The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage and Neo-Liberal Governance


On June 26, 2015 the Supreme Court legalized same-sex marriage. Thousands of LGBT couples can now receive state recognition for their partnerships. Some of these couples had been together for decades and they understood better than most heterosexual couples just what their marriage meant. Homosexual couples now had access to 1,138 federal rights only available to married people, they could rest easy knowing they would not be barred from seeing one another and their children in the hospital, and they hoped that this legal decision would increase public acceptance.  This issue had become a social focal point for the LGBT community taking precedent over issues such as improved welfare state. Jaye Cee Whitehead’s 2011 The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage & Neo-Liberal Governance explains the arguments leading up to this historic decision and explores the reasoning and exclusions that made marriage equality the focal issue for the LGBT community.

Whitehead expertly explains neo-liberal governance and how this ideology structures the arguments both for and against marriage equality in the United States. Neo liberalism is the application of efficiency and practicality to the management of the population. Whitehead emphasizes the use of governance rather than government because often this management occurs not through formalized laws but through underlying institutions. Neo-liberal governance stresses methods of self-governance by pushing responsibility away from the state and on to the self. Marriage is, therefore, a technology of neo-liberal governance because it transfers problems such as poverty or care for the sick from the social sphere to the private family sphere.

Whitehead argues that the prominent LGBT dialogue, particularly from Marriage Rights Now[i] (MRN) the group she investigated, plays in to the neo-liberal framework by promising to reinforce rather than destabilize the social structure. In the “nuptial deal” homosexual partners agree to maintain marriage systems that reduce state expenditures and the state in return provides privacy and legitimization to their union. The nuptial deal of course only benefits those who have enough resources to share or pass on, and the book focuses almost exclusively on these privileged stories. Whitehead demonstrates how nearly every argument for marriage equality is structured, and sometimes censored, so that it fits a neo-liberal narrative. Through the obvious argument of increased tax revenues for the state, the argument that marriage benefits all homosexuals by promoting acceptance and understanding in society, homosexual’s desires to internalize their family health and economic concerns, and an overemphasis on the homonormative monogamy in the LGBT community Whitehead demonstrates why homosexuals traded other social concerns to fight for same-sex marriage. One powerful quote reads, “Proponents of same-sex marriage do not question the symbolic power of the state to create social groups or categories… instead, they struggle for the capital of recognition that these categories afford” (108).

Dr. Whitehead is aptly positioned to render this study and discuss its results as she is a sociologist with specializations in gender, sexuality, family, emotions, and social theory. A professor at Pacific University in Oregon she has contributed a great deal to this field of literature through books, papers, lectures, and opinion pieces. Although The Nuptial Deal is partially ethnographic, and Whitehead therefore recounts many of her own experiences, she refrains almost completely from including her own opinions about the marriage equality movement or the efforts of MRN activists. The reader’s only insight is a brief paragraph in chapter one where Whitehead announces her own opposition to legal marriage as a restrictive institution, and although she celebrates the victories MRN achieved she is discouraged by the neglect necessary for these victories.

The Nuptial Deal is interdisciplinary in nature as it draws upon Whitehead’s background in sociological theory, ethnographic observations and interviews, and textual analysis of official court documents to present its arguments. Additionally Whitehead’s work situates comfortably between several literature narratives while adding an otherwise absent ethnographic component. She writes,

The concurrent development of the ‘right to marry’ and assaults on those who fail or refuse to live up to the neo-liberal model of the dual earning-couple have been at the forefront of queer, feminist, and gay and lesbian analysis of the family. With my discursive ethnography of same-sex marriage activism, I build on this literature by explaining how marriage can make neo-liberal calls for self regulation of population-level problems so enticing (18).

She additionally relies on, though does not elaborate, upon literature describing the history of same-sex marriage and its social contexts, and utilizes Foucault’s work on government and Bourdieu’s concepts of symbolic power to craft the reader’s understanding of neo-liberal governance.

While I found all components of The Nuptial Deal compelling, it is Whitehead’s unique use of ethnographic interviews that served to best convince the reader of the influences of neo-liberalism in the marriage equality movement. She includes quotes and stories both promoted and silenced by MRN, and through these she uncovers what is unnatural about the argument that marriage is a natural union. The first example is one of careful language choice that demonstrates how pointed MRN’s argument was. Whitehead observed a discussion between new members; they used the phrase “same-sex marriage” several times before being interrupted by a leader. “It’s called ‘marriage equality,’ not ‘same-sex marriage.’ We really don’t want to use those words because it brings the bedroom into it” (96). This quote serves as a convenient and convincing way for Whitehead to articulate MRN’s desires to normalize the gay community to the public.

Another key argument in The Nuptial Deal is that the same-sex arguments fights the slippery slope argument my buttressing the superiority of monogamy in promoting stable societies. This secures gay marriages without leaving the door open for a fundamental change in the institution of marriage or allowing similar rights to polyamorous relationships. Whitehead’s interviews with various MRN members reveal how strongly this point is emphasized as well as the opinions of members who disagree but do not speak out. For example when she asked one member about marriage’s discrimination of alternate forms of intimacy he replied, “It’s definitely on the fringe… I am just personally such a strong believer in monogamy that, um, I don’t [see it]. I have a hard time seeing it as discrimination” (144); while others expressed agreement with Whitehead’s point and did not agree with the inherent dangers at the end of the “slippery slope.”

Much like the speaker in the quote above the reader is unfortunately not brought to see the true discrimination of marriage. Whitehead includes stories of middle class gay couples struggling with school pick-ups or filling out forms, but she does not include stories of those truly marginalized by the institution of marriage. She looks for blind spots within MRN noting that all leadership positions are held by white upper-middle class homonormative couples, but she does little to correct for these blind spots in her own analysis. An ethnographic account of someone who rejects marriage, even the author herself, would have served her argument well, and without it we are left, like many in MRN, “not seeing” the full oppression of marriage.

Whitehead is convincing in her claims of the influences of neo-liberalism on the discourse of marriage equality, but as a reader I was left desiring a stronger historical exploration of just how the two ideas emerged and eventually converged. Whitehead contrasts the current gay respectability to the more radical standpoints of the 60s and 70s. She also contrasts current neo-liberal concepts to an earlier time when the state was seen in opposition to the free market, but she does explain how we got where we are today. Although a full discussion of these two evolutions might prove too lengthy or beside the point, I was disappointed by the lack of historical discussion on the two prominent ideas in the book.

As is mentioned above I found The Nuptial Deal to be clearly written, expertly argued, and generally compelling[ii]. As a child from a single-parent household I am no stranger to the structural and sociological benefits marriage provides. For this reason I was, like Whitehead, able to appreciate the strides made for marriage equality while still being conscious of those that were excluded from the nuptial deal. I believe the author focused too narrowly on her fieldwork with MRN, and an increase in the dissenting opinions throughout history and today would give the reader a fuller understanding of the problem at hand. Nonetheless the book excels in its contributions to queer studies, sociological and family studies, and the general public’s discourse on same-sex marriage. Although written during the pinnacle of the marriage equality debate The Nuptial Deal remains an important discussion of the impact of neo-liberal governance and will remain relevant long after the court’s 2015 decision.

[i] Marriage Rights Now! is a pseudonym for the actual organization Whitehead studied.

[ii] Although I don’t recommend reading most of the book on Valentine’s Day, as I did, if you plan to celebrate the inherently monogamous holiday.



Whitehead, Jaye Cee. The Nuptial Deal: Same Sex Marriage and Neo-Liberal      Governance. University of Chicago Press. December 2011. Print

“Jaye Cee Whitehead, PhD.” Pacific University Oregon Website. n.d. Web. 15 February 2015.