All posts edited by Madeline Ricchiuto.

Monday, October 21, 2013

What's Wrong With Being Poly? Nothing!

In modern Western society, we've seen a great emphasis placed on marriage. Lately, with all the talk surrounding the marriage equality movement, it has become a very divisive issue in the public consciousness. In engaging in the ongoing public debate, an extremely common argument made is that allowing same sex couples would lead to all sorts of things like people marrying objects or people marrying animals OR people marrying more than one person.

So the first two make absolutely no sense whatsoever, as neither objects nor animals can consent so...that is really a non-issue. Despite this whole argument being a "slippery slope" fallacy, I would like to take this opportunity to challenge our boundaries on the third.

Lets start by looking at the moral outrage from, mainly, the social conservatives. Polygamy, or really anything that isn't one man and one woman, is seen as highly immoral and degrades the moral fabric of society. It is compared to things like bestiality, necrophilia, and object sexuality. In trying to discern whether this position is correct what makes something moral or immoral? Is it moral because an ancient book says so (although many holy books describe and encourage poly - albeit misogynistic - relations)? No, probably not. In modern society we use the basic harm principle and simple logic to determine moral from immoral and so consent has become a huge factor in recognizing a valid and/or moral marriage or relationship. Bestiality, object sexuality, and necrophilia all have issues on this point which make it very difficult to see them as moral, if at all possible. 

It is because of issues such as this that marriage will never be available for such such practices (although there has been a case of a person marrying a pillow in Japan and even a man marrying a virtual character). Consent to getting married and the ability to divorce and very important factors, otherwise any person A could marry another person B even if B does not wish it. Because of this it is doubtful that such 'marriages' are legally recognizable in Japan but are merely public displays of affection and so hardly legitimize fears from the social right. Polygamy is different however because we are still talking about human beings who have the ability to give consent so what is holding people back?

Recently I read an article written by Thom Brooks, a lecturer and Director of the LL.B. program at Durham University. His paper, "The Problem of Polygamy," takes a feminist approach to tackling some of the many problems seen in such relationships. For one, it is true that polygamy has, historically, been a male dominated practice. In almost all cases it is a practice of men accumulating women either as a sign of power, or as a means to fulfill some religious practice, among others. This gives a very negative view of polygamy, and as such is the basis for laws against it. 

While I tend to agree that polygamy has been very male dominated - and quite misogynistic- this does not mean that those facets are essential to polygamy itself. Nor do I believe that its history means that it can't be successfully implemented into society in a way that is not detrimental to women.

Brooks seems to believe otherwise and expresses concerns that, due to the high rates of polygyny (when a man marries many women), that any promotion of polygamy would only perpetuate the current circumstances. However, such an argument is fallacious. Just because it may lead to something is not a valid reason to completely disregard the practice- unless there is reasonable proof that such suspicions will come to pass. 

It is also important to note the reasons for why polygyny is the more prominent type of polygamy. If the stigma against women having multiple partners were to go away would there be a rise in such cases? As we have seen with the increased liberation of women's sexuality, more and more do openly express their sexual preferences and are not ashamed of their sexuality. Thus one could expect a subsequent rise in alternate types of polygamy.

Brooks makes note of many studies that show that women in polygamous relationships are at higher risk of things like disease, low self-esteem, depression, etc. However these studies are all based on cases where the women are not afforded the same level of consent as the man in the relationship, they are often not privy to when or who else the man marries. It would seem that many of the issues would be solved with a leveling of the playing field.

Another common argument used against polygamy is that of harm to children. Some studies have suggested that children have weaker mother-child relationships in polygynous families but I would question if it was tested to see if this actually had a negative effect on said children. Their relationship with their biological mother may indeed be 'weaker' than in a monogamous family but this may be counterbalanced t the community aspect of the family; where one relationship is lacking in one mother it could be made up for in another. 

Polygamy does not seem to be inherently bad in any sense. Although once again Brooks would disagree. Brooks claims that polygamy leads to inherent problems arising out of asymmetrical abilities. He uses an example where a man (or a woman) marries three others A, B, and C. Everyone has consented and is fully aware of what they have consented to. Brooks says that because A cannot choose to divorce B, or C, that there is an inherent inequality between A and the man (or woman). However, this seems counter-intuitive as A has not married B or C and so has no legal rights or benefits that would require divorce. In a truly equal arrangement, A would be able to come to an arrangement with the central man or woman and have appropriate measures taken if they did not wish to be associated with/around B or C. It is also important to note that this inequality is something that was consented to, it would be known risk which is morally and legally allowable; especially when considering my earlier points. 

There is also a claim that there is asymmetry in the "opportunities" available to each of the wives or husbands. Brooks does not expand upon what he means with this word, and without such direction I can only think of one example which would be in a romantic or at least legal sense for their opportunities to marry another. However again, as above this is consented to. A person can freely forsake their right to marry another person, as is the case in monogamous marriage. Merely having an asymmetry is not in itself morally objectionable. And so these two claims seem to fall short in justifying the claim that polygamy is unacceptable.

I think this is a good time to address the issue of polyamory. The difference between polygamy and polyamory mainly being one of marriage, but also of the genders of those involved. So a polyamorous relationship could involve multiple men and multiple women and many different combinations thereof. Generally in polyamory as well, there are slightly different dynamics in that the relationships may be more webbed (the women could be involved together and with the man). Furthermore, polyamory may be used by single sex groups (all males or all females). 

This leads us to Brooks second contention. Brooks says that polygamy is inherently...homophobic we'll say. In essence Brooks says that it is a discriminatory practice against non-heterosexual people which seems to me to be preposterous. He makes the distinction between polygamy and polyamory recognizing same sex relations in one but not the other. However the difference between the two does not seem to be in the sexes of those involved but in how they involve themselves. So I would argue, as would many other homosexual people I'm sure, that polygamy is possible to be practiced by groups of the same sex. It is possible for one man to wish to marry many men but not have them marry each other, and same goes for women.

Brooks recognizes that polyamory resolves his issues of asymmetry as well and can only qualm with how there is no guarantee that such relations wouldn't turn out as primarily 'polygynous' in practice; and so states, "Polyamory is not a clearly preferable alternative to polygamy." I would argue that even if we were to accept all of Brooks' other arguments this is the least justifiable, as it is merely speculative without any evidential basis.

Polygamy, polyamory, and other such alternative relationships are often seen as immoral, disgusting, misogynistic, and many other negative ways however it is important to note that none of these claims seem to stick when all the issues are addressed and applied to a theoretical situation of poly relations. The problem seems to be one of implementation rather than one with the actual practice itself. As long as all members are fully informed, consenting, and treated with equal power and respect there seems to be very little, to no, room to effectively criticize such practices.


  1. I completely agree with all of this. This guys "Brooks" seems to base his arguments on theory and not on practicality. If he would see the actual implementation of a polyamorous relationship and the dynamic of one, he'll see that his previous claims are unfounded. He seems to be focusing on showing why it's wrong for the sake of keeping marriage between one man and one woman by using, potentially, exaggerated claims and/or slippery slope fallacies. When you have to resort to fallacies, it means you haven't a leg to stand on. First he points out why Poly could be 'wrong' b/c of the lack of equality within the relationship and that each partner wouldn't have an equal share in 'power' over the relationship. Unequal power existed for centuries where the males dominated over the females in Monogamous relationships so that's where his statement false short. Power imbalance happens b/c people can be "dicks" sometimes and have other agendas so it isn't always a case in poly-relationships. This is evident in the studies he shows of women having a higher risk of depression and the like; in such scenarios it COULD BE POSSIBLE that the central figure in those 'studies' had to be the center of attention and a complete "misogynistic pig," let's just say that for now. But if he were to study polyamorous relationships that is actually built on love and not a man's ego, then he would see that there is no imbalance and that the 'power' is shared equally.

    Other issues that are apparent is that Brooks seems to lack the understanding of the differences between Polygamy and Polyamory and how I would consider them both a little Tomato/Tomahto with VERY subtle difference. The main difference being marriage. *If I'm mistake, someone please correct me. lol*

    But overall, any case against Polygamy, polyamory, or other alternative relationships can't be honestly thought of as immoral, ugly, unlawful or the like because we can remember that not too long ago it was "SINFUL AND UNLAWFUL" to marry or be romantically involved with someone of the opposite race. Let us never forget those horrid days b/c they are still relatively recent. They said you can't marry outside your race and now we have that right, they said you can't move in with someone w/o being married and we have that right now too, and I'm sure without a ounce of doubt that pretty soon we will have the right to have equal rights in what relationships we CHOOSE to have; whether it be monogamous, straight, gay, lesbian, transgendered, Polygamist, Polyamorous, WE HAVE THAT RIGHT AND I CHALLENGE SOMEONE TO SAY OTHERWISE!

  2. My wife and I have been married for 5 years and poly for life. We initially had difficulty navigating the issues that tend to come along with being polyamorous such as jealousy or insecurities. Over time we got through the issues, but still had some emotional insecurities. After coming to the conclusion of just being open and honest with each other about everything the insecurities went away. We both love reading about polyamory and the people involved. Thanks for the post, it was a great read!