Should it be taboo to mention true things?

Australia’s decision-makers, meanwhile, continue to fawn over a small minority of electors … who see gay relationships as somehow inferior to their own and unworthy of legal or social recognition. Every so often, we hear them in the media calling homosexuals promiscuous or sick (empahsis added).

Tim Wright in The Age, 31 July 2009.

Some conservatives have odd ideas about gays, but they are right about promiscuity. This annual survey of gay men in Melbourne consistently finds more than half have casual partners.

Nor is this subject obviously irrelevant to the issue of gay relationships. Conservatives could argue that it suggests a weak commitment to the monogamy that goes with marriage.

Andrew Sullivan, by contrast, argues that the conservative position contains a contradiction. If you deny people the possibility of ‘normal’ stable, monogamous relationships, can it be that surprising if they go for promiscuity instead? This is what the evolutionary psychologists say men are hardwired to do, and it needs strong social institutions to stop them in the interests of something more profound and long-lasting.

I’m not sure what Wright is implying here. Maybe he is just listing resentments against conservatives. But it looks like a double standard, in which approved-victim groups are exempted from any form of negative comment, even if true, while deemed-oppressor groups can be subject to any kind of criticism, however personal or unfair.

There is a line between the virtues of tact and civility and the vices of spin and falsehood. If something is true and relevant to the case for or against an argument, then there should be no taboo on mentioning it.

10 thoughts on “Should it be taboo to mention true things?

  1. From my experience gay clubs are seedier and more overtly sexual than their straight counterparts. So I don’t doubt that gay guys succeed in being as promiscuous as most straight guys wish they were (females have a reputation for being notoriously frigid by most guys’ standards).

    At the same time, though, I can’t help but think that there’s something of a selection bias. I’ve been in a relationship for multiple years, but at the same time I barely touch the “gay community”. Ryan and I didn’t even attend the same sex marriage rally on the weekend (though we did regret missing it).

    I don’t think committed gay couples living in the suburbs are going to be as likely to appear on such surveys. But at the same time that doesn’t mean the results are entirely invalid.


  2. Shem – I expect there is a selection bias effect, though the one random sample survey also found high numbers of partners. But with only 150 or so people (part of a much bigger survey of mostly heterosexuals) it had sample size issues. But no survey research provides grounds for rejecting the basic conservative claim on factual grounds.


  3. What data is available on hetero promiscuity? I suggest that your heternormative pop demographers see what they want to see. Relationships are social constructs and are the product of social, moral and political values. What should be taboo is making unfounded assumptions about what is ‘normal’ or ‘natural’.


  4. It is just basically unfair to generalise from the behaviour of some (even if that is “more than half”) to the whole. If promiscuity is to be a bar to marriage then fine; test everyone who wants to marry and deny those with a history of promiscuity, gay or straight.


  5. If, as I would expect to find, men are generally more promiscuous than women, and conservatives are interested in denying marriage rights to the most promiscuous groups, then presumably it would follow that lesbian marriage is the optimum with heterosexual marriage a distant second.

    And surely the Marriage Act should be immediately amended to exclude any current or former footballers. Not – you understand – because of the individuals directly concerned, but because footballers as a group are more promiscuous than non-footballers.


  6. Also, following on from some of the other comments are there differences in rates of promiscuity between certain income brackets? Or between different races? I honestly don’t think that the conservatives have a case. Legal marriage in Australia is already a far cry from what their idealised version of marriage may be. Countries like Japan on the otherhand have a much stricter marriage contract, “mutual disagreement” is not grounds for divorce there…

    On the balance I think that a desire to commit legally to a person can exist entirely alongside a desire to be promiscuous. The queer revolution of the 70s was as much as revolutionising ideas about sex generally as it was about gay rights specifically. Since then it has tamed a lot. But sexual behaviour and marriage rights should be totally independent. Unless we want to bar couples with feet fettishes or couples into light bondage from marriage, etc.

    I’m actually a little offended by the notion that promiscuity even be considered in a negative light. But I’m sure that it wasn’t your intention, Andrew to imply it as negative, rather you were reflecting the views of those who oppose gay marriage because of studies like these.


  7. Shem – There are still strong norms against infidelity for people in relationships (the post was by me, not Sinc), and I think for good reason – while a few people may be able to make ‘open’ relationships work, for most the cost to the long-term relationship would be far too great. Adultery is not illegal, but it still comes at a social and emotional price.

    You’re bringing out the conservative in me – while committing legally may not stamp out desire for other people, marriage should in principle still be about exclusive commitment. There should be other forms of relationship recognition for people who don’t want to make that commitment.


  8. It’s very interesting when you think about it. Andrew says “There are still strong norms against infidelity”. Which is true enough, and yet infidelity is very common. It seems that somewhere between 20% and 28% of American married men admit to infidelity ( That’s a huge proportion – very much greater than the gay population for instance. And yet they don’t appear to frighten the conservatives as the threat to marriage that they seem to be.

    Andrew also says that “marriage should in principle still be about exclusive commitment”. Yet, in other cultures marriage is traditionally about polygamy. And in still others ritualised group sex is a norm alongside marriage. And so on and so forth. Which seems to suggest that monogamous heterosexual coupling is not ‘natural’ or universal, but rather cultural. And therefore marriage can’t be seen as the expression of a natural, universal state.

    It also seems that marriage as a social institution in our own culture is changing. So it is very interesting to question what it really means, and to see that when Andrew tries to define it’s essential characteristic, he plumps for sexual exclusivity. Even though we know that this is not accurate. (Although a commitment to it is, just that it is often broken). Others plump for heterosexual coupling. For them the genders of the partners seem to be the most important thing. I don’t know what it is. I’ve been in a monogamous relationship for 14 years, and I can’t see what difference marriage would make to that. You can’t can’t get any more committed than that, so it if it’s not a question of commitment, what is it?

    I agree with Andrew that in my personal experience it does seem that open relationships tend not to last the distance. But then the question is whether it is the openness or the actual sex that is the problem, and I often think it is the openness. And yet there are famous counter-examples such as Christopher Isherwood who lasted over 40 years in an open relationship, and virtually every aristocrat or monarch in history, it seems. I don’t know if I could cope with it, but it seems some can.

    In any case, it does not seem that we can use fidelity as the defining characteristic of marriage. So I wonder what it is.


  9. Was Andrew Sullivan just doing a justification for his own sex life? Remember he was famously caught out – as an HIV positive man – advertising for “bareback” sex 8 years ago. (He’s into bi scenes too, according to the ad!)

    Sullivan’s argument that a “strong social institution” of gay marriage is going to decrease gay promiscuity is just wildly implausible, in my view. There was an article in the NYT last year, which contained this quote:

    “Mr. Erbelding, a decorative painter in Boston, said: “I think men view sex very differently than women. Men are pigs, they know that each other are pigs, so they can operate accordingly. It doesn’t mean anything.”

    Still, Mr. Erbelding said, most married gay couples he knows are “for the most part monogamous, but for maybe a casual three-way.” ”

    I strongly suspect that this attitude would be much more common amongst gay couples than straight. I would also suggest that in many (perhaps most?) cases of heterosexual marriage, the potential loss of having children live with them is a powerful incentive for the husband not to cheat, even if a convenient opportunity presents itself. This disincentive is (presumably) not going to apply to most gay marriages.


  10. “There is a line between the virtues of tact and civility and the vices of spin and falsehood. If something is true and relevant to the case for or against an argument, then there should be no taboo on mentioning it.”

    Except, of course, when advocates rely on spin (falsehood, stunts, character assassination, and astroturf) for currency and promotion.

    “…and it needs strong social institutions to stop them in the interests of something more profound and long-lasting”.

    Sullivan has since dialled back his claims on this point. He now advocates “mild hypocrisy”:

    – JH


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