Gay Marriage, Slippery Slope to Polygamy?

Obama and Romney both have grandparents who practiced polygamy, yet both have said (and one’s still saying) that marriage should be between one man and one woman. Some think it odd that they both reject the practice when they’ve each got a family history. But I, too, have grandparents who practiced polygamy yet I don’t like the practice, either. This brings me to the concern that marriage equality is a slippery slope to polygamy.

If you hold marriage to “two consenting adults” the problem goes away.

At the same time, while I have a personal distaste for polygamy, I’m not sure that decriminalization would be a bad thing.

First, the problems with the practice.

Gender inequality can be created by simple supply and demand, with “the one” having more power, whether polygyny (one man, many wives) or polyandry (one wife, many husbands). In the polyandrous Lahaul Valley of the Himalayas women have great say over matters. As one young man in this community explained, “The wife’s voice is the dominant voice in the household.”

Typically, polygamy is practiced under patriarchy (as polygyny) so the power of “the one” man becomes intensified. As one New York Times letter writer observed in response to Jonathan Turley’s insistence that polygamous families should be free to live their religion and values:

(In highly patriarchal families) this is not ‘the right to live your life.’ The men have rights, but not the girls (who are) brainwashed, uneducated and mothers while in their teens.

In polygyny it can seem that women make all the sacrifices so that men may take unlimited pleasure. A Sufi who agreed to be a third wife of her teacher (the article title “My Husband, My Teacher” suggests additional inequality of relationship) described her experience this way:

I went through, as did the other wives, all of the usual feelings of jealousy, fear, and insecurity.

She had to learn to let go of attachment, or seeing her spouse as property. Yet her husband didn’t need to learn any of these lessons, enjoying greater freedom and sexual variety than any of his wives ever will.

The addition of a new wife may even be used as a threat in polygamous cultures. Not surprisingly, 86 percent of Afghani women are against the practice.

Moving to larger societal problems, at marriageable age women and men are in equal number so girls in polygamous communities must be married at younger and younger ages, and are often forced into marriage. Their youth further disempowers them. Meanwhile, teenaged boys may be thrown out of these communities via trivial charges like watching “inappropriate” movies.

Joseph Henrich, a University of British Columbia professor whose expertise lies in psychology, anthropology and economics says higher levels of polygamy are tied to higher crime rates, lower GDP per capita, and worse outcomes for children.

And, fewer available women may mean more frustrated bachelors who support the sex trafficking of girls and women. These young men are also vulnerable to recruitment by extremists in some parts of the world.

There is plenty that is not pretty. So why legalize polygamy?

When the practice is illegal and stigmatized, those who live it end up isolated from the rest of society. That means its practitioners hear few alternate voices, and are less aware of the possibility of living differently. Or, choices become limited as others ostracize them and reject their friendship. In other words, they’re more stuck.

Oddly, adherence to “plural marriage” might actually decrease if it were made legal and destigmatized.

I don’t know if legalization will ever destigmatize polygamy, which is an important step in freeing people to hear different voices and to help them to have more options.

Regardless, I doubt legalization will bring people flocking to the practice. The notion of sharing your husband or wife while being forced to be monogamous, yourself, just isn’t that appealing to most people. In the U.S. polygamy is pretty much only practiced for religious reasons, so it’s not likely to catch on. And where it does, it would be more likely voluntary and not coerced.

If you fear gay marriage because polygamy might come next, I doubt there’s really much to worry about.

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About BroadBlogs

I have a Ph.D. from UCLA in sociology (emphasis: gender, social psych). I currently teach sociology and women's studies at Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, CA. I have also lectured at San Jose State. And I have blogged for Feminispire, Ms. Magazine, The Good Men Project and Daily Kos. Also been picked up by The Alternet.

Posted on October 19, 2012, in feminism, gender, LGBTQ, psychology, relationships, sex, sexism, women and tagged , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 17 Comments.

  1. Of course, the argument about men and women being in equal numbers, therefore polygamy upsets that balance is also an argument against homosexual marriage and abortion. There are 100 million “missing” women in Asia due to aborted girls, and there are a lot of missing men in the western world where homosexuality is seen as permissible. Neither of these are victimless crimes with lots of lonely unfulfilled people unable to find a partner.

    Of course, the arguments about changing the definition of marriage was never about whether legalisation would make people “flock” to that practice. That’s a big straw man.

    One might ask what marriage means to secular society anyway, but traditionally it has meant that you intend to devote yourself to one person and one person only. If polygamy is allowed, then what actually does it mean? Part of the whole deal now is you can’t just marry someone else if you are married. You have to separate, wait, divorce, and then remarry. If you can just accumulate new spouses whenever you want, then what exactly was the point anyway?

  2. I definitely agree with what you have to say about this. I don’t believe once gay marriage becomes legal we will see more polygamous relationships. I feel like people are using that as an excuse to not get gay marriage legalized. People like to think that if one thing happens another will. People who don’t support gay marriage are using anything they can to keep it the way it is. They don’t want anything in the way of what they believe marriage should be. I agree though that marriage should be between two people, but whether or not that is between a man and woman, it doesn’t matter! People may think that if gay marriage gets legalized, then people in society will try and get something else legalized, hence the push for polygamy. Though this may be true, I don’t think we have to worry about it for a while. Right now, I don’t think polygamy is that common, except for a couple of religions that may still practice it. But like you stated in your article, your grandparents participated in that type of relationship. If it happened back then, why wouldn’t it be more popular now? Gay marriages, and relationships have been growing and we have been seeing more of it. I believe these are two separate issues and people just want to find the negatives in everything.

    • The issue is not that suddenly everyone will want to be polygamous. First the Muslims and some Mormon sects will want it and push for it. When they get it, the mainline Mormons will jump in the pool. When it becomes mainstream in Utah like it once was it will spread from there. Pretty soon it will be a status symbol to have several wives.

  3. First of all, not all non-monogamous relationships/marriage are patriarchal polygamy. Patriarchy is not inherent to non-monogamy — the patriarchy comes from the religion, not the number of spouses, per se. Abuses are present in extreme patriarchal monogamous marriages as well. Patriarchy is the problem, regardless of the form a marriage takes.

    Modern, secular non-monogamous relationships are known as “polyamory”, where both men and women may have multiple spouses. It is engaged in by consenting adults only.

    It is more accurate to say “Is Gay Marriage a Slippery Slope to Non-Monogamous Marriage” rather than using the religiously loaded term “polygamy”. First of all, most people aren’t aware of polyandry and believe that polygamy and polygyny are synonymous.

    And my answer to that is that yes, the acceptance of gay marriage will be a “slippery slope” to non-monogamous marriage and it’s a good thing. Human beings are not naturally monogamous, though some people have an easier time adhering to it than others. But if monogamy wasn’t the only game in town, those who have trouble being monogamous could be honest and aboveboard and be able to seek the form of marriage that suits them better. I believe that there would be less infidelity if monogamy wasn’t an “one-size-fits-all” thing that everyone had to try to cram themselves into.

    Polygyny and polyandry, looked at objectively, are mating strategies that were useful in different types of societies. Polygyny was useful in societies that wanted to build up population more quickly and where women outnumbered men. Polyandry was useful in societies where the population needed to be curbed and where men outnumber women. Today’s China is a society where polyandry would be useful. Because of their one-child policy, sex selective abortion, and the practice of Chinese girls being adopted by foreigners. China now has a severely lopsided sex ratio. The generation soon to become marriageable has 30 million surplus males who have no chance of getting married if China sticks to a monogamy-only policy.

    Monogamy splits the difference between the two polygamous forms of marriage, working best in societies where the sex ratio is roughly equal and where population size isn’t a big concern.

    Modern polyamory, where either or both spouses may have multiple spouses would work as well in the same situations as monogamy does — as well as in situations where the two forms of polygamy do.

    In any instance, I don’t think it’s the government’s proper business to mandate what form a person’s private intimate relationships/marriage may take beyond making sure than every marriage be between consenting adults only. Having more choices is a good thing: Straight marriage, gay marriage, monogamous marriage, non-monogamous marriage.

    • Sounds like you’re talking about something I’m not discussing, polyamory being very different, and lacking the inequalities you find in polygamy. 

      Interesting, anyway.

      • I don’t understand how you think my response is not relevant to what you’re discussing. You are asking whether the legalization of gay marriage would lead to the legalization of non-monogamous marriage which, in most people’s minds is the type of polygamy you are discussing. Many people are unaware that there is an alternative type of non-monogamy that is not like patriarchal forms of polygamy. I called attention to polyamory, which would likely be the form of non-monogamous marriage to be entered into most often, if non-monogamous marriage was legalized. Though it is quite different from the type of polygamy you mention, it does share in common the fact of non-monogamy. You might think I am clueless, but I don’t see how my comment was irrelevant. I see your basic point as asking whether broadening legal marriage should stop with same sex marriage, or should it go on to include non-monogamous marriage, be it polygamy or polyamory.

      • I’ve only heard concerns about polygamy, not polyamory with regard to marriage equality. Probably because you can have polyamory now — it doesn’t require being married at all, far as I know. Polygamy does. Second, since both partners are allowed to be in relationships with others you don’t get the gender inequality from gender imbalance.

      • In reference to extending legal marriage rights beyond same sex marriage, probably the main reason you’ve heard concerns now only about polygamy is that the average person has never heard of polyamory and believes that the only type of non-monogamous committed relationships are patriarchal polygyny. This is fueled by stories about Warren Jeffs and other FLDS people. Polyamory rarely makes the news.

        I think it’s important and essential to bring polyamory to the table when talking to such people to let them know that polygamy isn’t the only way to have a non-monogamous marriage — perhaps fewer would oppose it if they knew about polyamory and its egalitarian nature.

        To say that one can be polyamorous now and to imply that polyamorous people neither want nor need access to legal marriage echoes similar things I’ve heard opponents to same sex marriage say. I’ve heard them say that gay people neither desire nor require legal marriage to live together and share their lives.

        But as I pointed out to John above, legal marriage comes with a lot of legal benefits and privileges unavailable to same sex and committed polyarmorists because no matter how committed their relationships may be, the government views them as legally “single”. Some gay people and polyamorists might be happy to remain legally single, but many others want legal marriage and it should be available.

        Oh, and same-sex marriage opponents have made a similar claim, insinuating that all gay relationships are about one night stands and casual sex, which is insulting. It is no less untrue about non-monogamous ones. Yes, some gay and non-monogamous people (straight and gay)engage in one-night stands, but some in both categories want committed relationships too. Polyamorists simply believe one can have more than one committed relationship at a time.

      • First, if you want to make a point make it, but don’t complain that I’m not critiquing an argument that no one has made (gay marriage will lead to polyamory) because that would be absurd.

        And polyamory translates to many loves, so why would everyone assume you’re talking one night stands, anyway?

      • John is the one who originally brought up one night stands and I was responding to that.

        As far as bringing polyamory into the picture and contrasting it with polygamy, I think that when people use the slippery slope argument, they are arguing against any sort of arrangement that is not strictly monogamous. My comments were not a personal criticism of you but, rather, the average person who is unaware of ways to be non-monogamous other than polygamy. Of course, to many people, they are closed to anything that isn’t monogamous, egalitarian or not, but it might make a difference to some people.

      • All the people in my part of the world who want same-sex marriage are NOT happy to merely acquire all the same legal privileges of marriage, they want marriage itself. They’ve been offered it, but its not good enough.

        As for polyamory, of course it differs between people, but they tend to drift between shifting ground of who they are “committed to”. This year I love Bill and Jane and Jenny. Jenny loves me and Jim. Next year Jenny and Bill care about each other with Jim, but not me anymore. They may want hospital visitation, but I doubt they want to go to court for 2 years in property settlement every time the fluid relationships change.

        Maybe I do want hospital visitation and health coverage for the woman I’m doing tonight. It’s not good when tonight’s woman trips over the lamp, and you can’t do right by her. Who are you to deny me marriage rights in such situation?

    • – “But if monogamy wasn’t the only game in town, those who have trouble being monogamous could be honest and aboveboard and be able to seek the form of marriage that suits them better.” —

      Fine, but why do people want to call it marriage? If I want to have one night stands with women, and sleep with a different one every night, can I call that marriage too? At what point does it all become absurd?

      • First of all, Google the word “polyamory”. Not all non-monogamy is about one night stands and casual relationships. Those who engage in one night stands and FWB relationships don’t want any legal commitments.

        Polyamory, on the other hand, is about loving more than one person at a time and having more than one committed relationship. As same sex marriage advocates have amply pointed out, legal marriage is largely about the benefits and privileges that come with marriage : hospital visitation rights ,inheritance rights, health insurance coverage and so on. You can visit any pro-same sex marriage site to see all the rights that come with legal marriage.

        Just because it isn’t your cup of tea, doesn’t mean others should not have the right to legal non-monogamous or polyamorous marrriage. As with same sex marriage not forcing heterosexuals to have same sex marriages, non-monogamous ones won’t force monogamous couples to take on more spouses.

  4. I like the part where we women have great say over matters! And it intruigues me to have a community there the womans voice is the dominant one.It would be a nice change to see and hear that the women are in command.

    It seems to be totally one sided in favor of men. And this lifestyle gives all the rights to men, and non to the girls.

    This lifestyle is called Poligamy and I am glad this is not happening around me in California.

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