Marriage, Adultery and Homosexuality
In a patriarchal, patrilineal system, marriage is the means by which men are compelled to take care of the financial needs of women and of the children that they have with these women.
There are different limitations on men and women in marriage according to the Qur'an. Men can have four wives, but each woman can have only one husband at a time. This is because of how pregnancy works. If a man makes a woman pregnant, even if he is also sleeping with another woman as well, there can be no question that the child might belong to the other woman. But if a woman becomes pregnant while sleeping with more than one man, there is some room for doubt about the identity of the father.
If a man and a woman agree to have children together, the man guaranteeing the financial support and the woman bearing and raising the children, then the man is justifiably interested in having all the children that she bears be his, for as long as he holds this financial responsibility. This is why a woman cannot have two husbands at the same time.
On the other hand, the woman is justifiably interested that the man should not overextend himself financially by taking too many wives. This is why in Islam a man can have no more than four wives and must treat them all equally in terms of financial support. If he does not have enough wealth to maintain four wives and their children in a reasonable (and equal) state of comfort, then he must limit himself to whatever number he can afford.
The limitation to four wives also ensures that in a particular community one wealthy man or small group of wealthy men does not monopolize the women, but rather every man has a reasonable shot at finding a wife.
But since males and females are born in approximately equal numbers,
with females only slightly outnumbering males, the provision that a man
can have four wives means that some men will not have wives - perhaps because
they are too poor, perhaps because no women want them, perhaps because
they are dead (killed in battle, etc.) or perhaps because they do not desire
Because of how pregnancy works, the adulteration of a child's heritage is only possible if the woman has sex with a man other than her husband, but not when a man has sex with another woman. This is the reason for the traditional greater toleration of male infidelity versus female infidelity even under Christian monogamy.
But all is not lost for women. For one thing, a woman does not have to get married, if she plans not to have any children, or if she has the money to raise her own children. Of course, if she has children that have no father, that causes a social problem for the children, and if she is unable to pay the expenses of the children, that causes a social problem for the community. So in general, the expectation of society is that women will not have children without a binding contract with the father to care for the children.
But still all is not lost. Because if a woman wants out of a marriage, she can get a divorce. As long as she waits three months before remarrying, there will be no question about the paternity of any of her children. If she wants to break the marriage contract with her husband for no fault of his, she forfeits her dowry.
These rules exist to protect wives, husbands, and children. If they seem unfair to us in the modern world, it is because of the new expectations we have about marriage. The romantic notion of two people in love vowing to spend their lives in eternal embrace sounds great on valentines, but has always been quite rare in reality, and many people in fact make their lives and the lives of others miserable trying to pursue it.
Marriage is a legal arrangement for conceiving and raising children in an orderly fashion. Under medieval Christian laws, even heterosexual marriage was invalid if there was no possibility of having children, because marriage is not supposed to be about love - it's about pregnancy.
When correctly understood, the traditional rules about marriage are not oppressive. They only become oppressive when we demand that people must be in love with their spouses and only with their spouses. It is the rare occasion that one falls in love with one person and stays in love with that same person one's entire life, while never falling in love with any one else. It does happen and we congratulate those who experience that. What is more common, though, and more reasonable as an expectation, is that two people feel kindly toward one another their whole lives.
What often happens, too, is that two people fall out of love with one another and are disappointed and angry at themselves and their partner. Their expectations of one another were too high. They should not have looked to their marriage partner to fulfill their desire for romance. There are and always have been other arrangements for that.
In today's hetero-normative world, such other arrangements are flings, or affairs. That is essentially legalized adultery. In ancient times, when adultery might have been punishable by death or would have provided an excuse for murder committed by the injured husband, adultery still took place, but there were also other arrangements for romance.
A woman might have a very intense friendship with another woman that might or might not include sexual contact. There would be intimacy, holding, touching, kissing, deep conversation between women.
Likewise, men might have the same type of relationship with other men, although any sexual penetration that occurred would have to be kept tightly secret, because it was forbidden. A certain amount of secrecy might also be required for sex with beardless boys and female prostitutes. On the other hand, though, sex with slaves of either sex and with eunuchs was fully permitted.
So a man could have children with a wife, love for a friend, romance with a boy or mistress, and sex with a eunuch. Meanwhile, women could have children with a husband, and love, romance, or sex with another female friend.
Today with the prevalence of the norm of heterosexuality, the former ordinariness of homosexuality is unfamiliar to us. Today people have been conditioned to believe homosexuality is abnormal and deviant, so they seek to satisfy their need for sex and romance only with opposite sex partners. This has become possible because modern contraceptives are freely available to remove the risk of pregnancy previously associated with heterosexuality. Moreover, punishments for adultery have been repealed in most hetero-normative societies, because, knowing that many people are going to enjoy some outlet outside of marriage, the opinion-makers have decided to tolerate adultery rather than encourage homosexuality. Adultery is easier to police and restrict, because the marriage partners will take it upon themselves to make sure that their counterparts are not having more fulfilled sex lives than they themselves are!
Whether society is better off tolerating adultery or homosexuality now is not the point. The point is that for most of human existence until quite recently, homosexuality was always tolerated, within certain limits, and that, at least within those limits, it was never considered against religion.
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