When the moderately conservative op-ed magazine The Week published an article in late September entitled How Liberals Are Unwittingly Paving the Way For the Legalization of Adult Incest, most audiences probably only noticed the absurdly long title, if they noticed it at all, and kept moving. We’ve all heard such sentiments before. Pro-gay marriage advocates have grown bored with such naked scare-mongering, while anti-gay marriage traditionalists nod stoically along, already aware such opinions are common.
I’ll paraphrase author Damon Linker’s argument. In an “anything goes” atmosphere, where we’ve progressively dismissed the taboo against homosexuality, we must inevitably accept all forms of non-coercive sex as essentially equal. This means, if blood relatives of consenting age engage in sexual relations, we’d necessarily treat their relationship like we’d treat a heterosexual marriage. The German Ethics Council, a non-binding government committee, has already endorsed this reasoning. In time, such libertarianism is an unavoidable consequence.
Same-sex marriage has achieved widespread acceptance in developed countries today because we have sex for different reasons than in the past. In bygone days, when infant mortality was high, infectious diseases more commonly terminal, and economics dependent on constant resupplies of human labor, procreation had important social weight. Marriage established legitimate continuity of family authority, resource allocation, and work. Before second-wave feminism, marriage also helped establish social hierarchy: male privilege and work, versus female domesticity.
We marry, procreate, and have sex today for different reasons. First, and perhaps most important, we moderns marry for love. This sounds obvious, but that concept only extends backward to Victorian times. It’s a product of economic stability and confidence. And it corresponds with changing sexual mores: not just rising acceptance for homosexuality, but for women’s ability to divorce abusive husbands, a woman’s rights following rape, and her authority to decide whether to give birth.
By itself, we might suppose similar claims apply to sex between blood relations. Though healthy individuals cringe at the thought, we can imagine situations where adult siblings and cousins could experience romantic love. But besides reifying love, marriage serves another responsibility. Imagine society as a pyramid. Individuals form the foundation, which coalesce into families, then civic organizations (schools, clubs, congregations, etc.). These merge into local communities, then regional governments, and upward, to nationwide federal authority.
Laws regarding marriage state how society’s pyramid peak permits us, the foundation, to constitute the second level. For about seven generations, we’ve accepted that individuals form families based on love, though until recently, we’ve assumed love meant men and women. Permitting same-sex couples to legally wed asserts that love is our society’s fundamental organizing principle. Forbidding same-sex marriage associates marriage with procreation, limiting society’s foundation to its members’ sexual capability, the veriest definition of plebian.
Under that reasoning, society should retain the authority to forbid incest, even among consenting adults. When individuals have sex with blood relations, even discounting the genetic consequences, these individuals, and the families they perpetuate, essentially fragment from society. When we marry non-related individuals of either gender, we strengthen society’s bonds and build new families. With incest, we abrogate our responsibilities to common humanity. (See Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, a History for more detail in this direction.)
Conflating gay marriage and incest is a time-tested scare tactic, designed to silence debate. Reactionaries lob this one bomb into the public discourse and make somebody else clean the rubble. Essentially, it’s the opposite of discussing issues on their merits. Propagandists of ignorance like Damon Linker should be ashamed, except I doubt they’re capable of shame. Society isn’t changing, it’s already changed, and Linker’s pathetic histrionics signal allegiance to a cultural dynamic already long dead.