A post in which I start out convinced legalizing polygamy is inevitable and end up convinced it’s impossible.
Cassandra has advanced ten reasons to prefer monogamy to polygamy. Her post lays them out in detail, with supporting links. Cassandra is citing problems with how polygamy (more accurately polygyny) really works in the communities and countries where it is currently practiced and is arguing that there is a compelling societal interest in avoiding those problems. I agree there is a compelling societal interest in avoiding those problems but I don’t agree polygyny must include those problems. Rather, as I argue below,* many of these horrible aspects of polygyny exist not because of polygyny but because of the lack of any recourse for the women caught in those cultures. Others are a consequence of the need to hide the practice of polygyny. Still others are a part of the cultures of which polygyny is also a part: correlation not cause - or effect.
So would we have the same horrible outcomes if we legalized polygamy - which would mean it didn’t need to be hidden - in a country where women had extensive legal rights - which would mean women could opt in or out and it wasn’t restricted to polygyny? This is a tricky question to answer. I would say, no, we wouldn’t, insofar as polygamy then occurred among people whose culture does not promote these outcomes otherwise. That is, if people who do not condone child marriage, cousin marriage, and the treatment of women as chattel engage in polygamy, these outcomes would not occur simply as a result of the polygamy.
On the other hand, legalizing polygamy in Western nations would almost certainly increase its incidence among recent immigrants and long-term residents whose cultures do condone these practices. There would be one less bar to the practice of child marriage, cousin marriage, and the treatment of women as chattels. I agree with Cassandra that this reality is worth considering when we come to talk about legalizing polygamy.
I do not, however, think that this reality actually will be considered in discussions of legalizing polygamy. Those discussions will not focus on how polygamy is currently practiced; rather they will focus - as did the discussions on gay marriages - on identification, compassion, and civil rights.
First, identification. As TigerHawk says:
I tend to think that one's position on gay marriage has a lot to do with one's circle of friends. As somebody who has a fair number of gay friends in committed relationships that strongly resemble marriage, I have a hard time seeing how the institution of marriage is weakened by including them.
Most of us who are not gay know gay people who are just like us in occupation, interest, lifestyle, and so on. If they’re just like us and we want to get married, why is it unreasonable for them to want to get married?
I think presenting polygamy this way will be more difficult: how many of us who are not polygamous know people in committed polygamous relationships? On the other hand, at one time how many of us who are not gay knew gay people in committed relationships, at least openly gay people in openly committed relationships? Perhaps polygamy will follow the same arc of being largely de-stigmatized, followed by being widely practiced outside the law, followed by legalization.
Second, legalizing gay marriage was presented as a matter of compassion. Supporters of gay marriage told of gay couples, together for many years. The couple pools their financial resources. Although they are unable to adopt any children jointly, each of them adopts a child or children individually. If one of the partners dies, the other partner has no rights: he or she cannot collect Social Security, cannot inherit, has no say in funeral arrangements. He or she has no right to maintain a relationship with any children adopted by the deceased partner, much less retain custody of those children. He or she may well be treated badly by the deceased partner’s family who will probably take the children away to raise themselves. It does seem the compassionate thing to do is to allow such couples to marry.
However, what of, say, a family unit composed of a man and two women? They all love each other; they have lived together as a family for many years; each of the women has children by the man. Yet the man has only been able to to legally marry one of the women. If the husband and his legal wife die in a car crash, the remaining partner has no right to collect Social Security based on her relationship to either deceased partner. She has no legal right to continue raising the legal wife’s children; no legal right to the family home; and she may very well be treated extremely badly by the husband’s family and the legal wife’s family (who may well swoop in and take the legal wife’s children). Why should we not have the same compassion for this situation that we do for gay couples?
Finally, civil rights. This is the real killer when it comes to polygamy. As far as I can tell, the civil right enshrined in those cases where gay marriage was legalized by judicial fiat was simple: people should be able to marry whomever they want. What, proponents of gay marriage ask, is so special about male-female unions that they deserve special treatment while those who want to marry someone of the same sex are treated as second class citizens?
But surely the same right to marry whomever they want exists for those who prefer polygamy. Why shouldn’t people be allowed to create unions in whatever form they prefer? What is so special about two-person unions that they deserve special treatment and protection while those in multi-person unions are treated as second-class citizens?
An interesting question that will arise about polygamy is whether proponents will attempt to strengthen the civil rights aspect of it by invoking religion. Since polygamy (really polygyny) is - or is considered to be or is claimed to be - an integral aspect of Islam and of some Latter Day Saint sects, there would be room to make a civil rights argument based on religious considerations. I don’t think this tactic will be tried, for the simple reason that the societies and communities which practice polygyny on these grounds don’t look good - as Cassandra’s post makes abundantly clear.
At most, we may get some thoroughly Americanized Muslim women, well into their twenties, explaining why they think polygamy is a good idea - although what they will mean, of course, is polygyny. Similarly we may get some blue-eyed blondes, again female, again well into their twenties, explaining why their particular sect’s practice of polygamy - by which they, of course, mean polygyny - is a wonderful thing. We may also get some elderly women from either community talking about how great their lives have been as one of multiple wives (“just like sisters”) - although, of course, never one of a lot of multiple wives; just two or three or, okay, max four. It’s possible there will be some elderly men talking about how much they love all (again, two or three or, okay, max four) their wives.
More likely, though, we’ll see thoroughly secular people talking about polygamy: two women (well into their twenties, of course) talking about how they’ve been friends forever and when they both fell for the same guy, well, what could make more sense than that they become one big happy family? A woman like the one I discuss above, bereft over the loss of her “husband” and sister wife and their children. It would be good PR to dig up a family composed of two men and one woman if possible - all well over 21, of course, and preferably over 25 - to make the argument that this isn’t about polygyny after all.
So I believe that proponents of legalizing polygamy will avoid the religious rights approach and focus on the lifestyle choice approach. Concerns like those Cassandra raises will be dismissed as artifacts of practicing polygamy in non-Western societies and non-mainstream communities, probably accompanied by a swipe at the corrosive effect of patriarchal religions and communities. This will parallel the discussions about gay marriage that dismissed some of the less generally acceptable manifestations of homosexual behavior as artifacts of a sub-culture that no longer exists and/or as the inevitable outcome of having to conceal ones sexual preferences.
* This is the “argue below” part where I walk through Cassandra’s points one by one and where this post made a sharp turn.
As I said, I want to walk through Cassandra’s points, explaining why I think they are more about women’s rights, hiding polygamy, and culture than they are about inevitable consequences of polygamy itself; and explaining how I think society can avoid these undesirable circumstances even if it chooses to legalize polygamy. Again, Cassandra has discussions about each of these points, including supporting links in her post at Grim’s.
1) Polygamy leads to inbreeding. Inbreeding makes it more likely that recessive genetic conditions will be expressed and spreads those conditions throughout the population.
Inbreeding is not an inherent result of polygamy. In the two examples Cassandra gives, inbreeding occurs in the first because of the religious leaders refusal to allow in outsiders (although (a) I suspect it originated in the need to conceal the practice and (b) I’m not sure any outsider would want in); in the second because polygamy is illegal and the areas that practice it are isolated. In fact, one can argue that legalizing polygamy may decrease the expression and spread of serious genetic conditions by making exogamy possible.
Polygamy can be legalized without causing inbreeding so long as we write clear incest laws and enforce them strictly. This will have the rather amusing effect of putting the State in the position I believe the Catholic Church once held when it came to royal marriages: examining genealogies of prospective spouses to see if there exists the impediment of consanguinity. Or, more prosaically, making a DNA test part of the marriage license process. (Probably an excellent idea anyhow, given the over-enthusiastic use of sperm donors.)
2) Polygamy leads to forced marriages and child brides.
This is correlation rather than causation: cultures which practice polygamy (really polygyny) are also those which practice forced marriage and female child marriage. Polygyny is possible without forced marriages and child brides; whether any adult woman would freely choose polygyny is another question. (Grim’s question, in fact, and one I’ll address in a later post.)
If we legalize polygamy, we will need robust age of consent laws (I’d like to see 25 as the age of consent to a polygamous marriage but would settle for 21). The age of consent could not be waived by parental consent for a polygamous marriage. And we’d have to start aggressively enforcing statutory rape laws - which I think would be a good thing anyhow.
3) Polygamy leads to aging fathers. Aging fathers mean aging sperm which means more birth defects.
This is not so much a necessary consequence of polygamy as it is a necessary consequence of forced marriage. If women have a choice about whom to marry, there’s no reason they would be more likely to marry an excessively old man under polygamy than they are under monogamy.
4) Polygamy leads to more “wives” living below the poverty level and more immigration issues when polygamous men in Western countries return to their home countries to acquire child brides.
I think the poverty level ship has sailed. The idea that mothers and their children are the responsibility of the State rather than of the children’s father is so well-established that the question of polygamy versus monogamy is irrelevant to it. I could also argue that it’s possible more women will be married to someone if polygamy is possible. In communities where few men are interested in marriage and/or there are few men women consider worth marrying, more marriages might occur if the interested, acceptable men could take on more than one wife.
As for immigration issues, that can be solved in a variety of ways: do not allow child brides - or women who were underage when they were married - into the country; do not allow wives taken after a man immigrates to enter the country - or do not allow more than one such wife to do so; do not allow men who have married child brides into the country - or back into the country after they do so.
5) Polygamy puts more wives and children at financial risk. If a man with many wives and many children becomes poor, more people suffer as a result.
I think this is partially covered by my first paragraph under 4, above. Also, I’m not convinced the risk is any greater than that posed by serial monogamy.
6) Polygamy is fertile ground for jealousy.
If women live in a country where they have a choice about whom to marry and whether to marry at all, women can decide for themselves whether jealousy will be a problem for them. We would, of course, have to build into marriage licenses the decision about whether additional spouses would be allowed. The decision would have to be symmetrical (a couple could not approve additional wives but disallow additional husbands); specific (how many additional spouses); and irrevocable. We would also have to build in a cascade: if Husband and Wife 1 agree to one additional spouse, then Husband/Wife 2 is forced to agree to none.
7) Polygamy leads to paternal neglect. Men with dozens of children are unlikely to be involved in their children’s lives - and may not even recognize them on the street.
This is partially covered by my first paragraph under 4, above. In addition, having so many children a man doesn’t recognize his own is not an inevitable consequence of polygamy. If a man has four wives and has two children by each, he has eight children - not an unmanageable number. This problem is actually one of multiple wives combined with family sizes well outside the norm in Western countries. And, again, this ship may have sailed via the sperm donor tide.
8) Polygamy is often forced upon the first wife.
This is covered by my rules for marriage licenses under 6, above.
9) Polygamy gives the husband more power than a husband has in a two-person marriage. Each wife must compete with all the other wives for her husband’s attention, money, etc. He can leverage one against the other
Again, in a society where women can choose whom to marry and whether to marry at all and where divorce is easily obtainable, women can choose whether they are willing to be in that type of relationship.
10) Polygamy complicates divorce: “How is marital property equitably disposed of when there are multiple wives, each with children?”
I originally thought that inbreeding might be the most powerful argument against polygamy; now I think this is. Not because of the issue of child support in a polygynous union - that is analogous to a man who marries, has children, gets divorced, re-marries, and has children with his second wife - and perhaps a third. The guy is on the hook for child support, his current family feels the pinch, that’s just the way it is.
Splitting marital assets is where things get interesting. I think you’d be looking at the divorcing wife getting either the family’s assets divided by the number of people in the marriage or half the family’s assets divided by the number of wives. So in the case of a man with four wives, a divorcing wife would get either 1/5th of the family’s assets (she’s 1/5th of the family) or 1/8th of the family’s assets (the husband is half the family, the wives collectively are the other half, so a single wife is 1/4th of 1/2 of the family). Which it would be leads me into a discussion of why I think this problem might make polygamy impossible in a Western society where women have rights and where - ahem - gays can get married. What do we mean by polygamy?
Let’s look at the definitions of polygamy, polygyny, and polyandry:
Polygamy: The state or practice of having more than one wife or husband at one time.
Polygyny: The condition or practice of having more than one wife at a single time.
Polyandry: The condition or practice of having more than one wife at a single time.
All these definitions are about a single person (call him or her the “primary spouse”) having multiple spouses (call them the "secondary spouses"), implicitly of the opposite sex. So:
Adam is married to Beth.
Adam is also married to Cindy.
Adam is also married to Diane.
Adam is also married to Ellen.
But Beth, Cindy, Diane, and Ellen are not married to each other.
However, we’re not going to write a polygamy law that is restricted to polygyny; that would never fly. So we can end up with:
Zoe is married to William.
Zoe is also married to Victor.
Zoe is also married to Tom.
Zoe is also married to Sam.
But William, Victor, Tom, and Sam are not married to each other.
So far, so good. But what about:
Adam is married to Beth.
Beth is also married to William.
William is also married to Cindy.
Cindy is also married to Victor.
Victor is also married to Diane.
Now we have what we can call “chain marriage” or, if Diane marries Adam, “circle marriage”. I don’t see any way we could legalize polygamy and keep this from being legal.
Furthermore, once gay marriage is accepted, we’re not going to write a polygamy law that would be restricted to heterosexuals. So, obviously, we’re going to end up with a situation where:
Adam is married to Bob.
Adam is also married to Charles.
Adam is also married to David.
Adam is also married to Ed.
But Bob, Charles, David, and Ed are not married to each other.
Of course, Bob, Charles, David, and Ed could be married to each other; it would just take a few more ceremonies and now we’ve got not polygamy but group marriage.
Or we could end up with a group marriage that looks like this:
Adam is married to Beth, Cindy, Diane, and Ellen.
Beth, Cindy, Diane, and Ellen are all married to each other.
Beth, Cindy, Diane, and Ellen are all also married to Bob. So is Adam.
I still believe that within a few years it will be possible to convince a majority of society that polygamy in the traditional sense of one primary spouse and multiple secondary spouses is okay, whether those secondary spouses are of the same sex or the opposite sex. I’m less convinced that it will be possible to convince society that chain marriage, circle marriage, or group marriage is okay. Even if it is possible to do so, accommodating such marriages would require a massive overhaul of our legal system and of our government benefits system.
Gay marriage is pretty simple legally: Two people get married (just like two-person heterosexual unions); they have or adopt kids (just like two-person heterosexual unions); they are entitled to each others benefits (jlt-phu), the law already spells out what their rights and duties are in the marriage and with regard to children (jlt-phu); the mechanisms for dissolution are already in place (jlt-phu).
We might be able to handle straight polygyny and straight polyandry (one primary spouse to whom each of the secondary spouses are married) by treating them legally as simply a series of two-person unions. We’d have to fight over whether each person in the marriage has rights to an equal fraction of the family’s assets; I think we’d decide he or she does. We’d also have to fight about things like Social Security; I think we’d decide that Social Security benefits stay as is and get shared on a percentage basis with the others in the marriage. We’d have to add more signature lines to income tax forms.
Even these cases, though, would get tricky very fast. In legal transactions that require the consent of both husband and wife, do we require the consent of the primary spouse and all secondary spouses? What if the legal transaction seems to directly involve only one of the secondary spouses, say, taking out a loan to buy a car that will be registered only to the primary spouse and that one secondary spouse? Do all the other secondary spouses have to agree? If so, they’re on the hook for the debt; if not, how do we keep them from being on the hook for the debt? We can’t just pick up the rules used by the societies and communities that currently practice polygyny; those rules are based on women having no legal rights. We have to make this all up as we go along.
Now throw in chain marriage and circle marriage. How on earth could we write laws and design government benefits for those? And even if we could manage it for those - I shudder to think what the “buying a car” example would look like - once we accept gay marriage and can thus end up with true group marriages, I think the necessary changes would be simply too much for society to be willing to take on.
I started writing this series convinced that we would inevitably end up legalizing polygamy, largely because of the way the gay marriage battle had gone. Now I’m pretty much convinced that polygamy is almost certainly not feasible in a society with robust women’s rights and is absolutely not feasible in a society with gay marriage.