How Will Same-Sex ‘Marriage’ Change Our Culture?

Texas sociologist Mark Regnerus discusses the potential consequences as the Supreme Court decides two landmark marriage cases.

Lesbian couple march in the San Francisco Pride 2004 demonstration.
Lesbian couple march in the San Francisco Pride 2004 demonstration. (photo: Wikipedia)

Mark Regnerus is an associate professor of sociology at the University of Texas at Austin and a research associate of the university's Population Research Center.

An expert on sexual behavior and family formation, he ignited a furor after his research charting negative outcomes for adult children of parents who have same-sex relationships was published in the July 2012 issue of Social Science Research.

He is the author of Premarital Sex in America and Forbidden Fruit: Sex and Religion in the Lives of American Teenagers.

In late June, as the nation awaited the outcome of two landmark marriage cases before the U.S. Supreme Court, Register senior editor Joan Frawley Desmond asked Regnerus to outline his thoughts about the likely impact of same-sex “marriage” on the nation’s marriage culture.


Not long ago, supporters of same-sex “marriage” asserted that it would have minimal impact on our nation’s marriage culture. Now, some advocates suggest that “gay marriage” will alter a central social institution. What’s going on?

I think there’s some predictable adjustment of expectations as the reality of it all gets closer and closer. It’s certainly not politically expedient for same-sex marriage supporters to suggest that the reality of the institution will change, but nor is it plainly obvious how it might change either.

As we inch closer, I’ve noticed more ease among its supporters in speculating about how it might change, and I’ve done some thinking of my own about the ways in which it may affect the overall institution.

Some opponents of same-sex marriage assert that it will cause a full-scale retreat from marriage by men and women. I doubt that, but it may look like that because I expect marriage rates to continue their slow decline regardless of what happens with same-sex marriage.


Liza Mundy, in her article “The Gay Guide to Wedded Bliss,” published in Atlantic Monthly, argued that the inclusion of same-sex couples in legal marriage would “update” the institution. How would you characterize her message?

It was a fascinating read and surprising in its bluntness. Her primary message is that same-sex marriage may well change the institution for everyone, which has certainly not been a political talking point among advocates. She trumpets more egalitarian decision-making among spouses as the primary “benefit” that will spill over to all, but then spends considerable time correctly describing some less-optimal trends that social scientists have already discerned among same-sex unions, including heightened instability among lesbian relationships and greater toleration of outside sexual partners in gay unions.

I concluded reading the article with an odd sense of surprise that Mundy had named all this and yet could still confidently conclude that the primary influence would be in the form of greater shared norms about fairness.


In your Public Discourse column responding to Mundy’s article, you begin with the observation that changes in our marriage laws may be a “later-stage symptom of the general deinstitutionalization of marriage rather than, as many assert, a cause of it.” Please explain.

Marriage has undergone lots of changes already, including subtle but monumental shifts in its purposes and what people expect from it.

When I think about what has already altered marriage profoundly, I think about the Industrial Revolution and subsequent urbanization — a process whereby children became net consumers rather than producers, and hence it became more attractive to have fewer children. So, between 1800 and 1900, average fertility had already fallen by half, although still well above where it is today. I think about the wide access to still newer technologies — hormonal contraception and its accompanying leap in non-marital sexual behavior, as well as artificial reproduction.

So technology has had a notable influence on altering one of the long-standing purposes of marriage: the bearing and raising of children and, thus, the reproduction of society. Viewed that way, same-sex marriage thus stands in a long line of ideas that have signaled marriage becoming less central to adult life, less about reproduction and, hence, more about sexual expression.

And yet same-sex marriage is different than those other changes, in that it involves a shift not in meaning but in the very structure of the historic marital form — one man and one woman, something that cultural and legal arguments about interracial marriage did not question.


When the U.S. Supreme Court agreed to rule on the constitutionality of the Defense of Marriage Act and Proposition 8, briefs were filed that outlined research findings on same-sex “marriage.” But you state that we are “years away from gathering quality longitudinal, nationally representative data” on such matters. Should we ignore this research?

No, we shouldn’t ignore what exists — and no one has, including me — but we should resist any strong claims that we know without a doubt how same-sex marriage will function or how same-sex parenting has worked because the science is comparatively new.

We can and do know some things, but the ceiling is pretty low on what can be known about such small populations with considerable confidence. Not every interesting and compelling research question has great data that squarely addresses it to the satisfaction of a wide spectrum of social scientists.

I reasoned in a brief that — given the state of social science on this subject — we should yield to caution and avoid making significant legal changes to the institution of marriage.


Social scientists have noted that lesbian couples typically have intense short-lived relationships. Meanwhile, homosexual men are more likely to have an array of partners, even in long-term relationships, and some have adopted the term “monagamish” to describe this permissive ethos. Why is this data relevant to the marriage debate?

We’ve noticed a pattern toward that end in quality data on lesbian relationships from a handful of population-based studies. There’s a bit less information than that on how gay men’s relationships function, but in what exists the data suggests they’re more apt to have additional partners when compared with heterosexual couples.

Given long-standing evidence about men’s lower sexual boundaries in general, that’s not surprising. “Monogamish” is how sex columnist Dan Savage has described it. I’m perfectly willing to admit that monogamy may not come naturally to men. I do, however, think monogamy is functional and good and pays benefits over the long run. It certainly remains the strong preference among women.

This question is relevant to the marriage debate insofar as it suggests that gay men’s unions, both now and in the future, may operate differently than those between the average man and woman. I think it’s reliable to suggest that gay men’s unions will continue to display a greater proclivity toward supplemental sexual partners after same-sex marriage laws are enacted.


You note that women are more likely to support and enforce monogamy than men, but you suggest that the gradual normalization of homosexual practices could weaken the practice of monogamy in some heterosexual marriages but not necessarily all of them. Why?

This is where my argument gets a bit more complicated, but I’m quite confident in its reasoning because of my extensive work mapping “mating market” dynamics among young Americans, which is described at length in my 2011 book Premarital Sex in America: How Young Americans Meet, Mate and Think About Marrying. I talk there about how marriage has become far more optional among women today and about how the pool of marriageable men has shrunk and — together with the wide uptake of contraception in unmarried relationships — has shifted power over the timing of sex and marriage in significant relationships to that smaller pool of marriageable men.

In other words, men are in the driver’s seat in the mating market today, and that means a lot when it comes to sex. Men are slower to commit today not because they have changed but because the mating market has shifted in favor of their interest in greater sexual permissiveness for themselves.

So, if sexual fidelity becomes less central to the meaning of marriage — as should be the case when even “open” gay unions are considered legitimate marriages — then I reason that it’s only a matter of time before that mentality diffuses into the mass of marrying couples, and men assert their interest in marital “monogamish” behavior while women wrestle with what they can accommodate. To be sure, plenty of women will not agree to it, and so the ranks of unmarried women will continue to swell.

Given the pace of “cultural lag,” this will affect future marriages far more than it will alter existing ones. Basically, we’ll witness the diminishing importance of sexual fidelity among marrying couples in the future, not because women wish for that, but because men do.

It’s really not a very bold claim at all. Have you noticed how much popular writing there is today about whether monogamy is important? That should tell you something. It’s an early signal of what’s next.