Since the marriage equality movement’s recent triumph in the Obergefell vs. Hodges decision, national attention has settled on the status of polygamy, or the legal recognition of marriage between more than two partners. Several national publications have printed arguments both for and against polygamy rights, with a piece of mine having appeared recently in Politico. The issue now seems poised to come to the fore, with a Montana trio having applied for a marriage license together and vowing to sue if they are denied.
With attention comes both support and criticism from an unusual diversity of places. Both right and left have taken turns making the case for polygamous marriage, and both right and left have taken turns criticizing the idea. As a supporter of polygamy rights, it’s no surprise that I disagree with these criticisms, but it’s remarkable just how many bad, sloppy, unconvincing arguments have been marshalled. Let’s go through and refute them one by one.
THE RELIGIOUS ARGUMENT
In this argument, polygamy should stay forbidden, God/the gods/the divine firmament/Odin/whoever says marriage is between one man and one woman. The response is pretty easy: I don’t believe in your god(s); even if I did, I wouldn’t find that belief an appropriate piece of evidence for discussions of social policy; we have a clear popular and legal rejection of that reasoning in our contemporary society.
THE TRADITION ARGUMENT
Tradition says that marriage is between one man and one woman – we’ve always done it this way, so let’s keep doing it this way. Wrong. First, “We used to do things that way so we have to keep doing things that way” is pretty much never sound political reasoning. Certainly, the fact that tradition holds that marriage is between one man and one woman has proven no lasting political impediment to the march towards same-sex marriage. Second, polygamy likely predates monogamous marriage and is millennia old, leading us to wonder whether tradition in fact demands legal polygamy rather than forbids it. Next.
THE CHILDREARING ARGUMENT
This argument holds that polygamy should be forbidden because the purpose of marriage is to create stable family units and to raise children. Again, this complaint collapses in comparison to traditional marriage. We’ve long disregarded the notion that the only legitimate outcome of marriage is children. People get married with no intention of having children all the time. There is absolutely no legal compulsion for them to have children or to try to. Those who can’t conceive are not barred from the franchise of marriage. And a polygamous marriage that features both cis-gendered men and cis-gendered women is fully capable of producing and raising children, and those that don’t can adopt.
THE ‘STUDIES SAY’ ARGUMENT
This argument stems from the fact that a variety of empirical studies demonstrate poor social outcomes when studying people in existing polygamous relationships. Those studies exist, certainly, and yet the way they are deployed is misleading and wrongheaded.
1. Basic social science tells us that the very illegality and taboo that I’m trying to get rid of distorts the empirical picture. When a practice is illegal and taboo, that practice will necessarily be undertaken by people who tend towards extremist or outsider lifestyles. The fact that in America we associate polygamy with radical religious types is a function of that illegality and that taboo.
You can’t conclude that polygamous relationships are inherently unhealthy through looking at groups that have decided to remove themselves from broader American society and who have fundamentally different values, assumptions and ways of life. Similarly, I find comparing demographic data from, say, Senegal, to a potential United States of America with polygamy invalid on its face, as a matter of pure empiricism. The truth is that we don’t know what a wealthy Western society like America would look like with polygamous marriage because conservatism has prevented that society from existing.
2. This is not how rights work. Typical of the kind of jury-rigged arguments that progressives tend to employ against polygamy, this implies a profound, drastic deviation from conventional political morality.
Are people really rights consequentialists in this way? If I proved that segregated schools produced better test schools, would polygamy critics say that we should resegregate them? If social science demonstrated that interracial marriages had poor demographic outcomes, would they favor recriminalizing those marriages? I certainly hope not. But that’s an absolutely necessary logical consequence of this argument. I cannot stress this enough: if you say that social science compels us to deny polygamous marriage, you have to also say that you’d oppose gay, interracial or any other kind of marriage if that empirical research existed.
I find that a fundamentally bankrupt vision of political morality. And there are examples everywhere. There is research that suggests a great number of socially undesirable outcomes associated with religious belief. So do people who quote the social science as an argument against polygamy think that we should start shuttering synagogues, temples and churches? Of course not. They don’t actually believe in rights consequentialism. They just endorse that viewpoint here because of their fear of polygamy.
3. Outlawing polygamy does nothing to prevent these problems, if indeed they exist, as the problems would be inherent to polyamorous relationships in general, not just those codified legally. Do polygamy opponents think that more than two people should legally be able to have sex with each other? That more than two people should legally be able to be in a loving, committed relationship with each other? That more than two people should legally be able to cohabitate together? If the answers to these questions is “yes,” then congratulations: all of the things you don’t like about polygamy already apply. You’re just denying people the protection of marriage, and doing nothing to prevent the problems you insist are endemic to polygamy. Congratulations.
THE LOGISTICAL ARGUMENT
In this telling, the logistical hurdles to implementing legal polygamy – changes to family law, changes to divorce court, changes to probate – make polygamy a practical impossibility. Logistics are never sufficient reason to deny human rights. Again: this is not how rights work.
The Americans with Disabilities Act has cost our country hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of hours of effort and energy. And yet it’s one of the best pieces of legislation in our history, precisely because rights exist regardless of their short-term convenience. Again: is this logic applied in any other case? If someone proved that desegregation was really expensive, would that be sufficient reason to establish it? If gay marriage was logistically difficult? No. No, none of the people making this claim would oppose gay marriage or desegregation or any other rights-based claim on logistical grounds, because these complaints are not the product of a coherent legal worldview but of short-term, ad hoc, “any port in a storm” argumentation.
Also, it’s not like two-person marriage isn’t expensive, onerous and legally fraught. Have people really never read anything about divorce or family court? These are immensely expensive legal battles, bitter and difficult and expensive after centuries of precedent. Nobody argues that this is a reason to dissolve traditional marriage, and for good reason. Structures will be built. Laws will be written. Precedent will be set. That’s life in a society of equal rights.
THE PATRIARCHY ARGUMENT
We shouldn’t have legal polygamy, say some, because polygamy tends to produce patriarchal relationship structures. True. You know what else does? Regular marriage. These problems are a consequence of patriarchy, not polygamy. We must rebuild society to eliminate sexism, whether we have polygamous marriage or not. We have to rebuild a new polygamy, one free from sexism, the same way that we are continuing to build a new monogamy, slowly and fitfully. When consensual, adult relationships tend towards inequality, our job is to attack the inequality, not the relationships.
THE RADICAL ARGUMENT
Polygamy isn’t sufficiently radical, some say, so why push for it? After all, polygamy doesn’t tear down the state/disrupt capitalism/destroy patriarchy/eliminate the hegemony of Western values/etc. True. In fact, in many ways polygamy is a conservative venture. But just like I must insist on the equality of women in the capitalist workplace, even while I recognize that the workplace is a site of alienation, exploitation and destruction, I have to insist that the conservative structure of marriage must apply equally to all loving relationships.
If the state is going to formally recognize some loving relationships and extend benefits to those relationships, I must insist on equality in that recognition even while I have my doubts about the institution writ large.
THE “WHO’S ASKING FOR IT?” ARGUMENT
Some claim that there’s no organic movement for polygamy by polyamorous people, so why bother? Well, there are many people who self-identify as polyamorous and who work to build activist and intellectual structures supporting polyamorous love, and good for them. But there is no such thing as “poly people” in the sense that only some people are legitimately allowed to be in polyamorous relationships.
Anybody can be in a polyamorous relationship, just like anyone, gay or straight or in between, can be in a same-sex relationship. So while I respect the efforts of poly activists who disdain marriage, this fight is not just about them. It’s about my right, your right, and everybody else’s right to engage in a legal marriage contract with whom we choose.
THE “BORN THIS WAY” ARGUMENT
Gay is an identity, polyamorous isn’t; that much is clear. So we’re under no obligation, the thinking goes, to extend marriage rights to the polyamorous. The immutability principle, or the notion that we should extend marriage rights to those who are bound by biology is exactly the kind of wrongheaded argument that was developed for short-term political reasons during the marriage equality fight that should now be abandoned.
The immutability argument is insulting, as it poses straight marriage as the legitimate norm that is simply denied to gay people because they can’t be that way. It is inherently and unambiguously condescending and insulting towards gay love. And it has all kinds of perverse logical consequences. Can bi people get gay marriages? After all, they could fall in love with a straight person! They aren’t forced to choose between a life of loneliness or a gay marriage. So the state should be able to prevent bi people from marrying same-sex partners, right? And come to think of it, maybe we need a test. After all, if the right to same-sex marriage depends on being inherently and immutably gay, then clearly, only the really gay should have the right. Right?
Absurd. Absurd, ugly and incoherent. People have the right to marry whomever they want because the state has no business dictating who is or is not an appropriate partner. You should be able to marry someone of your own sex whether you’re gay, bi, straight or any other color of the rainbow. Same with polygamy: the moral right to marry two or more people, whether guy-guy-guy- or gal-gal-gal or cis-trans-gender queer-etc., does not depend on being existentially predisposed to do so. That is the real battle: to get past the insulting and infantilizing notion that marriage equality is a bone we throw to people who can’t help it.
THE ‘TOO MANY HORNY DUDES’ ARGUMENT
This argument goes something like this: if we have polygamy, what we’ll really have is individual men with lots of wives, and lots of sad horny angry dudes who can’t get laid or get married. That will have a lot of negative social consequences. This is a very popular one, so it demands a multipart response.
1. We already have lots of sad horny angry dudes.
2. Government has no business trying to regulate the sexual or romantic “marketplace” so that men feel like they have an adequate number of partners to choose from. Society has no legitimate interest in ensuring that you feel like you have a good chance of getting laid.
3. Traditional marriage has traditionally invested men with superior power, too.
4. That polygamy often functions to have one man who dominates the household and lots of subservient wives is a function of patriarchy. It’s our duty to destroy patriarchy. If we undertake that effort, the benefits will accrue to traditional marriage, to polygamous marriage and to the unmarried.
5. That the idea of one wife with many husbands is just assumed away is itself reflective of ingrained sexism.
6. The notion that polygamy will necessarily and perpetually default to one husband, many wives because of inequality in social and economic capital between men and women seems to me to be a matter of declaring defeat in the battle against sexism.
7. While a huge amount of work remains to be done, we’ve seen remarkable progress in closing the gap in social and economic capital between men and women in recent decades. There are a lot of relationships out there, right now, where the woman is the partner with more social capital, more education, a better income, and better prospects. It’s one of the most obvious changes in educated, elite society. Under those conditions, I can easily imagine one wife taking multiple husbands. And while we should never presume progress, I think we have a clear duty to spread that changing condition in the relative social and economic value of men and women throughout society. If we do, you’ll find this problem goes away.
THE ARGUMENT FROM ASSERTION
“Marriage just is between two people!” some say. Meaningless. Empty. Structurally and argumentatively identical to “marriage just is between a man and a woman/members of the same race!” If you want to argue, you need to come up with an actual argument.
THE ARGUMENT FROM DISCOMFORT
“I’m really just mad and uncomfortable about you bringing this up!” OK, so nobody actually puts it that way. But that’s the strong impression I get, particularly from progressive types: they just don’t want to deal with this. So many of the arguments seem to spring from places of annoyance. So many of the arguments against are based on incredulity, the assumption of bad faith and irritation that they are being put in a position to be challenged from their left when it comes to marriage rights. After years of preening about how liberalism stood for love and dignity, a lot of liberals are not happy being asked to open their own minds.
I think this is a good, natural, and healthy conversation to have, and frankly I think it’s good for liberals to be challenged in this way. It’s good for American progressivism to not be able to assume a monopoly on the moral high ground or on recognition of the equal dignity and value of different relationships. I believe that polygamy is a natural and moral outgrowth of changing norms about marriage and romance. So I’m making the case. Yesterday, you said that love is love. So what are you going to say today?
Fredrik deBoer is an academic and writer.
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