Laws that aspire to gender egalitarianism may be on the books but marriage as lived by many heterosexual couples remains a deeply gendered experience, writes Associate Professor Suzanne A. Kim. Same-sex marriage offers new terrain in which to consider the relationship between law and the social forces that shape the marriage experience. In her forthcoming book, Marriage Equalities: Gender and Social Norms in Same-Sex and Different-Sex Marriage, Kim will discuss the extent to which gender has shaped our understanding and practice of marriage, examine the aspiration that same-sex marriage can increase equality within families and marriage, and consider further reform of family law and policy to support families in their caregiving responsibilities. Kim also has contributed to family law scholarship with “The Neutered Parent” (24 Yale Journal of Law and Feminism ___, 2012), which explores another aspect of inequality, that is, the bias towards traditional marriage-based norms of parental sexuality in custody and visitation rulings.
Kim was promoted to full professor, effective July 1, 2012, becoming the first Asian American – male or female – to receive tenure at the law school.
What drew you to the intersection of gender and sexuality as the focus of your scholarship and teaching?
I have always been deeply interested in the ways that law and social norms work together to promote certain social visions of the ways that women should behave and the ways that men should behave, regarding sexuality, family, and beyond. The intersection of gender and sexuality is particularly important today in light of the many relevant policy, law, and cultural debates implicating these areas.
Your scholarship makes the point that gender still shapes the social experience of marriage for many different-sex couples, despite the fact that the law is gender-neutral and despite seemingly transformative events such as an economic crisis often described as a “man-cession.” Why is this so?
Much of this has to do with the “stickiness” of our ideas about gender. Lived experience and the social forces people encounter in negotiating their relationships and ordering their lives don’t necessarily track formal legal change. I am interested in the ways in which law and social reality interact with one another. Regardless of formal legal change, substantive, social change can be slow in coming.
Will your book suggest that same-sex marriage will result in greater gender equality within families and marriage?
It’s difficult to predict what effect universal expansion of marriage would mean in terms of gender. As I’ve written elsewhere, certainly the debate over same-sex marriage facilitates deeper consideration of how we order marriage and whether the gendered aspects of marriage are necessary features. In my current research, I look to explore whether and how gender influences the experiences of marriage for same-sex couples.
What do you mean by the term “neutered parent”? And does parental sexuality still matter in modern family law?
In “The Neutered Parent,” I argue that the legal and social ideal that parenting remains far removed from sexuality is a socially constructed one that few can achieve. Indeed, it’s one that even parents who are assumed to meet it often don’t fulfill. I argue that this kind of standard is detrimental to the effort to make good child placement decisions and also to the welfare of parents.
What changes would you like to see in the law’s treatment of parental sexuality as it applies to custody and visitation rights?
I hope that our fundamental principles of family law can be strengthened to provide greater clarity on what counts as problematic conduct, so that child placement decisions are focused on concrete incidents of conduct, rather than on assumptions that married parents are better fit than unmarried parents (whether they be LGBT or heterosexual parents).