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A marriage abolitionist says: ‘I… do?’

Sophie Lewis considers what it means to be ‘married’ when you want to abolish the family

5 to 6 minute read

A montage of images on a pale pink background: two women walking through a forest, a cake that reads: 'as if love is anything but free' and a forest wedding

Hi, my name is Sophie and I’m a family abolitionist who is married. I could tell you it was ‘for the green card’ and I wouldn’t be lying. But it would be a cop-out. All marriages are green cards of a kind. 

I find it endearing that, as leftists, when it comes to these contracts in particular, we like to suspend our otherwise dearly-held analytic sensibilities and imagine we can game the state, pretending maritality while jumping through hoops in exchange for visas and tax breaks. 

We’ll do it differently, we declare. But marriage, ineluctably, does us. The prevailing mode of production gripping our planet seems inherently flexible about the content of individuals’ beliefs about marriage. 

What it does care about, though, is the continued naturalisation of the private household. In this sense, marriage is marriage is marriage, be it ‘gay’, ‘visa’, ‘love’ or ‘of convenience’. Marriage is the particular kind of interpersonal alliance that the state sanctions. Kinship law demands it – or something like it – in order to fulfil its function of administering property relations. 

In the 1960s and 70s, our family-abolitionist ancestors in the children’s, women’s and gay liberation movements wanted to dismantle it. Their revolutionary imagination targeted the entire sex/ gender system, seeking to build instead whole cities and societies designed for friends, not families; kith, not kin.

Marriage, they said, attaches us to our own scarcity. It is also a material catastrophe for the millions abused and battered within its precincts with impunity. Legally and ideologically, it draws a circle around a sphere of protected interests, turning people away from the task of building universal abundance, permitting us to give care only to, and expect care only from, ‘our own’. 

On the outside of this circle swarm all the others, economic and sexual deviants, whose otherwise ways of living and loving will always be marginal unless marriage is abolished (or until we all fold, normatively, into married productivity).

Conjugal questions

LGBTQ discourse used to position marriage as irredeemable, a form of ‘property love’. In 2015, our inclusion into it didn’t just give the sagging institution a new lease of life. It demoralised and defanged the queer movement. 

Despite knowing all this, for years I have avoided centring conjugal questions in my public speaking and writing about the communisation of care. I’m always at pains to insist ‘family abolition’ has far more to do with decoupling survival from the wage, decommodifying shelter, building vast public kitchens and free dining halls, and so on, than with polyamory.

Family abolition, I like to joke – don’t try this at home, kids! If we should think to ‘begin’ anywhere, let it be in the streets – at the encampments, the protest kitchens. In a world of organised-care scarcity, simply eschewing the couple form and/or familiarity in one’s intimate life is no solution. 

Still, it makes sense to ask: Sophie, how do you square your advocacy for the deprivatisation of care – abolition of the family – with your decision to marry and cohabit exclusively with a spouse?

Family abolition, I like to joke: ‘don’t try this at home, kids!’

I’m not sure I can or do square it. Sometimes my response has been defensive: I didn’t say I have the answers, my life isn’t a model! The fact is I met my domestic partner over a decade ago, and it’s now been almost five years since she and I threw a cheap and cheerful event entitled ‘the cemetery commune’: a party that was also, undeniably, our wedding.

So, am I married? Yes. Did I ever think I would call my wife ‘my wife’? No. But do I? Yes, practically every day. Do we share a bed and bank account? No. Have we any other longterm sexual partners besides each other? Yes. One of them came to the cemetery commune.

The party was, yes, in a cemetery – a rentable green space in our neighbourhood. People wore badges signalling whether they’d originally been ‘comrades of the bride’ (her) or of the ‘broom’ (me). To certain guests, the ceremony felt disconcertingly anarchic; everyone was invited to marry everyone. A friend in England offered a haiku:

Wedding aufheben
By autumnal graves, we’ll toast
A love no one owns.

Were we married?

Apart from writing our own speeches, bride and broom did not know in advance what would be said. The friend who served as maître d’ compiled everyone’s pronouncements into a zine afterwards. Re-reading my own in 2023, I’m startled by my upfront insistence on the possibility that Vicky and I might one day part ways.

It will be a lifetime task for me to come to have deserved you. I’ll inevitably be working on that, no matter where our paths lead. Today, as is probably fairly obvious to everyone here, my hope is that our paths continue closely and blissfully intertwined.

One friend told me, drunk, that she’d found listening to my vows challenging. ‘But we knew what you meant,’ she slurred. ‘You do want to marry her!’ Well, yes and no. I did marry her. Our life has continued happily. But I also meant what I said.

Vicky, I will not promise you exclusivity, or blind loyalty, or eternity. Why would I impose or demand anything like that, that runs so counter to the commune we are always glimpsing in each other’s arms, in the streets, in this cemetery today? I vow not to make such vows, as far as I can help it.

I don’t want to get married. And I’m not all that proud of taking this route to relative security vis-à-vis the American state. I am only able to do the legal part of this transaction with you because I trust you completely – I trust both of us – not to abuse it, exploit it, or sink into all the property logics it invites.

Actually, the contract signing only came months later. In the interim, between the cemetery commune and the visit to City Hall, were we married? I don’t know.

But I do suspect marriage registrars’ offices won’t survive a revolution worthy of the name.

This article first appeared in Issue #241 Pan-Africanism. Subscribe today to support independent socialist media and get your copy hot off the press!

Sophie Lewis is the author of Abolish the Family: A Manifesto for Care and Liberation (Verso, 2022)

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