Monday, November 28, 2005

Same-sex marriage in the Netherlands: parsing the stats

On Friday, Andrew Sullivan posted this brief item on his blog:

There's a big jump in the number of same-sex married couples in Holland, as the reform begins to change gay culture and social expectations.

Here's what the linked article, at the Dutch English-language website Expatica, actually says:

The number of gay couples in the Netherlands has risen sharply in recent years.

There were 53,000 gay and lesbian couples living together in the Netherlands at the beginning of 2005, according to Statistics Netherlands (CBS). Ten years ago there were less than 39,000 gay or lesbian cohabiting couples.

Almost a quarter of the gay or lesbian couples are married or in a registered partnership. Of these, 12 percent are married and 10 percent are in a registered partnership.

The CBS said there are 29,000 all-male couples and 24,000 lesbian couples. Despite the significant increase in the number of gay and lesbian couples, the group is equal to just over 1 percent of the total number of cohabiting couples in the Netherlands.

Clearly the article talks about all same-sex couples living toether, not just married ones.

It's hard to tell what the rise in same-sex couples in the Dutch census really represents. It could be, in part, due to the fact that more same-sex couples are identifying themselves as such to the census-takers. A change in gay culture -- a shift toward "settling down" -- has undoubtedly taken place as well, just as it has in the United States. But it's hard to make the case that legalized same-sex marriage has a lot to do with this, considering that only 12% of same-sex couples living together in the Netherlands are married.

As this CBS statistical table shows, same-sex marriages peaked in 2001 when they were first legalized; that year, there were 1,339 male-male marriage and 1,035 female-female ones. (Male-female marriages that year numbered 79,677.) The figures have dropped in every subsequent year, to 579 male-male marriages and 631 female-female marriages in 2004. In the same year, there were 261 civil partnerships registered between two men, and 322 between two women; these figures have held relatively steady over the past four years. (Registered partnerhips first became available in 1998.)

In 1996, Jonathan Rauch wrote that if same-sex marriage is to succeed, it must become the general norm in the gay community, not just another lifestyle option. At least so far, that does not seem to be happening in Holland.

Also in the past 10 years, the overall marriage rate has dropped, from 5.4 per 1,000 inhabitants in 1994 to 4.5 per 1,000 in 2004. More heterosexual men and women are entering into civil partnerships -- which are much more easily dissolved -- instead of marriage; in 2004, about 7% of new male-female legal unions were civil partnerships. This does not prove, as Stanley Kurtz has argued, that same-sex marriage undermines heterosexual marriage; the drop in marriage rates is undoubtedly due to many complex factors. However, one can plausibly argue that the changing attitudes toward marriage that make same-sex marriage possible may also be related to overall lower marriage rates. (Whether that's a bad thing is another matter.) And the Dutch experience does seem to refute Rauch's argument that legalizing same-sex marriage will improve the status of marriage in the larger society.

Why am I pointing this out? Because, while I fully support legal rights for same-sex partners, I think both sides in the marriage debate have been prone to unwarranted and exaggerated claims about the social impact of same-sex marriage. The legalization of same-sex marriage has not, as some have claimed, led to polygamy in the Netherlands. But at least so far, it has not created a "marriage culture" among gays and has not boosted marriage among heterosexuals. As we continue our own discussion of same-sex marriage, we need to have all the facts on the table.

(By the way, my best wishes to Andrew in his recovery from the flu.)


reader_iam said...

As always, thanks for the parse! Right on. (And I linked to this post.)

Anonymous said...

Dear Ms. Young,

You might address the argument that because gays constitute a miniscule percentage of the population (1% according to a recent Canadian survey), allowing them to marry probably will not have any effect whatsoever, whether positive or negative, on heterosexual marriage.

Emilia Liz

Anonymous said...

I think the "marriage will cause huge positive changes" idea largely comes from conservative proponants of same-sex marriage, such as Jon Rauch. Liberals tend to see it more as a matter of basic equality.

Speaking for myself, while I think legal marriage will have a huge and positive effect on some of the same-sex couples who choose to marry, overall it actually isn't a very large change.

The big changes in the US that make same-sex marriage possible - the end of the "separate spheres" ideology of marriage, and the gay rights movement - have already happened. SSM is a side effect of these large changes, but not a large change in and of itself.

Anonymous said...

I completely agree that all the facts should be on the table. And I think what these facts show is that gay marriage doesn't have much of an effect on anything at all.

For me, supporting gay marriage is all about the effect it will have on young gay people and how much easier it will make things for them, and the 'normalization' of homosexuality and mainstreaming of gay culture have made more of a difference in that arena than anything else. Gay marriage is just the logical last step.

But to defend Rauch a bit, I think a lot of his argument depends on long-term consequences. Only when the kids growing up in a gay-marriage society come of age and have the option of marrying will we really begin to see the effects of this.

Anonymous said...

We are going to spend the next few years (decades?) arguing about what SSM statistics from the countries that allow it mean. While Cathy Young, as usual, makes some nice points and distinctions she is shading things a bit too much against gay marriage in the following passages:

"In 1996, Jonathan Rauch wrote that if same-sex marriage is to succeed, it must become the general norm in the gay community, not just another lifestyle option. At least so far, that does not seem to be happening in Holland."

There are many points to be noted here. (1) SSM is "succeeding" for those who are getting married. (2) Many of the registered partners in the Dutch sample already had almost all of the legal benefits of marriage before SSM so they have little legal incentive to have their status switched, if that is even easily done. (3) The decline in SSMs from the initial year of SSM only shows that in the first year there was a large pent-up demand for it, just as there was in Massachusetts. (4) Moreover, if the statistical table is right, since SSM became an option in 2001, gay couples who want a legal status are choosing marriage over registered partnerships by 2 to 1 margins. (5) It should not be surprising to see that a relatively small number of cohabiting gay couples are getting married since these are people who have lived their entire lives without thinking marriage was a possibility for them. That can, and should, change over time. Changing a culture of promiscuity and non-commitment is a long project, not a short one. (6) ALL of the marriage figures are lower in the European countries where marriage is, indeed, in decline (and not because those cultures are too "rigid" about what marriage means). The gay subpopulatrion only reflects this larger cultural trend.

"Also in the past 10 years, the overall marriage rate has dropped, from 5.4 per 1,000 inhabitants in 1994 to 4.5 per 1,000 in 2004. More heterosexual men and women are entering into civil partnerships -- which are much more easily dissolved -- instead of marriage; in 2004, about 7% of new male-female legal unions were civil partnerships. This does not prove, as Stanley Kurtz has argued, that same-sex marriage undermines heterosexual marriage; the drop in marriage rates is undoubtedly due to many complex factors. However, one can plausibly argue that the changing attitudes toward marriage that make same-sex marriage possible may also be related to overall lower marriage rates. (Whether that's a bad thing is another matter.) And the Dutch experience does seem to refute Rauch's argument that legalizing same-sex marriage will improve the status of marriage in the larger society."

Note that marriage was in decline in the Netherlands before even gay partnerships were recognized, much less gay marriage. You can hypothesize that the idea of gay marriage and the decline of marriage generally spring from the same poisonous root, but these numbers neither support nor refute that hypothesis.

As for Rauch's argument about gay marriage helping marriage, I've never thought that gay marriage would have much of an effect on marriage either way. But regardless, these numbers don't prove Rauch wrong. A tiny number of gay marriages in the Netherlands are swimming against a strong cultural tide against marriage generally, having to do with things like the generous welfare state in European countries. Rauch could plausibly argue that without gay marriage, the decline in marriage would be even _worse_ than it has been, but that gay marriage is of course not enough to overcome the overwhelming confounding trends in the opposite direction.

Cathy Young said...

Thank you for your very thoughtful post, Dale. It's a pleasure to see you here.

I understand, of course, that the initial higher number of same-sex marriages in the first year SSM was legalized reflects pent-up demand. But it seems to me that the "pent-up" demand would be a first-year phenomenon only -- or am I wrong about that? It is also a fact, at least for now, that while same-sex couples which formalize their relationship choose registered partnership over marriage 1/3 of the time, only about 6% of the new male-female unions in 2004 were registered partnerships. You are right, of course, that this may well change over time.

Anonymous said...


Considering how long it takes to plan a wedding, pent-up demand is not just a first year phenomena.


Cathy Young said...

Z -- good point, though I think huge weddings with long planning ahead may be more of an American phenomenon.

I'm sure not all of the pent-up demand was exhausted in 2001, but I would hazard a guess that by 2003 it was no longer a factor.

Paul Jimenez said...

Another small factor toward a more drawn-out pent-up demand may be the fear that such marriages might be cancelled at a later date, as were many here in California, if I recall.

Cathy Young said...

Paul -- were there any such concerns in the Netherlands? As far as I know, there wasn't any signficant opposition to the legalization of SSM (at least not at the level where one could expect it to be repealed).

Thinking back on Dale's post:

I myself said that I don't think the decline in overall marriage rates can be linked to same-sex marriage. (Stanley Kurtz blames it on the campaign for SSM, but I think that's quite a bit of a stretch. And besides, if aggressive campaigning for SSM has the effect of depressing marriage rates even if SSM is not legalized, what does Stanley propose to do about it? Forbid gay rights groups to campaign for marriage?)

On the other hand, I don't think that gay couples in the Netherlands can be said to be "swimming against the tide" of declining marriage rate considering that they marry at a fraction of the rates of heterosexual couples.

Anonymous said...

Interesting. Two years ago, in this post, I looked at the early numbers on gay marriages in Canada and came to this conclusion:

"By itself, I think that gay marriage will have little effect on society, simply because so few gays will get married."

Looks like the early numbers from the Netherlands support that tentative conclusion.

Cathy Young said...

Very interesting post, thanks!

Anonymous said...

Thanks Cathy. I love your blog since I discovered it after your response to Maggie Gallagher on Volokh. The best response yet to Maggie, anywhere. (Keep hitting them on torture, by the way. The response of my conservative brethren on this issue has been almost uniformly disgraceful.)

Basically I think you're right that pent-up demand only explains the large initial decline in gay marriages. After that, what else explains the smaller decline in gay marriages?

One explanation is that gay marriage is not catching on among gays there. The response to that is that it takes time for marriage culture to take root in a group that never imagined until recently that it could ever marry. Gay relationships have not been formed in the expectation that marriage might be in the cards. That should change gradually; I certainly hope it does. So I'm not at all surprised that right now gays get married at a smaller rate than heterosexuals, whose relationships have grown up with the possibility of marriage always in the background.

So what else might explain the continuing declines? Notice that straight marriages have continued to decline, a decline that began long before SSMs or gay partnerships. (I know you don't blame SSM for this trend; Kurtz is just flat wrong.) The decline in straight marriages was especially great from 2002 to 2004, the _same years_ in which gay marriages went down. In other words, the decline in gay marriages is very roughly tracking the decline in straight marriages (though at a somewhat faster pace, so far.)

That's what I mean about gay marriage swimming against a cultural tide of general marital decline that gay marriage did not cause (as you rightly point out). Gays are not immune to the shifting attitudes about marriage that are taking hold in heterosexuals across Europe.

I noticed something else in the numbers. Look at the huge drop in gay partnerships in the first year of gay marriage. It seems that, among gay couples who want legal recognition, marriage is the strongly preferred option over partnerships. In 2004, they were preferred 1210 to 583.

Finally, none of this decline in the gay marriage numbers (even if it continues) is an actual argument against gay marriage so much as an observation that the benefits might not have been (yet) as widely spread among gays as we'd hoped.

But small, and dropping numbers, of gay marriages are a double-edged sword for gay-marriage opponents. Since the numbers are so tiny (and declining!) it is harder and harder to argue with a straight face that they will have any bad effect on straight marriages.

We are left with a possibility: for gay couples who want legal recognition and protection, marriage is a very valuable and important thing -- more important than "partnerships" with legal rights. For everybody else, gay marriage is a drop in a large ocean.

Cathy Young said...

Dale, thanks for the thoughtful post and for the kind words about my blog! I really enjoyed your posts at TVC (wanted to blog something about them, but I was a little SSM-ed out at that point, so to speak); do you have a blog of your own?

I agree with you that it should not be necessary, in order to make the case for legalizing SSM, to demonstrate that it will benefit not only gays but everyone else. I think there's a danger in overstating the case for the benefits of SSM (like any other social change), because then if the proposed benefits don't materialize, the other side is likely to say, "SEE? SEE?" To some extent, the reason feminism lost a lot of traction after women won the vote was that the women's vote made no appreciable difference in politics as its champions had promised.

I admire a lot of Jon Rauch's work, but I was rather startled by the statement at the end of his 1996 New Republic piece that if same-sex marriage is legalized and relatively few gays take advantage of it, heterosexuals will "feel betrayed and rightly so" (or something along these lines). Betrayed? Why? It's not as if heterosexuals are going to lose something as a result. Now, if there was only a limited number of marriage licenses available each year and a certain quota of them was set aside for gays, and then most of those licenses went unused while straight couples couldn't get married, then I could see a cause for complaint.

And you're quite right, insofar as conservative arguments about the potential harms of SSM focus on various societal repercussions if the essential heterosexuality of marriage is undermined, the small number of same-sex marriage does undercut those arguments.

Anonymous said...

After guest-blogging on Volokh, I have no idea how you and others do this so responsibly and so well, while holding down jobs. I don't have one myself and frankly can't imagine doing it. If you get the time, I'd love to hear what you have to say about my Volokh "Traditionalist Case." My email is

You're completely right about the need for SSM advocates to avoid claiming that SSM will help save marriage. I think the world of Jon Rauch, both personally and professionally. He's had an enormous influence on me. But I agree with you that SSM will have very little effect, if any, on heterosexual marriage. If it does have an effect, I think on balance it will be positive -- but even this is speculative and almost trivial.

Anonymous said...

The problem with all of the abovde bloviating is its failure to come to grips with reality: gays can already get married in any given religious sense. What they cannot yet do is get statre recognition fot their status. Why? Because relatively few gays are procreative, and marriage as recognized by the state primarily serves to protect the interests if children, which 85% of all women will have.

Proof? England had no laws regarding marriage until the rise of the welfare state in the 20th century. Marriage was only a matter of private religious law.

In the US without state supported religion and with an open agricultural frontier without state authorities and oftren enough without a religious community, common law marriage functioned to basically secure the same interests for kids. The only reason why society cares about marriage is because children's interests that can be jeopardized by adult death or infidelity are the normal result; not so with gay unions - not yet.

If gays want marriage - and a survey in Ohio in the 2004 election showed that most do not - the key is to have children. I'm not expecting this to change. Even my gay cousin in his third LTR does not!

I conclude that SSM is a lot of hpye and little substance. It's far more the product of extremist egalitarian political agendas than "need" or equity.

Anonymous said...

Actually, I think if someone ever studied the development of the "gay marriage' movement, they would discover that the growing pattern of gays with children is what drove this debate. Traditionally leftist gay-rights groups were hardly interested in marriage rights (well, it would have seemed impossible also). AIDS drove the move for domestic partnerships in the 80s, and now two factors make up the drive for marriage among gays: elderly "out" gay and lesbian couples, concerned about their security, and the increasing number of parents. Mostly these are lesbians, I don't know what the statistics are, but my impression is that among lesbians under 40, the number of them having children is the same as heterosexual women. Now in the last 5 years there has been a trend of gay men becoming parents -- still small, but growing. I think those changes, rather than an abstract agenda, are what is propelling SSM.

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Cathy Young said...

Michael R -- interesting point. I had thought of that myself. I recall reading that 33% of lesbian couples in the US and 18% of gay male couples are raising children, and certainly the fact that gay people do have families is frequently emphasized by SSM proponents.

This does not seem to be as much of a factor in Holland, where, according to the same article on statistics that Andrew Sullivan linked, only 18% of lesbian couples and 1% of gay male couples are raising children.

One reason for the discrepancy between Holland and the US -- particularly for gay men -- I suspect, is the fact that in general the laws in other countries are far less favorable to adoption than the laws in the US.

Julia said...

I absolutely agree with anonymous that one of the major missing pieces in this ongoing debate is that SSM is already happening. The only thing that's not happening is the legal rights. So arguments against SSM paint with a much broader brush than is appropriate and we need to acknowledge that we are talking about the legalization, not the fact. SSMs have been happening for decades and no one has been hurt. Maybe I'm being too simplistic about this. For me it the same argument that was used against interracial marriage.

Then he says "If gays want marriage ...the key is to have children." I agree that children are a driving force behind marriage rights. I'm confused by the connection between that and his next statement concluding "that SSM is a lot of hype and little substance. It's far more the product of extremist egalitarian political agendas than "need" or equity."

I'm married to a woman. She and I know it, regardless of whether the larger society recognizes it. By choice we do not have children, nor will we. It is not hype that I still believe in fairness, regardless of whether I have children who need legal protections. Why shouldn't I get her retirement benefits (or she mine)? I'm fortunate to work for an employer who offers domestic partnership benefits - but I am just as concerned about my cousin and others who do not have that. Why shouldn't my cousin save $8000 a year in health insurance by joining his husband's plan? Why should I have to carry our health care POAs with me at all times in case something happens and the hospital chooses not to recognize our relationship?

Then there's the last comment. I'm truly asking this - not being sarcastic: What is an extremist egalitarian political agenda? How does a society become too fair?

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