On a Slippery Slope to Big Love?

Last week was a big one for the Presbyterian Church U.S.A. (the denomination to which I belong). After years of debate, the majority of the church’s 173 regional associations (referred to as “Presbyteries”) have finally agreed to a rule change that will make it possible for openly gay men and women to be ordained as pastors or other officers of the church. 

In honor of this momentous occasion, I thought I’d return to a subject that is relevant to a larger group of gays in the US: gay marriage.  In particular, in this post I’d like to respond to a question that one of my closest college friends posed after my last post on this subject:

 …How do I respond to people who argue, if we open the door to gay marriage, why stop there, i.e. why not allow polygamy etc.

This was not the first time I’d heard this question. In researching my earlier post in support of gay marriage, I’d come across the charming organization, the “National Organization for Marriage”, whose entire purpose is to fight the legalization of gay marriage. On this section of their website I read the following statement with total amazement:

“Is polygamy next?” Jonathan Yarbrough, part of the first couple to get a same-sex marriage in Provincetown, Mass, said, “I think it’s possible to love more than one person and have more than one partner. . . . In our case, it is. We have an open marriage.” Once you rip a ship off its mooring who knows where it will drift next?

When I first read this statement, all I could respond was “Huh?”  This just seemed like such an outlandish argument to make. I know many people who are in committed, monogamous gay relationships. None of them seem at all likely to turn those relationships into a group love fest (in fact, they seem less likely to do so than some heterosexual couples I know).

But then I realized that this is not the crux of the argument – and there is actually an interesting point being made here. That point is that if you loosen the definition of what constitutes marriage, where do you draw the new line in the sand?  If gay marriage is legalized, will polygamists in Utah be able to make a better case that their lifestyle should also be allowed?  One could legitimately argue that they would.

This really bothered me for a while. It made me wonder whether my negative attitude towards polygamy was simply the result of cultural biases, and whether in fact polygamists should be allowed to live as they see fit, just as I have been arguing gays should.  But after some contemplation I realized why legalizing polygamy would be a bad thing – while legalizing gay marriage would not. 

What we need to do is envision a world where the proposed lifestyle would be legally permissible for anyone who wanted to choose that lifestyle.  As I argued before – in the case of gay marriage, legalization seems to me to directly hurt no one.  The gay marriage is entered into by two consenting adults. Any children adopted or otherwise created through the marriage will be raised by two parents in a loving, committed relationship (for those of you who protest that being raised by gay parents leads to problems, see this page for information about how such studies are inconclusive). 

Now – let’s turn to the scenario where polygamy is also legal.  First of all – we need to define what we mean by polygamy.   According to the Ethnographic Atlas Codebook, of 1231 societies noted, 1041 societies had occasional or frequent polygyny (one man, many wives), while only 4 had polyandry (one woman, many husbands). In other words, polygamy is essentially synonymous with polygyny. Second, we should assume that if polygamy were to be legalized in the US that all parties involved would still have a choice. If a wife did not want to be part of a polygamous marriage she could divorce her husband. So how does this hurt anyone?

I would argue that there are a number of ways in which both spouses and children would suffer if polygamy became legally (and thus socially) permissible.

The first problem has to do with sharing resources – emotional, sexual, and financial. While the jury is still out on whether children of gay parents are any better or worse off than children of straight parents, there is no question that children do better in two-parent households rather than in single-parent households. And what is essentially happening in a polygamous household is that you are converting what would normally be a two-parent home into a 1.5 parent home (or 1.33, or 1.25, depending on how many wives the husband has). Even in the scenarios where all the wives help each other in the child-rearing process – check out this National Geographic article for examples of how this occurs – the children are still being cared for by individuals who are being pulled in more directions than would normally be the case in a monogamous relationship. 

Furthermore – each wife is herself getting less of her husband’s attention. We all know how having children cuts into the quality time you have with your spouse. Can you imagine what it would mean if you not only had to share your spouse with the kids but also with other wives?

The fact that so many women now work even further complicates the matter. Would income from one wife be distributed among the other wives? Heck, you’d have to create completely new tax forms for ‘married, filing double jointly’.

But to my mind, the biggest issue with legalizing polygamy is that it would essentially mean legitimizing infidelity. There are evolutionary reasons for men wanting to have sex with multiple women – especially those who are at their procreative peak. However, as noted above, for rearing children and for the mental and emotional health of the wife, monogamy is optimal (which is why most religions have had such strong prohibitions against adultery!).  Now if all of a sudden, it was legally and socially permissible to keep the old wife and kids, but add on a younger wife (who could produce additional kids), doesn’t it seem likely that some men who previously might have been faithful to their wives because of the social stigma of adultery might now decide to become polygamists?  And given that many women already remain with men who are unfaithful for a variety of reasons (most especially economic, since women continue to earn less than men), doesn’t it seem likely that although technically women could ‘choose’ to leave a polygamous marriage, many will not feel able to do so?

So – on the whole, it seems to me that if polygamy became legal, the impact on society could be much more significant, and negatively so, than it would be if gay marriage was legalized.   Keeping polygamy illegal provides a necessary constraint on some natural biological urges. I should note that the same biological realities will make it unlikely that massive numbers of people will decide to ‘become gay’ just because they can legally marry someone of the same sex. Most people have stronger heterosexual drives than homosexual ones because our species wouldn’t have survived to this point if it had been otherwise. Changing the rules of marriage won’t alter that biological fact.

I do recognize that keeping polygamy illegal does hurt some people – notably, the non-married wives and their children in polygamous relationships whose legal rights are curtailed because they do not have the official legal protection of being married to their spouse (the same harm that is currently caused to gay couples and their children).  This brings up a point that I hope to cover in my next post: how simply living by the Golden Rule is not always sufficient, because we are continuously faced with situations where in order to treat one group the way they want to be treated, we have to treat others in a way that they do not want to be treated.

So till next time, enjoy the beautiful spring weather, and I hope that some of you will be inspired to weigh in on your own thoughts about the lovely topic of polygamy….

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5 Responses to On a Slippery Slope to Big Love?

  1. Brian Carlson says:

    I think polygamy also has the potential to cause serious societal instability. Since, as you note, it virtually always takes the form of polygyny rather than polyandry, the logical outcome of widespread polygamy is that richer and more powerful men will find multiple mates, leaving less desirable men bitter, frustrated and angry — perhaps even potentially violent. I don’t really know how widespread polygamy currently is across the Middle East, but I wonder if this sort of discontent could even be a factor in the recent unrest there.

    • seeingfaith says:

      Brian – interesting point! I don’t believe polygamy is that widespread anywhere really (at least not sufficiently to account for entire rebellions), but I still think you are bringing up an important point – that when people’s core needs aren’t met (and I’m sorry, but sex is definitely a core need) then folks can end up acting up in unpleasant ways. Even St. Paul acknowledge this (see I Corinthians 7.9).

  2. seeingfaith says:

    Brian – last night I remembered another way that you are actually touching on an important insight about the Middle East. There was an article just recently – I think it was in Time Magazine – about the youth behind the political unrest in the Middle East. The article did mention that many of these young men are frustrated in many ways, including sexually frustrated. But it’s not because of polygamy – it’s because of the strong prohibition against pre-marital sex in Muslim societies, and the fact that these men do not have jobs, and therefore do not feel able to propose to a woman (because they wouldn’t be able to support a family). So they are indeed stuck in a situation where their basic economic and sexual needs are not being met. I just pray that the justified struggles of these people will ultimately be successful.

  3. Jay Hartley says:

    I never like slippery-slope arguments against a proposed law like gay
    marriage. The whole purpose of law is to draw, and redraw, lines.

    When considering changing any law, it is legitimate to ask “why change it only this much, and no more?” Why let people vote at 18 and not 17? Because they can serve in the military at 18, so should have some input to the society sending them to war. Lowering the voting age from 25 was not a slippery slope to Toddler Suffrage.

    Ending Prohibition was not a slippery slope to legalizing cocaine and heroin, though I’m sure the argument was made, and some might still make it. The fact that the Netherlands have begun moving toward tighter drug control shows that laws don’t inevitably slide in one direction.

    I’m sure somebody once made an argument something like, “We can’t let non-landowners vote! Next thing you know we’ll have coloreds and women casting ballots! Where’s it end, with voting rights for farm animals?”

    I did in fact hear a former coworker make the argument that letting gays marry was a slippery slope to letting people marry their dogs. Saying something is a slippery slope is admitting that you can’t see or even imagine a logical or moral basis upon which to make a legal distinction, whether between a human and an animal, or between monogamy and polygamy.

    Funny thing. Turns out there was no good basis for distinguishing between white men, black men, women, and 18-yr-olds when it came to voting rights. Yes, giving the vote to all white males was a slippery slope – to justice.

  4. Sunny says:

    Your situation deifnitely identifies more with Libertarian ideology than the average Conservative person’s values, I think. I consider myself to be an idealistic Libertarian and I still get a queasy feeling when I think about polygamy. I would sign a petition, write my representatives, etc. on behalf of decriminalization because you’re consenting adults and it doesn’t appear as though anyone is being harmed by your actions. I’m passionate about equal rights and personal choice on an intellectual level, but on a personal level I just can’t get on board. This actually really surprises me because beyond the fact that I believe it’s morally wrong, I don’t have a problem with homosexual relationships at all. In fact, I’d be totally ok with my younger siblings (don’t have kids yet!) going over by a friend’s house who has two dads than going to a friend’s house who has a dad and three or four moms. Unlike the general population in the US, I’m far from ignorant when it comes to the diverse culture and history of polygamous families. It has been something I’ve thoroughly looked into in the past out of curiosity and an interest in the unknown. Due to this and my political beliefs, I’m very bothered and perplexed as to why this still feels taboo and disturbing, especially since I consider myself to be very open minded.I think you did a good job on the O’Riley Factor and the other interviews I’ve seen. You sound really defensive when they bring up the inevitable sex questions though, and it seems sort of obtuse to wonder why people don’t ask the same things of people in traditional relationships. I thought the brief comment Joe (I think) made in one interview about being in three monogamous relationships was the perfect explanation, but it was drowned out by the defensiveness and annoyance that you were asked about it in the first place. I know that to all of you it’s just the norm since you grew up in it, but to people in other parts of the country who have never seen it in person, it’s an extremely foreign concept. I’m very thankful that your family has come out of the closet. The Browns annoy me to no end, so it’s nice to have another family out and about since I appreciate diversity even when it’s uncomfortable. I also think that providing more information to the general public can do nothing but good things.Good luck with your future interviews. Fox drives me crazy. I can’t wait to read your book!

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