Decline and fall in the Netherlands?

I know we have the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination and other important things going on, but in the past few days the right-wing blogosphere has also been abuzz with news of a polygamous marriage in the Netherlands. Here is the story, reported at the conservative site The Brussels Journal:

Netherlands and Belgium were the first countries to give full marriage rights to homosexuals. In the United States some politicians propose “civil unions” that give homosexual couples the full benefits and responsibilities of marriage. These civil unions differ from marriage only in name.

Meanwhile in the Netherlands polygamy has been legalised in all but name. Last Friday the first civil union of three partners was registered. Victor de Bruijn (46) from Roosendaal “married” both Bianca (31) and Mirjam (35) in a ceremony before a notary who duly registered their civil union.

“I love both Bianca and Mirjam, so I am marrying them both,” Victor said. He had previously been married to Bianca. Two and a half years ago they met Mirjam Geven through an internet chatbox. Eight weeks later Mirjam deserted her husband and came to live with Victor and Bianca. After Mirjam’s divorce the threesome decided to marry.

Conservative blogs were quick to jump on the story as a vindication of their predictions that legalizing gay marriage would put us on a slippery slope toward polygamy. Ace of Spades HQ asked, “Gay Marriage Will Lead To Polygamy? What Are The Odds Of That?” and replied, “Pretty f’n’ good, as it turns out. The first three-party marriage — well, ‘civil union’ — has occurred in the Netherlands.” More along the same lines at RedState.org (“Behold, the slippery slope in action”), Christian Coalition Blog (“Next time someone wants to ‘pooh pooh’ the notion that “civil unions” and/or outright gay marriage will create a slippery slope for degrading the institution of marriage even further, point them to this”), Tacitus (“Senator Santorum, I believe that’s your vindication”) and other places too numerous to mention. Last night, the story made Fox News as well: Bill O’Reilly, who has long argued that the legalization of same-sex marriage would open the door to polygamy, delivered a gloating I-told-you so at the end of his program.

But wait a minute. As Tim Cavanaugh points out at Reason’s Hit & Run:

Victor, Bianca, and Mirjam are specifically not entering into a marriage but into a civil union, to which gay couples already have broad access. … If you’re upset that Victor and girls are free to set up their unusual relationship, you could just as easily argue that this shows the need to approve gay marriage and eliminate civil unions.

Actually, it turns out that it’s not even a civil union. Victor and his two wives have entered something called a samenlevingscontract, or “cohabitation contract” — which is not the same thing. Here’s what a Wikipedia article (helpfully translated by a Dutch friend) says on the subject:

A cohabitation contract is a written agreement which can to a certain degree be compared to a marriage. It settles the legal and financial arrangements between two partners in a relationship. Other things can also be arranged in this contract, such as agreements about possible children in the relationship.

Since the eighties the contract has become popular with two different groups of people: those who wanted a relationship but didn’t want to get married, and those who lived together and wanted to get married but weren’t allowed to at that time. Because of the introduction of civil unions and later marriage for gays and lesbians, the need for cohabitation contracts has been reduced drastically for this group.

(Apparently, one principal difference between the samenlevingscontract on the one hand, and marriage/civil union on the other, is that the terms of the contract — i.e., whether there will be alimony in case of a breakup — are pretty much set by the parties themselves, except for legal provisions to protect children.)

So basically, the kind of contract the trio has entered into predates not only same-sex marriage but gay civil unions in Holland. Apparently there is some confusion over whether a cohabitation contract can include more than two people, or whether someone who is married can also enter into a cohabitation contract with a third person. This is the loophole the de Bruijns and Geven used to legalize their menage á trois. (Were they the first to do so, or merely the first to go public? No one seems to know.) They could not have availed themselves not only of same-sex marriage but even of a civil union, which is essentially marriage in all but name. By the way, in the United States, the law in Vermont expressly states that the parties to a civil union cannot be married to anyone else; I assume the same is true in other states that have legalized same-sex civil unions.

So in fact, one might argue that if anything is being vindicated here, it’s the argument that Andrew Sullivan made more than 15 years ago: that domestic partnerships and other “quasi-marriage” mechanisms created to give some legal protections to gay and lesbian couples really do threaten the institution of marriage, and that it’s much better, and actually much more conservative, to simply legalize same-sex marriage.

Does that mean there’s nothing to the slippery slope argument? No, it doesn’t. While I strongly favor equal legal rights for same-sex couples, I have also concluded, as I have written here, that the reasoning used to justify the legalization of same-sex marriage (i.e., the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court’s assertion, in Goodrich v. Department of Public Health, that marrying “the person of one’s choice” is a fundamental right) could be used to support legalization of polygamy. For that to happen, however, there would have to be (1) a non-fringe political movement advocating for the right to multi-partner marriage, and (2) widespread social acceptance of multi-partner relationships. Of course, (1) and (2) are related. At this point in time, neither factor is present: the polyamory movement has about as much influence as the Flat Earth Society, and multi-partner relationships are almost universally regarded as either immoral or just plain weird.

A slippery slope scenario is possible in a cultural sense: once society begins to encourage full acceptance of unconventional sexual/romantic relationships, this acceptance may extend to “poly” relationships and marriages. Some gay rights advocates may be reluctant to take a “judgmental” stand toward any behavior, at least among consenting adults, that runs afoul of traditional morality. It is perhaps revealing that in the Dutch media accounts of the three-way “marriage,” the Rosendaal Three say that they rarely encounter negative reactions to their arrangement, except from a “deeply religious co-worker” of Victor De Bruijn’s. What’s more, so far the only demand for government action to close the loophole (and, if possible, have the trio’s cohabitation contract annulled) has come from a small and unpopular conservative Christian party, the SGP. So yes, perhaps once you’ve convinced people that it’s intolerant to oppose gay marriage, they may be more inclined to see opposition to multi-partner marriage as intolerant as well. But no slippery slope is inevitable. There are good arguments against multi-partner marriage that do not apply to same-sex marriage. For one, legalizing mutli-partner marriage would change the nature of heterosexual marriages; legalizing same-sex marriage does not.

Right now, though, I don’t want to get into a discussion of whether legalizing polygamy would equal the end of civilization as we know it, or whether banning polygamy, as some of my libertarian friends believe, is just as intolerant as banning same-sex marriage. The point is that the conservatives’ presentation of this story — “from same-sex marriage to polygamy in the Netherlands” — is substantially inaccurate. So much for the no-spin zone, Mr. O’Reilly.

19 Comments

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19 responses to “Decline and fall in the Netherlands?

  1. Unbridled Greed

    Great post & great journalism.

  2. Revenant

    Given that only two or three percent of the population is gay, I would be very surprised if the number of people interested in polygamous marriage didn’t outnumber the number of people interested in gay marriage.

    The gay marriage issue benefits from the prexisting gay-rights movement; that is why it is so much more widely discussed, not because the issue itself is of particular importance to more than a tiny portion of the population.

  3. bearblue

    Of course, you know me. I’ve always argued that as far as *adult* relationships goes, marriage or civil unions or whathaveyou should not be qualified regarding sexual preference or even number. The only thing the state should have to worry about is the paperwork of are-they/aren’t-they part of this particular union and how shall we tax-it/tax-break it. That’s it.

    Anything other than that is the state moralizing for the citizens and that’s just creepy. At least from my point of view.

  4. Cathy Young

    revenant, good point about the gay marriage movement benefitting from the pre-existing gay rights movement. Also, I think one difference is that I don’t think anyone regards the preference for multiple partners as a distinct sexual orientation. If same-sex marriage is not allowed, then a gay person cannot marry anyone (that he or she could have a satisfying relationship with).

    But who knows? Perhaps someday there will be an argument that a person who either has an innate polygamous orientation or just happens to be in love with two people is being denied the kind of marriage they want if the law recognizes only monogamous marriages.

    bearblue: interesting point, but let me raise a counterquestion. If we’re going to take a totally libertarian position on this, why should the state privilege any relationships with tax breaks, special inheritance rights, etc. etc.? Why not allow private individuals to completely regulate their own relationships through freely chosen contracts? I could see making special provisions for child-rearing, but who says that your partner in child-rearing has to be your sexual partner as well? (If we’ve dispensed with the notion that your partner in child-rearing has to be the other biological parent of your child.) Why, for instance, shouldn’t two or three single moms move in together so they can pool their resources and be a family?

    Just throwing out some questions here.

  5. bearblue

    :)

    Cathy said, why should the state privilege any relationships with tax breaks, special inheritance rights, etc. etc.?

    I don’t know why it should, except the state has the habit of it. Of course, I support either a flat tax, or a purchase tax, just so we can get out of the anxiety of the paperwork. I’m not seeking an out, since I believe in paying for my roads and my education and even my wars. So, while I can see reasonable breaks – say for child rearing and for impoverished adults, college debt repayment, or for doing something that benefits the state(s) – I think breaks are not our most necessary item. Nice as they are when we get them. We wouldn’t have the burden of the taxes quite so rough (or as high) if everyone just actually payed them without trying to finaegle out of them.

    Next you asked: Why not allow private individuals to completely regulate their own relationships through freely chosen contracts?

    I think that sounds excellent. Espcially, since, technically all that marriage is, is a contract. So, if people want to modify the contract one way or the other, they ought to be able to do so.

    Or, if they prefer the free-fall of no contract living, they ought to be able to do that too, without civic punishment.

    And finally you say, Why, for instance, shouldn’t two or three single moms move in together so they can pool their resources and be a family?

    I agree. Why shouldn’t they? In fact, I think it would be the smart thing to do. If they wanted to contract together to form an official family just for the benefits, more power to them. Not all marriages are, after all, sexual in nature. Some folks just get married to live together in companionship. That’s what my Grandpa did when he married my Step-Grandmother (They’re both in their late 80’s or so).

    More, I think it would be beneficial for the state that they should do so. Certainly healthcare and home care for the kids would improve.

    :)

  6. Anonymous

    polygamy is more traditional than monogamy

  7. twba

    How does the Dutch slippery slope get so much attention when polygamy is legal in many muslim nations that severely discriminate against homosexuals? Would legalization of polygamy lead to gays being stoned to death in the USA? I suppose my lack of religious indoctrination leaves me confused as to why same sex marriage frightens so many people.

  8. Dean

    I have long read your columns, Ms. Young, and this particular one demonstrates why. Instead of jumping on one side or the other, or accepting the slant that comes off the wire, you dig into the real truth.

    I’m glad I found your blog.

  9. Rotten in Denmark

    There’s also the civil-rights issue. Polygamists enter into these contracts by choice; gay people are born that way, and the state is discriminating against their very nature by not allowing them to marry.
    I think gay people aren’t real keen to bring this up publicly, though, since it opens up the whole ‘nature/nurture’ pandora’s box, which we’re all a bit sick of by now. Personally, as a gay guy and serial monogamist, I don’t really have a problem with gay marriage leading to polygamy, but I’d never admit that to a right-winger. It would be like grade school: “See? He just admitted it!”

  10. William R. Barker

    The more the merrier, that’s what I say! (*GRIN*) Seriously… who cares? I agree with your very first sentence, Cath, “…we have the Harriet Miers Supreme Court nomination and other important things going on…”

    That said… it’s your blog, hon! Your game, your rules. I’ll play.

    I’m a straight Republican conservative with a pretty wide libertarian streak. I don’t care who’s boffing whom as long as we’re talking consenting adults and society (i.e. me and everyone else!) doesn’t have to pay the bill for the results – pregnancy, std’s, etc.

    I admit… I’m a bit biased in favor of the traditional mom/dad/kid(s) family. There’s a lot to be said for “normalcy,” or if you don’t like that word, “traditionalism.” At the same time, a stable lesbian or gay couple seems to be preferable to an unstable heterosexual couple… at least in terms of societal good.

    As for polygamy… hey… as long as the women are good looking what’s the big deal? (KIDDING!!! JUST KIDDING!!! Couldn’t help but let my inner neandethal out!)

    But seriously… what’s the harm? Perhaps I read a bit too much Heinlein growing up, but a loving polygamous marriage sure seems preferable to your good old fashioned Sunday night murder mystery lover’s triange.

    Anyway… forgive the inevitable spelling errors! (*SMILE*)

    BILL

  11. Cathy Young

    One Harriet Miers post coming up, William. *G*

  12. megapouf

    I think this sort of arrangement is an advance on a duplicitous marriage with a mistress on the side – these people are publicly taking responsibility for one another and their actions – surely something wholly commendable?

    Or would right wingers prefer secrecy, deceit and irresponsibility?

  13. Cathy Young

    Actually, if you believe that a monogamous relationship is the ideal, then I think there is a good argument to be made for secrecy and deceit. By keeping extramarital relationships secret, people are acknowledging the ideal of monogamy, even if not everyone can live up to it. Destigmatizing non-monogamous relationships would certainly take a lot of the leverage away from people who want and value sexual fidelity (because objecting to one’s spouse taking another sexual partner becomes merely a private, and perhaps old-fashioned, preference rather than the social norm).

  14. Kim

    Two spouses?

    I’m sorry, but I’ve never been able to handle one adequately.

    Handling finances must be a chore. But if all three go out for dinner does the man get stiffed with paying for the two women? Or do they just go Dutch?

  15. Anonymous

    I find this kind of polygamy (freely adopted by mature adults) to be easier to accept than Utah-style polygamy where the society is cult-like, closed and highly dysfunctional, and the people involved include young girls who have no real say in the matter.

    Legalizing polygamy would, I think, require differentiating between the two, which could be difficult to do constitutionally.

  16. P-BS-Watcher

    “there would have to be (1) a non-fringe political movement advocating for the right to multi-partner marriage, and (2) widespread social acceptance of multi-partner relationships. Of course, (1) and (2) are related.” Such as perhaps (1) an Islamic population and (2) a politically correct electorate afraid to be seen as intolerant of the Islamic population. For example Europe today and the U.S. in the not too distant future.

  17. Cathy Young

    anonymous:

    I find this kind of polygamy (freely adopted by mature adults) to be easier to accept than Utah-style polygamy where the society is cult-like, closed and highly dysfunctional, and the people involved include young girls who have no real say in the matter.

    Agreed, of course.

    Legalizing polygamy would, I think, require differentiating between the two, which could be difficult to do constitutionally.

    Actually, I am not so sure about that. All that’s needed is tough enforcement of age-of-consent laws.

    In fact, you could argue that legalizing polygamy would “bring it out of the closet,” as it were, and curb some of those abuses.

    p-bs-watcher (nice handle, by the way! *grin*):

    Such as perhaps (1) an Islamic population and (2) a politically correct electorate afraid to be seen as intolerant of the Islamic population. For example Europe today and the U.S. in the not too distant future.

    Yes, I’ve thought of that too, but trying to legalize polygamy based on the Islamic model would run into some pretty furious opposition from feminists.

    My hunch is that if there’s ever going to be a big test case that puts multipartner marriage on the radar screen, it’s going to involve either two bisexual women and a man, or a woman and two men.

    Actually there was a case that was starting to get some traction, a couple of years ago — a woman named April Divilbiss, in Tenessee I think, was stripped of custody of her child after she appeared on a TV show to discuss her polyamorous lifestyle. She was living with two men, to one of whom she was legally married but referred to both as her “husbands”; the child was from a prior relationship. I believe what happened was that the child’s paternal grandparents sued for custody saying that Divilbiss was an unfit mother because of her lifestyle, and the judge ruled in their favor. Divilbiss appealed and the polyamory movement rallied to her cause. I recall that Stanley Kurtz at the National Review, one of the people who have predicted that the legalization of polygamy would be the next big step after gay marriage, wrote that this case could be a watershed for the beginning of “polygamy acceptance.” But the case folded when Divilbiss withdrew her appeal and reached an agreement under which she could have her child back if she kicked “husband No. 2″ out of the house. I think she also had to agree no maintain no contact with him whatsoever, but I’m not so sure about that.

  18. Bob Woolley

    I’m always baffled by the argument that we should disallow gay marriage because it might lead to polygamy. It seems to require the pre-existing belief that polygamy is worse than gay marriage. I just don’t get that.

    Polygamy has been and continues to be part of cultures for basically as long as we have any records that could confirm it–including, of course, what most of us call the Old Testament. Even Martin Luther couldn’t find anything in Christian doctrine to condemn plural marriage.

    Mind you, I have no interest in participating myself. (I’m fond of Mark Twain’s observation that polygamy violates the Bible, because a man cannot have two masters.) But I’m one of many who demonstrably wouldn’t exist were it not for polygamy–on both the maternal and paternal sides of my family. My maternal grandmother was one of her father’s 31 children. Unlike most of my generation, I was raised as part of a group that had polygamy within the personal memory of many people that I knew. (Mormon church-sanctioned plural marriages definitely did not end in 1890, as the church publicaly announced. When they ended, exactly, is hard to pin down, but they continued at least until 1918, and probably sporadically for another 10 or so years.)

    Just speaking of Mormon splinter groups, there are thousands of polygamous families now living in Utah, Arizona, Colorado, Idaho, Texas, and Alberta. And who knows how many Muslim polygamists are here with their multiple wives? As a physician, I cared for several Hmong families in which a man had two wives (though never more than that, within my experience).

    I really am hard-pressed to grasp how people see polygamy as a “point B” so horrific as to need to avoid “point A,” lest it lead us there. Legal formalities aside, it’s here, always has been, always will be. It strikes me as *obviously* less different from monogamous heterosexual marriages than homosexual marriages would be.

    To be clear, I, too, am in favor of gay marriage. More broadly, I don’t think the state or federal governments should at all be in the business of defining who is or can be married. Marriage can be a wholly religious or personal institution, with any rights associated with it done by contract, rather than statute. But that’s a whole ‘nuther discussion. For now, I just say, “Why do people get their undies in a bunch over polygamy?” I don’t see how it threatens anything or anybody who chooses not to participate in it.

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