This is an episode from the “What Makes Us Human?” podcast's third season, "What Do We Know about Love?" from Cornell University’s College of Arts & Sciences, showcasing the newest thinking from across the disciplines about the relationship between humans and love. Featuring audio essays written and recorded by Cornell faculty, the series releases a new episode each Tuesday through the fall semester.
We often think that true love doesn’t have to do with material things and that financial motives corrupt authentic affection. Love must be given freely, we imagine. Authentic love should have quote “no strings attached.” But the record of human practice across cultures offers a different answer: love is always intertwined with material concerns. The question is how.
In a book called “The Gift,” French sociologist Marcel Mauss famously argued that there is no such thing as a free gift. Gift economies proceed according to three rules: the obligation to give, the obligation to receive, and the obligation to return.
Mauss framed marriage as a gift relationship. The general formula is this: Women are exchanged between men in marriage in order to create solidarity between men of different clans. This is the formula for both gender distinction and hierarchy: those who can give and receive wives are men and those who are given and taken are women. If this sounds to you like a recipe for exploitation, you’re right. But none of this precludes deeply felt love and affection.
This point became clear to me when I was researching a book on a contemporary practice of sacred prostitution in South India. In this practice, families dedicate their daughters to a goddess. The girls undergo a rite of marriage to the goddess, and become responsible for her, conducting fertility rites as her priests. As wives of the goddess, they do not otherwise marry, but may take patrons or clients. Their earnings through ritual and sex work accrue to their birth families. They typically remain part of these families, often serving as head of household.
Popular accounts have described this practice as the exploitation of craven, ignorant, and superstitious rural folk who abandon their daughters to the brothels of Bombay. But in giving their daughters to the goddess, parents are actually holding on to them. Marriage to the goddess ensures that their daughters can never be given away in marriage to another family, but instead they remain breadwinners and lineage bearers within their birth families.
I lived among and interviewed over 100 women dedicated to the goddess Yellamma, and dozens of their family members, neighbors and Yellamma devotees. I came to understand that the relations between dedicated women and their birth families, between dedicated women and the goddess, and between dedicated women and the devotees of the goddess, are all transactional – characterized by mutual bonds of obligation. They are also, visibly and passionately, affectionate and loving.
Yet at the same time, they ‘re exploitative, ranked in hierarchies of caste and gender.
This suggests to me, broadly speaking, that kinship-based obligations – such as working to support others -- frequently involve both love and exploitation. This is one way to define kinship: mutual bonds of enduring affection and obligation that are different from attachments you can take up or leave aside at will. The ethical question then is not whether material interests come into matters of the heart, but whether the flow of exchange is mutual.
The "What Makes Us Human?" podcast airs on WHCU on Tuesday mornings and WVBR on Saturday evenings.