kids, thereby ceasing earning an income.
  • we wouldn't give a tax break to married couples for their spousal dependent, a dependent who provides for the family the advantage of unpaid labor and/or childcare that single-adult families still have to do by either paying for it or by provide for themselves. (i.e. currently, a two-parent family and a single family each earn the same income. The two parent family pays less in taxes than the single parent family does--via having an extra dependent to deduct--and has the benefit of not having to pay for child care, which the single-parent family not only pays more in taxes but also has to pay a pretty penny for child care so that they can work at all.)
  • spouses wouldn't be able to take advantage of their partner's health care.
  • your sexual relationship to the person with whom you'd like to adopt a child would be irrelevant.
  • we'd have the same per capita work hours requirement to receive welfare services.
  • we'd offer tax deductions for rent, not just for mortgages*
I know there are more, but these have been on my mind.

I think it's clear, but some might wonder what's wrong with having a family norm and with having people take responsibility for having kids only when "they can afford to", with both time and money considerations. Why shouldn't they have to "pay the price" for choosing to be a single parent, or for "parenting-while-poor"? The idea of having universal child care seems at first to giving some people a hand-out--an undue advantage over others; but the fact that we don't have it means that in our society, we expect that certain adults should work and certain ones shouldn't, and by not accounting for the necessity of child care, we are privileging those families who have an at-home parent. The fact that single parents are supposed to suffer for their choice while two-parent families are benefitted by theirs demonstrates that our approach to social policies and structure privileges only one form of family.

See, it's all a matter of perspective. When you take what works for one type of individual or family and generalize it to what should work for everyone else by having all your social systems and institutions operate as if that was how everyone lived, you institutionalize "family" as being about marriage and heterosexuality; the possibility of setting up family that has nothing to do with sex or sexuality at all is an option that is beyond the realm of thought. Lisa Duggan argued several years ago in The Nation that only when civic (marital) status is detached from rights and benefits can we free choice of family form and conceive of families that work outside the logic of heteronormative, gender-role-based families.

From Duggan's article "Holy Matrimony":

The right wing's fear of a "slippery slope" suggests some ways that this eclectic array of statuses might move us in a progressive direction. Kurtz himself, citing Brigham Young University professor Alan Hawkins, sketches out what is to him a distasteful scenario:
Consider the plight of an underemployed and uninsured single mother in her early 30s who sees little real prospect of marriage (to a man) in her future. Suppose she has a good friend, also female and heterosexual, who is single and childless but employed with good spousal benefits. Sooner or later, friends like this are going to start contracting same-sex marriages of convenience. The single mom will get medical and governmental benefits, will share her friend's paycheck, and will gain an additional caretaker for the kids besides. Her friend will gain companionship and a family life. The marriage would obviously be sexually open. And if lightning struck and the right man came along for one of the women, they could always divorce and marry heterosexually.

In a narrow sense, the women and children in this arrangement would be better off. Yet the larger effects of such unions on the institution of marriage would be devastating. At a stroke, marriage would be severed not only from the complementarity of the sexes but also from its connection to romance and sexual exclusivity--and even from the hope of permanence.

Gee. Sounds good. Then consider how such arrangements might benefit women, children and others even more substantially. What if there were a way to separate the tax advantages of joint household recognition, or the responsibilities of joint parenting, from the next-of-kin recognition so that such rights might go to a non-co-resident relative, a friend or a lover? And what if many benefits, such as health insurance, could be available to all without regard for household or partnership status? The moral conservative's nightmare vision of a flexible menu of options might become a route to progressive equality! That could happen--if all statuses could be opened to all without exclusions, allowing different kinds of households to fit state benefits to their changing needs; if no status conferred any invidious privilege or advantage over any other, or over none at all; and if material benefits such as health insurance were detached from partnership or household form altogether (federally guaranteed universal healthcare, for instance, would be far more democratic and egalitarian than health insurance as a partnership benefit). Meanwhile, the "sanctity" of traditional marriages could be retained and honored by religious groups and families, according to their own values and definitions.

Indeed, perhaps the state can get out of the business of policing our sexual and gender norms by defining civic status as adults who register various economic dependencies, with indifference to sexuality and gender!

In one way, we are an individualistic society, in that we are atomistic--more guided by self-interest and what's "fair" to me than in the great good, as well as expecting the nuclear family to bear the burden of being responsible for all aspects of adult life and relationships. In another sense, we are not individualistic, because so many aspects of society assume an ideal family form that is supposed to replace the individual upon becoming an adult. It seems to me that as a society, we'd be better off supporting individuals and their decisions about the way they want to fashion their life commitments and relationships (sexual or otherwise), rather than catering to one specific template, and then blaming non-traditional families for their struggles that is actually created by their lack of support in our marriage-centric society.

One thing that I liked about Obama is that he seemed to understand the effect of our institutions and social organization on the degree to which individuals are able to be "successful" or to make desired choices. As we begin thinking about our social policies and why they are the way they are, one important question to ask ourself is "whose interests does this policy/this way of doing things serve?" One thing I can say is that universal health care would go a long way toward opening up the possibilities for life arrangements.

*I realize many single people own homes, but my educated guess is that singles and childless couples, not to mention lower class people, disproportionately rent as opposed to owning. I also realize that this tax break has just as much, if not more, to do with post-WWII economy-boosting housing initiatives, and the "American Dream".

(Cross-posted to Speak Truth to Power)

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