Re-examining gay Mormon youth and suicide: What does the data say?

salt-lake-city-downtown-2[1]Do young Latter-day Saints, and especially gay youth, commit suicide at a higher rate than other youth in the US? The short answer: with the data we have, we don’t know. So what do we know for sure?

The Mormon teen suicide problem

Some readers may have read a recent interview in the Huffington Post with Wendy Williams Montgomery, a Californian mom and LGBT advocate. In the interview, Montgomery refers to a widely recognized problem within Mormon culture: the high rate of suicides among gay youth. “Mormons,” Montgomery asserts, “have the highest rate of gay teen suicides in the country.”

Over the last few years, the idea that Mormons have a problem with teen suicide, especially among gay youth, has become common wisdom. In 2012, a Reuters article highlighted the issue of gay teen suicide in Utah. The Huffington Post has featured the issue multiple times, as in a 2012 post. High-profile Mormon critic John Dehlin frequently discusses gay teen suicide among Mormons, and recently referred to the phenomenon as an epidemic. His characterization seems to fit the general impression: Mormons have a special problem with suicide among gay teens.

Missing data

There is no question that gay teen suicide is a reality among Mormon youth. In many cases, we have heard their stories, either through media or personal experience. Fortunately, we are more aware of this reality than we were in the past.

Unfortunately, however, these stories seem to be accompanied, more and more frequently, by statistical claims that are not supported by data. Mrs. Montgomery’s assertion that Mormons have the highest gay teen suicide rate in the country is unsourced in the original interview, and other blogs and outlets making similar claims are also missing sources. I surveyed all the government and health data I could find on youth suicide in the United States, and was unable to find any agency that collects public data by religion or sexual orientation (data so specific would be very difficult to collect). In fact, the American Association of Suicidology’s LGBT Resource Sheet notes, “to date, there is no empirical data regarding the number of completed suicides within the LGBT community.” The claim appears to be fabricated.

Other claims to the effect that Mormons, or Utahns, have a unique or unusually acute problem with gay teen suicide, or even teen suicide, cannot be supported by any data I can find.

The data we do have

Much of the interest in Mormons and teen suicide seems to originate from a 2006 article in the Deseret News, a newspaper owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. The article pointed out a few statistics about suicide that would have been surprising to most readers at the time. First, that Utah had the highest rate of suicide among males age 15-24. Second, that Utah had the 11th highest overall suicide rate in the United States. And third, that the youth suicide rate in Utah had tripled over the preceding half-century (in fact, this is true across the United States). The newspaper didn’t cite its sources, but all of the categories of statistics they refer to are available through the CDC and other federal sources and appear to be genuine.

What else do we know? The data in that report is now nine years old, so it’s worth taking stock of the current reality. I’ve collected a set of more recent figures below, from public data and representative surveys:

  • Utah’s suicide rate among people age 15-24 is 9th highest in the United States, among 47 states with reliable data (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s suicide rate among males age 15-24 is 7th highest, among 46 states with reliable data (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s suicide rate among females age 15-24 cannot be reported as the number of cases is smaller than 20 (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah’s overall suicide rate is 5th highest in the United States (CDC, 2013)
  • Utah is 29th out of 40 states with available data for the rate of high school students who have attempted suicide (not completed suicide) (CDC, 2013)
  • Suicide is the second leading cause of death for Utahns age 10-17. (Utah Department of Health, 2012)
  • Across 9 sites surveyed (all in the Midwestern or Eastern US and California), lesbian and gay high school students had a rate of attempted suicide that was approximately 4 times higher than for straight students (CDC, 2011)
  • A representative survey of students in Grades 7-12 across the US using the Add-Health database found that Mormon gay teens reported significantly less depression and fewer suicidal thoughts than their nonreligious peers. (Add-Health, 2010)
  • The same survey found that religious gay teens had a lower attempted suicide rate than nonreligious gay teens (the number of cases did not allow for statistical significance, however).   [Update: These last two statistics came via an author and are unpublished. I have not been able to independently verify them, as I don’t have access to most of the Add-Health dataset. Take with a grain of salt! Thanks to Mike in the comments section for doing some digging!]

The following are additional relevant results from a small non-representative 2009 survey conducted by the Family Acceptance Project and affiliated researchers, included at the suggestion of commenters below.

  • Gay youth who experienced high levels of family rejection were 3.4 times as likely to attempt suicide, 2.8 times as likely to experience depression, and 1.7 times as likely to use illicit drugs than gay youth who experienced low levels of rejection. Note: Unfortunately, the researchers who wrote the original journal article misinterpreted odds ratio as relative risks, and accordingly reported higher numbers for the foregoing statistics (specifically 8, 6 and 3 times instead of the above figures). This appears to be a good faith error–misinterpretation of the odds ratio (a very unintuitive statistic) is extremely common, even among researchers. The journal article is restricted, but available here to those with institutional access. General information about misinterpreting odds ratios is here.

To the best of my knowledge, these statistics are the closest we can come to answering the statistical questions surrounding gay teen suicide among Mormons, or within Utah. Specifically targeted data on completed or attempted suicide among gay Mormon teens simply isn’t available.

The data speak well enough for themselves, but it’s worth pointing out that none of the relevant data points appear to justify an unusual suspicion about Utah (or, by extension, Mormons). This is especially true since the surprisingly strong link between high altitude and suicide rates has become well established. Among high-altitude states in the Rocky Mountain West, Utah appears to have overall rates within the average range, and youth rates slightly lower than the average. We have no empirical data specific to Utah for gay and lesbian youth, but we can assume that like other states, the rate of attempted suicide, and presumably completed suicide, is considerably higher than for straight youth.

It’s also worth noting that Utah’s overall suicide rate has increased relative to other states since 2006, while its youth suicide rate has fallen in comparison to other states. Furthermore, the Add-Health dataset mentioned above suggests that Mormon gay youth are relatively less at risk for suicide than nonreligious gay youth. [Update – I haven’t been able to independently verify this. See above.]


While only systematic recordkeeping and representative surveys can answer the questions we’re most interested in, we shouldn’t ignore anecdotal evidence about suicide. The sense among many concerned observers in Utah and elsewhere that the situation is bad and getting worse probably reflects an important reality. Youth suicide in the US has quickly gotten worse over the decades, and a disproportionate number of these suicides across the US, including within Utah, are among gay youth. Combined, these two trends might be giving an alarming impression to those concerned about the well-being of gay teens; an impression made locally that could be transformed into misplaced claims, such as Mrs. Montgomery’s. So her hypothesis–that Mormons in particular have an unusually severe problem with gay teen suicide—could possibly be an observer’s local interpretation of nationwide trends, but it cannot be supported or rejected by the data itself, as far as I can tell.

The hypothesis cannot be confirmed or rejected by theory, either. Many advocates who highlight the issue of suicide among Mormons do so within the framework of a particular narrative, at the center of which is the idea that Latter-day Saint sexual values are harmful. Since there is no data to support the assertion of abnormal suicide rates, the theory seems to be doing all the work. But there are other theories that could be put forth—Latter-day Saints could just as well hypothesize that robust Mormon families and supportive faith communities lead to lower rates of suicide among gay youth. But this would also be unjustified; it would be best for everyone to refrain from attempting to explain phenomena for which there isn’t evidence in the first place.

Those who believe in Latter-day Saint sexual values and those who do not should be able to agree: one youth suicide is too many, including among gay youth. Even if the Mormon problem is not unique, it is still a problem. We don’t need statistics, and certainly not unsourced statistics, to tell us this.

Why I am no longer a libertarian

Ron Paul libertarianThe “libertarian moment” may have finally arrived. An essay about American libertarianism in this Sunday’s New York Times Magazine argues that younger voters’ social liberalism, fiscal conservatism and dissatisfaction with the political establishment is becoming a wave that new libertarian politicians are on the verge of riding into political relevance.

Whether or not this is true, the essay makes for an accurate glimpse into the libertarian movement’s self-narrative: libertarians comparing themselves to rock stars, libertarians for legal weed and hip with the kids, libertarians as champions of liberty, libertarians unconstrained by petty partisanship.

But the essay doesn’t get to the heart of libertarianism, which is something more than rejecting Republican hawkishness and Democratic entitlement spending or being simultaneously opposed to bailouts and carbon taxes. The essence of libertarianism is not political, but inescapably philosophical. Below are the reasons I rejected that philosophy.

Personal freedom is libertarianism’s only value

Libertarians are obsessed with liberty, and they are generally eager to admit this about themselves. While most Westerners agree that personal freedom is desirable, libertarians make a bolder claim, and it is in some ways their only claim: individual liberty is the ultimate political good.

It’s an innocuous-sounding and deceptively elegant statement that can distract a casual listener from considering the necessarily corollaries. When libertarians tell you they “just” believe in individual freedom, they mean it. Any other political good—fairness, compassion, equality, democracy, tradition, goodwill, public health, brotherhood, order, peace, progress, solidarity, authority—is not a good in itself, but is measured in terms of its consistency with the overriding good of freedom. If liberty requires less democracy, libertarians are in favor. Order and peace are good, but not if they have to be won at the cost of someone’s freedom to do as they please. Even authority, to libertarians, has no real legitimacy except to the extent that it serves liberty.

But while liberty is indeed a good thing, it’s really not the only good thing. We live in a complicated world, and solutions to its problems are rarely sufficiently simple to withstand being summed up in a slogan.

Libertarian mantras to the contrary, heroin and consensual incest should probably remain illegal. A zero percent income tax rate is probably a naïve suggestion in a globalized, advanced society. There’s probably no free-market solution to climate change. There are hundreds more examples. The point is not that libertarians are wrong about these issues–it’s that they ignore, at everyone’s peril, every conceptual dimension of these issues except that of liberty versus tyranny.

Libertarians ultimately fall back on a very vulnerable claim

The liberty-only worldview of libertarians is nearly impossible to justify from any philosophical standpoint. Various libertarian theorists have tried to “prove” it—Ayn Rand, Murray Rothbard, Hans-Hermann Hoppe—but end up making spurious or absurd arguments. Rand makes fantastic leaps of logic from Aristotelian logical axioms to libertarian property rights that only seem plausible when wrapped in a narrative (Atlas Shrugged). Hoppe actually tries to say that because people speak to each other with civility, they are somehow proving that the non-aggression principle, a moral claim, is an objective truth.

Most libertarians who are awake to the moral indefensibility of this claim say that their arguments don’t really rely on it–that they have arrived at their elegant maxim by observation of the world. Pure freedom, they say, happens to lead to every other political good.

But this is an extraordinary claim to which I have never seen even an ordinary justification, let alone the extraordinary one that would be required (even geniuses like Milton Friedman ultimately have fallen short and often resorted to moralizing). I speak from experience in saying that libertarians who believe a truly free system will automatically give rise to all the other political goods listed above are almost certainly deceiving themselves, and are glossing over the many inconvenient subtleties with a sheen of moral certitude.

Libertarian fundamentalism, including free market fundamentalism, really doesn’t always work as a policy. The uncomfortable truth is that the libertarian method of political analysis is to identify the policy consistent with individual liberty, then to tell whatever narrative must be told to support that view. Ultimately, libertarians are slaves to an intoxicating but naïve intuition that negative liberty is the ultimate good.

They inevitably become amoral about anything consensual

Libertarians are accustomed to explaining to others that their private moral opposition to certain behaviors is separate from and irrelevant to their political attitude to those behaviors. They may morally oppose cocaine use, bestiality and the unrestricted sale of organs (for example) but they don’t coerce others into abiding by those subjective moral codes.

However, as I discovered personally, a laissez-faire public attitude on human behavior is often accompanied by moral apathy in private. This is probably because the libertarian ethic is itself a moral judgment; one that supersedes for its adherents any other.

This discovery is borne out by research connected with psychologist Jonathan Haidt’s moral foundations theory, which identifies six axes of human moral taste: care/harm, fairness/cheating, liberty/oppression, loyalty/betrayal, authority/subversion, and sanctity/degradation. Everyone cares at least a little bit about each of the six moral goods, but the relative importance of each foundation varies quite cleanly by ideology. On tests of moral attitudes, both liberals and conservatives have been shown to have relatively broad palates of moral taste. Libertarian morality, on the other hand, is dominated by the liberty/oppression foundation. Libertarian social connections

In other words, libertarians do not have the same moral sense as the rest of us. While they oppose murder, rape and theft on the basis of liberty, many of them see acts like burning flags, eating one’s deceased dog or public nudity as morally neutral.

It’s worth mentioning for the sake of context that self-identified libertarians are overwhelmingly male and white and disproportionately agnostic or atheist. They tend to be younger and extraordinarily socially detached, and are likely to intellectually inhabit the internet instead of the real world.

Libertarians reduce complicated realities to simplistic models

If you’ve had conversations with libertarians about politics, you may have at times suspected they were speaking a different language. This is probably because they were. In order to deal with the world in such a way that libertarian theory makes sense, libertarians have reinvented the meanings of many ordinary words.

For example, to the dismay of most experts, libertarians insist on defining government as no more than a “monopoly on violence”. Sociologists think that marriage is an institution the identity of which is difficult to pin down, but to libertarians, it is clearly just a contract of union between two people. A law, to libertarians, is a “threat of force” without any greater significance.

Definitions like these are appealing because it’s very easy to reason toward libertarian conclusions on their basis. Since law is just a threat of violence, the government can easily be characterized as abusive and arbitrary. If marriage is just a contract, then it’s obvious the government should just “get out of the marriage business”. If the state is just a monopoly on violence, then isn’t it our enemy?

Libertarians thus conveniently sidestep the weightier questions of philosophy, anthropology, sociology, psychology, religion and law by defining them away.

It’s no error to simplify reality to a model for the sake of reasoning more easily about it—humans must do this to survive—but libertarians have insisted on a self-contained, internally consistent model within which they can give an easy answer to every question. So their reality is considerably simpler than anybody else’s. This leads to another problem:

Libertarians feel entitled to strong opinions on issues they know little about

Many non-libertarians are content to leave an issue aside or take a tentative stance when the relevant field of study is outside their intellectual comfort zone. Take monetary policy—most Republicans and Democrats defer to economic experts because handling the money supply is a genuinely daunting policy question, one about which even Nobel Prize winners disagree. Libertarian amateurs, however, dive headlong into these very deep policy waters. Ron Paul (a physician) wants to “end the Fed”, others want to return to a gold standard, and some want to privatize money altogether.

Whether they are ultimately right or wrong on monetary policy is beyond my ability to discern, but also beyond theirs: in justifying their radical opinions, these libertarians bypass a very large field of economic research and innovate convenient theoretical simplifications (like ignoring the differences among various parts of the money supply). As a result, when they make predictions, they’re often horribly wrong.

Libertarians overstep on more than monetary policy, of course. When a libertarian confidently promotes a brash, heterodox policy stance (say, legalizing prostitution, dismantling most government departments or getting out of the UN), you can be fairly confident that they’re mistaken. If they happen to end up being right, they were probably correct for the wrong reasons.


Admittedly, libertarians have made some important contributions to the broader political discussion. This is especially true when it comes to certain realms of economic theory, which can better bear than social theory libertarianism’s characteristic hyper-rationalism. For example, libertarians have arguably been empirically vindicated in their theory that minimum wage laws are ineffective and even harmful anti-poverty tools. Furthermore, liberty is an indispensable political good, as libertarians do well to remind us.

But libertarianism is not the answer to our broader societal question because it is not a real-world ideology. It’s ideally designed for collegiate theorizing or internet debating precisely because it is impersonal and abstract. My distaste for libertarianism is admittedly personal, because I was for a time deeply immersed in its glittering, imaginary world. As a result, I have sketched a portrait of the movement that is unfair to the more moderate thinkers among them. (However, most moderate libertarians don’t fit the profile of the prototype: either they are religious libertarians, or older than most, or just mislabeled socially moderate or dovish conservatives.) But if I’m treating libertarians harshly, I am ultimately doing so intentionally. There are many libertarians (maybe half of them) who really are as fanatical as I’m claiming, and of those who are not, many of them are at risk of becoming fanatics.

My escape from libertarianism was into conservatism, but my complaints against it are similar to those lodged by liberals and centrists. Reasonable thinkers across the political spectrum should be able to find a rare place of agreement on the issue. To quote modern liberalism’s patron saint (as I rarely do): “No, we aren’t going to have a libertarian moment,” Paul Krugman wrote in response to the NYT piece this week, “and that’s a good thing.”

Photo credit: “Ron Paul for President” by r0b0r0b, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0.

New Study: Gay marriage in Holland may have reduced marriage rates among … liberals?

For decades, conservative opponents of same-sex marriage have been making a brazen claim. Extending marriage rights to gay couples, they say, will weaken the marriage institution.

In the near-absence of reliable data, their arguments have relied almost entirely on hypothesis. However, a new study, published earlier this year in the social science journal Demography, could offer same-sex marriage opponents some of the first empirical evidence in support of their theories. If the study’s findings are correct, same-sex marriage in the Netherlands decreased the opposite-sex marriage rate in all but the most conservative groups.

The Theory

It’s not unanimous, but growing majorities in developed nations are now on board with the idea that same-sex marriage is a good thing. As of 2013, around 80% of Scandinavians, 63% of Canadians and 55% of Britons support same-sex marriage, according to a global Ipsos survey. Recently, the tide of public opinion has even turned in the United States, where a recent poll has support as high as 59%.

For supporters, it’s not difficult to see why the public has come around. The philosophical and moral case for same-sex marriage is compelling, as this conservative will admit. Defenses can be made in the name of freedom (why should we force people who love each other not to marry?), equality (traditional marriage laws turn gays into second class citizens) and the public good (who would be harmed by gay couples marrying?).

Opponents of same-sex marriage have been caught flat-footed, perhaps even dumbfounded, as marriage laws move past them in ways that would have been inconceivable just thirty years ago. They are often unable to explain exactly why they oppose same-sex marriage but aver that it remains bad policy at best, and morally wrong at worst. The phenomenon of “moral dumbfounding”, or an inability to explain one’s moral intuitions, is not unique to same-sex marriage opponents. The most common example: most Westerners (but not all) rightly oppose contracepted sex between siblings but are unable to articulate why they do. Getting stumped, then, does not make a person wrong, but it does mean that they will need to dig deeper to justify their beliefs.

Some advocates for the traditional definition of matrimony say they have done just that, catching a subtler vision of the marriage institution and promoting a corollary new case against same-sex marriage laws. Sherif Girgis, PhD candidate in philosophy and principal co-author of the 2012 book What is Marriage?: Man and Woman: A Defense along with Robert P. George and Ryan T. Anderson, argues that there are two public visions of marriage. The “conjugal view” sees marriage as oriented toward procreation. The “revisionist view” calls marriage a union oriented toward love and commitment, with procreation and childrearing an elective option. (See here for a lengthier explanation.)

Girgis argues that only the former view explains why marriage should be a public institution, because it enforces norms that arise from sexual reproduction. The latter view, then, would make marriage functionally indistinguishable from non-marital romantic unions. He contends that in order to coherently support same-sex marriage, advocates have had to adopt for themselves and promote to the public the revisionist view. This, he thinks, constitutes a removal from the public square of the only institution geared toward procreation. The implication is that the old (to some, outdated) norms that historically sprung up around procreation, as well as the motive to marry, will fade along with the old view, more than they have already done.

Despite Girgis’ and his coauthors’ new defense of the traditional marriage definition and a small renaissance of secular opposition to same-sex marriage, many conservatives seem to have given up fighting in the face of a near-monolithic public consensus. And while Girgis’ reasoning is not unsound, there has been little hard evidence to support his broader conclusion that same-sex marriage laws would harm marriage itself.

What everyone, on both sides of the issue, should admit is that the same-sex marriage debate has taken place in an empirical vacuum. For better or worse, the conversation has been about same-sex marriage the moral question, not same-sex marriage the public policy. While no empirical study can or should settle the question on its own, everyone interested should take careful consideration of the data that do exist.

The new study

The paper in question, “The Effect of Same-Sex Marriage Laws on Different-Sex Marriage: Evidence From the Netherlands“, by Mircea Trandafir, was published in February of this year in the journal Demography. The author attempted to find the effect on the marriage rate of a 1998 domestic partnership law and 2001 same-sex marriage law in the Netherlands. Its conclusions have mostly escaped attention—partly because of a vague abstract.

The paper contains two statistical analyses. The first is a regression on aggregate (country-level) data that compares the Netherlands to a control group of OECD countries over a number of years, while the second is a time series analysis of individual-level data. In the abstract, the author writes that according to the first model, “neither law had significant effects on either the overall or different-sex marriage rate”. This is true at the 5% level, but it’s worth noting (in the context of the entire paper) that the effect of the same-sex marriage law on the marriage rate was significant at the 10% level—implying that there is only a 1 in 10 chance that Dutch marriage rates in the absence of the same-sex marriage law would have fallen as much as they did in reality. The overall trend from 1988 until 2005 is described in the paper:

As expected, the actual rates are relatively close to the synthetic marriage rate [control group rate] between 1988 and 1997, the period used to construct the synthetic control. After the introduction of registered partnership, the three rates are all higher than the synthetic marriage rate, but they all fall below the synthetic rate at some point after 2001, the year in which same-sex marriage was legalized.

According to this first, aggregate-level analysis, while there is not enough statistical power to conclude with certainty, it appears that marriage rates rose slightly as a result of the 1998 domestic partnership law but were depressed by the 2001 same-sex marriage law.

The second regression of the paper is perhaps more valuable—it uses individual-level data, which allows for greater analytic nuance. In the abstract, the author concluded: “The effects of the two laws are heterogeneous, with presumably more-liberal individuals (as defined by their residence or ethnicity) marrying less after passage of both laws and potentially more-conservative individuals marrying more after passage of each law.”

This finding is true, but represents only a part of the main results of the analysis—furthermore, important context is left out. “Potentially more-conservative individuals”, as defined by the author, represent less than 10% of the Dutch population, while “more liberal individuals” make up more than 80%.

Trandafir also claimed in his abstract that the results of the individual-level analysis “confirm the findings in the aggregate analysis”. It’s unclear what he means by this, since the individual level-analysis did not estimate the overall effect of the laws (only by gender), and only measured the overall marriage rate (as opposed to the different-sex marriage rate).

Trandafir made the decision not to perform a regression for men and women combined, because women tend to marry at a younger age than men. The findings of his analysis are that the same-sex marriage law had essentially zero effect on the male first marriage rate overall, but a statistically significant negative effect on the female first marriage rate (i.e. the age-specific rate of first marriages in a person’s lifetime).

But the story becomes more interesting. In the conservative Dutch Bible Belt, which represents around 4% of the Dutch population, the regional effect of the law was to strongly increase the marriage rate for both men and women. The same goes for the 3% of Dutch who are Turkish or Moroccan. But for the vast majority of the population—that is to say, for native Dutch and especially for residents of the four largest cities—the effect of marriage laws was significantly negative for both men and women.

The Dutch royal family in April 2013

The Dutch royal family in April 2013

The regression is not directly interpretable quantitatively because of the complexity of the model; but for comparison, the effect on marriage rates of the law for women in the four largest cities, for example, was three times greater than the effect of actually living in the four largest cities. This suggests that the adjusted effect is large, since the marriage rate in the four largest cities is around 20% lower than in Holland overall (this is not to suggest that the law had a negative 60% effect, because the raw statistics are not controlled for demographic variables). The effect on the marriage rate for native Dutch men was a rate twice that of the year-to-year downward trend.

Somehow, it appears that the demographic groups most supportive of same-sex marriage—urbanites and native Dutch—are precisely the groups whose marriage rates declined in connection with the law. On the other hand, the conservative subcultures who were likely to oppose the 2001 law–Bible Belt residents, Turks and Moroccans–seem to have experienced a marriage rate renaissance as a result of it. Somewhere, Sherif Girgis is wide-eyed; his theory that the revisionist view of marriage undermines marriage seems to fit the data almost uncannily.

But the fact that makes these findings even more shocking is a bias in the data that causes the negative effect of the law to be underestimated, as the author admits: “identifying the spouse of all individuals is virtually impossible, and I am unable to distinguish between same-sex marriages and different-sex marriages. This induces a small upward bias in the estimate of the different-sex marriage rate after 2001.”

In other words, the gay marriage law did not just reduce the opposite-sex marriage rate, but the marriage rate overall. More explicitly, since we know that no same-sex marriages occurred prior to 2001, this means that, apart from the small conservative minority, the same-sex marriage law was associated with a drop in opposite-sex marriages that was larger than the rise in same-sex marriages.

The implications of these findings are stark. If this study is correct–and for the robustness of the methodology, it seems unlikely to be far off–then it is appropriate to suggest that same-sex marriage had the effect of decreasing the mainstream marriage rate among heterosexuals in the Netherlands, possibly by changing the way marriage was perceived.

There is a more hopeful story for advocates of civil unions, or marriages-in-all-but-name. In both the aggregate and individual analyses, domestic partnership laws had a neutral or small positive impact on the marriage rate, suggesting that it is not gay unions that have the potential to disrupt marriage culture, but the redefinition of marriage itself.


Caveats are in order after such claims. First, cultural differences between the Netherlands and other countries mean that the results cannot necessarily be extrapolated. Indeed, in a 2009 state by state analysis in the US, the authors found that a state’s gay union policy had no significant effect on marriage rates (it should be noted that the study did not separate civil unions from same-sex marriage).

However, Girgis’ theory might well explain this particular discrepancy. American religious conservatives are not the tiny minority they are in Holland. In the Netherlands, there has long been massive majority support for same-sex marriage, which may help explain the significant effects found in the Trandafir paper. It could be the case that the more people support same-sex marriage, the greater downward effect the law has on marriage rates–a troubling policy conundrum.

The larger caveat: it bears reiteration that these findings do not themselves justify a particular position on same-sex marriage. There is much more to be said, and at the end of the day, public policy is not only an empirical question; it is a social, philosophical and moral one as well. However, science, philosophy and morality are often found to intersect in the same place once the dust kicked up in a whirlwind of controversy has settled. Time will tell what conclusion future generations will draw. When it comes to culture wars, history has been known to vindicate both winners and losers.

Photo credit: “King of the Netherlands” by Tom Jutte, licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The decline of marriage norms is hurting the poor

Barack and Michelle ObamaRising rates of fatherlessness, a culture of promiscuity, and persistently high divorce rates are impoverishing millions of people. While marriage rates remain high in our society’s upper classes, the institution has all but collapsed among the poor, leaving in its wake an epidemic of broken homes and families deprived of social capital.

The debate over the social desirability of marriage burst into the public consciousness in 1992, when US Vice President Dan Quayle famously decried Murphy Brown, a sitcom career woman who was portrayed sympathetically during her out-of-wedlock pregnancy. Quayle lamented the message he believed the show was sending: marriage doesn’t really matter.

Quayle was mocked relentlessly for his comments. But the shots he fired into the cultural battlefield ignited a firestorm of opinion and debate about marriage and family values, and he was arguably vindicated by social science as well as the opinions of his successors in American government. All three US presidents since 1992 have taken care more than once to extol the necessity of fatherhood and marriage, as the proportion of US children born outside wedlock passes 40%, with much higher rates among racial minorities and the poor.

Even Candice Bergen, the actress who played Murphy Brown, commented in 2002, “I never have really said much about the whole episode, which was endless, but his speech was a perfectly intelligent speech about fathers not being dispensable and nobody agreed with that more than I did.”

Over the last two decades, social scientists have arrived at a consensus: the erosion of the marriage institution is hurting our society. As one example of this trend, the New York Times reports that as much as 40% of inequality growth in the US is explained by changing marriage patterns. Regrettably, there exists no consensus in the broader public consciousness that there is a problem, and no united front has appeared for shoring up the institution.

No consensus on marriage

Conservative observers, who are inclined to see poverty as a natural consequence of libertine sexuality, have jumped on the family values bandwagon. Liberals, who by all accounts care deeply about the poor, unfortunately have generally not, electing instead to talk about globalization, government policy, discrimination or other causes of poverty unrelated to marriage. An observant writer last year in the Atlantic asked, “why is it hard for liberals to talk about family values?”

White, college-educated liberals in particular are among the likeliest to marry but among the least likely to offer vocal support for the institution. They show a reluctance to “preach what they practice”, as Charles Murray describes the phenomenon.

There’s a mindset of complacency at play. For the wealthy and educated, the prospect of a single life is not a fearful one, financially speaking, so it’s easy to take marriage for granted. But for the uneducated and less advantaged, not marrying means a statistical near-certainty of life at or below the poverty line. Ironically, it is the complacent wealthy who usually marry, while the poor far too often do not.

Those who plan on a single life, however, are still in the minority: 28% of Millennials over 18 are married and a further 56% say they hope to be married at some point. But, astonishingly, only 29% believe that society is better off when marriage is made a priority. The modern philosophy seems to be, “sure, I want to get married, but that doesn’t mean anyone else should.”

If this is the case, then maybe the answer to the Atlantic’s question—why is it so hard for liberals to talk about family values?—is a reluctance to appear judgmental. Charles Murray calls this attitude “ecumenical niceness”. This agreeability might just be dangerous, because social expectations, sanctions and norms, really do affect how people act, as a wide array of social scientific literature attests.

Liberals don’t bear full responsibility for the marriage crisis, however. Conservatives have a tendency to make marriage too materialistic. Marriage in the 1940s and 50s, for all of its virtue and vigor, was characterized by parents who spent surprisingly little time with their children, and who were concerned too much with the appeal of a new post-war middle class lifestyle. Traditional norms, while vital, do not themselves a happy family make.

Children raised in this culturally conservative environment became the next decade’s hippies and cultural revolutionaries. Their error was that in their crusade against their parents’ materialism they also rejected the traditional sexual and family norms that had given them the stability and well-being they continued to enjoy.

Norms matter

The norms and taboos that historically surrounded marriage often included the expectations that sex should wait for marriage, that a man who impregnates a woman will marry her, that married couples should have children, and that divorce is a matter of last resort. While not everyone bent to these expectations in decades past, most people did, and those who didn’t at least publicly endorsed them. Nowadays, these norms are labelled “stigma” at best, and openly rejected at worst.

However, these norms still exist in our upper class, if as unspoken best practices more than expectations. It’s the poor who have lost the norms almost completely in the midst of their public disavowal by the wealthy. Dan Quayle touched on the phenomenon in his notorious speech:

When we were young, it was fashionable to declare war against traditional values. … And, of course, the great majority of those in the middle class survived the turbulent legacy of the ’60s and ’70s. But many of the poor, with less to fall back on, did not. The inter-generational poverty that troubles us so much today is predominantly a poverty of values.

Fathers leave their pregnant girlfriends with tragic ubiquity in the lower socioeconomic classes, and around two thirds of lower class children grow up without both of their biological parents, and the rates are even higher for the children of poor Hispanic and black mothers. As healthy norms have eroded, so has healthy behavior.

Marriage without norms

Marriage normlessness has also created its own philosophical novelties. Somewhere between 1970 and now, in the relative absence of cultural taboos surrounding matrimony, many of us have lost part of the vision of marriage itself. Many anthropologists half a century ago would have told you that marriage is an institution whereby a woman’s children are recognized as the legitimate offspring of the woman and her husband. The identity of marriage involved, if not revolved around, its role as the fount of sex and family. The norms of permanence, loyalty, fertility and virginity all flowed from that essence.

But these norms evaporated in the desert of non-judgmentalism, and the vision underlying them began to make less and less sense. Observers began using a sort of reverse definitional logic. Marriage couldn’t be about procreation, because many people procreate outside marriage. It couldn’t revolve around having a family because we don’t expect couples to have kids. This shift in visions further undermined the weakened norms in a kind of vicious circle.

This decade’s gay marriage debate has at worse reinforced, or at best revealed in its proponents, an unprecedented postmodern vision of matrimony, where marriage is not defined in terms of family at all, but only in terms of love and commitment (along with vestigial property and legal rights). As theologian Albert Mohler narrated last year: marriage was reimagined “in terms of personal fulfillment rather than covenant obligation. Duty disappeared in the fog of demands for authenticity … Companionate marriage was secularized and redefined solely in terms of erotic and romantic appeal—for so long as these might last.”

No public definition of marriage has ever been perfect at any point in history. But some visions are better than others: if marriage is defined in terms of romance, fulfillment or commitment, there is little to prevent further radical changes to norms and rules.

In fact, some “polyamorous” activists have interpreted recent court decisions as applying to the situation of poly-oriented people. Many commentators have begun to argue that marriage should not exist as a civil institution at all. Childless marriages and “open” marriages are now on the banks of the mainstream, and consensual sibling marriage can perhaps be seen in the distance.

Raising our vision of marriage

If trends continue and the marriage institution continues to erode, there could be calamitous consequences for civilization. Moderate but left-of-center psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt compares the decline of marriage to global warming as a political issue: both are real and significant dangers to humanity, but most of us see only one of these two asteroids hurtling toward us, to use his analogy.

So it’s with difficulty that we apprehend the challenge of rebuilding marriage culture, a challenge which requires the efforts of everyone who cares about poverty and societal stability, both liberals and conservatives, religious and irreligious. The challenge is neither to invent a culture entirely new (as liberals might suggest) nor to re-create the materialist 1950s (as conservatives often propose).

A restored marriage culture should involve a return to a more responsible sexual regime—one where women can reasonably expect men to take responsibility for their offspring, and where sex is tied to commitment, and ideally to marriage. But it should also place a higher emphasis on child-rearing than on career or external pursuits, on the immaterial over the material. Gender roles need not be enforced for the sake of nostalgia, but sexual complementarity should be celebrated and upheld where biology makes it prudent.

Arriving at this kind of cultural consensus on marriage and family is vital for the well-being of future generations. The upper class in particular should begin to preach what many of them practice, and to admit that faithful, fruitful, permanent marriage is a good and desirable thing—not just for them but for everyone. All of us should have the courage to defend marriage and the norms that protect it. If we don’t, it will be an impoverished future generation who pays the price.

Photo credit: “Barack and Michelle exit the stage” by Luke Vargas, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Gender politics and the essence of humanity

Recent developments in the politics of gender are raising deeper questions about the continuing relevance of gender itself. This week the Alberta government presented a new birth certificate to a twelve year-old girl-by-birth who began identifying as a boy at age nine. The ‘F’ indicating sex on the child’s certificate was changed to an ‘M’.

Alberta student Wren Kauffman, who was recently given legal recognition as a male.

Alberta student Wren Kauffman, who was recently given legal recognition as a male.

Alberta has become the first province to allow such a change for children, who are not eligible for sex reassignment surgery. Court cases in other provinces seem to signal forthcoming nationwide changes in gender identity policy.

As is often the case with complicated social issues, the conspicuous effects of the policy are less important than the subtle, but broader cultural shifts that will follow it.

That is to say, social conservatives are not concerned so much about an Alberta child’s birth certificate as they are about the continued cultural significance of the words “male” and “female”. These concerns are not ludicrous given the tremendous speed of social change in the recent past, and in light of recent media conversations about gender.

In April, Global News ran the headline, “Does gender no longer work on birth certificates?” A Saskatchewan mother of a six year-old transgendered girl noted that birth certificates once listed a child’s race and father’s occupation, and argued that gender designations were just as archaic.

The question is bigger than birth certificates, however. This week, Canadian media reported that the Vancouver School Board had directed its staff to use the pronouns “xe”, “xem” and “xyr” to refer to students of ambiguous sex, or who otherwise do not wish to be called “he” or “she”.

A National Post feature last month was titled “The end of gender? North American society may be ready for more shades in between male and female”. The article quoted a University of Melbourne professor who advocates the abolition of gender itself.

The exemplars in these progreThe Kissssive visions are the minority of individuals who are transgendered or androgynous in some way. But while there are exceptions in circumstance, might it be true in principle that humans are male and female? What would a genderless society mean for our collective human identity?

The denial of the male and female has to be understood in the context of a broader trend: modernity’s tendency to abstract away from human reality for the sake of simplicity and inclusiveness. The last four hundred years have seen the effacement of man’s identity as a spiritual being, as a familial being, and even as a monogamous, heterogamous, or fruitful one. People have become “individuals”, conceived of as intellectual and physical agents and little else.

In the twenty-first century, by abstracting with even more boldness than before, we are at risk of inventing an epicene anthropology, a de-gendered image of humanity in which very few people are made.

The beauty of our civilizational self-portrait has given way to something more schematic, an image that contains no errors but misses the likeness of its subject. Which is more important—that our collective imagination of human identity (symbolized, perhaps, by a birth certificate) is broad enough to include every permutation of individual identity, or that it is deep enough to capture the essence of humanity itself?

Misogyny, horror, and why Millennials need to reform the internet

Something has gone very wrong with the internet. There now exists the clearest evidence yet that the darkest parts of internet culture might be responsible for the deaths of innocent people. An entire generation has shared in the social development of the web–that generation needs to begin reforming the online world they have created.

A subculture of women-hating

In the recent Santa Barbara killings, misogyny seems to have played a central part. The question remains, however: how did women-hating burst out into extreme violence like this, in the person of a young suburban man? More broadly, how do extreme social pathologies survive in our civil society? And where?

The Red Pill

Forums like The Red Pill are visited by thousands of men every day

Online communities seem to be part of the answer. PUAHate, and the /r/TheRedPill forum on Reddit are online forums patronized by the killer. These sites, and similar hangouts, form an underworld of lonely internet users, mostly males in their twenties, who have built up for themselves a dangerous, misogynistic mythology.

Dragged out into the open, the degeneracy of their exchanges is laid bare.

“There is something mentally wrong with the way [women’s] brains are wired … they are incapable of reason or thinking rationally,” the killer was reported to say. With others, he talked about committing violent acts against women. In his case, the violence became real.

While the Santa Barbara killing spree is beyond tragic, a more recent act of web-inspired violence in Wisconsin, this one committed by preteens, is in some ways even more terrifying.

Online horror cults

Last Saturday, a 12 year-old girl was found by a cyclist at the edge of a park, alive but in desperate condition, having been stabbed 19 times. Two of her classmates, also 12, admitted to the attack, which took place after a sleepover. The girls had planned for months to murder their friend as a way to attract the attention of Slenderman, a popular paranormal monster in the “creepypasta” online subculture.


Doctored images like this one, featuring Slenderman, are popular on forums visited by the young Wisconsin attackers

Dozens of questions come to mind. How do young girls get to the point of attempting ritualistic murder? How do preteens, or anyone, find themselves caught up in cult worship of fictitious bogeymen?

The answer again lies online. Hundreds of thousands of internet users are involved in the Creepypasta Wiki, /r/Creepy and /r/NoSleep subreddits on Reddit and dozens of similar forums, where contributors trade literary and graphical depictions of the truly disturbing, in order to find a fearful pleasure in what seems to have become a pornography of horror.

The NoSleep subreddit asks for original, believable content on its homepage: “Remember: everything is true here, even if it’s not. Stories should be believable, but realistic fiction is permitted. Readers are to assume everything is true and treat it as such.”

This is the sort of community in which the Wisconsin middle school killers found themselves involved: an underground bazaar of realistic stories and well-doctored images of Slenderman and other dark figures, designed to provoke a genuine sense of fear.

Imagine a preteen watching horror films alone every night, each about the same eerie monster, without a parent to give comfort or context. Is it a stretch to think the child would start to believe what they were seeing? What is different about what is occurring in online communities?

Internet subcultures

But the problem is even broader than misogyny or horror: anonymous online communities have become havens for every kind of dangerous thinking.

There aren’t just atheist and religious thinkers on the internet; there are forums for people who bully religious people, or for young Muslims who learn to despise Western society. More than just pornographers, there exist fetishistic porn cults. Beyond racial prejudice, there are blogs and meme-dumps full of appalling hostility toward racial minorities; and “social justice warriors” on Tumblr who spend their online lives hurling screeds at “cishet” (cisgender heterosexual) white males. Teenage girls struggling with anorexia looking for help online will likely find the “pro-ana” underworld, which instead of giving healthy advice will tell youths how to hide their condition from their families.

With the help of coaching on internet forums, an awkward twenty-two year-old from California, who probably needed counselling or a role model, began to identify himself as an “incel” (involuntary celibate), an unappreciated “alpha male”, and a victim of female irrationality. Mental illness and chauvinism can’t fully explain his subsequent crimes: the internet seemed to play a crucial role in radicalizing his worldview.

Of course, radical subcultures are a minority of the world’s internet users. Furthermore, killers will come from an even smaller, usually mentally vulnerable subset. But these minorities are still large. More than 50,000 people subscribe to “The Red Pill” and almost half a million to “No Sleep”. It’s plausible that more acts of physical or emotional violence will come out of this cultural cesspool.

Millennials need to reform the internet

In order to mitigate the excesses of internet culture, the web should be shaped into a more mainstream medium. Violence and extremism online will never be stamped out, but they can be pushed to smaller, less accessible fringes of the web. Whatever legitimacy they claim can be taken

Perhaps and other sites could be pressured to close off their darker corners—this has happened once before, when Reddit took down an extremely popular “jailbait”, or clothed child pornography, subreddit. ISPs could be asked to prioritize bandwidth away from sites where there is discussion of illegal activities.

The anonymous, decentralized internet has enabled the creation of unprecedented types of communities, and unprecedented sets of regulations might be required to deal with them. We wouldn’t tolerate nightly meetings of thousands of radical women-haters or Slenderman worshipers in our cities, and we shouldn’t tolerate it on our networks.

Changes to internet culture are unlikely to happen, however, while there exists a silent generational gap. When the parents of Millennials think of the internet, they think of Facebook, YouTube and Wikipedia. When Millennials think of the internet, they’re also picturing Reddit, Tumblr, 4chan, and thousands of smaller sites which cater to particular flavors of extremism.

To save the millions of young people who are engaged in, or who are susceptible to engagement in online subcultures, the older generation needs to become fully aware of these communities. The younger generation, of which I am a part, needs to begin taking responsibility for the cultural wasteland it has created.