So you say you don’t hate gay people, Part IV

I’m sure you’ve all heard it before. If we normalize and accepting being gay, next we’ll have to accept pedophilia! If we allow gay marriage, we’ll have to let people marry turtles, or dogs! I remember hearing these arguments growing up, and they made perfect sense to me. So I’ve asked myself why they made sense to me then and make no sense to me now, and I have come up with not only an explanation but also a handy way to visualize it.

I call it the tale of two boxes.

I mentioned yesterday that I learn from the comments my readers leave. Well, the seed of this idea was born after reading this comment by reader smrnda:

I actually think that Christian sexual ethics – which are based on purity rather than consent, are really to blame. When I read lists of ‘sexual sin’ that include say, ‘masturbation, homosexuality and rape’ I get really bothered since most sensible people would know that it’s really inaccurate and insensitive to put those together on a list as if they were equivalent – I mean, the first two being moral issues is a joke, the third is one of the most terrible things you can do. Most people are horrified at sexual abuse and rape and power and oppression – the whole ‘purity thing’ doesn’t seem to single out sexual abuse and assault as special categories worthy of special disdain. The whole ‘sexual sin is sexual sin’ trivializes real wrong sexual behaviors.

Reading this comment got me to thinking, and here are some conclusions I’ve come to.

Let’s imagine everyone has two boxes, one in which they place all the sexual acts they believe are wrong, and the other in which they place all the sexual acts they believe are okay. The thing is, not only do conservatives and progressives (we’ll use those terms for the moment) divide acts differently between the two boxes, they also label the two boxes differently.

In other words, conservatives divide sexual acts into “wrong” or “okay” based on what God thinks of them, and progressives divide sexual acts into “wrong” and “okay” based on whether or not they are consensual.

Because of this, conservatives associate acts like gay sex, pedophilia, and bestiality in a way progressives don’t, and progressives associate acts like marital sex, premarital sex, and gay sex in a way conservatives never would. Similarly, conservatives see a bright line between, say, marital sex and gay sex but not between gay sex and pedophilia while progressives draw a bright line between, say, gay sex and pedophilia but not between gay sex and marital sex.

Thus when a conservative hears someone saying that gay sex is okay, they’re seeing that person dip into the box labeled “What God forbids,” and thus they wonder how, if you can dip into that box for one thing, that’s any different from taking something else out of that same box, like pedophilia or bestiality. But for the progressive, pedophilia and bestiality aren’t in the same box as gay sex. So when the conservative asks how someone can accept gay sex but still condemn pedophilia or bestiality, the progressive says, “What? Where in the world is that question coming from?”

And when conservatives object to gay marriage by equating it to marriage to animals, they’re once again looking at these things through the lens of their two boxes – “what God forbids” and “what God allows.” To a progressive that argument makes no sense, since they view these things through the lens of their two boxes – “non-consensual acts” and “consensual acts.” Marriage to an animal would never be consensual, but marriage between two men or two women is consensual, so why would you ever compare the two?

I think understanding that conservatives and progressives class sexual acts based on completely different categories – God’s commands v. consent – is important in understanding why the two sides so often seem to speak past each other.

I want to finish by quickly drawing this back to my “so you say you don’t hate gay people” theme. Regardless of what a person says about not hating gay people, if they group consensual acts like gay sex together with non-consensual acts like bestiality and pedophilia, they’re going to come across as offensive. Really offensive. And not really very loving, either.

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Aniota

    Thank you for this post, I think this really helps me understand where ‘conservatives’ are coming from, not only in regards to sexual ethics. This means that arguments against their positions should be formed very differently than I previously assumed – that’ll be something to ponder, thanks.
    I am, however, still curious about the whole masturbation issue that is touched in the quoted comment by smrnda. I’ve heard numerous times, like for example from Dan Savage, that the Bible condemned masturbation. And I continue to see arguments against masturbation being brought forth by ‘conservatives’. Yet I fail to see what story/stories they are referring to.
    The only story I know of that might be interpreted as condemning masturbation is the story of Onan (Genesis 38) who “spilled it [his seed] on the ground” when asked to impregnate the widow Tamar of his late brother. And this story doesn’t strike me as arguing against masturbation. I’ll elaborate:
    Taken at face value, it doesn’t condemn masturbatory acts that do not let “seed spill on the ground” which therefore does not affect those biologically unable of spilling seed (‘biologically female’ if you want) and perhaps even masturbatory acts that avoid the seed touching the ground (like, y’know, tissue papers). It’s also not clear on whether masturbation or coitus interruptus is meant, which to my understanding are both meanings of the English word “onanism”. Lastly, the whole story makes far more sense when the principle of a Levirate union (Deuteronomy 25,5) is invoked which would then mean that not Onan’s action of “spilling seed on the ground” is condemned, but his disobeying God’s orders of impregnating Tamar that is only expressed by the spilling.
    I’d be rather grateful if someone could point me to what I’m missing with the Bible supposedly condemning masturbation.

    • Rosa

      It’s not really from the bible, it’s just an American cultural thing.

      Masturbation was considered terrible in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in America, and lots of reasons not to do it were common currency. Masturbation in children and teens was thought of as leading to sexual promiscuity, and pleasure-seeking in women was thought to cause mental illness, because gender ideals of the time said women didn’t/shouldn’t feel sexual desire.

      There was a medical theory that “wasting the vital essence” caused ill health in masturbators and even congenital problems for their children. That one also applied to too much marital sex and having too many children, and tied into racial and Social Darwinist ideas.

      There was a continuance of the old Protestant ideas against various forms of pleasure that had previously held a pretty clear consensus against things like the theater, gambling, and popular music. It was applied to things like masturbation, unsupervised play, alcohol, and later movies.

      So the link between the story of Onan and masturbation (which is terrible Bible reading, right up there with saying the wine at the wedding at Cana was actually fresh unfermented grape juice) in American Evangelical churches comes from popular sermons of that period.

      • ScottInOH

        It’s more than the US. The Catholic catechism still says masturbation, or any ejaculation by a man outside his wife’s vagina, is a sin. Sex is for procreation (oh, and for unity, too, but only if there’s a possibility of procreation thrown in). This is because God said so.

      • Rosa

        @Scott – totally true (and just as messed up) but Catholics don’t have that much influence on Evangelical and fundamentalist culture. It’s gotten more as the pro-life movement has taken off, but the anti-masturbation fervor is older than that.

        The number of different ways people found to justify trying to stop people from masturbating around the turn of the last century is kind of shocking – it’s actually a lot like anti-gay talk now, people dragged in the effects on the masturbator’s children (who would be feeble), and the harms they were protecting the masturbator from, up to and including death, linked masturbation to crime, and claimed to have found various totally effective scientific ways to prevent masturbation, often without mentioning religion at all. It was all just superstition and prejudice dressed up in whatever type of language suited the speaker best.

      • Rosie

        Indeed, the anti-masturbation fervor of the church has perpetuated genital mutilation even in so-called “civilized” countries. Circumcision and clitorectomy were advertized as ways to stop children from touching themselves.

      • ScottInOH

        Thanks, Rosa. That’s interesting (i.e., frightening) stuff.

    • Joy

      You’re not missing a darn thing. Like the idea of the Bible being against abortion, it’s nearly totally made up. One or two verses taken out of context and extrapolated into infinity.

      • Joy

        On the other hand–Dan Savage would be perfectly correct in stating that the Catholic Church explicitly condemns masturbation. But extracting a clear-cut condemnation from the text of the Bible alone is more difficult; you need a magisterium to do stuff like that.

      • Frank

        Yes I am sure God is extremely happy when one of His precious creations is terminated. Yeah that is it!

      • Rosie

        Frank, we terminate “God’s precious creations” all the time, because we have to eat. Seems to me like if he didn’t want killing, he’d have made us all mineral-vores. You can make some argument that he cares more about humans than plants or animals, but you have to selectively stretch and ignore a good deal to do so. “His eye is on the sparrow” and all that. Not to mention the test for adultery in the OT being the administration of an abortificant.

    • Lisa

      I do believe the point of the whole Onan story is that Onan denied Tamar her rights as a widow (and his sister-in-law). He basically denied her a safe life which she would have if she had his son because then he’d certainly care for her. And even worse, he “abused” her for fun, he lied to her saying that she would have his baby just to deny her that as well in the last second.
      Onan commited a whole bunch of wrongs (morally and culturally) in that story, but masturbation or even any sexual practice really aren’t among them. I do believe that this story shouldn’t/can’t be used to make a point when it comes to right and wrong sex. It’s about Tamar’s rights as a widow.

      • Aniota

        I haven’t previously thought of that, thank you. Given that a woman’s social position depended on having (male) children in those times, this interpretation makes a lot of sense.

        I am, however, not quite convinced that Onan “abused” Tamar. Given what I’ve read in the comments so far I now assume that “onanism” in English means coitus interruptus i.e. pulling out before ejaculation. In my native language “onanism” is synonymous with “masturbation”. Both interpretations seem valid in my opinion:
        The NIV puts it “But Onan knew that the child would not be his; so whenever he slept with his brother’s wife, he spilled his semen on the ground to keep from providing offspring for his brother.” (Genesis 38:9) This clearly points to coitus interruptus.
        The KJV as well as the NKJV put it “And Onan knew that the seed should not be his; and it came to pass, when he went in unto his brother’s wife, that he spilled it on the ground, lest that he should give seed to his brother.” (Genesis 38:9, quoted according to KJV) This might mean coitus interruptus or masturbation, depending on how one interprets the “when he went”.
        (Since I’m neither native English speaking nor well read on American Biblical scholarship I don’t know how accurate the numerous English translations of the Bible are. The ones I have at hand in my mother tongue allow for both interpretations, one seems to lean towards coitus interruptus but isn’t clear)

    • Petticoat Philosopher

      I agree with your interpretation of the story, not because I have a dog in this race, because I don’t believe in the authority of the bible, but because it just seems obvious to me. I am as confused by the fact that anybody could read it and come away thinking “And the moral of the story is don’t blow your load outside of a vagina!” as I am by the fact that anyone could read the Sodom story and come away thinking “And the moral of the story is you can’t put it in the butt, ewwww!” And yet many people see exactly that in both those stories and have built an entire system of sexual ethics on it.

      I swear, sometimes I feel like the conservative interpretation of the bible was provided by Beavis and Butthead.

      • Nana Sew Dear

        You nearly made diet Coke spray out of my nose.

      • melissa

        do you have your own blog or something? because I have been reading stuff all morning about issues, and then i read you and I am laughing until tears are pouring out of my eyes!!! It is so good to hear a little light sacastic funning about this, because at this stage of my understanding of my mother and her bible, I usually come away, not frustrated that our debates got us nowhere, but LAUGHING because she makes as little sense as , I dont know what!!

    • kagekiri

      Yeah, well, onanism is a stupid reason to oppose masturbation; it’s more like a reason to oppose contraception or sex then pulling out, or basically any sex without the purpose of procreation (so if you aren’t fertile, no sex for you!). Still crazy stupid, but not really related.

      As for other Biblical justifications, the main one I was taught is based on the thought-crime rules from Jesus. If even thinking sexually about a woman who isn’t your wife is “adultery”, then most sexual thoughts that pass through your mind during masturbation are probably “adulterous”.

      Even thinking of fictional characters or figments of your imagination is still “sex with someone who isn’t your spouse” according to my old church’s rules, and some go as far as saying even if you have no thoughts of others during the act, you’re just having sex with yourself, which is….what, homoerotic or something? It’s dumb. My church said that even wet dreams or any sexual dreams were adultery, and that you could magically pray them away. You’re supposed to “take captive every thought for the sake of the kingdom” or whatever, so yeah, you’re responsible for every “evil” (read: sexual) thought and must refuse to listen to your own brain and body.

      Of course, while teaching us hormone-filled teenage boys (well, teenage back then) that masturbation and lust were horribly evil and depraved, we had BS like one pastor making the “95% of men masturbate, and the other 5% are lying” joke in a sermon. It was massively infuriating, especially as a teen who didn’t actually masturbate because of their stupid teachings and guilt-tripping.

    • Liadan

      Onan and Tamara’s story is about rape by fraud. Tribal law states that a widow without a child should sleep with a brother so her husband’s line won’t die. The resulting child is considered the husband’s child, not the brother’s. Onan agreed to father the child, had sex with Tamara, but pulled out to prevent a pregnancy. He had sex with Tamara fraudulently. He was also greedy because the husband’s child would inherit equally with Onan. Onan wanted his brother’s share of the money too. *This* was his sin, not masturbation.

    • Libby Anne

      The reason I was usually given for masturbation being wrong had nothing to do with Onan, but rather focused on lust. The idea was that you can’t masturbate without thinking about sex, and thinking about sex is judged just the same as doing it (that Bible verse about hating your brother being just as sinful as if you’d murdered your brother), so masturbating is basically the same thing as premarital sex. Yep, you heard that right – masturbating involves “thought sex” which counts as real sex and is therefore sin. Now you could argue that a married man could therefore masturbate, so long as he only thought about his wife while doing so, but Joshua Harris argued in his book on lust that once you’re married, every sex act MUST involve both partners and be mutual, or else the partner masturbating is, well, cheating on the other partner.

      You know what? It’s often astonishing to realize just how little of this is directly from the Bible, and how much is extrapolation or reading things into it or just plain making things up.

      • Rosa

        so how does this jibe with the “just act straight and we’ll still love you” talk about gays? Is it assumed that going to pray it away therapy will stop gay thoughts too?

      • smrnda

        I know plenty of happy couples who just admit that you can’t turn off sexual feelings like a light switch and that feeling sexual attraction, having sexual fantasies and yes, having previous sexual experiences are normal and have wonderful, open and honest relationships. They aren’t trying to meet some unattainable ideal.

        I think that beliefs about sexual purity drive a wedge between couples – they are given standards to meet that aren’t possible, tend to be raised in a gender-segregated fashion, so that as adults they can’t just admit what they really think and feel.

        People who preach that sexual purity is the way to avoid sexual dysfunction need to look at reality. The problem is that I think many people (like Joshua Harris) are just obsessed with the ‘ickiness’ of the fact that their partner might have had sex with or had sexual thoughts about someone else, and then try to build an ideology that puts their hangups on the rest of the world.

        I can’t figure out why thinking about sex is bad. I mean, it’s just normal. Is it bad to think about food except at mealtimes?

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Masturbation exactly the same as real sex? Boy, if only that were true… :-P

  • Susan

    This is a perfect analogy, and makes so much sense. I never understood the slippery slope argument before, just thought it was nonsense. If you look at it from the idea of there being two different boxes, then I understand how people can say that homosexuality leads to man on dog or whatever. I’m sure some are still disingenuous.

  • jwall915

    I’ve heard this argument before too, but I’ve heard it taken one step further, and I honestly wasn’t sure how to respond in that situation. Someone said to me once, “If we allow gay marraige, what’s to stop someone from marrying their sibling?” I replied that that’s incest and we have laws against it, and good reasons for those laws that have nothing to do with gays. Reasons like preventing children coming from such a union who would be genetically disadvantaged and possibly have birth defects. The response was, “well, what about same-sex siblings? They couldn’t produce a child.” The “logic” left me somewhat baffled, as I just think on the one hand that it made no sense to make the leap from two unrelated homosexuals falling in love with each other to incest… BUT, I didn’t have much of a response because two brothers or two sisters getting married could be completely consensual. Yet, the law would still disallow it because it’s incest. Any thoughts from anyone on this argument/exchange?

    • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort

      Incest is a tricky one that even divides the sex-positive progressive audience. Suppose we’re given a situation where a brother and sister fall in love and wish to have a relationship. It’s entirely free of coercion, abuse, and power dynamics – neither sibling has the ability to withold something from the other for refusing sexual advances. Nothing is inherently wrong with allowing a relationship like this.

      Even given a child in the situation, do we disallow unrelated couples from having a relationship with each other if, say, one has a genetic disposition towards autism or some other developmental disorder? Why prevent an incestuous relationship for the same reason? What if they don’t want to have children?

      I argue from a position with there being nothing inherently wrong with an incestuous relationship that is formed on equal grounds with no coerciveness.

      • machintelligence

        There are actually good genetic reasons for discouraging inbreeding. However, with the rapid advances in genetic sequencing, the rather crude consanguinity rules may end up being modified. The conservatives will of course oppose this, since it would most likely involve the abortion of defective fetuses.

      • Aniota

        @Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort:
        I’m with you in this one. An incestuous relationship that develops the same way a healthy non-incestuous one would is in my eyes not inherently wrong.
        Two twists however:
        1.) Such a relationship developing between relatives that grew up in the same home is highly unlikely due to the so called Westermarck effect. This is also the reason why siblings that are not related by blood see themselves as, well, siblings (think adopted, step-siblings or those who resulted from an indiscretion of the biological mother – maybe even without the father(s) knowing!). If, for instance, one of their parents cheated on their spouse (half-sibling incest) or siblings were separated at birth and only came to know one another after becoming adults, such scenarios are far more likely (and, I suppose, far more common than many would like).
        2.) The genetic argument is not so easily disposed of by pointing to people with genetic dispositions. It is unavoidable for them to predispose eventual children to whatever it is that is encoded in their genes, no matter who they’re with (yes, I know that it’s a little more complicated than just that). The same is, however, not true for incestuous couples!
        I have yet to find a solution for the second point other than my stance now of incestuous couples better not having biological children – and I am aware that the risks aren’t as high as commonly portrayed. Still…

      • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort


        Oh yes, I’m aware of the Westermarck effect. I was giving a hypothetical in that situation. It could certainly happen, unlikely however. The situation of siblings separated at birth is quite possibly the number one reason anti-incest laws are a bit too broad. – given that it has happened (unfortunately I’m not sure of the results of those kinds of situations.)

        As per the genetics, I think it’s up to the couple to decide more than anything. I don’t think – just as with those with predispositions – there should be laws against having children, cause that draws all kinds of bad issues (someone not knowing they had a genetic predisposition, for example, could get in trouble for having a child in that kind of environment)

      • Petticoat Philosopher

        Even the “the children will be genetically disadvantaged” argument is pretty weak. The genetic consequences of siblings having children together are greatly exaggerated, mostly because people don’t understand genetics. The problem with inbreeding is the lack of genetic variation so “bad” traits would stay in a population if they were already there. But this would really only be a problem if multiple generations of a family reproduced together for a long time. The individual child of two healthy siblings would most likely be fine.

        All this is to say that there really is no good argument for consensual incest between two siblings being wrong. Is it really, really gross? Yes. Wrong? no. lol

      • kagekiri

        Yeah, you know, I think even crazy pants YEC Christian fundies would probably have to agree with defect-free incest being okay.

        I know their justification for why Adam and Eve’s kids or Noah’s grandkids massively inbreeding wasn’t sinful is that their DNA was “perfect” and they had no defects, so it wasn’t messed up, but God changed it when our DNA got so “corrupted” and thus had child defect issues during inbreeding. I think this justification even applies to Israel in Egypt, where they magically interbreed from a group of 75 to over 2 million without any issues.

        So if we could screen for defects or repair them in vivo, even (maybe especially) fundamentalist Christians would technically have little biological OR Biblical basis for opposing incest, not without simultaneously condemning “God’s creation plan” that apparently required huge helpings of incest, even in his “chosen” people.

        On another note, I think Japan allows 1st cousins to marry as well.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        Not only Japan but most western nations allow cousin marriages (even if they are stigmatised). Actually it is the opposite what’s rare.

        If the texts I’ve read are right, in Europe it was only illegal in Austria, Hungary and Spain with dispensations from government in the last two countries and I don’t know if the ban is still in place in Hungary but it’s still the same in Spain for first grade cousins afaik (that is you need special dispensation to be able to marry a first grade cousin).

        It seems it is legal in Canada (

        There’s this page with data on cousin relationships but I don’t know if all the data is right:

      • Christine

        The one caveat they don’t mention is that while marrying a first or second cousin is fine, if it happens too often it can cause problems. As an example, see all the genetic disorders among the Amish.

      • dianne

        One potential argument against allowing marriage between siblings is that siblings really don’t need to be married. Your siblings are already your legal next of kin in most situations. So, for example, if a (heterosexual) sibling couple lives together and has children, then one of them dies, the survivor is automatically the guardian of the children, the assumed inheritor of the estate of the one who died, etc. A sibling is allowed to visit another sibling in the hospital, is accepted as their medical power of attorney, etc, as well. So the legal vulnerabilities are less. Not sure if that’s a good argument, but at least it leaves the survivor better off than, say, Sally Ride’s partner.

      • Aniota

        @Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort:
        Thanks for your reply. I already thought you’d know of the Westermarck effect but I still decided to include it in my comment since many people don’t and it makes at the very least an interesting bit of knowledge.
        I do apologize for not having been clear enough on my second point. I agree with you that the decision should ultimately up to the couple, not already made by law for them. I also see prohibition of having children because of genetics as some sort of Pandora’s Box that, once opened, either allows for consequences not foreseen when the law was made or produces some heavily unreasonable arguments to explain why only incestuous couples aren’t allowed to have children.

        (is it just me or is it getting kind of crowded here? Not that I complain :) )

      • machintelligence

        Don’t worry about the crowd, I checked with Libby Anne and she is fine with the genetics discussion. :-)

        Katherine Lorraine:

        Even given a child in the situation, do we disallow unrelated couples from having a relationship with each other if, say, one has a genetic disposition towards autism or some other developmental disorder? Why prevent an incestuous relationship for the same reason

        We don’t do that now, but in the future there may be a requirement for genetic testing and the abortion of fetuses with genetic defects. Possibly an insurance requirement, to provide for lifelong care of a possibly afflicted child might be required for those not willing to do the former.
        IMHO it is not right to saddle either society or the child afflicted with a serious genetic defect with a lifetime of expense and grief. I know that this is “playing God” in the eyes of some, but if He is doing such a poor job (or doesn’t exist), He obviously needs help.

        Petticoat Philosopher:

        But this would really only be a problem if multiple generations of a family reproduced together for a long time. The individual child of two healthy siblings would most likely be fine.

        This is not entirely true. Species that are highly outbred, like modern humans, have accumulated a large number of harmful recessive genes (which may be advantageous when heterozygous). When they are homozygous, however, genetic diseases are the result. I have not found any references (my Google Fu must be off today) but I seem to remember that a typical individual has between one and four (out of hundreds possible) deleterious recessive genes. Brother – sister marriage therefore significantly increases the odds an an afflicted child. If a population is already highly inbred, most of these recessives have been eliminated and further inbreeding does no damage.
        This comment is already kind of long, so I will stop for now.

    • machintelligence

      Wow. Interesting point. Since the genetic consequences are nonexistent, it should not be prohibited. I suppose it would depend on how the law was written. There is not a lot of consistency from state to state on first cousin marriage, so it would be unreasonable to expect there to be here also. It might make a difference whether the prohibition was for brother/sister marriage or for marriage of siblings.
      Of course I am not a lawyer.

      • machintelligence

        The above comment was to jwall915.
        The way replies are posted can lead to confusion.

      • jwall915

        Thanks for the responses, everyone! I too am familiar with the Westermarck effect. I am a lawyer and I was having that argument with a lawyer, so we both had an understanding of the nuances and uniformity of incest law. The thing about it that baffled me is what Libby Anne so eloquently described: I look at things as consensual vs. non-consensual, whereas the other person is a conservative Christian looking at things in those boxes (God allows vs. God forbids). It made zero sense to me that one would make the leap from gay marriage to incest, but given Libby Anne’s apt description, now it suddenly does. I was attempting to come up with an argument for how two same-sex siblings marrying had nothing to do with gay marriage. I think the Westermarck effect (of which I was unfortunately unaware at the time of this exchange) really plays in, and the courts would definitely address it. We don’t have scores of same-sex siblings wanting to get married, if only they were allowed to. We do have scores of unrelated gay couples wanting to get married. So allowing gay marriage wouldn’t lead to some crack in the door that tons of people want to take advantage of. It might come up in a FEW cases, but those could be dealt with on a case-by-case basis. Damn, I wish I’d known about the Westermarck effect at the time. Here’s something that could possibly clarify why one has nothing to do with the other. Step-siblings are allowed to marry. Yet, most of them don’t, because of the Westermarck effect. So do the research: how many step-siblings actually get married? Probably not very many. And for those that do, did they grow up together? Therefore, it’s probably indicative that blood siblings won’t be looking to get married in droves either.

      • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort


        There are probably some step-siblings who have gotten married. Some in cases where they’ve lived with each other for some time, others in cases where they haven’t, and others where they were married and became step-siblings after the fact.

    • Noadi

      The problem with (sibling) incest is that in the majority of cases it’s not truly consensual and teasing out when it is and isn’t is difficult. I’ve heard of cases of siblings who didn’t grow up in the same household falling in love as adults and I have a hard time condemning that.

      I don’t see any reason to prohibit that relationship, they are both adults and as long as it is a consensual non-coercive relationship there isn’t a valid reason to prohibit it as the genetic risk is tiny and not a compelling state interest in my opinion. If I remember the science right in animal studies they’ve found that the offspring of siblings have a doubled rate of genetic disorders BUT the base rate is less than 1% so doubling that rate is still a very small risk. To put this in perspective: the rate of genetic disease among Ashkenazi Jews is dramatically higher than the general population, several times higher than the base rate in fact because it’s a small gene pool for some pretty terrible historical reasons, but we don’t prohibit them from marrying each other. We don’t require that people who have a family history of Huntingtons disease to have all their (opposite sex) partners tested to make sure they don’t carry the gene.

      • Lisa

        Well, looks like there are some people who can answer me the following question:
        If a couple were to give their first boy up for adoption, then had a girl they kept, and these two biological siblings were to meet again, fall in love later in life and get married – what would the legal situation be like? I mean, officially they’re not siblings because the older one has a different adoptive family, right? But they are 100% biological siblings… I don’t know haha just curious, I wondered about that for a while now.

      • Katherine Lorraine, Chaton de la Mort


        The only case I’ve found (not really looking too much admittedly) was a pair of twins in the UK, separated at birth, who got married. The judge annulled their marriage.

      • Steve

        In that case, it’s the biological relationship that counts, not the legal one. The European Court of Human Rights recently dealt with just that situation and upheld Germany’s anti-incest law. But then that court is *extremely* reluctant to interfere in national family law, so this decision wasn’t necessarily correct.

      • Paula G V aka Yukimi

        I had already heard that it was around 2,1 % increased chance of a genetic disease if they weren’t children born of an incestuous relationship themselves. I can’t cite the study right now but it’s probably the same one that it was mentioned by Noadi. Given that we wouldn’t prohibit two haemophilic carriers to marry or have children even if we knew both had the gene of the disease, the argument seems to lack strength.

        As it has already been pointed out, the really hard issue is that it’s sometimes difficult to know if the relationship is really a healthy consensual non-coercive one. It’s true that we don’t have the same care to watch out for those type of relationships between strangers but incestuous relationships are at risk of that specially there’s issues of co-dependency.

        About the Westermarck effect, it is a pretty strong theory (but still needs investigating) and it seems it has the following charateristics:

        -Proximity: The observed effect applies to children raised in close contact.
        -Age: The critical period for reverse sexual imprinting ends by age 6 or 7. (it’s been theorised that it’s really from birth to age 5)
        -Age Difference: If more than eight years apart, the effect is greatly diminished for the younger participant.
        -Genetics: Lack of blood relation makes no difference.
        -Gender: Women and girls may be more sensitive to the effect than men and boys.

        There’s also the much weaker (at the moment) theory about Genetic sexual attraction in which cases there wouldn’t be the issue of consent since it implies meeting as adults.

      • machintelligence

        Huntington’s is an autosomal dominant disorder. Preventing carriers of a recessive type disorder from having children together is effective for preventing the disease in their children. This does not work for Huntington’s disease. If one of your parents has it, your probability of developing it as well is 50%.

    • Uly

      In actual fact, products of incest are only slightly more likely to suffer birth defects than the general population. It’s really only a problem if you’re the child of several generations of incest. Our reason for banning it really boil down more to “it’s icky” than valid scientific reasoning. (And yes, you can look this up.)

      Of course, we think it’s icky because humans evolved not to feel too romantic towards our siblings, or others we were raised with as siblings. And honestly, in real life, except in cases of adoption or artificial insemination, it’s just not all that likely to come up.

      • machintelligence

        @ uly

        In actual fact, products of incest are only slightly more likely to suffer birth defects than the general population.

        This is only true in populations that are highly outbred. The numbers go up significantly when there is already inbreeding.

        British Pakistanis, half of whom marry a first cousin (a figure that is universally agreed), are 13 times more likely to produce children with genetic disorders than the general population, according to Government-sponsored research.
        One in ten children from these cousin marriages either dies in infancy or develops a serious life-threatening disability.
        While British Pakistanis account for three per cent of the births in this country, they are responsible for 33 per cent of the 15,000 to 20,000 children born each year with genetic defects.

        *disclaimer–the quote is from a Daily Mail article and may be biased*
        This may be the reason first cousin marriages are prohibited or restricted in most stated.

      • Bix

        Yep. I think that Charles II, the last of the Spanish Hapsburgs, only had 4 distinct great-grandparents (instead of 8) and 6 great-great grandparents (instead of 16). His parents were uncle and niece., and it’s a mercy the line ended with him.

      • Uly

        Gosh, would your entire comment be summed up in the line just after what you quoted, where I said it’s only really a problem if you’re the product of several generations of incest?

        As for cousin marriages being banned in several states, that’s less because of knowledge of genetics and more because some people find it icky. Those rules predate our knowledge.

      • machintelligence

        @ Uly

        Gosh, would your entire comment be summed up in the line just after what you quoted, where I said it’s only really a problem if you’re the product of several generations of incest?

        I know, but some people don’t consider cousin marriages to be inbreeding. Obviously the Pakistanis don’t.

      • Rosa

        @machineintelligence – but then the siblings probably don’t have much more of a risk than another first-cousin marriage in the same group. Inbreeding increases the incidence of parents having 2 copies of the same gene, but you can randomly have siblings who share 0 genes and first cousins that share half .

        It’s repeating the interbreeding over time that really causes problems. In lots of in-marrying group you end up with specific diseases that are much more common than in the general population. Ashkenazi Jews in the US have high rates of the gene for Tay-Sachs disease; Amish groups have high rates of a condition called SIDDT that kills babies; FLDS communities have fumerase deficiency. None of them practice brother-sister incest, they just tend to marry within a smallish gene pool.

      • dianne

        Really, if we want to prevent birth defects from inbreeding, then shouldn’t the legal requirement be that people only marry those of other races? I’d like to see the response to proposing this one in, say, the Georgia legislature…

    • victoria

      There’s a really interesting body of research on moral intuitions that has examined this very question. (You can get some good background and resources for further reading in conjunction with this game on TPM.

      There was also a Dear Prudence column where the question-asker was someone in this sort of relationship.

    • Kubrick’s Rube

      Yet, the law would still disallow it because it’s incest. Any thoughts from anyone on this argument/exchange?

      I would point out that at the very least there’s a quantitative difference between limiting one’s potential spouses by 100% and limiting ones potential spouses by .000000001%.

      • WordSpinner

        I agree. The thing about banning gay marriage is that for many gay people you are keeping them from getting married to anyone they’d want to–and preventing bi people from getting married to many of the people they’d want to. Incest… I really wonder how often truly consensual incest comes up. (at least for sibs who were raised together). There are power differentials between siblings.

        And on the note of “genetic disorders that are not autosomal recessives”–if two hemophilia carriers got together, 99.9% of the time, they would not be able to have children together, because they would both have XX chromosomes and therefore be biologically female. Hemophelia is an x-linked recessive–the carriers are XX women who give it to half their sons no matter which man they have children with. (I could imagine a man with XXY chromosomes being a carrier and being fertile, but I’ve never actually heard of that happening.)

        Now sickle-cell anemia, tay-sachs, and cystic fibrosis are nasty autosomal recessives, and your chances of having a baby with those increases if you marry kin, especially for long periods.

      • WordSpinner

        There’s also a long-term problem with inbreeding relating to losing diversity in immune response, which functions on a species level like vaccine-induced herd immunity, but I’ve never heard of any human community suffering from that.

  • from two to one

    I think the difficulty with progressive Christianity is that it isn’t as black and white as conservative Christianity and therefore adds more nuance to each position. For instance, many progressives would further divide the “consensual” box by whether God allows the act or not. They may put “marital sex” in a subcategory of “okay” but polyamory in a subcategory of “not okay.” But I do agree overall that progressive Christianity thinks about it in terms of consent vs. non-consent, and then whether or not it is okay based on their faith convictions.

    • Libby Anne

      That’s a good point, and I think you’re right! The difference is that, growing up, I was never taught to differentiate “consensual” and “non-consensual” in the first place, while that differentiation and categorization IS important to progressive Christians, even if they believe certain consensual acts are morally wrong.

  • Lauryn

    I’ve tried to explain this before, but it’s like you said: people talk past each other, not TO each other about this. Your box metaphor is a really great way to make sense of this whole issue. Thanks for a great series of posts; I’ve read every one with my fist pumping and shouting a resounding “YES!” at my computer.

  • Joy

    That’s an important point to consider when dealing with the slippery slope argument, and I think is an insightful way of visualizing how two very different groups approach this issue.
    I often hear, “What’s to stop three people from getting married?” as the next step on the slope, which is consensual, and falls in a very different box for different people. So my response to the slippery slope argument is that whether or not gay marriage is morally permissible and should be legalized is not dependent on whether some other act, the next step down on the imagined slippery slope, is morally sound. Whether or not polyamory, bestiality, incest, or any other sexual activity is moral or legal is not a valid argument against homosexuality, which is a completely separate issue. Why deny two people the right to get married because you don’t like the idea of three people getting married, or a person marrying a dog?
    Like you said, when people lump all of these together in the same box, it makes it hard to see these all as different acts with different motivations. They also don’t realize how hurtful it is to some of the people who end up in that box. After my wedding, some relatives learned that I had been living with my husband for a year before we married. They sent us a well-intentioned email containing a list of all the sexual sins in God’s eyes, (ours was fornication, I guess). It was really offensive to have my loving, consensual, monogamous, committed, all-around-positive experience with my then-fiancee lumped in with rape.

    • victoria

      There’s also a practical issue with poly-marriage — the fact that marriage as a legal structure is inherently bi-directional.
      Some of the bi-directional rights and responsibilities and privileges of marriage could be made multi-directional without too many problems; if someone with two spouses died intestate, for example, you could split their estate two ways. But some of the others would be problematic. What do you do when the two spouses disagree about continuing medical treatment for their shared terminally ill spouse? Suppose you have a triad with two men and a women, and they have multiple kids with unknown paternity — how do you handle custody/legal guardianship if the triad breaks up? Can one person put an unlimited number of spouses on their health insurance?
      I don’t think these sorts of issues are unworkable necessarily, but they are complicated in a way that same-sex two partner marriages/civil unions are not.

      • Anat

        The solution is to require prenuptial agreements that cover the most problematic issues.

  • Tanit-Isis

    What a great visualization!
    I often feel like so much of human conflict comes from different definitions of “good”. For a secular humanist, “good” derives from things that are *beneficial for the individual.* For many religious people, it seems like “good” derives from a *set of things they believe God ordained*, regardless of the harm, or lack thereof.

  • machintelligence

    Leaving off my discussion of genetics, which was fun but rather off topic, here is a quote from Steve Pinker’s “The Blank Slate” which explains why people put various behaviors in the “boxes” that they do.

    The right-left axis aligns an astonishing collection of beliefs that at first glance seem to have nothing in common. If you learn that someone is in favour of a strong military, for example, it is a good bet that the person is also in favour of judicial restraint rather than judicial activism. If someone believes in the importance of religion, chances are she will be tough on crime and in favour of lower taxes. The opposing positions cluster just as reliably: if someone is sympathetic to rehabilitating offenders, or to affirmative action, or a tolerance to homosexuality, chances are good that he will also be a pacifist and an environmentalist.
    Why on earth should people’s beliefs about sex predict their beliefs about the size of the military? What does religion have to do with taxes?

    The most sweeping attempt to survey the underlying dimension is Thomas Sowell’s “A Conflict of Visions”. Not every ideological struggle fits his scheme, but as we say in social science, he has identified a factor that can account for a large proportion of the variance. Sowell explains two “visions” of the nature of human beings.

    In the Tragic Vision, humans are inherently limited in knowledge, wisdom and virtue, and all social arrangements must acknowledge those limits. “Mortal things suits mortals best,” wrote Pindar; “from the crooked timber of humanity no truly straight thing can be made,” wrote Kant. Human nature has not changed. Traditions such as religion, family, social customs, sexual mores, and political institutions are a distillation of time-tested techniques that let us work around the shortcomings of human nature. However imperfect society may be, we should measure it against the cruelty and deprivation of the actual past, not the harmony and affluence of an imagined future. We are fortunate enough to live in a society that more or less works, and our first priority should be not to screw it up.
    The Tragic Vision looks to systems that produce desirable outcomes even when no member of the system is particularly wise or virtuous… The intelligence of the system is distributed across millions of not-necessarily intelligent producers and consumers, and cannot be articulated by anyone in particular.

    In the Utopian Vision, psychological limitations are artifacts that come from our social arrangements, and we should not allow them to restrict our gaze from what is possible in a better world. Its creed might be “Some people see things as they are and ask why, I dream things that never were and ask why not?”

    In the conservative mind set, things are the way they are for a reason (one could almost say that they evolved, although few conservatives would), and changing them can only be for the worse.

    • smrnda

      Which, given how drastically different we are from the past, the conservative vision doesn’t really seem to have much evidence in its support. For all its faults, the US is a very different society than what we see in Afghanistan and other places which remain theocracies. Europe is a very different place than it was before WWII – before then, wars among European powers was common, now it feels almost unthinkable.

      Given that Sowell is a conservative with very libertarian leanings he probably sides with the tragic vision, but from his writings, all he ever seems to do is poo poo anyone who might try to make the world a better place through some government program, act, law or reform. Most conservatives I’ve found actually have to disbelieve that things have gotten better – I mean, Steve Pinker’s the better angels of our nature presents a pretty compelling point that things are better now than in the past. As a way to argue against this evidence for improvement, I find most conservatives have to bring up some idea of ‘spiritual decline’ or ‘moral decline’ which is usually fixated on sex.

      I also think it’s wrong to call a vision that things can improve a Utopian vision. Calling it that is, to me, a way of making it sound false and ridiculous and an inevitable let-down. I mean, Orwell had a great quote that he didn’t, as a socialist, think socialism was Utopic, but just that he felt it could make some improvements.

  • Judy L.

    And this is why you can’t have a rational or logical discussion with a devoutly religious person; their entire worldview is founded in the irrationality and complete illogic of believing in God. It’s hard to have a conversation with the voices that someone else claims to hear in their head.

  • Ibis3

    More generally, this is why religious people have a hard time figuring out how non-believers could have morals at all. No box labelled “God Forbids”? What’s to stop you from raping and murdering and stealing if you don’t believe in God? Or alternatively, don’t accept that there is such a thing as an atheist: in order for the “God Forbids” box to work and be moral, everyone must be aware of the box and accept that it exists, and when they claim there’s no such thing, they’re just saying that so they can do whatever it is in the box that they want to do.

    In actual fact, there is no such thing as “God Forbids,” only “Some Guy/Some Book (Written by Some Guy and Interpreted for You by Some Other Guys) Forbids”. And yet *that* is what they call “Objective Morality”.

    • Ibis3

      Hint: That’s not “Objective Morality” it just Obeisance and Submission to Some Guy/Guys who tell you what to do.

  • Schaden Freud

    Reading this post was a total lightbulb moment for me. It has literally never occurred to me before now that some people might not differentiate between consensual and non-consensual sex acts when it comes to determining what’s acceptable and what’s not. The consensual=right, non-consensual=wrong concept is so firmly embedded in my thinking that I simply never realised other people might not see the world in those terms.

    • Libby Anne

      I actually just realized today, after putting this post up, that growing up I never heard rape treated as a separate wrong, rather than being classed as a form of either premarital or extramarital sex. Isn’t that unbelievable?

      • Caramello

        Wow…. Yes that’s almost unbelievable. It explains a lot though….. Thanks for this post which is as ever enlightening.

        I think that the claim to hate the sin, love the sinner, is logically rigorous, even if the ‘sin’ involved is something like sexuality that you say is part of the ‘sinner’s’ essence. There are many components to a person. I think the following is a fair analogy: I think religious belief is a huge logical fallacy that I deplore in my friends, especially when it leads them to be harsher about people than I think right; nevertheless I don’t deplore my friends’ existence or deny that they are otherwise thoughtful intelligent rational people whose opinions I value.

        However, even if religious conservatives could, in principle, genuinely love the ‘sinner’, their definitions of ‘sin’ tend to be horrifying and morally appalling to a progressive, as you say. I’ve learnt so much about this from your blog!

      • Christine

        Probably because the bitches provoked it somehow. /sarcasm.

      • Schaden Freud

        It is hard to believe, and really scary when you think about it! But after reading this post, I understand how it follows logically from the conservative worldview. If you accept that worldview, it does make sense. This way of thinking horrifies me, because if you follow it to its conclusion, you end up saying that sexual abuse is A-okay as long as it’s within a heterosexual marriage.

      • Rosa

        I was thinking about this last night: this division explains some people’s opposition to the concept/punishment or marital rape. I had always thought the only reason to advocate against prosecution of marital rape was because the opposer was a secret rapist.

      • Christine

        Frankly, in my books, if you believe that a woman’s consent essentially does not exist, there’s not a lot of difference between you and a rapist. (Remember kids, a lack of “no” isn’t the same as consent!) At the very least it’s a situation like the CP movement – maybe there won’t be problems in a given case, but the whole idea invites them.

      • Jenna

        I can absolutely relate to that. I don’t remember rape being considered a different or worse sin in my spiritual upbringing. I remember learning about how you want to do whatever you can not to get into a situation of potential date rape, but from the standpoint that it would be an unfortunate tragedy to become impure if it were not your fault, not that experiencing rape sucks in and of itself. In that mindset, a rapist is bad, but so is someone who has sex with a girl he isn’t going to marry.

  • Christine

    Not quite unrelated – I thought you would love this webcomic from The Oatmeal:

  • Morpheus91

    Regarding the “slippery slope” argument that many commenters have brought up, I think what many people fear is the dissolution of sexual taboos. In my book, that’s not a bad thing, if the taboos are practiced between consenting adults. If three people want to get married, so what? They’re not hurting anyone. I’d like to hope the majority of humanity is able to understand that pedophilia, on the other hand, does cause hurt. With a bit of common sense, it’s easy to see which practices are taboo just because folks find them “icky” and which are taboo because they hurt people. Continuing the application of common sense, we can figure out which ones are okay to allow (hint: it’s the ones that don’t hurt anybody) and which ones aren’t.

  • OurSally

    A note: many people practise polyandry/polygamy in the Western world. But serial instead of parallel (that is to say, one after another, not all at the same time). The inheritance and childcare problems exist and have been adressed many times.
    Strangely enough, even the religious right seem to be happy to practise polyamory in this way.

    • Rilian

      I thought that was called serial monogamy.

  • Rilian

    Pedophilia is a person’s state of mind, not an action. You could put “child/adult sex” instead.

  • Erin

    Libby Anne:

    You are painting with too broad a brush. “Conservatives” come in several stripes; your boxes only apply to fundamentalists who bas their opposition to same sex “marriage,” bestiality, etc., based on what the Bible says.

    As someone who subscribes to natural law theory, my objections are based on these two categories:

    a. behaviors that separate the procreative and unitive aspects of sex and that can have harmful repercussions for their offspring, and

    b. behaviors that don’t separate them and won’t cause harm to offspring.

    Based on those distinctions, contraceptive hetero sex, gay sex, bestiality, incest, IVF, etc., all fall into the same category of forbidden behaviors.

    • smrnda

      I see no reason why separating the procreative aspect of sexuality is in any way wrong, and if people are just having sex for fun but doing what they can to avoid negative consequences, I don’t even see why that’s wrong. Could you please explain where this ‘natural law theory’ comes from? Whenever anyone brings up ‘natural law’ theory, it all just seems like a bunch of convoluted ways of saying ‘sex that isn’t procreative is bad because sex should be procreative’ – just, basically, using circular reasoning instead of going “God says so.” I mean, if a technology can separate sex from procreation, and people don’t feel like procreating but want to have sex, I can think of no reason why there’s anything bad being done there.

      If the idea is that there’s some harm done in separating sex from procreation, please supply some evidence. To me, all ‘natural law’ is is a way of arguing that there’s only one acceptable vision for relationships and sex, regardless of what people actually want.

      • SquireBramble

        “Natural Law” is a Catholic concept. It was developed by Thomas Aquinas in the 13 th century : some of it he cribbed from Aristotle’s musings on nature, and the rest he basically pulled out of his arse. For example, he argued that women are “naturally” subservient to men because Eve was created from Adam’s rib. It all comes back to the bible, and it is extremely dishonest of conservative Catholics like Erin to appropriate the language of science when this so-called theory is *not* based on observation, hypothesis, testing and retesting. The actual “Laws” of nature as identified by science are actually observed physical constants, not prescriptions for moral behavior sent down by a deity. Erin does not fall off a ladder at 9.8 m/s2 because her god commanded her to.

        Actual scientists know that there are no biological constants, especially in animal behavior which has so many variable causes and subsequent effects – hence no real scientific laws “governing” biological organisms.

    • Anne Marie Hovgaard

      No, Erin, your objections are not based on those two weird non-law, non-natural “categories”; they are simply rationalizations – after the fact, made up excuses for not liking whatever it is you (or rather, the people you have let do your thinking for you) don’t like.

  • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot JW

    The illustration looks like a good one. All comes down to what your world view is. For Christians it falls under what we believe God has instituted as ‘righteous’ or ‘Holy’ whereas anything outside of those bounds lead off into ‘trouble’ and sin which is essentially falling short of who God is and applies to all of us regardless of whether we believe God exists or not. That is where a firestorm begins. If you believe in God then you have a road set before you with reasons why not to stray from it because of the consequences but also because of what it is instituted. If you don’t believe in God that road becomes much wider and the ‘negative’ consequences become much greater as well.

    I have to wonder, If I say I don’t hate gay people yet disapprove of the homosexual practice does that mean I am hypocritical because I don’t hate the person but I hate the person’s lifestyle practice? I hate drugs and I hate what it does to those who abuse them but does that mean I hate the person who is abusing them? If I hate the practice of womanizing does that mean I hate the person who practices it as well and ends up having babies by multiple women?


    • smrnda

      First off, I don’t believe in God and I haven’t noticed disbelief in God causing people to actually do things with negative consequences. I know tons of people who broke the rules on sexual ethics who don’t regret it for any reason. The idea that unbelievers, unrestrained by God’s standards are going to fall into some kind of mess, is something I just haven’t seen happen in the real world.

      On whether or not you can love someone and hate something about them, I think it comes down to a case by
      case basis, or whether or not you can provide some actual practical reasons for why you hate something about a person.

      I”m left-handed. Let’s say my parents had believed that being left-handed was evil or sinful, and so they demanded that I change and punished me for using my left hand. Let’s say that they know that this belief has largely been abandoned by the rest of the world, but they think the world is wrong and they are right. Now, do my parents really love me, and just hate something about me? I’d argue that my parents’ worldview (if that were the case) would make them incapable of loving me since their beliefs about what is good or bad are just not compatible with reality – they love standards that say “right hand good, left hand bad” and they love those standards more than they care about harm done to me.

      The problem with the ‘i hate this about you but i still love you’ is that, sometimes, it’s okay (take the case of a friend who is a violent criminal or something – you can love them but hate that they commit crimes ) but it is often delivered from this sanctimonious, ‘i know better than you what’s good for you’ position. So if you love someone and hate something about them, let them know how you feel. If someone told me they loved me but hated something about me that i thought was a non-issue, then their ‘love’ for me is BS and I’d end the friendship.

    • Steve

      One of those things is not like the others…

      And stop it with the “practice” and “lifestyle” BS. That makes you look like an idiot too

    • Rosie

      JW, I used to believe much like you do. That if I was careful and good and stayed on the “straight and narrow”, things would be alright, but if I strayed, there would be terrible consequences. Until the “terrible consequences” came to me where I was, right in the middle of the “straight and narrow”. It took a little while, but eventually I got to wondering what the point of being good was, if it was no more likely than being worldly to keep me from all that bad stuff. In other words, the people who told me terrible consequences would necessarily arise from sinful actions but not from doing things “right” were lying to me. Probably they were misled themselves, but it was still a lie. I went and tested it, actually, and in fact my “sinful” actions brought about great healing for me and no terrible consequences. Therefore, there’s no reason for the list of rules your religion provides to you other than “God says so”. And God, apparently, has no clue what might be good, or not, for an individual human being. Enforcing his rules just because they’re the rules will cause a great deal more harm than breaking them.

      • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot JW


        ‘Rules’ is a key point in which many get so distracted in when it comes to any religious ideology. Rules were meant to be broken, right? The Church holds up rules expecting everyone to obey them because ‘God’ says so because and that leads to ‘abundant life’ but that isn’t true at all if left on its own. Just like a preacher preaching some dry message. It may be correct in meaning but without the Spirit behind it there is no life, it just becomes a complete bore and anyone would want to leave and go out and get wild.

        The more fundamental one is with one’s religion the more they are susceptible to danger in their own lives simply because no person can stay on the ‘straight and narrow’ unless the lusts in the body are put under control and that isn’t an easy thing to practice at all. The reason reason why sin and sin. Or is that concept a joke in reality?

        Sounds to me that some of the advice given to you may have been sincere but sincerely wrong and set forth in a religious mentality but still sincerely wrong. Hey, that happens as well but can you honestly tell me that by practicing what we call sin , as outlined by the bible, really sets you free and you don’t have any form of guilt hung up within you?

        Something I always find amusing about ‘rules’ is the 10 Commandments. Many people despise and find most of them hard to even try to practice on a continual basis and yet as a result it shows the fallen man/woman inside of us all as a result. Yet, when you break them down what part of those Commandment are really not worthy to live by? Even if you take out the first few in relation to God Himself and focus more on the earthly commandments such as not lying, not committing adultery, not coveting and so on. Raise your hand if you did these things and were proud of them? Why would someone be proud of practicing them? Aren’t they transgressions?


      • Rosie

        Oh, JW, you have no idea, really. I certainly have regrets in my life…most of them for things I did while I was still religious. Especially in that time when I was trying so hard to please God I rejected all my friends and got all judgy even on my family. So much for the first commandment; rejecting that one has been nothing but good for me. And, to hear them tell it, also for my friends and family.

        Whether or not I’ve ditched the commandment about honoring the father and mother I suppose depends on how you define the word “honor”. I care about them, certainly. I also disagree with them on a good many things and I certainly don’t live by their morals. I don’t regret that at all either. I suppose I “honor” them by mostly living by their rules under their roof; I just avoid being under their roof as much as is reasonably possible. It’s more comfortable for everyone that way.

        I suppose polyamory would fall under “adultery”, and yes, it’s been extremely freeing and I have nothing to regret from that. My partners have all been consenting adults, in that they all knew they were consenting to a polyamorous relationship and what the boundaries were on it. With only one exception, we’re all still good friends, whether or not the sexual part of our relationship has continued for a short or long time. Polyamory has, in fact, vastly improved my marriage, which was monogamous for several years before we re-negotiated. The sexual experiences I had before marriage (with people other than my eventual husband) were likewise very healing, and neither myself nor my husband have any reason to regret them.

        What have I transgressed? An ancient book, written mostly by misogynist males? Some outdated cultural mores? Why should I care about that? Why should I feel guilty for giving and receiving pleasure in honestly negotiated relationships? Lumping this together with murder and stealing, or even cheating (non-consensual non-monogamy), seems both absurd and offensive to me.

  • machintelligence


    As someone who subscribes to natural law theory, my objections are based on these two categories:

    a. behaviors that separate the procreative and unitive aspects of sex and that can have harmful repercussions for their offspring, and

    b. behaviors that don’t separate them and won’t cause harm to offspring.

    This is a textbook example of the naturalistic fallacy.

    Steven Pinker has described two logical fallacies. “The naturalistic fallacy is the idea that what is found in nature is good. It was the basis for Social Darwinism, the belief that helping the poor and sick would get in the way of evolution, which depends on the survival of the fittest. Today, biologists denounce the Naturalistic Fallacy because they want to describe the natural world honestly, without people deriving morals about how we ought to behave—as in: If birds and beasts engage in adultery, infanticide, cannibalism, it must be OK).”[1]
    “The moralistic fallacy is that what is good is found in nature. It lies behind the bad science in nature-documentary voiceovers: lions are mercy-killers of the weak and sick, mice feel no pain when cats eat them, dung beetles recycle dung to benefit the ecosystem and so on. It also lies behind the romantic belief that humans cannot harbor desires to kill, rape, lie, or steal because that would be too depressing or reactionary.”[2]

    It is bad reasoning to conflate natural with good. There is some consequentialist reasoning mixed in, but if you start with bad assumptions, you can’t save the argument later on. GIGO

    • Rosa

      in this instance, it’s not just a logical fallacy, it’s also a factual fallacy, because “nature” in the form of nonhuman primates and also other animals contains lots and lots of nonprocreative sex, hetero- and homosexual.

      So it’s making up a version of the world, and then using fallacious logic to transfer the values he wrote into that fictional world into human ethics.

  • machintelligence


    ‘Rules’ is a key point in which many get so distracted in when it comes to any religious ideology. Rules were meant to be broken, right?

    No, rules were meant to be examined, and abandoned or modified if worthless.

    can you honestly tell me that by practicing what we call sin , as outlined by the bible, really sets you free and you don’t have any form of guilt hung up within you?

    We atheists are deeply moral, but we don’t carry around a mountain of guilt. We regret our misdeeds, but don’t call then sins. I think this is a healthier attitude. YMMV

    • smrnda

      JW, I would like to say that I know plenty of people who have broken commandments related to sex – even people who had open marriages (which I guess would qualify as adultery.) There were happy. well-adjusted, responsible and socially useful people. None of them would have denied it and would have been totally open about it. i think the sexual rules are clearly ridiculous, unnecessary, and that they don’t tend towards greater happiness.

      The belief that there’s this freedom in following the spirit instead of the law is just a sleight of hand. I don’t consider it a clear or meaningful distinction.

  • Lindsay

    I like your description, but it doesn’t explain the (frankly bewildering) possibility of an atheist having a conservative sexual morality. (I can’t think of any offhand, but I’m sure they must exist.)

    There, I would propose that the boxes be labeled “normal/healthy sex” and “sex that grosses me out”.

    • Anat

      I’m having an exchange with one such person on Mano Singham’s blog. The person is concerned about the imminent collapse of the American Family (TM) which will certainly bring about societal collapse in a couple of generations. He hangs out with some conservative Catholic bloggers and seems more at home with them than any atheist I know.

    • machintelligence

      I have taken to using blockquotes because the replies can get moved around.

      but it doesn’t explain the (frankly bewildering) possibility of an atheist having a conservative sexual morality. (I can’t think of any offhand, but I’m sure they must exist.)

      I can offer one example: myself. I married at age 35, have two grown kids and never had sex with anyone but my wife. I am not claiming any moral high ground for this, and I would like to point out that atheists vary a great deal by personality and inclination, just like every other group.

      • Steve

        If you simply happened to get into a lasting relationship at an early age and it lasted that doesn’t make you conservative. You’d be conservative if you are against pre-marital sex and demanded that everyone get married as early as possible.

      • machintelligence

        ??? I’m glad you think that 35 is an early age. I would describe my personal tastes and choices as conservative, but I don’t insist that everyone share them (obviously.)

      • Christine

        Whether or not you’re conservative is going to be defined more as “do you think that they’re the best way to do it, or do you think that they’re what happened to work for you”. You can be conservative (thinking that the way it’s been done “traditionally” is the best way) without being chauvinistic about it (everyone has to conform to what you believe).

      • Steve

        The way you wrote that implies that you had children when you were around 18 and simply didn’t marry your partner until you were 35. Unless they are step children…In either case, while that kind of cohabitation is becoming pretty standard in some countries, it’s not something most Christians would call conservative. It’s exactly what many of them fight against. In a secular context of course a long term commitment no matter the legal status of the marriage could be called conservative. It’s naturally relative and depends on one’s perspective.

      • machintelligence


        The way you wrote that implies that you had children when you were around 18 and simply didn’t marry your partner until you were 35. Unless they are step children…

        I thought that I was being clear, but perhaps not.

        I can offer one example: myself. I married at age 35, have two grown kids and never had sex with anyone but my wife.

        My children are in their 20′s, I am 64.

  • Stephanie

    As a conservative Christian, you are rather lumping your experience with one sect of Christianity onto the whole of Christianity. I find that because our views of the purpose of marriage are different, it is very hard for conservatives and progressives to have a fruitful discussion about gay marriage. I think that marriage protects a woman in a sexual relationship in that the man has historically been responsible for providing for her and any children that might result from the union. He also gets her promise of faithfulness so that he isn’t left wondering if those kids really belong to him. Hopefully he is faithful as well and provides for his family. Marriage has never been perfect. As a Christian a Christian marriage is also supposed to be a picture of Christ and the church. In the secular world the view of marriage is different and for my part I don’t expect you all to agree with me, it wouldn’t make sense, our viewpoints are just to different.

    • Rosie

      *shudder* I am SO glad this is not what marriage has to be! Though I was raised with a similar view, which does explain my complete opposition to entering the institution until I was in my late 20′s, and had some idea that it could really be otherwise. If marriage had to be the way you describe it, Stephanie, I’d suicide before I let myself get roped into one.

      Which doesn’t change the fact that some people still think that’s the way it ought to be, I know. According to them, I shouldn’t exist.

    • Anat

      So are you saying that because same-sex couples can not have children who are biological offspring of both of them they do not need marriage? Then the same should apply to opposite-sex couples who cannot have children who are biological offspring of both (eg a couple where the woman is post-menopausal). Yet the law allows them to marry and claim all the many rights and privileges of married couples. While an individual couple may see its marriage in these terms the law does not.

    • Steve

      How about you get into marriage for your reasons and have the kind of marriage you want and you let others have to have the kind of marriage they want? That’s all anyone is asking. You don’t have to change your views on you see marriage. Just don’t force them on other people who don’t share your religious beliefs. It’s really simple.

    • http://jw-thoughts.blogspot JW


      Ditto the nth degree! I really am amazed that such wisdom is crushed by some thinking that this is such a bad thing when it is established for protection. I have lived by this and it worked it has shown it self to be true yet those who are atheist, or better yet, those who despise such thing do so because they see shackles rather then freedom and protection.


      • smrnda

        JW, I don’t know if you are male or female so I don’t know which perspective you are coming from, but the ‘woman submits to man for protection and being provided for” is, for me, a woman, a totally shit deal.

        I’ve been employed since I was 15. I’ve been officially *not dependent* on my parents since I was 17. I now have about a decade of education and work experience behind me, and though my earnings haven’t always been exceptionally high I do pretty well. Since I’ve been earning my own living and making my own decisions for a while, the ‘traditional marriage’ is just an albatross around the neck. I’ve done fine without a male protector or provider, and so the traditional role for a husband would offer absolutely zero for me, except all of a sudden I’m supposed to be a lesser party in decision making. The reason I see shackles is that that’s all that’s there for me in the traditional marriage. I’m not stepping into any relationship where I’m not an equal partner, and regardless of rhetoric about ‘servant leadership’ authority is not equality. If the idea is that a good husband only makes decisions his wife is happy with, then in that wouldn’t be authority but equal decision making, and then why not call it just being equals?

      • Rosie

        What on earth do you imagine women need protection from, JW? Bad language? I can cuss with the best of them. Violent men? That’s what laws are for. Plumbing catastrophes? I’m a better “handyman” than my husband is, and I enjoy it more. The truth is, there’s nothing out there in the world that a woman can’t handle as well as a man, so long as she has the same training in how to deal with it. So, as smrnda notes, the “protection” offered is bullshit, and the servitude to be given in exchange is only…servitude. (Not to mention, “ruling” is a sucky role to play in a relationship too. Unless you’re a natural abuser, that is. Most men don’t really want it, though too many soldier through with it because they don’t realize they have a choice.)

  • Stephanie

    Actually I was trying to say that historically, that was the purpose for marriage, but in my own life, as a Christian married to a Christian we believe that the purpose of our marriage is to be a picture of Christ and the church to the world. Sacrificial love and submission. But because my husband isn’t Christ and therefore isn’t perfect, submission doesn’t mean never telling him when he is sinning or I believe he is in error, and it is never an excuse for a man to be abusive. Rosie, I’m sorry you feel we think you shouldn’t exist. I was just pointing out that I don’t think the two sides will ever agree. But if you are secular there should be no reason for my view of marriage to matter to you. I think marriage should be left up to each church/religion with religious institutions filing marriage licenses with the state for inheritance purposes. I think that would keep Christians from feeling like we are sanctioning something the Bible says is wrong and let those who don’t care what the bible says live as they see fit.

    • ScottInOH


      I think that marriage protects a woman in a sexual relationship in that the man has historically been responsible for providing for her and any children that might result from the union. He also gets her promise of faithfulness so that he isn’t left wondering if those kids really belong to him. Hopefully he is faithful as well and provides for his family.

      I’m having a hard time seeing how that is Christian in any meaningful sense OR how it means same-sex marriages are a bad thing. It sounds like a simple contract (where one partner is more powerful than the other; “hopefully” he lives up to his end of the bargain). There’s no God or Jesus or anything involved, and I don’t see why two men or two women couldn’t sign such a contract.

      Of course, I agree with Rosie that this doesn’t sound like much of a marriage, but if that’s how you see it, why is a same-sex union inconceivable?

      • Steve

        And it really only makes sense in a historical context. It’s certainly true that this how patriarchal marriages came to be. You can easily see when women are pregnant, so controlling them ensured that the family line stayed intact. But today we have medical procedures that can easily determine whether a man is really a child’s father. So keeping those “traditions” is just absurd.

    • Steve

      Marriage should be left for the government to define. Churches have absolutely no business dictating legal matters to anyone. That’s why is there is a distinction between civil marriage and religious marriage. It’s precisely because churches are allowed to notarize a legal document (the marriage license) that they are under the mistaken assumption that they should have a say in the matter.

    • Rosie

      I appreciate your empathy, Stephanie. You’re right; it should not matter to me what you think marriage ought to be. However, as I was raised to believe your way was The One Right Way, and I still have people (some of whom I’m related to) trying to shove it down my throat…seeing it all laid out that way is pretty triggering for me. You can certainly believe and practice whatever you like. Unfortunately, some people who believe what you do are still trying to force all the rest of us to live that way. They’re having minimal success, as far as I can see, but they still wind up passing amendments to state constitutions “defending marriage”…that is, enforcing their view of marriage.

  • Elise

    I really appreciated your discussion of the boxes. Not only did it help me understand a lot more of the thinking that ties homosexuality to pedophilia/bestiality (I had never understood how that jump was reasonable to the speaker, because it sounded absurd to me), but it triggered in my mind an article I read quite a while ago. I searched long and hard, and found it. The excerpt I thought of is this: ““The Righteous Mind,” by Jonathan Haidt, a University of Virginia psychology professor, argues that, for liberals, morality is largely a matter of three values: caring for the weak, fairness and liberty. Conservatives share those concerns (although they think of fairness and liberty differently) and add three others: loyalty, respect for authority and sanctity. ”
    Ultimately it comes down to different paradigms, but those different paradigms certainly result in a lot of miscommunication and a lack of understanding. Thank you for helping me understand more. I appreciate your thoughtful consideration of this topic.

  • smrnda

    Caring for the weak is a conservative value? I see no evidence of that whatsoever, and I tend to find that conservatives call anything ‘fair’ that is is ‘traditional’ or ‘the way we’ve always done it.’ I’d also say that any sort of respect for authority is going to end up invalidating any other sort of values you can have. After all, you can’t both have ‘fairness’ and ‘respect for authority’ because those are going to collide, and how does anyone reconcile respect for authority with liberty? Once you’ve got to respect authority and are expected to be loyal, you don’t really have liberty anymore. I’d say conservatives simply value conformity, obedience, punishment and authority, as long as the authority seems to have some tradition behind it, the way that conservatives think that your boss should be unrestrained by the government in the name of ‘liberty’ but that the worker cannot be considered to have his or her liberty infringed upon by the boss – a government regulation (or union contract) is usurping the ‘right kind of authority.’ Parents beating their kids is the right kind of authority, but a knowledgeable educator demanding to teach fact-bases sex education isn’t an ‘authority’ to them because they don’t come with the right imprimatur.

    I’ve always though liberty, to conservatives, mean liberty for those who already have power. The conservative vision, and I’d lump libertarianism in this as well, is really just tribalism or feudalism.

    • machintelligence

      I suppose this is as good a spot as any to put in a plug for Bob Altemeyer’s book “The Authoritarians”. You can read it or download it for free at this site.
      It gives some wonderful insights into the conservative mindset.

      • smrnda

        It’s a great book. I haven’t finished with it so I haven’t been quoting it, but he really seems spot-on on his analysis of the conservative and religious mentality.

        The other side is, I have met a few libertarians, and they all seem like phenomenal authoritarians to me. What they hate about government is that it meddles in private regimes of power where people with power like to act like little feudal lords. When I was reading Ron Paul’s thoughts about sexual harassment in ‘freedom under siege’ I realized that the libertarian mindset just wants to turn the clock back to a time when everybody knew their place.

  • Dan

    Might be worth including Marital Rape in the non-consensual box as I find that tends to be a fairly major difference in perspectives between conservatives and progressives. Progressives consider it a separate act while conservatives lump it in with Marital Sex, generally considering it naughty but acceptable because the woman shouldn’t have said no.

  • David Anfenson

    I’m a Baptist minister and this is how I would start the conversation.

    - pedophilia
    - bestiality
    - rape

    - pre-marital or marital same-sex sex
    - pre-marital or marital opposite-sex sex
    - polygamy
    - incest

    What God forbids:
    - pedophilia
    - incest
    - rape
    - polygamy
    - pre-marital same-sex sex
    - pre-marital opposite-sex sex

    What God allows:
    - marital same-sex sex (Marriage in this sense is defined in relation to the church and not the state, thus if a local church [like mine] believes that same-sex relationships are within the will of God, then same-sex couples can get married)
    - marital opposite-sex sex

    I guess I don’t mind how people outside of my faith express their sexuality, I would simply want to comment on what thematic elements of the Bible are saying about sex, marriage, consent, love, mutuality, and equality. What do you all think about this approach? Is that flawed, what am I not seeing?

    • Rosie

      I’m pretty sure God is plenty fine with polygamy; he never seemed too concerned when “his” people, even the leaders, practiced it. Not sure about polyandry, though. Or, if you’re allowing for homosexual sex and bisexual people, all other configurations of polyamory that might be possible are not really addressed in the bible iirc.

      Also, while some kinds of incest might be consensual (say, Jaime and Cerci in Game of Thrones), a good deal of it isn’t. Though non-consensual incest could also be filed under the “rape” category, I guess.

      • David Anfenson

        I agree, I think incest would normally be put under rape, because of family power dynamics.

      • smrnda

        If God is against rape, then why does the Bible say that women who are raped should be married off to the men who rape them? Come on, the God of the Bible doesn’t give a shit about rape victims – they’re just damaged goods you need to get rid of since they no longer have a high enough sale value.

    • Ibis3

      God actually commands rape as a weapon of war (you know… kill all the males in the enemy city and take all the virgins for yourselves as sex slaves?) and calls Lot a righteous man though he offered his own daughters to be raped by a mob. Otherwise, rape is treated, as is still the case in much of the Middle East, Western and Southern Asia today, as a property crime at best and the fault of the victim which demands her death at worst.

      And God never forbids polygamy.

      One more thing that you forgot. Although the NT writers condone marriage and having marital sex, it is clearly not the ideal state. Celibacy is the ideal, whether married or not. It was very common for early Christians to abstain from sex entirely, as I’m sure you’re aware. Why are you folks not preaching celibacy from the pulpit?

      • machintelligence

        This has been tried, but for obvious reasons, has met with less than success. Take the Shakers, for example, who believed in celibacy for everybody: From Wikipedia.

        The Shakers built more than twenty settlements that attracted at least 20,000 converts over the next century.[5] Strict believers in celibacy, Shakers acquired their members through conversion, indenturing children, and adoption of orphans. Some children, such as Isaac N. Youngs, came to the Shakers when their parents joined, then grew up to become faithful members as adults.[6]
        Many, however, did not remain Shakers. Turnover was high; the group reached maximum size of about 6,000 full members in 1840,[7] but as of December 2009 had only five members left.[8]

  • rustywheeler

    In the end, some folks think ethically, and some folks think “righteously”. I think we know whom is whom.

  • Skarlet

    People find it offensive if those who follow the Bible use that moral basis to tell others that homosexuality is a sin. However, I don’t think it follows that it’s not loving. Love means, among other things, wanting the best for something. Christians also think that it’s wrong to use God’s name as a curse word, and non-believers obviously don’t think it’s wrong – but wouldn’t you agree that Christians are still perfectly capable of loving people who swear like that?

  • Judith

    Thank you so much for this. It helped me understand an argument that always confused me – I had always seen homosexuality and nonconsensual acts as completely different beasts, and it made no sense to compare them. Again, thank you.