Marriage as Punishment
By: Melissa Murray
Popular discourse portrays marriage as a source of innumerable public and private benefits: happiness, companionship, financial security, and even good health. Complementing this view, our legal discourse frames the right to marry as a right of access, the exercise of which is an act of autonomy and free will. However, a closer look at marriage’s past reveals a more complicated portrait. Marriage has been used—and, importantly, continues to be used—as state-imposed sexual discipline.
Until the mid-twentieth century, marriage played an important role in the crime of seduction. Enacted in a majority of U.S. jurisdictions in the nineteenth century, seduction statutes punished those who “seduced and had sexual intercourse with an unmarried female of previously chaste character” under a “promise of marriage.” Seduction statutes routinely prescribed a bar to prosecution for the offense: marriage. The defendant could simply marry the victim and avoid liability for the crime. However, marriage did more than serve as a bar to prosecution. It also was understood as a punishment for the crime. Just as incarceration promoted the internalization of discipline and reform of the inmate, marriage’s attendant legal and social obligations imposed upon defendant and victim a new disciplined identity, transforming them from sexual outlaws into in-laws.
The history of marriage as punishment offers important insights for contemporary discussions of marriage. It reveals the way in which our current discourses of marriage are naïve and incomplete, emphasizing marriage’s many attributes while downplaying its role as a vehicle of state-imposed sexual discipline. In view of this history, our contemporary jurisprudence on the right to marry can be reread to reveal the disciplinary strains that continue to undergird marriage and the right to marry. Most importantly, this history reveals that state regulation of sex and sexuality has been a totalizing endeavor, relying on marriage and criminal law as two essential domains for disciplining and regulating sexuality.
With this in mind, the recent struggle for marriage equality seems unduly narrow. While achieving marriage equality is important, this history underscores an equally important interest in defining and preserving spaces for sexual liberty that exist beyond the disciplining domains of the state.
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