Which slopes are slippery?

Near the end of his anti-gay marriage article in today’s Age, Ted Lapkin does get to some substantive reasons why he thinks gay marriage is a bad idea. But much of the article is devoted to the slippery slope argument that once we have gay marriage we will slide into things we really don’t like, such as legal recognition of polygamy and decriminalising incest.

I don’t disagree with Lapkin that issues can develop their own logics, and that one change can make another change more likely. I think we are now nearing the base of a moderately slippery slope on gay issues. Once the state gave up on the idea of actively persecuting gay people for acting on their sexual desires, it became harder and harder to defend all the other ways in which the law disadvantaged them.

Lapkin himself says that everyone, gay or straight, is entitled to identical protections from the law – something that few conservative defenders of the family would have said until quite recently. Once you are sliding on the slippery slope, it can be hard to stop. The last conservative stand on gay issues at the Marriage Act is no more likely to succeed in the end than any of the other battles along the way.

The question then is not whether slippery slopes exist, but whether you can slide from one slope to another in any kind of deterministic fashion (“The floodgates will inevitably open to a further slide down the slippery slope of social disintegration”.)

As a matter of pure policy logic, there is something to be said for extending legal recognition to marriage-like relationships involving more than two people. Indeed, this has already happened at least for the purposes of relationship breakdown, with foreign polygamous marriages recognised in the law and mistresses able to make claims. The public policy rationale is protecting the interests of weaker parties when relationships come apart.

I may have my divorce law wrong, but my understanding is that the extension of these laws to gay couples occurred after they were already in place for heterosexual couples – so in this case if the slope was slippery it was from straight to gay.

On the other hand, there are public policy reasons for discouraging polygamy that don’t exist for gay marriage. Letting the most powerful/rich/attractive people (usually men) take multiple legal partners while others miss out isn’t good for those who end up single as a result. But with gay marriage it’s hard to see how anyone else is worse off.

With incest, there are also clear public policy arguments that do not apply to gay marriage, such as the much higher prevalence of birth defects when closely related people have children.

So I don’t think the logic is likely to flow in the way that Lapkin thinks. Even if gay marriage signals a more liberal view of what relationships should be recognised by the state, there are obstacles on the slope for polygamy and incest that aren’t there for gay marriage.

More important than pure logic is political momentum. Legal changes like this don’t just happen because lawmakers can see an analogy; they are fought for by people who think they are a good idea, and lawmakers tend to get dragged along. Many people are calling for gay marriage, but the constituency for polygamy remains confined to some religious groups who rarely bother making their case in public. The constituency for incest is non-existent as far as I can tell.

Though Lapkin seems to think that Adam Bandt’s gay marriage logic leads him to polygamy as well, I would think the opposite. The ‘progressives’ who support gay marriage aren’t going to a lift a finger for Muslims and Mormons who want multiple wives. And for good reason, from their perspective: gay marriage advances equality, while polygamy sets it back.

Gay marriage, polygamy and incest laws are all about what constitutes a family, but they each have their own policy and political logics. They are different slopes, and a slide down one will not lead to a slide down either of the other two.

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  1. I agree with you. I have a few comments, however, to do with some of your arguments.

    “With incest, there are also clear public policy arguments that do not apply to gay marriage, such as the much higher prevalence of birth defects when closely related people have children.”

    Not gay incest (that’s a serious comment), or people who would use IVF to get around genetic problems. You can also quite happily marry your first cousin (or uncle or aunt) in Australia, and that certainly has birth defect risks (as the UK has found out the hard way with their Pakistani population). Historically, humans have also often married their even more direct descendents, so it’s not like it’s not without precedent either (which is not to say it’s a good precedent).

    I also don’t really see the problem with polygamy (assuming the take-up would be pretty small) — if you are going to allow mistresses (and presumably the male version) to claim relationship money after they get ditched, then I don’t really how that is much different to polygamy — indeed, it’s probably simpler to deal with if done at an offical level.

  2. Conrad – Fair comments. While I think the ban on parents being too closely genetically related should stay, it’s reasonable to think that otherwise nothing much terribly bad would happen if the law was changed that isn’t happening already.

    But these are issues that should be (and are) treated separately to gay marriage.

  3. Andrew, I’m also not convinced of your argument against polygamy, which is much more an issue of morals than public policy. Is it really that likely that a significant proportion of rich men will marry multiple women? It seems that the subset of people who would want to do it and are rich enough to do so would be relatively small and would probably have little effect on the supply of women wishing to marry. And polygamy is also less likely to prosper in an environment where women’s rights to hold property and seek employment and open, as in Australia. Really, the laws against polygamy are mainly a holdover of a Judeo-Christian legal system and a limited demand from people to practice polygamy. There’s not a strong public policy ground against it, although I can;t imagine there being many votes in it for politicians!

  4. I am still unclear about what is being debated. If straight and gay de facto partners have more or less the same rights and responsibilities as married couples, is it just being able to call yourself “married”? For a straight couple, I understand that being married means I call my partner my “wife” and my partner can call me her “husband”. Does this mean that a male gay couple would call their partner their “husband”? Is there any more to it than that?

  5. Dave – I don’t personally think the argument against polygamy is very compelling, given the overall social circumstances in Australia. But I do think people could without inconsistency support gay marriage and oppose polygamy, contrary to what Lapkin supposes.

    Rajat – It is largely a symbolic issue in Australia, since marriage has already been largely emptied of legal significance. The main advantage is that an actual marriage is conclusive proof of a relationship, which can otherwise sometimes be difficult to prove.

  6. I don’t understand why anyone other than social conservatives and the religious would care about being married anyway. Either you do it for religious reasons or for cultural historic reasons.

    The big issue isn’t gay marriage. The issue is that gay marriage is a massive step towards gay adoption, surogacy and the like.

    Also I’m not convinced that a marriage is conclusive proof of a relationship for the purposes of say immigration or tax minimusation. I think it does count for wills and life insurance, etc… but a de-facto applies in the same way.

  7. M – The slippery slope is working the other way with surrogacy, adoption and the like, since in many Australian jurisdictions they are already legal for gays. Assisted reproduction is big for lesbians, eg Penny Wong’s partner. So given all these kids are going to end up in gay households, it is better that their carers are encouraged to get married.

  8. I believe the slippery slope argument is always very weak.
    Our legal system as well as our moral beliefs involve drawing lines along a spectrum – or slope, if you prefer.
    When is killing (or assaulting) a person justified? Just war, self defence. What actions legal and unobjectionable in private are illegal if done in public? When is abortion legal? How drunk is too drunk to drive a car? Or fly a plane?

  9. “Letting the most powerful/rich/attractive people (usually men) take multiple legal partners while others miss out isn’t good for those who end up single as a result.”

    Would this actually be prevented by failing to recognise polygamy? I take it it’s not illegal to have two partners at once, you just can’t claim to be ‘married’?

    I would think that those who worry about women being treated poorly in marriage (relative to men) would see polygamy as an equalising force – there would be more competition for female partners which would drive up the price. The low status loser men who would lose out from polygamy are not usually the recipients of much public sympathy, so I’m not sure that’s what turns people off polygamy, though I agree it’s the most compelling argument against.

  10. In the communities that have histories of polygamy such as Islam and Mormons just moving in together is much less acceptable than in the general community, so the polygamy ban is probably changing behaviour.

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