Who Knew Émile Durkheim Was a Conservative on Sex and Marriage?

Today, sociology is overwhelmingly dominated by the radically individualistic and gender–feminist ethic that drives contemporary American culture. Yet it was not always so. Émile Durkheim, the Frenchman whom many call the founder of sociology, offered a rigorous scientific and philosophical account of sexuality, marriage, and the family that affirms the traditional view.

The academic discipline of sociology in America has long been openly progressive about sex and marriage. Its central narrative is that sexual experience was universally stifled by traditional (read: Christian) institutions and practices until the opening of the 1960s, when a glorious flowering of many sexualities, many sexual practices, and many forms of pairing and family enriched and liberated humanity.

Mark Regnerus, who has written frequently for Public Discourse and serves as one of its contributing editors, is one of the very few contemporary sociologists who take seriously the negative consequences of these changes. For his trouble, he is frequently denounced in the most alarmist terms by his fellow scholars. What should be an evenhanded academic debate on this crucial set of moral questions is instead a one-sided flame war. Sociology is overwhelmingly dominated by the radically individualistic and gender–feminist ethic that drives contemporary American culture.

It was not always so.

Indeed, Émile Durkheim, the Frenchman whom many call the founder of sociology, offered a rigorous scientific and philosophical account of sexuality, marriage, and the family that affirms the traditional view.


Against Divorce by Mutual Consent

Durkheim was a trenchant critic of the contractual view of marriage, in which the relationship is said to involve only the two spouses and to depend entirely on their satisfaction with each other. In his 1906 essay “Divorce by Mutual Consent,” he criticized the liberalization of divorce that many secular intellectuals then championed. Like their counterparts today, the latter argued that it was clearly in the interests of both parents—and frequently of their children—for marriage to be dissolvable by agreement of the spouses alone. Durkheim countered that such a shift potentially harms the institution of matrimony itself.

Durkheim noted empirical evidence that divorce affects suicide rates. Marriage appeared to significantly reduce the likelihood of suicide, and in the parts of Durkheim’s France in which divorce was more common, this positive effect of marriage was weaker. Although married women were less likely to commit suicide only if their marriage had yielded children, for married men the risk was less in many scenarios. Absent an exterior regulatory force or presence, Durkheim reasoned, individual men are largely ineffective at moderating their sexual energies, and they end up emotionally distressed and dissolute. The marital institution regulates their desires. However, he went on, “Regulation from which one can withdraw whenever one has a notion is no longer regulation.” By removing the judge—the representative of society, whose authority historically extends from the religious origins of the polity—from the decision-making process of divorce, contractual marriage inevitably weakens the regulatory force of marriage.

Durkheim also insisted that marriage affects parties beyond the two spouses, most obviously their children. Children so change the marital relationship that, once they exist, they alter the marriage’s purpose. In Durkheim’s view, the couple, formerly the end of the relationship, becomes but a means to the end of the family for which they are responsible. Spouses’ obligation to their children clearly invalidates a model for divorce based merely on mutual consent.

Even the partners themselves may benefit from marriages that they would rather escape out of anger or spite. Although in a few marriages disharmony between the spouses may be so great that separation is the only reasonable path, Durkheim maintained that there are many, many more “simply mediocre marriages”—exciting and joyous only in an irregular, inconstant manner—that nonetheless produce “sufficient feeling for . . . [the] duty . . . to fulfill [one’s] function.” They thereby they provide a significant social good. This argument was almost perfectly consonant with that of the Christian conservatives of Durkheim’s day. It also scandalizes most contemporary sociologists, who have moved far from the origins of their discipline.


For the Sacred in Sexual Education

Perhaps the most astounding exposition—for contemporary sociologists, at least!—of Durkheim’s conservative sociology of sexuality comes from a public debate he participated in, on what and how schools should teach about sexuality (published in 1911 in the Bulletin de la Société Française de Philosophie). In the debate, Durkheim countered the arguments of a physician named only “Dr. Doléris,” who represented an utterly secular, rationalist, and materialist position.

Durkheim agreed with Doléris that a key goal of educating the young about sex was to promote sexual hygiene and health, but he denied that these topics were merely biological. The question of sex, he insisted, cannot be addressed outside of a moral context, which is inevitably the one to which Christianity subscribes. Continence, Durkheim argued explicitly, must be imparted to the young as a duty, and the student must be taught to accept the deep moral significance and indispensability of the institution of marriage for regulating sexual behavior.

Durkheim believed that sex has a “mysterious character” that is much more complicated and profound than any “simple prejudice.” Though Christianity was under assault in the French Third Republic of Durkheim’s day, he nonetheless noted that the “collective sentiment” concerning sexual behavior and the family that Christian faith had generated could not be rooted in mere superstition. If Christianity, and in some degree all known religions, see human sexuality as “grave” and “solemn,” their belief must be based in some objective reality in human sexuality.

The sex act is not reducible to “vulgar life.” It is “exceptional,” “troubling and disconcerting,” and it “awakens in us contradictory sentiments.” It “shocks, offends, repels,” and at the same time “attracts” us. It violates our sense of modesty more profoundly than any other act, and yet it is the act that most deeply and permanently connects human beings. Little surprise, then, that such an “ambiguous” phenomenon deeply troubles our moral consciousness. We can finally neither simply “condemn” nor “praise” sex and instead arrive at a compromise. Sex is acknowledged and accepted as a material reality, but one that must be hidden away from public view and discussion. This fact reveals that sex plays a unique role in human moral life, unlike that of any other act or aspect of our nature. It is fundamental to who we are.

Any sexual education, therefore, must in Durkheim’s view go beyond the merely biological and encompass also this conflicted and complex place of sex in our moral culture. In arguing, as Doléris did (in which he is consistent with the contemporary advocates of “purely scientific and non-religious sex ed”) that sexual education should simply treat the sexual act as “an ordinary act of physical life,” sex is robbed of its more essential, cultural character.


The Sociology of “Domestic Morality”

Doléris insisted on seeing in sex “a very clear and simple reality” within “the terrain of science.” His position on religion was that of secular materialism. He limited social science to the task, not of trying to understand the true bases of sexual morality, but only of understanding why religions foolishly and irrationally insisted on shrouding it in mystery. He could not resist insinuating that Durkheim, who was Jewish and from a rabbinical family, spoke under the influence of a religious education that had filled him with irrational sexual taboos and prevented him from accurately understanding sexuality. Durkheim responded that the mysterious aspects of the sex act were revealed to him not by his religious background, but through his study of historical and ethnographic data from human societies.

Although much of Doléris’s accusation is distasteful and unfair, Durkheim’s sociology is clearly consistent with what he would have learned in his culturally conservative Jewish community. Reason, he said, is the core of sexual education, but this is a reason that studies not just physiology but also the “sentiments, ideas, and institutions which give these relations their specific human form.”

Durkheim then sketched briefly his vision of a sexual education curriculum. It should be integrated into a sociological discussion of the entirety of “domestic morality,” by considering the institution of marriage through its history and sociological bases. He cited Immanuel Kant in describing the basic moral problem of sexual commerce. Kant saw that sex is so immediately morally troubling for us because, if it is not circumscribed by institutions that require mutual consideration and respect, sex becomes an act in which one individual simply uses another as an instrument of pleasure. Such treatment offends the dignity of the human person. Respect for the human person (which, Durkheim had argued elsewhere, was a modern political conception birthed by Christianity) leads us to keep a certain distance from others; to avoid intimate contact with anyone with whom we are insufficiently acquainted; to shield our bodies from the “indiscreet looks” of others; in short, to “isolate ourselves” in many ways.

All this indicates that the realm of sex is a realm of the sacred. If we attempt to approach the sacred—in this case, the person of the other—without ritual preparation and purification, we commit a “sacrilege.” In sex, the profanation is particularly intense, as the penetrative act fully breaches bodily integrity. This shattering of the sacred boundary of the person is great, but at the same time its “constitutional immorality” is counterbalanced by “the most intimate communion that can exist between two conscious beings.”

In this communion, two people literally become one, and “a new personality is born which envelops and includes the two beings.” When this happens within a stable and durable marriage, the profanation is undone, and the two effectively become one for always. But if the two separate to reclaim their individual identities and reject the new being, then the profanation remains. Hence the immorality of free unions, Durkheim concluded. The profound moral bond of the sexual union, and the new being it creates, are what make two divorced spouses feel viscerally uncomfortable if they encounter one another after the divorce. Attempting to meet one another as separate beings when each fully knows the most profound mystery of the other is awkward and unnatural.


Today’s Sociology Needs More Durkheims

The sociological investigation of sex and marriage begins with Durkheim. Today, the field is dominated by radicals who question the very existence of biological sex and view monogamous heterosexual marriage as at best an antiquated relic of the past and at worst a patriarchal tool for enslaving women.

A feminist critic of Regnerus once ineptly attempted to insult him by ruefully observing that “every generation of sociology is doomed to have its Durkheim.” With all due respect to my esteemed colleague Mark Regnerus (who I am certain would agree with me), the comparison is inapt, and it shows how little the person who made it knows about her discipline. Durkheim was one of the inventors of sociology, not a maverick. What a wonderful thing it would be if we today had not just one, but many Durkheims to counter the sea of radical sociologists who demonstrate a woeful misunderstanding of the serious nature of sex and marriage.

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