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by Judith Stacey
NYU Press, 2011
Review by Anca Gheaus, Ph.D. on Aug 7th 2012


The value and dis-value of the family, and how and whether the family should be regulated, are vivid questions among contemporary philosophers -- as they have usually been among scholars from other disciplines and members of the non-academic public. But what is a family in the first place? Judith Stacey's book makes it plain that contemporary families come in a variety of forms and hence that it is an illusion that one could find an adequate morphological definition of the family. Anthropology and sociology have, of course, always been useful in pointing out that the heterosexual, nuclear and monogamous family that is usually the norm in Western societies is only one type of family organization. But this book has the merit of closely exploring two types of families that are not salient even in the enlarged imaginary of the family: First, families created by individuals belonging to sexual minorities who decide to pursue their own models of shared life and parenting with others. Stacey focuses on gay, rather than lesbian, families. Relationships within these families are structured by individual's desires and moral commitments rather than by social expectations. Second, the readers are familiarized to the contemporary matriarchal family of the Mosou minority living in West China. In this review I focus on chapters concerning these two sorts of families, although the book also contains two chapters on polygamy; the latter are particularly interesting because they explain how the revival of polygamy in South Africa interacts with the history of racism and ideologies of cultural difference.

The first two chapters look at families -- that is, marriage-like partnerships involving two or more partners as well as parenting -- in the United States. Stacey tells stories of several gay men whose evolution she has followed over a decade; these are stories of people who prize both the open acknowledgment of their sexual desires and -- many of them -- the pursuit of romantic, often long-term and committed, partnerships, with or without the aim of also raising children. The stories illustrate well the author's contention that, given their place on the fringe of the society, gays are more able to accept their erotic identities in spite of cultural pressure to conform with norms of monogamy. Similarly, these chapters offer an introduction to the gay cruising culture in which issues of status, wealth or education are a lot less important than they are in other social contexts. Such environments can breed more egalitarian romantic and erotic, sometimes long-term, relationships than one is likely to encounter elsewhere: they make possible partnerships between individuals from very different social, economic and cultural backgrounds. Moreover, child-rearing gay families -- that often involve several gay and lesbian individuals and/or couples -- sometimes pursue explicit agendas of egalitarian relationships between partner. The appendix illustrates this point, allowing readers to see a co-parenting agreement.

The Mosuo people -- who make the object of the last chapter before the conclusions -- is a minority living in southwestern China. Their traditional, two millennia old family organization is peculiar in that children of both sexes never leave their mothers' homes and usually do not share a household with their romantic or erotic partners, even in cases when they engage in life-long monogamous relationships. Indeed, the Mosuo language lacks a word for 'marriage'. Instead, Mosuo separate entirely their family life -- where common economic activities and childrearing happens -- from their romantic life, where they are free to pursue none, one or multiple relationships; anthropologists describe the Mosuo as a uniquely non-judgmental culture with respect to sexual matters. Thus, children are being raised by their biological mothers, grandmothers, aunts and uncles and do not necessarily know their biological fathers. This arrangement is said to render stability to family life because it saves individuals the significant stress of sharing adult life with individuals from different families, with different habits; at the same time it is praised for protecting romantic relationships from the threat of every-day routine and the burdens of family obligations. In addition, the Mosuo families empower women encourage egalitarian choices of romantic partners and avoids double standards in sexual morality. If all this is true, the Mosuo does offer a very ingenuous model of organizing social life. Unfortunately, Mosuo traditional families risk disintegration: some of their children study far away from home and eventually marry and join regular family arrangements. And a very successful touristic industry -- fueled by the uncommon family Mosuo organization and their probably undeserved reputation of sexual licentiousness -- threatens the cultural conformity that is necessary for reproducing the Mosuo family.

Somewhat unexpectedly, the conclusions bring child-rearing issues to the forefront. (Only the second chapter of the book, on gay parenthood, had engaged directly with child-rearing, and even in that section of the book the focus is on parents', rather than children's, lives.) According to Stacey, her book should better equip us to see that, since marriage is not a universal institution, it cannot be the foundation of a successful society, and so fatherhood cannot be necessary to promoting the interests of children. This is of course true, if fatherhood is defined by reference to the nuclear monogamous family which Stacey's work so compellingly shows to be just one model of the family. But I suppose that at least some readers will want to say that, in fact, children growing up the Mosou societies enjoy plenty of fathering from their uncles and maternal grandfathers. The same applies to children reared by multi-parent gay families.

The book is openly taking a strong normative stance against attempts at regulating the family by prohibiting certain sorts of marriage or marriage-like associations, such as gay or polygamous marriage, or matrilineal child-rearing families. In some situations the author has a strong case: when family arrangements, no matter how unorthodox, are not likely to involve either coercion or harm to non-consenting parties. In other cases, however, the book seems to miss the fact that not all regulation is equally undesirable. Thus, the author compares the Maoist attempts at dismantling Mosuo matrilineal and matrilocal families to 'the attempts by the U.S. Federal government to “liberate” Mormon women and children from polygamy'. (p.169) Throughout reading it, I thought the book would be better without such comparative evaluations of attempts at regulating the family; I remain unconvinced that we should be equally wholehearted in championing individuals' freedom to enroll themselves -- and others -- in all forms of private associations.


© 2012 Anca Gheaus


Anca Gheaus is a post-doctoral researcher at the Philosophy Faculty of the Erasmus University in Rotterdam. She works on theories of care and justice on which she has published several book chapters and articles in Raisons Politiques, Feminist Theory, Basic Income Studies and Hypatia.

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