Monthly Archives: November 1999

First Gays, Then Polygamists?

First published in “The Harvard Gay and Lesbian Review” on November 30,1999

AN INCREASINGLY COMMON objection to same-sex marriage takes the form of a slippery-slope argument: “If we allow gay marriage, why not polygamy? Or incest? Or bestiality?” This argument is nothing new, having been used against interracial marriage in the 1960’s. But what it lacks in originality it more than makes up for in rhetorical force: given the choice between rejecting homosexuality or accepting a sexual free-for-all, mainstream Americans tend to opt for the former

Unfortunately, sound-bite arguments don’t always lend themselves to sound-bite refutations. Part of the problem is that the polygamy/incest/bestiality argument (PIB argument for short) is not really an argument at all. Instead, it’s a challenge: “Okay, Mr. Sexual Liberal: explain to me why polygamy, incest, and bestiality are wrong.” Most people are not prepared to do that — certainly not in twenty words or less. And many answers that leap to mind (for example, that PIB relationships violate well-established social norms) won’t work for the defender of same-sex relationships (since same-sex relationships, too, violate well-established social norms).

In what follows I respond to the PIB challenge. But first, I wish to set aside two popular responses that I think are inadequate. Call the first the “We really exist” argument. According to this argument, homosexuality is different from polygamy, incest, and bestiality because there are “constitutional” homosexuals, but not constitutional polygamists, incestualists, or bestialists. As Andrew Sullivan writes,

Almost everyone seems to accept, even if they find homosexuality morally troublesome, that it occupies a deeper level of human consciousness than a polygamous impulse. Even the Catholic Church, which believes that homosexuality is an “objective disorder,” concedes that it is a profound element of human identity….[P]olygamy is an activity, whereas both homosexuality and heterosexuality are states.”
Sullivan is probably right in his description of popular consciousness about homosexuality. Yet traditionalists may reject the idea that homosexuality is an immutable given. At a June 1997 conference at Georgetown University, “Homosexuality and American Public Life,” conservative columnist Maggie Gallagher urged her audience to stop thinking of homosexuality as an inevitable, key feature of an individual’s personality. Drawing, ironically, on the work of queer theorists, Gallagher proposed instead that homosexuality is a cultural convention — one that ought to be challenged.

If Gallagher and her social constructionist sources are right, the “We really exist” argument must be abandoned. But whether they’re right or not, there are good pragmatic reasons for abandoning this argument. “We really exist” sounds dangerously like “We just can’t help it.” And to this claim there is an obvious response: “Well, alcoholics really exist, too. They can’t help their impulses. But we don’t encourage them.” Though the alcoholism analogy is generally a bad one, it underscores the rhetorical weakness of claiming “We really exist” in response to the (rhetorically strong) PIB challenge.

A second response to the PIB challenge is to argue that as long as PIB relationships are forbidden for heterosexuals, they should be forbidden for homosexuals as well. Call this the “equal options” argument. To put the argument more positively: we homosexuals are not asking to engage in polygamy, incest, or bestiality. We are simply asking to engage in monogamous, non-incestuous relationships with people we love — just like heterosexuals do. As Jonathan Rauch writes,

The hidden assumption of the argument which brackets gay marriage with polygamous or incestuous marriage is that homosexuals want the right to marry anyone they fall for. But, of course, heterosexuals are currently denied that right. They cannot marry their immediate family or all their sex partners. What homosexuals are asking for is the right to marry, not anybody they love, but somebody they love, which is not at all the same thing.

Once again, this argument is correct as far as it goes, but it doesn’t go far enough — at least not far enough to satisfy proponents of the PIB argument. As they see it, permitting homosexuality — even monogamous, non-incestuous, person-to-person homosexuality — involves relaxing traditional sexual mores. The fact that these mores prohibit constitutional homosexuals from marrying somebody they love is no more troubling to traditionalists than the fact that these mores prohibit constitutional pedophiles from marrying somebody they love, since traditionalists believe that there are good reasons for both prohibitions.

In short, both the “we exist” argument and the “equal options” argument are vulnerable to counterexamples: alcoholics really exist, and pedophiles are denied equal marital options. (Indeed, traditionalists are fond of pointing out that, strictly speaking, homosexuals do have “equal” options: they have the option of marrying persons of the oppostite sex. Such traditionalists usually remain silent on whether this option is a good idea for anyone involved, but so it goes.)

There is, I think, a better response to the PIB argument, one that has been suggested by both Sullivan and Rauch (whose contributions to this debate I gratefully acknowledge). It is to deny that arguments for homosexual relationships offer any real support for PIB relationships. Why would proponents of the PIB argument think otherwise? Perhaps they assume that our main argument for homosexual relationships is that they feel good and we want them. If that were our argument, it would indeed offer support for PIB relationships. But that is not our argument: it is a straw man.

A much better argument for homosexual relationships begins with an analogy: homosexual relationships offer virtually all of the benefits of sterile heterosexual relationships; thus, if we approve of the latter, we should approve of the former as well. For example, both heterosexual relationships and homosexual relationships can unite people in a way that ordinary friendship simply cannot. Both can have substantial practical benefits in terms of the health, economic security, and social productivity of the partners. Both can be important constituents of a flourishing life. Yes, they feel good and we want them, but there’s a lot more to it than that. These similarities create a strong prima facie case for treating homosexual and heterosexual relationships the same — morally, socially, and politically.

“But wait,” say the opponents. “Can’t you make the same argument for PIB relationships?” Not quite. It is true that you can use the same form of argument for PIB relationships: PIB relationships have benefits X, Y, and Z and no relevant drawbacks. But whether PIB relationships do in fact have such benefits and lack such drawbacks is an empirical matter, one that will not be settled by looking to homosexual relationships.

To put my point more concretely: to observe that Tom and Dick (and many others like them) flourish in homosexual relationships is not to prove that Greg and Marcia would flourish in an incestuous relationship, or that Mike, Carol, and Alice would flourish in a polygamous relationship, or that Bobby and Tiger would flourish in a bestial relationship. Whether they would or not is a separate question — one that requires a whole new set of data.

Another way to indicate the logical distance between homosexual relationships and PIB relationships is to point out that PIB relationships can be either homosexual or heterosexual. Proponents of the PIB challenge must therefore explain why they group PIB relationships with homosexual relationships rather than heterosexual ones. There’s only one plausible reason: PIB and homosexuality have traditionally been condemned. But (whoops!) that’s also true of interracial relationships, which traditionalists (typically) no longer condemn. And (whoops again!) they’ve just argued in a circle: the question at hand is why we should group PIB relationships with homosexual relationships rather than heterosexual ones. Saying that “we’ve always grouped them together” doesn’t answer the question, it begs it.

The question remains, of course, whether PIB relationships do, on balance, have benefits sufficient to warrant their approval. Answering that question requires far more data than I can marshal here. It also requires careful attention to various distinctions: distinctions between morality and public policy, distinctions between the morally permissible and the morally ideal, and — perhaps most important — distinctions between polygamy, incest, and bestiality, which are as different from each other as they each are from homosexuality. In what remains I offer some brief (and admittedly inconclusive) observations about each of these phenomena.

Polygamy provides perhaps the best opportunity among the three for obtaining the requisite data: there have been and continue to be polygamous societies. Most of these are in fact polygynous (multiple-wife) societies, and most of them are sexist. Whether egalitarian polygamous societies are possible is an open question. Whether egalitarian polygamous relationships are possible (as opposed to entire societies) is an easier question. Though I find it difficult to imagine maintaining a relationship with several spouses — having had enough trouble maintaining a relationship with one — I have no doubt that at least some people flourish in them.

This conclusion leaves open the question of whether such relationships should be state-supported. As my acquaintance Josh Goldfoot put it, “Marry your toaster if you like, but please don’t try to file a joint tax return with it.” Whatever reasons the state has for being in the marriage business (and this point is a matter of considerable debate), these may or may not be good reasons for the state to recognize multiple spouses.
Polygamy also provides the most troublesome case for the traditionalists, since polygamy has Biblical support. True, the Bible reports troublesome jealousies among the sons of various wives, which perhaps should be taken as a lesson. But polygamy is clearly a case where the religious right can’t point to “God’s eternal law.”

Incest, too, is common and expected in some societies — typically in the form of rites of initiation. In our own society incest typically results in various psychological difficulties, difficulties that should at least give pause to the supporter of incest. But one can easily construct a case that circumvents most (if not all) of these difficulties: imagine two adult lesbian sisters who privately engage in what they report to be a fulfilling sexual relationship. Can I prove that such activity is wrong? No — at least not off the top of my head. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s incumbent upon me to do so. If there are good arguments against such a relationship, they will remain unaffected by the argument in favor of homosexuality. And if the only argument traditionalists can offer against such a relationship is that longstanding tradition prohibits it, so much the worse for traditionalists. Again, that same argument is applicable to interracial relationships, and history has revealed its bankruptcy.

The bestiality analogy is the most irksome of the three, since it reveals that the traditionalists are either woefully dishonest or woefully dense. To compare a homosexual encounter — even a so-called “casual” one — with humping a sheep is to ignore the distinctively human capacities that sexual relationships can (and usually do) engage. As such, it is to reduce sex to its purely physical components — precisely the reduction that traditionalists are fond of accusing us of. That noted, claiming that bestial relationships are qualitatively different from human homosexual relationships does not prove that bestial relationships are immoral. Nor does the lack of mutual consent, since we generally don’t seek consent in our dealings with animals. No cow consented to become my shoes, for example.

To be honest, I feel about bestiality much as I feel about sex with inflatable dolls: I don’t recommend making a habit out of it, and it’s not something I’d care to do myself, but it’s hardly worthy of serious moral attention. I feel much the same way about watching infomercials: there are better ways to spend one’s time, to be sure, but there are also better things for concerned citizens to worry about.

Why, then, are we even discussing bestiality? Perhaps it’s because traditionalists have run out of plausible-sounding arguments against homosexuality, and so now they’re grasping at straws. And then there’s the emotional factor: mentioning homosexuality won’t make people squeamish the way it once did, but mentioning bestiality and incest will at least raise some eyebrows, if not turn some stomachs. In short, the right wing knows that it’s losing its cultural war against homosexuality, and it’s trying to change the subject. We should steadfastly refuse to join them.

 Scroll to top