Does advocating for marriage equality for same-sex couples require us to also advocate for polygamy — that is, for legally recognized marriages of three or more people? I don’t think so; there are crucial differences between same-sex marriage and polygamy that require us to consider the issues separately.
In David’s slippery-slope thread, AnnaJCook wrote:
I am actually uncomfortable with the way pro-gay-marriage folks distance themselves from legal recognition of poly marriages. I’ve known a couple of folks whose poly relationships could have benefitted from equal legal recognition. There’s nothing in our current conception of marriage (love, commitment, mutual finances, etc.) that require only two consenting adults.
Three of my best friends are polyamorousy married to each other, but their marriage has no legal recognition. Their marriage is egalitarian, stable, and full of love. Isn’t it unfair that they can’t have a legally recognized, three-person marriage?
Well, yes. It is unfair.
But not everything in life that’s unfair should be addressed by changing the law. It’s unfair that an expert driver who can safely drive at 100mph on city streets cannot do so legally, but it’s still in society’s best interests to have speed limits.
I think that even though it’s unfair that my friends can’t legally marry, there are very strong arguments against legal recognition of polygamy.
1) Contrary to what Anna suggests, there’s actually quite a lot in our current legal conception of marriage that requires two and only two consenting adults; polygamy can’t fit into our current legal regime seamlessly, as SSM can. To accommodate polygamy, the laws around marriage would have to be rewritten at every level. David Link outlines some of those reasons here.
The difference comes down to arithmetic. Same-sex marriages have the same dyadic structure that all heterosexual marriages now have. Each partner is married to the other, and only to the other. Their rights and obligations to one another, to any children they may have, and to any third parties who might have some interest in the relationship, such as banks, creditors, parties to contracts, etc., are usually quite clear.
That’s not true with polygamy.
In the dominant form of polygamy, where one man is married to several wives, he is, in some way, “married” to each one of the wives individually. […] But what about the relationships of the wives to one another? Are they similarly “married” to all the other wives in the marriage? […]
If the answer is “yes,” then if the husband died, would the wives continue to be married to each other? Why or why not?[…]
Could some or all of the wives divorce the husband, but continue to be married to one another? Could they divorce one another? Again, why or why not? And if the answer is “yes,” how would that work? Who files what papers, naming whom? Would the various partners choose up sides in the ensuing divorce proceedings, and how would a court deal with that?
Another question related to divorce: Could an individual wife file for divorce of only herself, or would a divorce petition dissolve the entire marriage? […]
And – central to the present debate — what about the children? If the husband – or one of the wives – wanted out of a polygamous marriage, what would the rules be for who gets custody of the children – and who is responsible for child support? […]
The fact that we do not know the answers to these questions – and thousands of others – is at the core of why polygamy is dramatically different, as a matter of public policy, from same-sex marriage.
Maybe those problems could be addressed. But it would not be fair to put SSM on hold while we wait for that to happen.
2) As I’ve written before, in actual practice changing marriage requires a large-scale social movement; a critical mass of people must be persuaded to advocate for the change, then an even larger mass of people must agree to support or at least not object to the change. This is an enormous amount of work, and that’s work that SSM supporters have done and are doing, but poly supporters have not yet begun (and I’m not sure they’re even interested in doing it). Again, I don’t think it’s fair to put SSM on hold to wait for polygamy.
3) Legal recognition of SSM doesn’t change existing heterosexual marriages. But legal recognition of polygamy would change and potentially destabilize existing two-person marriages, by introducing the possibility of them becoming poly marriages. Many married people enjoy the security provided by an institution which is permanent and exclusive; is it fair to them to change the institution so that it’s no longer exclusive? What happens when Bob is pressuring his wife Marie (who got married when polygamy wasn’t legal) to marry Julie with him? What if Bob simply marries Julie – where does that leave Marie?
4) In the current USA, if we have polygamy, many poly marriages would not be egalitarian trios like my polyamorous friends, but patriarchal arrangements in which wealthy men marry many wives, leading to a class of unmarriageable young men who may be shunned from their communities. This is already going on today, on a small scale, with tragic consequences both for hundreds of ostracized boys, and for girls who are effectively forced into what may be terrible, misogynistic and abusive marriages.
Right now, in the USA, this is a problem only in a few isolated, non-mainstream communities. If polygamy is legalized, what assurance is there that this practice won’t radically expand? If it does expand, how would we mitigate the significant harms to society?
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Opponents of same-sex marriage have not been able to make any credible arguments showing that same-sex marriage would be harmful. Opponents of polygamy will not face any such problem.
These are all points that make polygamy substantially different from same-sex marriage.
It may be that all these problems can be addressed; and that polygamy can be made practical, just, and harmless to larger society. It may also be that there will someday be a large-scale movement fighting for legally recognized polygamy, addressing all the problems associated with polygamy, and persuading a large mass of Americans to support polygamy.
But that has not yet happened. Until it does happen, there will not be legally recognized polygamy in the USA.
In the meantime, merging polygamy and same-sex marriage into a single issue is unfair to same-sex couples.
It’s unfair for supporters of polygamy to attempt to merge the two issues, because it’s not fair to expect lgbt couples to have to have their issues put on hold while the polygamy issue is sorted out.
And it’s unfair for opponents of same-sex marriage to merge the two issues, because there is no compelling reason to believe that SSM will lead to polygamy. Furthermore, punishing lgbt people for the sin of polygamy, even though most polygamists are heterosexuals, is unreasonable and unjust. That sort of policy makes sense only if we consider lgbt people to be lesser humans, deserving of less respect and justice.