Following the Supreme Court decision on same sex marriage last month, the media and internet have gone crazy over the questions raised about polyamory and/or polygamous marriage in Justice Roberts Dissent. Many of these articles are full of opinions disguised as fact and an obvious lack of real research. The misinformation is in some cases completely baseless, and in other cases lacks a deeper look at broader issues.
There are a few of repeated themes emerging in many of the articles railing against polyamorous marriage:
Argument 1: Polyamorists/polygamists aren’t born that way. Sexual orientation is innate; people are born homosexual. (Polyamory and polygamy are at times being interchanged in these articles with no differentiation between the two)
Article in the Washington Post: Support for polygamy is rising. But it’s not the new gay marriage.
“Unlike sexual orientation, polygamy isn’t something most people will ever confront in their daily lives, nor is thought of as a trait someone is born with.”
This has been written in several articles and even said by Jon Stewart on the Daily Show. The scenario goes “people aren’t born polygamous/polyamorous.” While it is true people aren’t born polygamous because it is a type of marriage, polyamory is a relationship orientation. In addition, repeated studies have shown that human beings as a whole are a mix of monogamous and polyamorous. According to the above argument, polyamory is a choice and generally seen as a bad one. Many polyamorous people would argue against this. Numerous studies show that some people are monogamous and some are not. These studies have been conducted in predominantly monogamous focused cultures, so it can be hard to discern how much influence society has over what is natural. What is known is that very few species of primates are monogamous, and anatomically humans would seem to fit into the promiscuous category. If monogamy was innately natural, then cheating and infidelity wouldn’t be such an issue; monogamy would be easy for people.
Some making the argument that polyamory isn’t an orientation will go so far as to say polyamorous people lack commitment or are selfish: they want more than their fair share. The question to ask is: how do they know people aren’t born this way? Maybe some people are wired to love more and to love multiple people. Do they have reliable data to back up this claim that people aren’t born polyamorous? The reality is that there has been very little research into polyamory, due to lack of funding combined with the risks involved in studying polyamory. There is such a stigma when anyone dares to look beyond compulsory monogamy that, for academics, researching polyamory can damage their career or even cost them their job.
Polyamory is an orientation for many. Many people find monogamy simply doesn’t work for them. Yes, people will try to conform and be monogamous but, much like a gay man in denial of who he is marrying a woman, they often end up unhappy and miserable. Often people feel as if there is something wrong with them or that they are somehow broken. Many people who learn about polyamory will say they have felt this way their whole life, but never knew polyamory was an option or that there are others who feel the same.
Are these people’s experiences and feelings any less valid then a person struggling to understand their sexual identity?
Argument 2: Commitment to one person is more meaningful and a deeper more profound love than polyamory/polygamy because love is lessened when we spread it around and inevitably leads to jealousy and anger. This is often combined with the idea that polyamory is all about sex, lust, lacks “real” commitment, and is simply people with no morals and/or self-worth.
Article in The Federalist: Polyamory Is Bad For Kids, Polyamorists, And Society
“But it’s not love if there is no commitment. It’s only sex. It’s only lust. Those who are in love, Lewis wrote, have a natural inclination to bind themselves by promises—promises of faithfulness and devotion—which is why polyamory inevitably devolves into a pigsty of jealousy and pain. People who love want promises with that love; otherwise, anger and destruction follow.”
The issue of commitment is one the polyamory community has been dealing with for years. In our culture, commitment in relationships has become synonymous with monogamy. Monogamy is about sexual exclusivity and is certainly a type of commitment people often make in relationships and marriage. A commitment is an agreement between two or more people. We commit to a company when we go to work for them. Raising children requires a commitment, but no one says that having a second child is breaking a commitment to the first child. Commitment is simply an agreement and one that many polyamorous people go into with a lot of thought and reflection.
Some polyamorous people are very committed in their relationships. In fact the commitment to relationships in polyamory can be very deep and real. It is a commitment to be there, to allow your partner/s to be with others because you want their happiness and a willingness to work through the jealousy and fears that may come from being open to other loves. There are triads who have been together 40 or more years, and there are also those who seem to go through relationships like moods. The same can be said of monogamy. Love isn’t limited to a binary equation, despite people being conditioned to believe it is. As polyamory activist and author Mim Chapman, author of What Does Polyamory Look Like?, has talked about it in the story of Noah, animals were brought on the Ark, male and female, two-by-two. This is the narrative that dictates our cultural and sexual relations. Movies, books, songs, and stories are filled with tragic love triangles where often resolution only comes through tragedy or jealous rage and often both. The movie Pearl Harbor is a good example, where two best friends are in love with the same woman and of course one of the men dies in battle, thus resolving the love triangle.
Polyamory is also often seen as people with no self-control who are selfish and seeking to never settle down and seek sexual thrills. For some this is true: they are looking for sexual variety and a way to be committed in a relationship and still enjoy some sexual adventures. The challenge of this is our culture’s puritanical attitude toward sex and just sex negativity in general. Why is it not ok for a couple to want to explore sexual adventures? Sex isn’t what makes a marriage or committed relationship, it is simply one aspect that consenting adults can choose.
For other polyamorists, it is love and deep intimacy that drives them. The openness of sharing love, sex, and day-to-day living with more than one person for many can deepen intimacy, trust, and love. The ability to share honestly and openly about attractions and to face fears and insecurity can bring profound closeness to a couple, triad, quad, or group. Making love with multiple people a person feels deeply connected to is just as profound as two people making love. It takes trust and vulnerability to face insecurities and open one’s heart to multiple people emotionally and physically. In addition, sex does indeed for many deepen bonds and intimacy, which is true of a couple, a triad, quad, etc.
Argument 3: If polygamy and/or polyamory are accepted and allowed, we will have a shortage of marriageable women and wealthy men will hoard wives thus harming society. This argument seems to perceive polygyny (a man with multiple wives) as the only possibility.
Article in Politico Magazine, No, Polygamy Isn’t the Next Gay Marriage: Group marriage is the past—not the future—of matrimony.
“Here’s the problem with it: when a high-status man takes two wives (and one man taking many wives, or polygyny, is almost invariably the real-world pattern), a lower-status man gets no wife. If the high-status man takes three wives, two lower-status men get no wives.”
This article assumes that multi-partnered marriage is about men collecting women, something we see in religious-based polygyny. Of course, the author’s argument above presents women as a commodity and fails to recognize that in multi-partnered marriage and polyamory, women can have more than one partner. The article goes on to talk about studies of polygynous societies that show polygamy (in reality polygyny) is innately bad for society and women, citing abuse, rape, coercion, and women as property. None of the articles that bring up the argument of “wife hoarding” look at polyandry. In fact, all of the studies of polygamy that have been done have focused on polygyny. Most of the studies focus on the harm done by polygyny without noting the allowance of multiple wives is based in male dominance and misogynist religions. Furthermore, if we take a closer look at “traditional monogamy” prior to the seventies, we find many of the same things can be said of monogamous marriage.
As recently as one hundred years ago, a woman couldn’t own property, was considered the property of her father or husband, had no right to vote, and no status of her own. The reality is that in religions and belief systems that treat women as subordinate to men, abuse happens at an alarming rate. This is true of both monogamy and polygamy. The central issue of the abuses found in these cultures is male dominated culture and the subjugation of women. The practice of polygyny, where only men can have multiple wives, is part of the subjugation of women in these male dominated religions. In these groups, it is male dominance that is the issue, not polygamous marriage. “One man taking many wives, or polygyny, is almost invariably the real-world pattern” is more prevalent because in most polygamous culture only men are allowed to have multiple spouses, These abuses of women and children in these cultures continue at an alarming rate, and need to be addressed. What perpetuates the abuse, in part, is secretiveness due to fear of prosecution. Acceptance of polygamy might open the doors to bring more awareness of the real issues and brainwashing in these closed societies and possibly more women willing to stand up for their needs and their rights.
The author of the Politico article above assumes “one man taking many wives, or polygyny, is almost invariably the real-world pattern.” If he is correct that it is inevitable that women would be scooped up by wealthy “high” status men, then our culture has more serious issues that need to be addressed. That points to the challenges of male dominance that is still prevalent in our culture. Women apparently don’t have enough status to attract more than one husband, or perhaps a real man wouldn’t put up with being a brother husband.
Polyamory is based on consent, equal consideration of all partners, respect, communication, and honesty. Yes, you can find abuse in polyamory, just as it exists in monogamous relationships. Rape, abuse of women, and abuse of children is more a product of dominator culture and misogyny than of one type of marriage or commitment. It is also important to note that polyamory as a movement has been led by women. For many women, polyamory is freedom from the bonds that traditional monogamous marriage can represent, which has been subjugation of women for thousands of years. A large number of women feel empowered and supported in their polyamorous relationships. For many people, polyamory changes the power structure of relationships from one of dominant/submissive to egalitarian. This is because each partner is at choice as to the level of commitment and each can negotiate agreements that work for them. This requires self-reflection, an understanding of boundaries, and an ability to speak up for oneself and ones’ needs. As a whole, the polyamory community encourages healthy boundaries, respect, and communication between all parties involved.
In our modern western world women are not, for the most part, a commodity that we need to worry about being hoarded. Polygamy isn’t limited to polygyny, there is also polyandry. Yes, women can love more than one and many want to commit to multiple husbands and/or wives.
The Reality of Modern Love, Relationships and Marriage
Article from World Future Society, The New Monogamy: Forward to the Past
“The most profound trend forward to the past is the rise of what sociologists call the companionate, symmetrical, or peer marriage: marriage between equals. Women in much of the world are regaining the economic power they enjoyed for millennia. Ancestral women left camp almost daily to gather fruits, nuts, and vegetables, returning with 60% to 80% of the evening meal. In the hunting and gathering societies of our past, women worked outside the home; the double-income family was the rule, and women were just as economically, sexually, and socially powerful as men. Today, we are returning to this lifeway, leaving in the “dustbin of history” the traditional, male-headed, patriarchal family—the bastion of agrarian society.”
In modern culture, women have increasingly become empowered. Marriage, monogamous or polygamous, has been used for more than 2000 years to subjugate women. Modern marriage is no longer seen as a form of property rights where men own women, though this is a relatively recent change in dynamics (one many are still fighting around the world). Monogamous marriage has evolved and changed. The reality is rates of marriage are declining worldwide. Changing social attitudes in many countries have made marriage less important and no longer such a life goal. People are choosing to stay single or simply to cohabitate. Monogamous marriage isn’t what changed marriage to a more egalitarian contract, the fight for women’s rights did. Is it so hard to imagine that polygamous marriage could evolve as well? The belief that women need to be protected from polyamorous marriage is really a belief that women aren’t capable of making decisions for themselves and have no real power in the world.
Human beings are complex with a variety of skills, thoughts, careers, and cultural ideologies, yet we are given one right model for loving relationships. Until recently that was one man, one woman in compulsory monogamy. The one man, one woman part of that equation has been changing slowly around the world. Part of the resistance of the religious right has been concern over the fundamental change of “man and wife.” Perhaps the underlying fear is actually a change in the power dynamics of marriage and relationships. When two men marry, who is the head of the household? This of course goes back to the presence of male dominance in marriage. Acceptance of polyamory or plural marriage would have to include women having the freedom to marry or be with more than one, and it is likely that just as monogamous marriage has evolved to be more egalitarian so would plural marriage when it is out of the shadows and no longer hidden. Perhaps acceptance of women loving and living with multiple men might actually help to change perceptions of women and actually empower them.
Polyamory and polygamy aren’t interchangeable. Polygamy is a form or marriage, polyamory is a relationship orientation that may or may not include marriage, and for many polyamory is a relationship orientation. Polygamous marriage between consenting adults could fall under the polyamory umbrella. Whether polygamous marriage is something that should be made legal will likely be debated for some time, but people need to be aware of the sweeping generalizations and negative rhetoric, and understand the real issues behind society’s bias against polygamy. Polyamory, polyandry, and polygyny between non-coerced consenting adults can be a great choice for people who simply don’t want to be forced into compulsory monogamy.