June 10, 2008
Times article on gender, marriage and same-sex couples
The New York Times reported an interesting study on the relationships of married (heterosexual) and same-sex couples.
Same-sex relationships, whether between men or women, were far more egalitarian than heterosexual ones. In heterosexual couples, women did far more of the housework; men were more likely to have the financial responsibility […] With same-sex couples, of course, none of these dichotomies were possible, and the partners tended to share the burdens far more equally.
While generalizations couldn’t be made by sex, I would be interested to see if husband and wife “types” emerge in same-sex relationships, along lines of economic providing/dependency and domestic work–especially when children are involved in the relationship. Economic necessities of families–and the government and social restrictions on how these are met–don’t go away just because the sex of the partners changes. Economic roles in families are indeed gendered, and are organized along sex-based gender role expectations. But this isn’t to say that the structuring effect of the heteronormative traditional family won’t in any way also structure same-sex marriages.
I’d be interested in reading the study itself, because, notably, the above quote was the only comment made about income and domestic work…and it was with reference to heterosexual couples only. There was nothing reported in the Times about the of division of labor and employment in same-sex couples, and nothing about how things change when children are involved. Some studies have shown that egalitarianism in heterosexual couples tends to go out the window once children are born. The article was really more about conflict resolution and less about economic relations in the family, which I think misses a very important aspect of family constitution.
Marriage is so complex, and its regulatory and disciplinary functions come not just from the sex of the individuals involved, but are present in the very expectations for how life is organized in this country. I don’t think the sex of the partners itself or about the way we as individuals think about gender are solely what accounts for relational inequalities, although they are indeed part of it.
The social expectations of ‘family’ is a huge issue: that ‘care’ is privatized, domestic work is expected to be done without compensation: that is is done nearly invisibly social security-wise, disability-wise, health care-wise, etc. shows that as a society, we do not recognize that domestic work, child care, and elder care constitute any kind of economic (and thus civic) contribution–or that they only do by way of one’s spouse. No national health care means that dual-part-time work is all but impossible, which significantly restricts the viability of options for organizing our personal lives. These factors are not circumvented by the sex of the partners.
This isn’t of course to imply that ‘economics’ exists as a factor all by itself. Family economics and the production of gender happen in and through each other. Several studies I’ve read for my thesis revealed that income parity or even women earning more than men (when both partners are full-time workers) gives women some relief in housework but not proportional relief by any means. Further, this relief comes from women doing less, not men doing any more. Women, regardless of their employment, still continue to do a significant majority of the housework. And the kinds of tasks that are typically “female” tasks are routine, time-sensitive, and must be done daily. Typical “male” tasks can more easily be put off or contracted out. Many studies have shown that typically female tasks have more effect on a person’s income and also more greatly restrict what kinds of jobs can be had in the first place. And this is to nothing of any gendered wage gap (and may in fact be part of the wage gap). But these kinds of tasks have to be done, regardless of the sex of the partners: if same-sex couples divide up tasks along these male/female-type tasks, then inequality is likely to be reproduced as well.
Women earning more than their male partners also tended to defer decisions and power to them for fear that b/c of their higher income and status jobs they may appear too threatening to their spouses. We know that traditionally, men’s jobs have been used for justification for them doing less housework and having more power within the family. but a “role reversal” in income doesn’t produce a “role reversal” in behavior. Which makes me that inequality in the family is both gender and economic: indeed particularly gendered economics.
One more interesting point is that in families where men are almost totally economically dependent on women, they tend to do less work than when spouses’ income is equal…the researcher Brines (1994) took this to be “gender display”; when normative gender roles in the family income are deviated from, their other behaviors tend to be overly gendered.
All this to say, I think that same-sex relationships clearly are not subject to certain gender prescriptions, but I don’t think they escape all of them, not with societal constrictions on the freedom to organize our own families/networks of affiliation in a way that provides necessary legal rights and protections.
See previous posts on this topic:
Thoughts on the Tyrrany of Marriage at Tax Time
More on heteronormative familial-economic arrangements