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Stan’s Bans

April 30th, 2003 · No Comments

You know, rebutting Stan Kurtz is starting to feel a little like debunking astrology. I mean, it’s fun, but why bother? Anyone actually looking for a serious argument will come away from a piece like this with tears of laughter streaming down their face without a need for any third party commentary, and anyone who can take it seriously is in the grip of a Will to Believe in the face of which I’d expect argument to be impotent. Fortunately, Radley has beaten me to the punch on this one, as has Jacob Levy, so I can just toss out a few ancillary comments.

One is that, as Radley notes, he doesn’t really treat the “libertarian question,” because he treats the question of whether interference in people’s private sex lives is justified as a matter of mere policy balancing. If we think that throwing you in jail for having sex with another consenting adult might generate some speculative good effect, well, it’s just a question of weighing costs and benefits. It’s worth reflecting on how bizarre and, yes, even un-American this framework for thinking about the issue is. It’s as though we were considering banning some disfavored form of speech, and the only question on the table were whether more people were gratified than upset by the speech in question. Nowhere do we see a claim that it might somehow, indirectly, violate someone’s rights to let men shag men. Instead, we get a kind of sexual precautionary principle: if there’s some risk that freedom might have psychological side effects we wouldn’t like, the default move is to ban.

Of course, it’s also worth noting just how insane and convoluted is the reasoning to the purported harms Kurtz is adducing. The attempt to link rising divorce rates to a decline in blind hatred of gay people would be a textbook example of the post hoc ergo propter hoc fallacy, except he can’t even get the post hoc part of it right. Let’s actually look at the data:

Now, obviously, this isn’t terribly scientific since (a lot like Kurtz) I haven’t controlled for other factors, but if you were looking for a correlation between divorce and public acceptance of homosexuality, you’d be hard pressed to find it in the window of overlap. Indeed, you’d find the opposite. Maybe, just maybe, the spike in divorce rates had more to do with things like, oh, I don’t know, the growing sense that a woman’s life isn’t necessarily a failure if she isn’t married, and that people don’t have to stay trapped in unhappy marriages because that’s the Natural Order of Things. Not to mention the fact that leaving a bad husband isn’t economic suicide in an era where (to Stan’s horror, doubtless) women can go get jobs of their own quite easily. After all, marriage is wonderful, but any and every divorce is not necessarily an awful thing. If the sexual revolution had its downside, neither do most of us want to go back to the way we were before it. Consider this, from Anthony Giddens’ Runaway World:

If ever I am tempted to think that the traditional family might be best after all, I remember what my great aunt once said to me. She must have had one of the longest marriages of anyone, having been with her husband for over 60 years. She once confided that she had been deeply unhappy with him the whole of that time. In her day there was no escape.

Golly, there’s an idea… I bet the marriage rates would skyrocket if we threatened women with prison terms for the antisocial act of trying to earn an independent income. Not to go all broken record on y’all, but there really is something awfully un-conservative about this collectivist, chessplayer’s approach to social policy. What ever happened to the notion that each person or couple, and not “society” (or at least the gay part of it) is responsible for your inability to do stuff like hold a job or sustain a marriage?

Despite all of this, there would be some cause for concern if we thought freer sex would erode marriage, but what good reason does Stan give us to think it would? Well, none. Just a bald assertion, one that doesn’t even pass the straight face test. The whole piece is the most specious sort of slippery slope argument, and Kurtz doesn’t even stop to notice that it has no logical stopping point in the other direction. If you really buy his logic, banning gay sex ought to be way down the list, under banning contraception and prosecuting couples who have open marriages—both legal, even in Texas.

At the end of the day, what’s most striking in this piece is Kurtz’s utter lack of confidence in an institution that’s lasted for millenia. And as I’m sure I’ve noted before, it’s totally out of line with ordinary conservative logic. Apparently, we wouldn’t all just let the poor starve in the streets absent extensive government redistribution. But we wouldn’t feel any need for monogamous relationships unless everyone else is forced at gunpoint to maintain maximal monogamy. Ah, but I’m succumbing to the temptation… If you though Kurtz’s argument was anything but ridiculous at first glance, none of the above is likely to seem compelling. And iif you did, it’s redundant—a pointless jab at the death rattle of an ugly, authoritarian cultural vision. I guess we probably shouldn’t begrudge Stan Kurtz the small pleasures of tossing off these columns. If the only thing he’s going to allow up his ass is a monstrous stick, we may as well let him get off on it.

In other news, James Miller reminds us why, whenever a game theorist looks at romance, the first two thoughts to arise, in quick succession, are: (1) huh, that’s an interesting way to look at it, and (2) wow, you never get laid, do you? In this case, though, it’s a lot like Kurtz’s piece: a just-so-story that falls apart if you stop to think whether it’s really plausible, beyond being theoretically cute. That is, do we really think that the marginal difference in actual incestuous relationships is going to significantly alter our likelihood of inferring some budding romance from ordinary familial affection? I’m not seeing it. Look at it this way, it’s probably a lot harder to get caught by the cops in the midst of a consensual sexual relationship with your adult nephew or niece than it is to get busted smoking pot. People manage to do quite a lot of the latter, despite laws against it, while the former is quite rare. I’d be inclined to go out on a limb and say that the overwhelming social stigma, and not an law that’s almost never actually enforced (except, maybe, in connection with independently justified laws, like those against raping kids) that prevents most of us from shacking up with our relations.

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