Unhitched: Love, Marriage, and Family Values from West Hollywood to Western China Hardcover – May 1 2011
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"Unhitched will enrage some readers and delight others, but anyone interested in contemporary debates about marriage, sexuality, and family life must read this richly detailed, rigorously argued book."-Stephanie Coontz,author of Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage "Stacey certainly makes a passionate case with a surprising amount of information on her side."-Anthropology Review Database "The richness of data, the detective-like quality of the prose, and its social and political relevance are sure to make Unhitched a provocative and invaluable contribution to the study of family and intimacy."-Kimberly D. Richman,American Journal of Sociology "It's admittedly hard to stop reading...if you're a people-watcher, are interested in culture and its changes, or have a deep interest in marriage rights one way or the other, this is one can't-miss book."-Terri Schlichenmeyer,The Los Angeles Times "The book will fuel the ongoing family values/marriage discourse by challenging conservatives, feminists, and proponents of same-sex marriage."-Marge Kappanadze,Library Journal "The book is openly taking a strong normative stance against attempts at regulating the family."-Anca Gheaus,Metapsychology "Unhitched is a wild ride through the political and emotional worlds of family life. With a sociologist's skill, Judith Stacey uncovers the very diverse shapes of human families; with a novelist's skill, she tells us how they are lived. The disappointing options available to many women in a world of inequality appear; so do the creative responses. A lively and important book."-Raewyn Connell,author of Gender: In World Perspective and Southern Theory "It doesn't simply offer a mind-bending cross-cultural perspective--you can find that in any Anthropology 101 textbook. Instead, Stacey uses her observations to underscore just how stifling and unstable the Western romantic ideal of marital monogamy can be for some people, as well as the vast array of romantic arrangements that are already out here in the world." -Salon.com "Unhitched thoughtfully explains how unconventional relationships can thrive across cultures with some intention and practice...The book says it's about love and marriage, but it's actually about parenthood and the myriad of ways a family can look to support raising children well." -Bitch Magazine "In her new book, Unhitched, Judith Stacey, a sociologist at NYU, surveys a variety of unconventional arrangements, from gay parenthood to polygamy to-in a mesmerizing case study-the Mosuo people of southwest China, who eschew marriage and visit their lovers only under cover of night."-Kate Bolick,The Atlantic "The book is thought provoking, engaging, and makes important contributions to the study of families."-Joya Misra,International Journal of Comparative Sociology "Judith Stacey's Unhitched...successfully demystif[ies] aspects of modern marriage and its attendant real and imagined crises...[she] is a senior scholar on top of her game...her book makes you want to discuss her ideas with others."-Kristin Celello,Women's Review of Books "With clear-cut, modern prose, (Stacey) infuses her commentary and details her investigation from all sides of the aisle with well-researched facts and figures... Clever and practical blend of research, history and anecdote." -Kirkus Reviews "An engagingly written and highly readable book that deals with a crucial and controversial related set of issues: the nature of contemporary family life, kinship, love, parenting, intimacy, and how to live with diversity. No one is better qualified to take this on than Judith Stacey. She manages to combine the commitment of the serious ethnographer with the enthusiasm and insight of the eager traveler. This is an essential book."-Jeffrey Weeks,author of The World We Have Won "Throughout her travels and exhaustive research, Stacey pokes and prods, and eagerly calls into question everything we think we know about love, marriage, and the baby in the baby carriage."-Publishers Weekly "Judith Stacey is a great writer, whose clear style and provocative arguments make her one of the most compelling and most engaging feminist writers of our time."-Social Forces "Unhitched is Judith Stacey's richest and most provocative work to date. Tirelessly championing diverse varieties of intimate life, she has long refused to succumb to simplistic, homogenizing notions of 'the family.' Unhitched continues in this vein, bringing together a fascinating mix of ethnographic research on same-sex intimacies in this country, and plural and non-marital family forms in South Africa and China. It poses a powerful empirical challenge to the belief that the nuclear family-in both its hetero and homo variants-best fulfills our needs for intimacy and security."-Arlene Stein,author of The Stranger Next Door
About the Author
Judith Stacey is Professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and Sociology at NYU. She is the author of numerous books and articles, including In the Name of the Family: Rethinking Family Values in the Postmodern Age (1996), Brave New Families: Stories of Domestic Upheaval in Late Twentieth-Century America (1990) and Patriarchy and Socialist Revolution in China (1983).
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Her approach in UNHITCHED is original and engaging: an ethnographic journey to three very different cultures - gay men in Los Angeles, diverse South African families with an emphasis on polygamy, and the Mosuo, a non-marrying tribe in China -- to investigate the tensions between desire and domesticity and the surprising forms that intimacy and commitment can assume. It's rigorously researched, but Stacey wears her scholarship lightly and writes with verve and wit.
There are plenty of surprises; Stacey isn't afraid to ask tough questions or to challenge conventional wisdom. UNHITCHED overturned many of my assumptions about monogamy, plural marriage, and gay fatherhood. I didn't know, for example, that gay men more readily adopt children of another race, class, ethnicity, and even health status (also true of their intimate relationships with adults). Stacey reconsiders polygyny, comparing the United States (where family law is rigid but social and economic opportunity relatively fluid) to South Africa (where the law is progressive but stark race and gender inequality persist). Describing polygyny as "a patriarchal bargain offered to and by men who are willing to accept social and economic responsibility for their sexual urges and privileges," Stacey bucks feminist doctrine to make the case that plural husbands, fathers, and lovers should be encouraged to stick around rather than driven underground. This deprives co-wives and kids of any rights or protection, she points out, and sometimes these arrangements are best for the women involved - even if it makes us uncomfortable.
On the other hand, what's not to like about the Mosuo, who have disentangled sex and romance from parental and economic obligations? The maternal homestead is the center of family life, where adults care for their kin. That's where men eat, live, and work, but at night they're free to visit any woman who desires them. Women can likewise pursue or refuse; no double standard. No squabbling with the in-laws, because mate choice has few implications for the family. No fatherlessness: all children born to the same Mosuo women are treated as full siblings. Marriage is not forbidden, but it is not the basis of kinship. On the other hand, as Stacey points out, this requires a high degree of cultural conformity and geographic immobility, but it sure has a lot to recommend it.
Tourism and capitalism are threatening this matrilineal society, so I was grateful to find out about the Mosuo - and to learn about all the other remarkable partnerships Stacey observed during her years of research for UNHITCHED. I came away with a lot of provocative ideas, and I like the view from here. Stacey's message is important: like it or not, family diversity is here to stay. There's no such thing as a "normal" family. No family form or sexual arrangement -- not monogamy, not promiscuity, not Ozzie and Harriet or Big Love -- is natural except variation. It's time to create policy that supports this diversity, and that means not privileging marriage. Whether or not you agree, UNHITCHED will give you a fresh perspective, and it's a very good read.
Stacey, in expressing her contempt for our society's preference for monogamy, never looks backwards at history any earlier than her own childhood. A British family historian once commented that a frustration in his field was making people understand that nuclear families are traditional in that society from which our own largely developed. Most people think that a few generations ago, people routinely lived in multigenerational households, when in fact that was only as required by poverty or illness. That in itself limits how families can be structured. And as my sociology professor said, the pieces of a culture interlock, one cannot simply import random bits from here and there and have it work, but I am willing to try to integrate new ideas, as our culture has always done. Interesting though her case studies are, she needs a broader range of them, with statistical analysis, to truly support the positions that she takes, particularly since she has an obvious agenda. Furthermore, while I believe that people who are responsible, affectionate, and care about their relationships may structure idiosyncratic systems that work for them, I don't assume that people, as a whole, left to do whatever they like, are going to be any more caring and responsible than current monogamists. The bottom line for me is, are the kids being taken care of? I view legalizing gay marriage much more favorably than polygamy. I don't think that legalizing polygyny would have made Warren Jeffs a good person, or offered any protection to the women and children that he abused. I think that he wanted to exploit people, and legalizing polygyny wouldn't have stopped him anymore than it stops abusive monogamists. Polygyny wasn't the only illegal thing he was up to.
Stacey frequently mentions the British sociologist Anthony Giddens notion of the pure relationship in which 'equals were becoming free to pursue intimacy purely "for its own sake,", and so intimate relationships would endure only so long as they "deliver enough satisfactions for each individual to stay within it."' I believe that this will work much better for attractive, healthy, people who fall in and out of love in sync, and don't have children, than it will for anyone else. When such arrangements don't work, they sometimes end up in court, ironically for those who were trying to be transgressive.
I was already aware before I read this that polygyny is historically more common than monogamy, or should I say, systems that allow polygyny are more common. Men and women being born in generally equal numbers, obviously in such a system either a lot of men don't get married, or most people practice monogamy, especially since polygyny may also be be combined with female infanticide. There is an argument that historically, monogamy developed not to benefit women, but to reduce conflicts among men. Apparently in some societies, only elite males have access to women. There is some concern now that selective abortion has distorted the sex ratio so that many men will be unable to attract mates, and what will be the result of that? China is really worried about that. Still, as Stacey points out, there are pockets of society in which men seem to be in short supply, and perhaps some women would rather share a husband than have no husband. I can believe this, but overall, there is no benefit to the first wife. Stacey understands, sometimes, that as it is usually practiced, men are given the upper hand, but she also describes it as "a patriarchal bargain offered to and by men who are willing to accept social and economic responsibility for their sexual urges and privileges." Now that's naive. The Mormons who force women into marriage, and who then have them go on Welfare because the husband cannot pay for all of his wives and children (See The Secret Story of Polygamy) are not taking responsibility, and again, I don't buy that argument that the problem is that polygyny is illegal. Moreover, women in polygynous marriages may have no choice about either their husband's taking another wife, or getting a divorce, and may be unable to force him to support his first family, especially in societies that do not allow women to pursue legal recourse by themselves (See Miriama Bâ's So Long a Letter (African Writers).) It is possible that it could be made workable on a more egalitarian basis, but there are a lot of legal issues to resolve first and one cannot rely on people automatically living up to their obligations, any more than one can in monogamy. Actually, thinking this through for this review, I have decided that I am opposed to polygamy.
Incidentally, there are societies who practice polyandry in the Tibetan family of cultures. It is usually practiced by middle-class families, i.e., those with property that they wish to keep intact. A woman usually marries a set of brothers and becomes the mother of the next generation of heirs. It is felt that having more than one wife in the family would lead to quarrels on behalf of their respective children. It also stabilizes the population, although the participants do not cite that as a reason for the custom. There is concern about a population explosion in some societies which are becoming more affluent, and where more people are taking wage jobs, thus allowing all the brothers to have individual wives. Obviously, polyandry creates a surplus of women, some of whom become Buddhist nuns, some of whom have children on their own, but I don't know how those children are provided for. There are also group marriages in India, where a group of brothers marry one or more women. It's worth looking up "Matrilineality", 'Polyandry", etc. in Wikipedia for a starter.
I knew about the Musuo, an ethnic group living in Yunnan, but they are a very interesting culture with their matrilineal and matrilocal extended families, but no formal marriages, I think that Stacey would like to recommend them as a model, but she acknowledges the difficulty since we don't live in extended families (and we are also very mobile, I might add.) Still, with our increasing rate of people living together and reproducing without marriage, we are a fair way towards an imitation of their uncoupling of love, marriage, and children. One of the problems is the matter of custody--if both parents have parental rights and an obligation to support their children, we have a very contentious source of disagreement that the Musuo avoid with their policy of having no stated father. Multiplying the number of parents, as in the gay-lesbian arrangements that Stacey celebrates enriches the children's relationships when it works, and multiplies the potential for conflict when it doesn't, especially if legally recognized. In some cases she cites, there are potentially four parents to consider in custody arrangements and child support, and the increased possibility of step-adoptive-parents only adds to the potential confusion.
I think that Stacey goes a little too far in arguing that this proves that children, especially boys, don't need a father. True, the Musuo children don't have acknowledged fathers, but their maternal uncles live with them and provide an alternate source of live-in male role models. In a mobile, highly individualistic society of nuclear families like ours, if there is no father, it may be hard to arrange for stable male-role models. She cites as hypocrites leaders like Obama and Clinton who grew up without their father, but talk about needing fathers without considering that they may have felt a lack. Obama was also raised by his grandparents, so he had his grandfather as a substitute.
So, an extremely interesting book within its limits, that I recommend to those interested in family structures.