One of the most common arguments against same-sex marriage is that it would open the floodgates to all sorts of other types of marriage. For example, James Dobson in his book Gay Marriage: Why We Must Win This Battle (Multnomah, 2004) writes:
After the introduction of marriage between homosexuals ... the family will consist of little more than someone's interpretation of "rights." Given the unstable legal climate, it is certain that some self-possessed judge, somewhere, will soon rule that three men or three women can marry. Or five men and two women. Or four and four. Who will be able to deny them that right? The guarantee is implied, we will be told, by the Constitution.... How about group marriage? Or marriage between daddies and little girls? How about marriage between a man and his donkey? (p. 49)
The slippery slope argument has been used for centuries to ridicule and deny human rights. Animals often play a starring role. Shortly after Mary Wollstonecraft published A Vindication of the Rights of Woman in 1792, Thomas Taylor responded with the satirical A Vindication of the Rights of Brutes, in which he argues that not only women but animals should have the same rights as men. Much less whimsical versions of this argument were used in America to justify slavery. I can remember people in the 1960s and 1970s ridiculing equal rights for black Americans and women with "jests" along the lines of "What's next? Equal rights for — — ?" and your own experience will probably let you fill in the blanks.
The implication, of course, is that the proposed recipient of equal rights is not quite fully human, and hence not deserving of the same rights as complete humans. Dobson's suggestion that a marriage between two men or two women is similar to a "marriage between a man and his donkey" is insightful only to the extent that it illuminates the nether regions of Dobson's mind.
Let's get serious here: An extremely important concept in our society and our laws is consent. We all agree that no one should arbitrarily be forced to do something he or she does not want to do. We all agree that it should be illegal to force someone to have sex. This is the crime of rape, and society imposes serious punishments on people who commit this crime. Marriage, likewise, is only considered valid when entirely consensual — despite the pressures of parents or metaphorical shotguns.
A marriage between "a man and his donkey" cannot occur because — and I'm feeling stupid for being forced to point this out — the donkey cannot consent to the marriage by saying "I do." Even if the donkey appears to be very enthusiastic about the prospect of marriage, there's no way to really tell. The idea that a judge would approve such a marriage without getting the donkey's opinion on the matter is absurd.
Of course, James Dobson knows that it's absurd. He's not being serious here. He's making a jest to suggest that a gay marriage is no more legitimate than a marriage between "a man and his donkey" because he believes gay people to be substandard human beings.
Our society and our laws are also designed to protect children. We are all very much agreed that children cannot be trusted to make proper long-term decisions for themselves. A great deal of our societal structure and our laws are to ensure that children get fed, and not go out in the snow without proper clothing, and attend school. Similarly, society establishes age limits on sexual consent and marriage. Dobson's suggestion that some judge would allow marriage to "little girls" is similarly as absurd as the marriage to a donkey.
James Dobson doesn't want gay people to get married, and his solution was a consitutional amendment called the Federal Marriage Amendment. This Amendment was supported by former President George W. Bush but it got nowhere in Congress. The concept hasn't died, however. A constitutional amendment prohibiting gay marriage is favored by many of the Republicans currently running for President, including Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich, Michele Bachmann, and Rick Santorum.
Rick Santorum has frequently used the slippery slope argument when speaking of gay marriage, as well as when discussing the 2003 Lawrence v. Texas decision that knocked down laws in 14 states outlawing sodomy. In an interview I quoted in my recent blog entry "Rick Santorum Wants Into Your Bedroom", he admitted that sex between two men was not as bad as "man on child, man on dog" — again with the obsession with sex involving children and animals! — but asserted that "if the Supreme Court says that you have the right to consensual sex within your home, then you have the right to bigamy, you have the right to polygamy, you have the right to incest, you have the right to adultery."
Slippery slope arguments often contain a built-in flaw: The slope itself starts to seem more dangerous than what makes the slope slippery. In this case, a slippery slope argument against gay marriage implies that it's not the gay marriage that's bad, but the slippery slope consequences of gay marriage, and that's when the donkey strolls into the singles bar.
Yet, these slippery slope arguments seem to be preferred by opponents of gay marriage in recent times because that's all they have left. Religious arguments sound increasingly cruel and parochial — the realm of those whackos who stage anti-gay protests at the funerals of American soldiers. Others who still claim that being gay is merely a "lifestyle choice" are in opposition to modern psychology, genetics, and common experience, and consequently sound decidedly daffy.
So, after Rick Santorum's surprisingly strong showing in the Iowa Caucuses, when the former senator found himself in a roomful of college students in New Hampshire who challenged his views on gay marriage, he had no choice but to fall back (so to speak) on the slippery slope. When questioned about same-sex marriage Santorum countered with “Well, what about three men? If reason says that if you think it’s OK for two, then you have to differentiate with me as to why it’s not OK for three.”
From what I saw of this exchange, the students couldn't quite articulate the difference, and yet there are profound differences between same-sex marriage and group marriage.
The big difference is that while we acknowledge that people are intrinsically gay, or intrinsically straight, or intrinsically bisexual, people do not seem to be intrinsically polygamous. Polygamy and other forms of group marriage are instead very much a product of religious beliefs, or the perquisites of power, or utopianist yearnings. Prohibiting group marriage does not have the same problem as prohibiting gay marriage, which specifically targets and harms a particular group of American citizens.
Keep in mind that many people already practice group marriage with extralegal arrangements, and in most cases, nobody really cares. As we've seen in actual cases in recent years, the only time the government gets involved is when women are being coerced, and particularly when underage girls are part of these marriages — in other words, when statutory rape is taking place.
Could group marriage be legally sanctioned? Yes, but it would be very difficult, and that's another big difference between gay marriage and group marriage.
Sure, a simple marriage between just two people is sometimes complicated, and the complications get worse when the marriage must be dissolved. Often lawyers and courts are required to split the property and determine custody of the children. But these legal complications don't get any messier when the two married people happen to be of the same sex. Accomodating same-sex marriage within existing marriage laws is legally trivial.
Not so with group marriage. If a group marriage exists between four people, what must occur for a fifth person to join that marriage? Consent of everyone already in the marriage or only a majority? What if two of the participants of this resulting five-person marriage want to divorce one of the members but the other two do not? Dividing custody of children among two people is hard enough; imagine the complications when half a dozen parents are involved.
The only kind of legal structure we have to handle situations of this sort are designed not for marriage but for business arrangements. Legislation to regulate group marriage would need to handle a host of problems simply not encountered in two-person marriages.
Moreover, who exactly is clamoring for the legal recognition of group marriage? If the advocates of group marriage want legal recognition, let them come forth and make their arguments, and let them discuss how the legal ramifications would be resolved. We can then begin having dialogues about these changes to our laws.
Meanwhile, if the real problem with same-sex marriage is that it makes group marriage more acceptable, and if the prospect of legalized group marriage is so hideous, why isn't Rick Santorum proposing a constitutional amendment that bans group marriage?
Why is Rick Santorum using group marriage to penalize gay people?