Sex by Numbers: An Anthropological Look At Marriage

ColumnA look at the institution of marriage and what some will go through to make it happen.

Whether you consider it an anachronism or not is little matter:  A wedding is a fête, marriage is an institution, and because summer is culturally enshrined as the season for matrimony, there’s no better occasion for exploring the anthropology of marriage than now. The current incarnation of marriage (one governed by romance and not pre-arrangement), is unique in human history, but its contemporary expression is no more exceptional than any other across history and geography.

While its interpretations shift and morph over time, at its universal core is marriage’s “holy trinity:” 1) reproductive management, 2) property management, and 3) kinship management.

In the lawless days of pre-history and, more recently, the warring tribes of Europe or violently-maintained dynasties of Asia, marriage functioned (and, in many places, continues to function) as a means of staving off early death: When groups of people are genetically similar and have a communal interest in an area’s natural resources, they are less likely to kill one another. And, in turn, much likelier to kill those who do not belong, dare to trespass, and threaten an existing social order.

Reductionist, romance-devoid analysis of marriage? Absolutely. And still, despite its singular evolutionary value, the institution’s cross-cultural manifestations are as vast as they are fascinating. In such a vein, this week’s Sex by Numbers surveys six striking (biased and  arbitrary) installments in the global annals of marriage and meaning.

1) Afghani government official Mabubullah Sayedi said, “It is against all human rights.” Amnesty International called it a “heinous crime.” Kunduz-based Sadiqa, 20 years old, and her lover Qayum, 28 years old, attempted to run away and elope after being prevented from marrying. A Taliban led group discovered the couple hiding at a friend’s house in preparation for their elopement. The pair was dragged into the open and in front of a group of 150 men they were stoned to death. Their murders occurred exactly one year ago, in August 2010.

2) In ancient Babylon, what is now modern day Iraq, both Jews and Shiite Muslims could be granted temporary marriages, called Mutt’a, in which a man was allowed to take a ‘wife for the day.’ The short lasting contract stipulated no further obligation to one another, with a single exception: If she became pregnant, her child was considered legitimate progeny and due a share of the father’s inheritance.

3) A University of Virginia neuroscientist recently conducted a study for which he recruited American women who rated their overall marital happiness as high. His study included a stress-response component, for which a woman’s brain waves were monitored using an f.M.R.I. while receiving a controlled electric shock. For the first round of electrical administration, the woman was alone. For the second round, she held the hand of a stranger. For the third, she held her husband’s hand. The effect of his touch stimulated the same areas of the brain that would be activated when taking a pain relieving drug.

4) Swedish researchers in 2000 conducted a study of women who had been hospitalized for heart attacks or debilitating chest pain, gathering information about various stressors in their lives and following their health for the following three years. Women who reported significant on-the-job stress had no higher risk for recurring heart problems than those who indicated they were happy at their jobs. However, women who reported high levels of marital stress were three times as likely to experience a second heart attack or require a bypass or other procedure.

5) In China in the 1800s, young women had the option of selecting out of a traditional marriage by wedding a dead man through an arrangement called ‘ghost marriage.’ The benefits to this unique union were two-fold: Women were freed to pursue their freedom and ambitions without having to take care of children or a husband. At the same time, the marriage contract allowed her family to consolidate wealth through her husband’s financial legacy. Apparently, these husbands were a coveted stock. As one such ‘ghost’ bride is quoted, “It was not so easy to find an unmarried dead man to marry.”

6) July 24th of this year marked the first time ever that lesbian and gay couples could receive marriage licenses in the state of New York, flooding clerk’s offices with same sex couples seeking to exchange vows. In New York City alone, 484 couples married at city bureaus and another 659 collected licenses, totaling 2,286 happy newlyweds.

Sex By Numbers is an ongoing look into the emotional and sexual lives of the modern day woman. Follow Abigail Wick weekly here for insight and inspiration as she explores the “sex” of women and the terrain they must travel.

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