Anyone who’s done much activism or kept up with the academic debate regarding gay marriage in recent years has come across the insulting “gay marriage is a slippery slope that leads to polygamy, marrying animals, etc.” argument. Now, this is a stupid argument. Of course it’s stupid. But why is it stupid? And what should the response be?
I think one common response to this argument highlights a larger problem regarding our culture’s attitudes towards sexuality. The thing is, a lot of people have a tendency to respond directly to that argument by saying “of course this won’t lead to polygamy or marrying animals! Gay marriage is clearly different from these things, and let me tell you why.” The problem is that if you argue that way, you’ve already accepted the premise. You’ve accepted that there is a category of bad things that includes polygamy, marrying animals, and presumably other practices as well, and that this category < gay marriage.
First of all, there is no such category. What does polygamy have to do with marrying animals, other than that both of those things freak out the person speaking at the moment? Though I’d concede that polygamy generally refers to a pretty crappy, sexist institution in common parlance, why is the two-people marriage model necessarily superior to alternative family models? I’d rather simply say that the argument is based on faulty logic and refuse to engage it, and then perhaps go on to talk about family and culture and why we happen to privilege one form of sanctioned sexuality over another.
However you feel about a particular form of sexuality or a particular family form, or anything else for that matter, it seems like a common kneejerk reaction to say about your own practice or preferences “Well at least it’s better than x.” I kissed a girl, but at least I was drunk, so I’m not really gay. I like light bondage in bed, but at least I’m not doing any of that other crazy kinky stuff. I’m for gay marriage, but at least I’m not for abolishing marriage–I just want equality in the existing system! It seems that in most of these cases, the logical pattern is what’s off. An interesting challenge to regulate our speech would be to say “I am interested in x. I enjoy x, because it makes me feel good/it’s fun/I think it’s great.” This doesn’t mean you have to love more extreme forms, but instead of that tricky “at least” formula, I would say “Additionally, I don’t like y. I don’t like y for these reasons.” There’s nothing wrong with disagreeing with a particular practice or model, but it’s good to have a reason.