Several months ago, my husband and I had a fascinating dinnertime discussion on whether or not we have a ‘just love’. I had been reading one of the foremost ethicists on the subject of Christian sexual ethics — a Catholic nun by the name of Margaret Farley who taught at the Yale Divinity School for over 30 years. Her book is called Just Love.
The framework for sexual ethics that Farley comes up with highlights her commitment to the importance of justice in sexual relationships. For Farley, love is not enough. Love alone can be based on fantasy, it can be manipulative, it can look at the other only as a means to an end. Therefore, in her sexual ethical framework, love must coincide with justice. Just love must contain these seven norms:
1. Do no unjust harm (don’t be physically, emotionally, spiritually destructive to the other)
2. Free consent.
3. Mutuality (both partners giving and receiving)
4. Equality (of power)
6. Fruitfulness (not necessarily referring to kids, but rather a love that expands beyond the two, out into the larger world and brings good things to it.)
7. Social Justice (This is complex – on one level, she’s talking about making sure that one’s sexual relationship doesn’t harm third parties like future children, future lovers, or others that are in relationship to one of the parties. On another level, she’s talking much more broadly, about affirming the rights of all members of society as sexual beings. Homosexuals, transexuals, intersexuals, heterosexuals – all have the right to claim respect from the Christian community and to claim freedom from unjust harm and equal protection under the law. )
As I was analyzing my own marriage to see if it qualified as a ‘just love,’ one big question stuck in my mind. Do my husband and I have a commitment to equality in our marriage? Sure, we conduct our marriage as equal partners. No one has the final say just by merit of being male or female, no one’s opinions weigh more than the other’s. But listen to how Farley describes equality (or rather inequality):
“Major inequalities in social and economic status, age and maturity, professional identity, interpretations of gender roles, and so forth, can render sexual relations inappropriate and unethical primarily because they entail power inequalities — and hence, unequal vulnerability, dependence, and limitation of options.”
Ahhh! This cuts to the bone, this makes me catch my breath. I am so much more vulnerable than my spouse. I can never make as much money as he does. Right now our economic contributions to the marriage couldn’t be more different, since I am a child-rearer/grad student and he’s a professor. Thus my dependency on him is much starker this his on me. So can our love be just?
I don’t know, but I am comforted by Farley’s later paragraph, in which she says perfect equality isn’t necessary, but that it has to be “close enough, balanced enough, for each to appreciate the uniqueness and differences of the other, for each to respect one another as ends in themselves.”
My husband and I may not score so high on the vulnerability/dependency part, but I think we do pretty well on the respect and appreciation one.
I’d love to hear your perspectives on this, since this is something I’ve had feminist angst over for the past few years: can a relationship be considered just and equal if only one partner is contributing financially, given the fact that that arrangement leads to a discrepancy in vulnerability and dependence?