All posts edited by Madeline Ricchiuto.

Friday, July 17, 2015

Why not Polygamy?

By now the news has spread everywhere about the United States Supreme Court's ruling on same sex marriage. The dust is starting to settle, but I want to kick it up again. What now? Not only for gay rights, but what now for marriage? Is marriage now a beacon of equality or is it still an exclusive club only for some, only now same-sex couples have entrance? Specifically, what about polygamy?

It's interesting that many liberals have been ecstatic about same-sex marriage being passed; but if I were to ask them about polygamy, they would instantly turn around and condemn opening up marriage to such relationships. This is not to say that gay marriage and polygamy are the same. They are different and there are different considerations required for each. Yet, even liberals use the same arguments used to oppose gay marriage against polygamy as if they would somehow be successful for one and not the other.

Why not polygamy? The arguments against it are pretty standard, but let's go through them one at a time.
1. Children: Just as with same-sex marriage and inter-racial marriage, one of the key starting points for arguing against polygamy is that it's harmful to children. Well, there are several rebuttals to this: not the least of which being that it has been thoroughly established that marriage is not about children. Children can and do exist outside of marriage and there are plenty of marriages that never add children to the family. 

Those who use children as a means of arguing against polygamy not only misunderstand the role children play in marriage (none), but also the role that marriage plays in children's lives. Many studies have shown that children who have two married parents are often better off than those of single parents. However, the question is why. Most studies have concluded that it is stability which is the most important factor to childrens' development and wellbeing- not the number of parents. 

Think about it a different way. There are many children who already have 3 parents. Divorce and remarriage has been legal for quite some time and many children have step-parents. Many kids have as many as four ! I haven't heard of anybody saying that these children are somehow worse off than others. The reality is that having multiple primary caretakers is not a new concept and is actually not as uncommon as we like to pretend. But I'll repeat for good measure - marriage is not about children. 

2. Stability: Now as soon as I mentioned stability I could almost hear the tapping of keyboards with people waiting to say "but multiple partnered relationships are inherently unstable!" Please tell that to the many polyamorous lovers who have been together 30, 50+ years. Can they be unstable? Sure. So are many monogamous couples. Relationships come and go. That's how they work, but marriage (supposedly) is for those that aren't so fleeting. That's why we have enshrined an institution which makes it harder for those involved to separate. But just in case the anecdotal evidence wasn't enough: Elisabeth Sheff has done a study on polyamorous relationships and found a high level of support and stability for children in who are being raised by poly parents - not to mention that children raised in such arrangements seem to turn out well

I always find it interesting when people talk about stability and children as reasons against marriage. Surely if stability and children's wellbeing are your position you should therefore approve of allowing more kinds of marriage. Study after study after study can be found to demonstrate that marriage does benefit children. If stability and children's wellbeing is your main concern, legalizing polygamy is better than not.

The irony of using an argument about stability though, is that it assumes that monogamous marriages are somehow more stable than poly ones would be. While divorce rates aren't as high as widely believed those who do divorce often remarry, which obviously requires dating again. Sometimes adults get divorced and remarried multiple times. Children can have many 'parents' over the course of their lifetime. So why is that somehow more stable than a polygamous marriage with multiple partners who may come and go as well?

3. Oppression: Another common argument against polygamy is that it is an oppressive relationship structure. This is an important point to make as we can all agree that nobody wants to endorse or encourage abusive or oppressive relationships. However, it is important to distinguish that it is certain polygamous relationships that are oppressive rather than the actual structure of polygamy being inherently oppressive. 

For example, the vast majority of polygamous relationships that have been practiced throughout history have been polygynous ones. Many were in societies where marriage was extremely patriarchal and not at all like the institution of today. Women were in no way considered equals of men and were treated as property. But this was true of all marriages, not just polygamist ones. This history is hardly justification for restricting the rights of one group but not the other. 

Some may argue that polygamy is often times no better today than it was then. That it enables a power dynamic that is inherently unequal and will be all too often abused. However, once again these arguments often center on things that aren't just applicable to polygamy but also to monogamous marriage. Many of these arguments are also heterocentric and completely ignore same sex polygamy as an option (not that I would advocate that one is acceptable and the other not). 

Thom Brooks, an academic, argues that because women are already at a cultural disadvantage, they are more likely to be taken advantage of (perhaps not even able to give full consent!), especially in polygamous relationships. Not only does this completely ignore same-sex polygamy, but there is no reason why this would be the case.

Certainly polyamorous relationships offer a good example of how that could not be the case. Polyamory is all about having full informed consent, and treating all partners as equals. This often leads to many conversations about how everyone is feeling about how they are treated and their place in the relationship. Open discussions, respect, and -perhaps most importantly- relinquishing assumptions  are all key aspects of successful polyamory. This is true regardless of the form the relationship takes (such as a "V", or triad, or an open relationship, etc.).

Formalizing a relationship doesn't change any of those already existing qualities. Rather one could argue that marriage can offer many protections to women from such circumstances. Rights, security, stability, but also power to end the relationship with a no-fault divorce. Divorce and enforcing rights is often not simple and can be arduous. If your issue with polygamy is that women aren't protected enough or that marriage doesn't protect women enough, then advocate for expanding protections because thats what you really take issue with. Not polygamy.

4. Logistics: Probably one of the weakest arguments against polygamy is that our current system couldn't handle it. "What happens in the event of divorce?" Or a question about taxes and whatnot - reminiscent of those who complained that there would have to be a change in the forms if same-sex marriage was legalized.

On the surface this might be enough to give people pause. Because to many, logistics acts as a reality check. Non-monogamous people, no matter how much of a right they might have to marriage, simply don't fit and that's that. But why? If we can accept that there is a right to marriage how can logistics really be enough to stop people from fulfilling this right?

We've seen these kinds of arguments before and they clearly didn't stand up to the test of time and reason. With other rights we have dealt with serious logistical issues and come out the better for it. From liberating slaves all the way through to fully ensuring their right to vote (which we are still working on) and even all the efforts that went into ensuring women had a fully respected right to vote we have made significant logistical changes as has been necessary to our system. These required changes in law, and tax codes, and inheritance and divorce and many more things. Recognizing rights is often difficult and requires that we as society and our governments put in effort, monumental at times, to ensure their protection - it's an ongoing process and one we should never stop. That's what makes rights so special and dear.

Are there serious questions that need to be answered? Sure. How exactly should we structure taxes? How would divorce work? What about custody of children? Should there be limits on the number of people? All important questions. Logistics plays a role but it plays a role in deciding how we enact things not in deciding not too. Will it be complicated? Probably. Messy? Maybe. But everyone who has multiple partners should have the option to marry their partners just like monogamous people do.

5. Need: Many people question whether polygamy is truly necessary and whether or not marriage is something poly people truly want. You don't see or hear many polygamy advocates on TV or even around the mainstream internet. So why should we even consider it when it's not something they really seem to want? The answer is simple really. Because we value equality. On the principle of equality whether there is a large group or even just one person who wants a legally recognized polygamous marriage, then they should have the option and ability to have one. The question shouldn't be why should be advocate or care about this if we don't. That is the completely the wrong question. The real question to ask is why should we allow this inequality to exist. Should the 'gay marriage' movement only have gotten support when there was sufficient LGBT support of the issue? No. We should be supporting issues not because of the number of people who want them but because they are the right things to do. Because they are the right way to treat people.

The bottom line comes down to this: We as a society value people making free choices of their own accord and don't want anyone interfering with that ability. We make exceptions when the decision goes against a specific state interest (and this must be a particularly strong interest) or if it is a harmful decision. Does the state have an interest in preventing polygamy? Not specifically and certainly not under an ancillary interest such as protecting minors or women etc. What about causing harm? Who does it harm to allow people who freely love multiple people to choose to marry? To use an adage from the same-sex marriage debate: if you don't like polygamy then only marry one person. Nobody is forcing anything on anyone. It would simply be available for those who want it. So really - Why not polygamy?

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