Reader Request Week 2008 #9: Polygamy
Not everyone sends reader requests through the comments (although you should, hint, hint); some send them through e-mail. Here’s one of the e-mailed ones, from Tristan:
You’ve been very vocal about your support for gay marriage. Do you also support polyamory?
To start, I think we might have a bit of term confusion. I suspect Tristan is asking if I support polygamy, which is marriage (presumably legal) among multiple partners, rather than polyamory, in which a person has multiple emotional/sexual relationships. Nearly all polygamists are polyamorous, I would imagine (otherwise what’s the point); but not everyone who is polyamorous is a polygamist, nor to my understanding would necessarily choose to be even if polygamy were legal. Some would; others not so much.
Be that as it may, being as I am in science fiction/nerd circles, I have a fair number of friends who are openly polyamorous, and some who are in functionally polygamous relationships, which is to say, there’s more than two of them who live and function as a household. Would I support these folks having legal rights and responsibilities to each other as well emotional/romantic ones? At the risk of making sure I’m absolutely, positively never elected to any public office in the land (and this may be a feature, not a bug): Sure. Why? Because it would make them happy, it would do me no harm, and in a general sense I’m a fan of people who care for each other being afforded the legal right to make sure they can care for each other, which when it comes down to it is one of the big attractions to being in a legally codified relationship.
Do I expect polygamy to become legal here in the US in my lifetime? No. Leaving aside some obvious arguments, here’s some other reasons why:
1. Polygamy comes with some seriously bad cultural baggage, which is to say that in the public mind polygamy is synonymous with polygyny, in which one dude gathers up a lot of wives to him. The history of polygyny in the US (at the very least) is not a happy one, since so often its practitioners are of the “marry yet another 14-year-old, knock her up and keep her uneducated” variety. And I think this is a very real and substantive concern, although ironically, most of the functionally-polygamous relationships I know about personally are polyandrous — which is to say that that there’s generally one female and two male partners. I don’t know enough about the relationships to know whether the guys are also involved sexually with each other, which of course would add another dimension to things — and which, not coincidentally, brings up to point two:
2. It’s just another way for gays to totally marry other gays. The day three gay males show up to the courthouse to codify their delightfully threesome-tastic relationship is the day certain heads pop off and blood fountains from the neck (again, some people would see this as a feature, not a bug). Even worse, what if there’s a woman involved but the guys are, like, bisexual? They could be totally going at it without her as the sandwich filling! And that’s… well, that’s just going too far. Basically, everyone who has gay panic now would devolve into full blown hysteria (or testeria, if you prefer), and would run about making hand-wringing motions.
3. Businesses would oppose it on cost grounds. Here in the US, most people get their health insurance and other critical benefits through their work. Anyone who has had to argue with an HR department about getting their spouse on a health plan that’s (slightly) better than the one the spouse gets through their own work knows how dealing with spousal benefits is like pulling teeth; how do they think the HR department is going to react to an additional spouse on the plan? Or another spouse after that? Yeah, business would hate hate hate the idea of polygamy, although I guess you could argue this would be the thing that finally pushes the US to universal health care (i.e., businesses offloading the cost onto the government). Which of course would just make polygamy Yet Another Socialist Plot.
4. The current set-up of mistresses and serial monogamy works just fine for people in power. What? Instead of screwing around I have to have another wife? Insanity! Lots of folks just want to screw around, you know. They don’t want to have to drag a relationship into it, and they’re not sure why anyone else would want to, either. The idea of people actually loving (as opposed to simply boinking) more than one person makes them uncomfortable.
5. Dude, same-sex partners can get married in only one commonwealth in the US as it is — and even then those married couples are explicitly not married in the eyes of federal law. Thus we have same-sex marriage in the US and don’t have it, all at once. There’s no way for polygamy to jump the line ahead of same-sex marriage, either practically (since that’s a struggle in process) or theoretically (for the reasons noted above). Maybe if “polygamy” were strictly defined as “one husband, multiple wives,” it might have a chance, but I don’t think most of the potentially polygamous folk I know would want that particular set-up.
Leaving aside the issue of whether polygamous partners will ever be able to marry in groupings of more than two people at a time, the theoretical posits of the mechanics of group marriages are interesting (and a bit intimidating) to consider: Whether every existing spouse has to approve a potential spouse; whether one person could be married to two (or more) people who would not also be married to each other; what happens if one spouse wants to divorce a second spouse but a third spouse wants to stay married to both, and so on. Pre-nups will be totally off the hook. And no matter what happens, divorce lawyers would be fruitful and multiply. I’m surprised they haven’t started lobbying for legalized polygamy already.
So, yes: At the end of the day, I would support polygamous partners all being married to each other. But on a realistic level, I don’t see how we would get there from where we are now. I wouldn’t mind if this were merely a lack of vision on my part.
(there’s still time to ask questions for Reader Request Week 2008: Post your question here.)