Politics & Policy

Why So Few? (Part II)

Same-sex marriage isn't taking off in Scandinavia.

Although de facto gay marriage has been available in Scandinavia for well over a decade, very few same-sex couples have chosen to marry. Given the fact that they are starting from 0 percent married, you might expect Scandinavian gays to get hitched at a fairly high rate. In fact, they marry at a very low rate. Relatively few of the very small number of Scandinavian gay marriages that actually do take place seem to be motivated by “conservative” considerations. As many as half of Scandinavian same-sex partnership registrations appear to be driven by a largely instrumental interest in legal benefits, particularly immigration benefits. Nearly a third of Scandinavian registered partnerships involve a non-citizen, many from outside Europe. This is what we learned in Part I of “Why So Few?” Here in Part II, we’ll find out more about why so few Scandinavian gays have chosen to marry.

Cruising to familyland

The extraordinarily high rate of cross-national marriages by gay Scandinavian men (43 percent of male registered partnerships in Norway and 45 percent of male registered partnerships in Sweden) calls for closer consideration. You might think lesbians would be more likely to marry than gay men. Yet in Scandinavia it’s been quite the reverse. Gays are significantly more likely to form partnerships than lesbians. The high rate of international marriages among men seems to be the reason.

We also find substantial age differences between same-sex partners, more so than in opposite-sex marriages, and substantially more so among gay partners than among lesbians. Around one third of male partnerships in Sweden and Norway were formed by men with an age difference of ten years or more. Cross-national marriages and marriages with high age differences are commonly more subject to divorce. This may help explain why divorce risk for Scandinavian male partnerships is 50 percent higher than for heterosexual marriages. (Divorce risk for lesbian partnerships in Scandinavia is far higher than the already high divorce risk for male partnerships. But that’s another story.)

So among the very few Scandinavian gay men who do marry, one of the most popular reasons seems to be to facilitate the immigration of a much younger, foreign partner. In their book Gay Marriage: For Better or for Worse?, William Eskridge and Darren Spedale draw on interviews with 24 carefully selected registered couples. A few of these pairings are cross-national: For example, a female American Ph.D. on a Fulbright scholarship in Denmark meets and marries a Dane. Yet nowhere do we see clear examples of the more typical sort of union suggested by the numbers: older gay men who have entered partnerships with much younger, non-European foreigners to facilitate their immigration to Scandinavia.

While Eskridge and Spedale downplay this trend within Scandinavian partnerships, unions between older gay men and younger Third World immigrants are the focus of “Cruising to Familyland: Gay Hypergamy and Rainbow Kinship,” a March 2004 article by Judith Stacey in Current Sociology. Stacey is a prominent family sociologist with radical leanings. (For more on Stacey, see my “Zombie Killers.”)

While Stacey is a strong proponent of same-sex marriage, her feminism makes her unfriendly to marriage itself. Stacey’s hope is that gay marriage will help to undermine marriage from within. One of the ways Stacey hopes this might happen involves unions between older gay men and younger immigrants.

Stacey studied gay male unions in Los Angeles, a metropolis Stacey says is linked into an international gay “cruising” culture of recreational sex. According to Stacey, cruising culture “disrupts conventional family norms and practices.” While the majority of such encounters may be fleeting and anonymous, Stacey notes that the sheer volume of sexual contacts creates opportunities to form unconventional unions that affirm “the distinctive character of non-heterosexual family and kinship.” Chief among these unconventional family forms is something Stacey calls “gay hypergamy,” meaning the tendency to “marry up” through “an exchange of beauty and youth for cultural status and material resources.” Stacey gives numerous examples of relatively poor, young third-world immigrants who draw on the cultural and material resources of successful older gay American men, to illustrate her point.

Some of the “hypergamous” unions that come out of cruising culture can be completely monogamous. Yet Stacey notes that many such unions are not. Cruising culture, says Stacey, “directly challenges norms of heteronormativity and monogamy, and often leads to unions that are sexually open, or that involve multiple partnerships. For Stacey, the hypergamous and non-monogamous groupings that grow out of cruising culture are a hopeful sign that a freer form of family-life may emerge out of experiments with same-sex unions.

Does the large number of “hypergamous” international parings among Scandinavian registered partnerships mean that these unions have preserved the non-monogamous ethos of “cruising culture?” It’s tough to say without further research, but there are certainly indications. Stacey’s own account makes reference to cruising culture as a way of linking American gays with guest workers in Europe. And while Eskridge and Spedale offer no sense of numbers or proportions, they acknowledge that a number of the partnered gay men they spoke with had sexually open marriages. Eskridge and Spedale call these open marriages “something of an advance over the 20th-century marital norm of repeated, but secret, cheating.” They also stress the fact that partnership has increased safe-sex practices among non-monogamous married gay couples. Yet this touting of open marriage simply confirms concerns that sexually open gay marriages might undermine traditional marital norms.

Given what we know, it seems likely that something similar to what Stacey describes for Los Angeles may be playing out in Scandinavia as well. In any case, the question of hypergamous gay unions, monogamy, and cruising culture is an obvious lacuna in the work of Eskridge and Spedale. The effect of same-sex unions on the monogamous ethos of marriage is a central question in the gay-marriage debate and needs to be addressed more directly.

Formerly Married

Given the very small number of same-sex partnerships, the focus of many of those unions on benefits, the widespread use of same-sex marriage for immigration purposes, and the likely persistence of a non-monogamous ethos in many gay unions, one begins to wonder if any Scandinavian same-sex couples at all think about their unions in a “conservative” mode. Actually, there is one sub-group that may do so.

A high proportion of Scandinavian registered partners come from a previous heterosexual marriage. In Norway, 15 percent of male registered partnerships and 26 percent of all female registered partnerships have at least one member who has previously been in a heterosexual marriage. In Sweden, the numbers are 20 percent for men and 27 percent for women.

Eskridge and Spedale suggest that these men and women likely had a conservative upbringing, leaving them prone to reject their homosexual feelings early in life. Bowing to social pressure, they entered heterosexual marriages, against the pull of their own sexual tendencies. If Eskridge and Spedale are right, it suggests that, in a generation, same-sex-marriage rates may actually move down, rather than up. If nearly a quarter of the already very small number of registered partners are cultural hangovers from a socially conservative era rapidly disappearing in Scandinavia, then one expects fewer such recruits to partnership in the future. True, the numbers of Scandinavian registered partners are slowly moving up right now, although the absolute levels are still spectacularly low. Yet a significant portion of newly registered partners look like former spouses from heterosexual marriages (with conservative backgrounds) who have since decided they are gay. If so, then Scandinavian same-sex unions are being sustained less by a growing marriage culture among gays, than by the remnants of a weakening traditionalist culture among straights.

Patriarchy

Let’s return to our underlying question. Why so few gay marriages in Scandinavia? We’ve already seen (in Part I) that the differences between marriage and registered partnerships cannot account for the low take-up rate. Yet Eskridge and Spedale explore several other possible reasons. One important explanation is that many gay couples remain reluctant come “out of the closet.”

This undoubtedly helps explain the low take-up rate, although one wonders whether the situation will ever entirely change. Even if traditional religious attitudes about homosexuality entirely disappeared, life would still put unique pressures on gays. The illusion of the gay-marriage movement is that the deeper challenges faced by gays are rooted in the deprivation of marriage. In truth, marriage has neither caused, nor can it solve, the problem. Anyone whose sexuality is substantially different from the vast majority of people around them is going to face serious difficulties and life-challenges. So a reluctance to undertake public partnerships is likely to remain a permanent factor limiting the number of same-sex marriages.

Another explanation for the small number of Scandinavian marriages is the refusal of lesbian feminists to enter this “patriarchal” institution. Grudgingly, Eskridge and Spedale concede that this may be a factor in low take-up rates. To counter the point, however, they tell the story of a radical lesbian who once opposed gay marriage, yet eventually withdrew her opposition when she realized the potential economic benefits of marriage to her partner. Of course, that only drives home the point that many Scandinavian gays and lesbians marry, if at all, more for benefits than out of traditionalist motives.

Failed experiment

Radical feminist objections to what is seen as an outdated and oppressive patriarchal institution are only part of the story. As Eskridge and Spedale concede, Scandinavia’s gays are simply less likely to be in a committed long-term relationship than their straight counterparts. Advocates of the “conservative case” for gay marriage attribute this difference to a lack of pre-existing models of committed same-sex relationships, and the related lack of social pressure to marry. After the iMAPP report on low gay-marriage rates in Europe appeared (see Part I), these advocates assured us that, given time, the marriage numbers would go up. Gay-marriage advocate Paul Varnell said it would take 15 to 20 years for generational change to work its magic. Well, we’ve had 15 to 20 years in Scandinavia, and the same-sex marriage numbers are still minuscule. Now we’re being asked for another 15 or 20 years, by which time of course it will be too late to undo the “experiment.” The “conservative case” for same-sex marriage has always depended on the claim that failed experiments could be taken back. Yet the requirement that we wait generations to see if the experiments are a success makes nonsense of the promised revocation option.

The truth is that the inherent strains of being a sexual minority make large-scale adoption of conventional marital norms by gays unlikely. Not among all gays, but among a substantial proportion of gays, there is always likely to be a degree of reluctance to “come out” fully. And growing up as a sexual minority means that there will always be many who see themselves as rebellious outsiders, disinclined to adopt traditional attitudes. Nor will the public ever put the sort of pressure on gays to marry that is placed on heterosexuals, since that pressure is ultimately rooted in the potential to produce children. Waiting for a demographic upsurge of gay marital conservatism is waiting for Godot.

Of course, Eskridge and Spedale present a few examples of model gay couples. Yet given the numbers, these must be considered exceptions that prove the rule. How can registered partnerships help sustain long-term, monogamous relationships if virtually no one seems to want them? Even many who do register see their unions, first and foremost, as tickets to legal benefits.

America

It’s likely, I think, that rates of gay marriage in the United States would be somewhat higher than in Scandinavia. That’s because the legal-economic benefits of marriage are far more substantial in the United States than in Scandinavia. In Scandinavia, few benefits are linked to marriage. In America, a great many benefits depend upon marriage.

Yet a higher rate of gay marriages in the United States would hardly prove that the “conservative case” for same-sex marriage was working. Recall that many of even the most anti-marriage American respondents in the Stiers study said they would get married anyway, “for the bennies.” (See Part I.) In Scandinavia, gays and lesbians who reject traditional martial norms tend not to marry at all. Some may be tempted by immigration benefits and such, yet the absolute numbers remain exceedingly small. The danger is that the richer array of marital benefits in the United States will attract radicals who positively reject the traditional marital ethos. Then there will be more than an academic book touting the safe-sex practices of couples in sexually open marriages. Instead, movies and television shows will feature cutting-edge same-sex married couples “courageously” suggesting that we dispense with outdated norms of marital monogamy.

Start with an extremely small number of Scandinavian same-sex registered partnerships. Strip away the 50 percent who married chiefly for the benefits, then the 25 percent who married after leaving a heterosexual marriage, then the unknown but likely substantial portion with sexually open marriages. Even with some overlap, you’re left with a sliver of a sliver of a sliver. The more you peel this tiny onion, the more you realize that, when it comes to the “conservative case” for gay marriage, there’s just no one there.

—Stanley Kurtz is a fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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