YOU ARE a liberal. You believe the government should stay out of people's private lives, their bedrooms especially. You believe that what goes on between consenting adults is nobody's business but their own. The idea of condemning people for their sexual orientation or ostracizing them for their choice of lover offends you deeply. A decent society, in your view, is one that makes it safe to be different, safe to choose a nontraditional lifestyle — not one in which the religious right is allowed to dictate whose behavior is "normal" or whose relationship is legitimate.
Needless to say, you support the repeal of antisodomy laws where they still exist. And you are heartened by the growing number of employers with domestic-partnership policies, which extend benefits to all employees in committed relationships, not just those in conventional heterosexual marriages.
Now: Consider a recent case in Milwaukee. Alan and Patricia Muth, by all accounts a close and trusting couple, were sentenced in November to prison terms of eight and five years respectively.
Their crime? Choosing each other as lovers.
Patricia and Alan Muth, a brother and sister who began a sexual relationship and had four children together, were prosecuted in Wisconsin for incest.
The Muths are drawn to each other — emotionally, romantically, physically. But they happen to be brother and sister. Their sexual relationship began when they were adults; he is now 45, she is 30. They have had three children, but they were charged with incest, not conception. The prosecutor made that point explicitly.
At trial, the Muths' attorneys claimed the couple hadn't realized how serious their offense was. According to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Judge David Hansher rejected that plea. "You don't have to be bright," he snapped, "to know you don't have sex with your brother or sister."
As a committed liberal, what do you make of this? Do the Muths belong behind bars? Or is it outrageous that adult sexual partners should be imprisoned just because they are siblings? Should such relationships be banned by law? Or is the Muths' love life none of the law's business?
Maybe you agree instinctively that incest should be illegal. But wait. By what liberal principle can you differentiate the Muths' relationship from any nontraditional relationship? A gay relationship, to take the most obvious example. On what grounds can you distinguish two men in an intimate union from a brother and sister in an intimate union?
On the grounds that many consider incest a sin? Clearly not: The same could be said of homosexuality. And clearly not because there is a longstanding taboo against incest. The taboo against same-gender sex is also ancient.
Perhaps you'll argue that homosexuality is as old as human beings, or that it exists in all societies. But the same is true of incest, even if most of those who practice it feel compelled, at the moment, to stay in the closet. Or perhaps you'll say that in some cultures — ancient Greece, for instance — homosexuality was openly accepted. But sex between siblings was, too: The pharaohs of Egypt often married their sisters.
So why, liberal reader, shouldn't sex between adult relatives be legalized and legitimized? For fear of medical problems in their offspring? That is no more a reason to denounce incest than AIDS is an argument for frowning on homosexuality. In both cases, the answer — you're a good liberal, you know this — is safe sex. Besides, conventional couples with a high risk of transmitting genetic disorders are not forbidden to marry. Why treat a brother and sister differently?
For a conscientious liberal who welcomes the mainstreaming of homosexuality, can there be any reason to keep treating incest as shameful or criminal? True, a strong gay liberation movement has helped break down taboos against homosexuality, and no such movement exists for sibling sex. But that merely begs the question. A stigma is either wrong or it isn't. You cannot claim that a prejudice is OK just because there is no organized movement to combat it.
Fine. You agree. Sex between consenting adults, even siblings, is no business of the state. Lovers shouldn't be persecuted just for being related.
But do you then agree that all laws against adult incest should be repealed? That equal-protection laws covering "sexual orientation" should be understood to protect incest, too? If you favor same-sex marriage, can you say no to brother-sister marriage? If gay or lesbian couples are free to adopt, shouldn't incestuous couples be equally free?
What of sensitivity curriculums in the schools, and emotional support for those who choose to "come out," and annual marches of solidarity and pride? Do you reserve these for only one kind of nontraditional relationship? Or do you support them wherever they are needed?
You believe that love — not some arbitrary definition imposed by the Christian Coalition — is what makes a family, right? You hold that the private relationships of consenting adults are not the government's affair, right? Then you should be defending Alan and Patricia Muth, two lovers who happen to be brother and sister, as indignantly as you would defend two lovers who happen to be men (or women).
And if you can't, despite your firm liberal principles — what does that say about those principles?
(Jeff Jacoby is a columnist for The Boston Globe).
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