‘PIB’ — the flailing desperation of the but-what-about polygamy, incest & bestiality slippery-slope claim

‘PIB’ — the flailing desperation of the but-what-about polygamy, incest & bestiality slippery-slope claim March 27, 2013

So the Supreme Court of the United States is hearing arguments about same-sex marriage. Andrew Sullivan has a good summary of the key points from the first day of the discussion (Dylan Matthews has another good look).

Unsurprisingly, the specter of polygamy made an appearance, something that may be familiar if you’ve ever discussed marriage equality with relatives, co-workers or fellow parishioners who oppose it, but can’t quite explain why. It’s not so much an argument as a defense of not having one: “Oh yeah? Well just because I can’t give a good reason why something should be prohibited doesn’t mean it should be allowed! After all, I can’t explain why polygamy, incest and bestiality should be prohibited either — so does that mean those should all be made legal too?”

It’s always those three things, all lumped together. That trinity of slippery slopes is so common that John Corvino has given it a name: “PIB.”

I’ve referred to this slippery-slope argument as the “PIB” argument, short for “polygamy, incest and bestiality,” although other items sometimes make the list as well. What got me interested in PIB, aside from my wanting to defend gay people against nasty smears, is that it isn’t entirely clear what the argument is saying. Is it predicting that once homosexuality becomes more accepted (some of) these other things will become more accepted as well? Is it making a logical point, suggesting that, even if these things won’t ensue, in fact, they’re somehow related in principle? Or is it primarily a rhetorical move, simply trying to scare people away from homosexuality by invoking a parade of horribles? In many ways, the PIB argument seems more like a question or a challenge than an argument proper: “OK, Mr. or Ms. Sexual Liberal, explain to me why all these other things are wrong.”

Corvino’s Salon essay, excerpted from his book What’s Wrong With Homosexuality, is worth reading in full, then bookmarking for future use, the same way one bookmarks the Snopes pages for the urban legends your crazy uncle is always pasting on your Facebook wall. Corvino deals with each of the three matters in turn, but also steps back to consider what these weird-but-popular objections may mean to those raising them. Their popularity clearly doesn’t arise from their logical potency, so what’s the attraction?

The PIB argument, he says, can be approached in two ways: “a logical version and a causal version.” In the “logical” form, Corvino says, the argument claims that the argument for marriage equality “proves too much” — making a case not just for same-sex marriage, but for all the PIB elements too. In this form, he says, PIB is basically a reductio ad absurdum argument that dodges the need to respond to arguments for marriage equality by claiming, instead, that such arguments also somehow support P, I and B. Here’s Corvino:

The point is not to make a prediction: It’s to indicate the alleged logical inconsistency of supporting homosexuality while opposing PIB.

But why would anyone think that supporting same-sex relationships logically entails supporting PIB? The answer, I think, is that some people misread the pro-gay position as resting on some version of the following premise: People have a right to whatever kind of sexual activity they find fulfilling. If that were true, then it would indeed follow that people have a right to polygamy, incest, “man on child, man on dog or whatever the case may be.” But no serious person actually believes this premise, at least not in unqualified form. That is, no serious person thinks that the right to sexual expression is absolute. The premise, thus construed, is a straw man.

He does a nice job in explaining, in each case, why one can consistently support same-sex marriage while opposing PIB, with a particularly helpful discussion of distinctions between same-sex marriage and polygamy.

Corvino doesn’t give a great deal of time or attention to the B part of PIB, briefly noting that, “Of course there’s the issue of consent,” and quickly moving on. But let’s linger there for a moment longer, because I’m not sure that “of course” is appropriate. The reason that so many people continue to raise endless “man on dog” and “box turtle” variations of this weird bestiality argument is that they don’t have the slightest regard for consent as a necessary component of marriage or sex or love. Some of us may nod along, saying “of course, of course” to Corvino’s “of course,” but a great many of the PIBsters don’t see anything “of course” about it. Consent isn’t part of their framework. They’re defending traditional marriage, after all, and traditionally marriage was about property, not about mutual consent.

And “tradition” here doesn’t mean something from biblical times in the ancient world, or even something centuries distant like the world of Jane Austen’s novels. Here in the United States, wives have been regarded as the property of their husbands to the extent that spousal rape was not recognized as a crime until the late 1970s.

The defenders of “traditional marriage” cannot understand the significance of consent because the traditional marriage they are defending does not understand it either.

The other form of the PIB argument, Corvino says, is the “causal version,” in which the connection between same-sex marriage and PIB:

… is not logical but empirical. That is, perhaps the endorsement of one item will lead to the endorsement of others, whether or not it logically should. For instance, maybe the wider acceptance of homosexuality will embolden polygamists and make it harder for others to resist their advocacy.

This is followed by 10 paragraphs in which Corvino settles on Stanley Kurtz as the strongest proponent of this argument. He reviews Kurtz’s argument, fortifies it a bit so that he has something worth considering, and then thoroughly dismantles it. He concludes that, “the causal version of the PIB arguments fails, both as a prediction and as a moral objection,” and anyone reading along will share that conclusion.

Anyway, do go read the whole thing. And then bookmark that link for the next time your Facebook friends or religiously indignant relatives start crying PIB.

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  • The_L1985

    Holy shit, someone make sure that that man never owns any animals, EVER.

    My dog doesn’t want or care about sex with me (thank all the gods). One could try to argue that things would be different if he weren’t neutered, but he’s demonstrated time and time again that he’s pretty much unaware of human genitals, as if they weren’t even worthy of his notice. Just ask my boyfriend–every time Angel jumps off of his lap, boyfriend gets a dick in the jewels.

    And even my neutered dog will mount other dogs in an attempt to mate with them. So it’s not that he doesn’t know or care about sex–he just doesn’t want to try it with anything that isn’t another dog.

  • every time Angel jumps off of his lap, boyfriend gets a dick in the jewels


  • The_L1985

    GAH! Fixed.

  • Given the context, the original seemed somehow appropriate, but did rather suggest the opposite of your point. ;-)

  • I think literalism was already a thing by the time Darwin published, being something that came out of the Second Great Awakening. I suspect Darwin was more of the reason it became The Thing instead of being more of a blip.

  • frazer

    I think marriage should be a relationship between equals, and I think polyamorous relationships are inherently unequal and therefore a bad idea. One person owes exclusive fidelity to her spouse, while he is free to take multiple spouses. (I’m using the genders of the most frequent type of polyamorous relationship.) They do not stand on the same footing with each other and they do not have the same rights vis-a-vis each other. I think it’s ultimately a form of exploitation, and, of course, it’s almost always women who get exploited. (Not to mention all the legal problems–family law is complicated enough when you’re only dealing with traditional families.)

  • EllieMurasaki

    You’re arguing against all polyamorous relationships by saying that all polyamorous relationships are abusive polygyny. Don’t do that.

  • A few things.

    1) There’s something intrinsically funny about defending “traditional families” on egalitarian grounds. You are aware that traditional family roles have not historically embodied this sort of egalitarianism, right? It feels sometimes as though “traditional” simply means “not the thing we’re currently talking about.”

    2) I share your preference for this sort of symmetry in relationships.

    Nevertheless, I acknowledge that many of the monogamous marriages around me fail to demonstrate it. I may not approve of that, personally, but I’d be reluctant to remove legal protection and social recognition from those families. I am similarly reluctant to withhold legal protection and social recognition from similarly unequal polyamorous families.

    Sometimes treating people equally means treating people I don’t approve of the same way as people I do approve of. I accept this.

    3) Most of the polyamorous families I know personally are symmetrical in this way you describe: all partners involved have the same rights.

    4) With respect to the legal complexities: I’m not claiming that treating all families the same is simple, I’m claiming that it is just. I prefer seeking justice to seeking simplicity.

  • cyllan

    Wait, what? How do you get that in a polyamorous relationship, one person owes exclusive fidelity to anyone?

  • What if the wives were bisexual and felt mutual attraction toward each other as well as their husband? (Assuming a polygyny model.)

  • You appear to have confused the words ‘inherently’ and ‘historically’.

    This is basically the same as arguing against miscegenation on the assumption that historically, most of the sexual relationships between people of different races were slaveowners raping their slaves.

  • Makarii

    Bestiality obviously arouses the “squick” impulse among outsiders, but let’s consider the matter rationally. How can it be legal to kill animals and eat their meat, but not to have sex with them? Some will bring up the matter of consent, but what about when a dog humps your leg? Is that consent? If not, then dog breeders are complicit in serial rape! Anyway, we don’t expect animals to consent to being killed for food.
    On the other side of the equation, I often wish some Christian group would succeed in banning fornication, adultery, and/or divorce in some backwoods state or region. Maybe go whole hog and impose the death penalty for it.

  • Nick Gotts

    I wonder if anyone else has read Olaf Stapledon’s Sirius. The eponymous central character is a dog, developmentally modified to have human intelligence and lifespan alongside canine motivations. His relationship with his creator’s daughter – in effect his foster-sister – is such that it’s surprising it was allowed to be published in the UK in 1944.

  • Nick Gotts

    The assumption that non-human animals never could and would consent to sex with people is questionable, unless you deny them the capacity to consent by fiat: there is evidence to the contrary – reports that non-human animals have initiated sexual contact with humans.

  • EllieMurasaki

    Which doesn’t mean they have the faintest idea what they’re consenting to.

  • Nick Gotts

    Further thoughts: ethologists can certainly distinguish between sex between pairs of non-human animals where all parties are participating willingly, from those (occurring notably among ducks and among those cuddly, smiley dolphins IIRC) where at least one is not. So in some sense, non-human animals can consent to sex. If we want to say they lack the capacity to consent to sex with humans, we need an underlying reason for that. The most obvious is the extreme power differential between people and non-human animals in most circumstances, a principle that can also justify denying children the capacity to consent to sex with adults, or prison inmates with their guards.

  • Nick Gotts

    What level of understanding are you going to insist on? Should we deny people with severe learning disabilities the right to a sex life?

  • EllieMurasaki

    We are obligated not to have sex with anyone who does not clearly communicate their informed, ideally enthusiastic, consent to have sex with us. So the question is, if you were propositioned by someone with such a disability, how would you go about making sure their consent is informed?

  • Nick Gotts

    No, it really isn’t. If a person without learning disabilities cannot tell whether a person with earning disabilities is giving informed consent, then no-one could do so, sex with their informed consent would be impossible, so we would be obliged to deny them a sex-life. See my response below for what I think is a more sustainable approach: if the power differential between parties is too great, consent does not legitimate any sexual behaviour on the part of the more powerful.

  • EllieMurasaki

    If one person cannot, then no person can?

    I can’t run a marathon. Marathon running must therefore be impossible.

  • Nick Gotts

    Perhaps I misinterpreted you. I understood your implication to be that for me to accept the sexual advances of a person with severe learning disabilities would be wrong because I would be unable to make sure their consent was informed; but since you don’t know me, that at least suggests that you think no-one without learning disabilities could do so. But are you now implying that if I or another person without learning disabilities could in fact do so, it would be ethical to accept those advances? Because if so, I disagree with you. If you’re not saying that, could you please try to restate your point?

  • EllieMurasaki

    If you are certain that someone is expressing informed consent to having sex with you, and you consent to have sex with them, then you may have sex with them. Not otherwise. What about this is difficult?

  • It isn’t necessarily the case that animals can’t desire or initiate activity with a human that one the other or both would consider sexual. What is less likely is that their desire is the same thing or even a generally similar thing to what “consent to sexual activity” means for humans.

  • What this suggests to me is that “consent” and “the ability to communicate consent” aren’t the same thing, and that we might be able to formulate simple, straightforward and universal rules about the former, but the latter is a lot more difficult.

    I think most of the times people suggest that under a particular set of circumstances, a person “can’t meaningfully consent”, what we are actually getting at is that they can’t communicate positive consent, because the circumstances are such that consent either can’t be communicated at all, or can’t be distinguished from a coerced claim of consent.

  • Nick Gotts

    I’m just making sure I understand you correctly: you think clear consent is sufficient. I don’t agree, in the specific case I have already specified, where there is a gross disparity in power between the potential participants – because this makes it too likely that the relationship will be, or become, grossly exploitative. I think it is fine for two people with severe learning difficulties to have sex with each other – and for others to allow this to happen – provided there is indeed clear consent from both – because the disparity in power is absent. I think it would be wrong for a person without learning difficulties to have sex with a person with severe learning difficulties, even if the latter clearly consented – because the disparity in power is present. I think making this difference in power the explicit ground for banning adult-child sex, bestiality, sex between cognitively normal and severely learning disabled, sex between guard and prisoner, etc., is better than a legal fiction that the weaker party “cannot consent” or “lacks the capacity to consent” or “cannot show whether they consent” – because in many cases, we can indeed tell whether they are consenting or not, and in some cases, do not want to stop them having sex with an appropriate partner.

  • EllieMurasaki

    On most of your ‘ban this due to power disparity’, I agree wholeheartedly. I am not convinced that ‘one person has a disability, the other does not’ automatically equals ‘one has power over the other.

  • Jenny Islander

    Coming in late, but this story is important. It’s a true story, told to me by a friend of my niece.

    Once upon a time, there were two innocent children. They had been best friends for as long as they could remember. They had been raised in a sheltered, loving environment into which not a single mention of S-E-X had been permitted to intrude. There had been vague but dire warnings about the things a boy could do to ruin a girl’s future, or the things a girl could do to ruin her own future. The two friends thought that it had something to do with kissing.

    One afternoon, as their mothers were having tea in the front of the house, the two friends lay on the sweet green grass in the back yard, under the shady tree behind the high fence. And as little children will do, they began to play doctor.

    Except that they weren’t little children anymore. They were just infantilized.

    It turns out that if you have never been allowed to know what sex is, or warned about why your body is changing shape, or cautioned about why it may not be a good idea to play doctor anymore, then instinct will take over.

    After it was done and the good feelings had ebbed away, the two children rearranged their clothes and one of them went home. There he began to think. Snickering stories told out of earshot of the teachers and snatches of songs overheard on other people’s radios swirled in his mind. And the awful realization burst upon him: He had ruined his best friend forever. She would never be happy. She would never be respected. She would never be loved. And he had done it.

    The next day was a school day. The two children went to some of the same classes in junior high. The girl greeted her friend cheerfully. He stared at her silently and tears began to fill his eyes. She was bewildered. At the first opportunity, he found a corner where nobody could overhear them, and he enlightened her.

    About a week later, she overheard her mother and his mother talking about why she was “so moody.” “Could it be a boy?” asked his mother. “Oh, that’s silly,” laughed her mother. “She’s too young to even think about that kind of thing!”

    She told me the story when she was in high school. She had never spoken to her former friend again, and while he hadn’t told anyone about what they had done, the shame was still wrapped around her heart. And her mother was convinced that she was still “innocent.”

    At least she didn’t get pregnant. But keeping people ignorant just puts them in danger!

  • Dunno. That would be up to the dog and person in question. Not for nothing, but do we assume that all married humans have the same reasons for marrying one another?

  • Ronixis

    The use of “sane” there actually has other problems as well. Should people with mental illnesses be prohibited from having sexual relationships? I think that would be very unreasonable and quite discriminatory.

  • Ronixis

    Episode 16 of season 2, to be precise.