the problem with polygamy

This week’s issue of MacLean’s magazine (Canada’s weekly news) contains an article entitled “Polygamy: Legal in Canada” by Ken MacQueen. The article has inspired me to think, for the first time, about religious polygamy as whatsoever related to (or contrasting with) my concept of polyamory, and specifically in a Canadian context to boot.

Before I go anywhere with this, just a quick terminology check: polyamory = many loves; polygamy = many marriages.  Polyamorous relationships may or may not include marriage; polygamous relationships may or may not include love. To get really specific, polygamy is a general term; if you wanna gender-type it, polygyny would mean many wives and polyandry would mean many husbands. 

In the States, it would seem that the strategic alliance of polygamous Mormon and other religious groups with modern-concept polyamory/non-monogamy communities is in the process of being hotly debated. I don’t have a specific source to point you to on this one, but my honey Pepper (San Francisco-based writer of Freaksexual fame – check my blogroll for a link) keeps me frequently updated on the status of this debate as it plays out over various poly lists and discussion groups nationwide.

From what I gather, the gist of the discussion is that some polyamorous folks feel that polygamous communities may do a good job of pushing forward legislation that would make it possible for people to engage in multiple simultaneous legal marriages, and because of this, polyamorous people should stand in solidarity with religious polygamists. Their stance is that we’ll all stand to benefit in the end. They do, in some ways, have a point; on the Poly Canada list, for example, there’s at least one couple (Canadian and married in Canada) who are trying to figure out how the heck to get their partner into the country from the States since they can’t marry him due to already being married to one another. And certainly, in the various poly configurations I see among friends and acquaintances, it’s clear that if they had their druthers some groupings would all marry together rather than only being able to do so in pairs.

On the other hand, other polyamorous people feel that standing in solidarity with the polygamists is a really bad idea. They cite a variety of reasons – mainly, that the values espoused by most polygamous religous groups run counter to the whole idea of unions based on love rather than tradition or community pressure. Not to mention that, although there’s no obligation to be a feminist if you’re going to be polyamorous, a pretty huge percentage of the polyamorous world holds to principles of feminism and queer-positive politics. Not exactly on the menu for your average polygamist.

I just want to take a look at the current news for a sec. As the MacLean’s article says, “Polygamy, in many Canadian eyes, is defined by the activities of Bountiful, where powerful bishops hold sway, often dictating the selection of partners, in marriages that frequently match teenage girls to much older men.”  Well, Canadian eyes are being led by the media to understand polygamy this way because the media’s pretty much only reporting on Bountiful – a tiny rural town in British Columbia where the activities of a small fundamentalist Mormon community have captured public attention in recent months. Winston Blackmore, the big cheese of that community, has apparently “sired, by various estimates, more than 80 children by some 26 wives, some perilously close to 14, then the age of consent.”

Yes, very icky indeed. Not that each instance on its own is necessarily an issue, and not that each woman may not have consented… but when you create a situation in which all the power in a community lies with (male) religious leaders and those leaders dictate that all kinds of older men get to boink as many teenage girls as they want, it’s a little hard to swallow the idea that there’s no coercion involved. I’ll grant that it may not be violent coercion, but nonetheless, the whole idea leaves a foul taste in the mouth.

What’s going on here is actually quite specific though. For the most part, the media uses the term “polygamy,” but the overwhelming majority of polygamous situations (in the traditional religious sense) are actually quite specifically polygyny. You don’t find too many hardcore Mormon communities in rural B.C. in which women marry two dozen men, and you certainly don’t hear about women being accused of marrying multiple 14-year-old boys, now do ya.

So it’s not that polygamy – the simple concept of multiple legal marriage – is necessarily the big issue. It’s the overwhelming and potentially coercive religious push, in those particular contexts, encouraging multiple women and teenage girls to marry one man – and the resulting questions about women’s rights, the abuse of minors and so forth – that’s a genuine problem. I truly do think that if an urban professional woman wanted to marry two guys somewhere in Ontario, the public reaction would be very different indeed. Not necessarily positive, but certainly there would be no outcry about women’s rights and child abuse. With that in mind, is it really the multiple partner question we’re worried about? Or is it the potential for spousal abuse, cult behaviour, tax evasion and child abuse (facilitated by the context of religously enforced polygamy that’s specifically polygyny) that’s the problem?

And in truth, it’s not even the question of legal polygyny that’s an issue – because legal or not, these marriages are still taking place. So it’s not really about whether or not we should change Canada’s laws… it’s about looking at the situtation of a very tiny and exceptional group to see whether or not women and children are being sexually abused within it. Winston Blackmore can blather all he wants about religious persecution and how the Bountiful people are victims. But if he and his cronies have coerced women into marriage or sexual situations, then that’s where we need to be targeting the accusations.

I think that for any debate on polygamy, it’s crucial to separate the issues, and sadly I haven’t seen any media doing a good job of that. Through the media, people are learning to see polygamy as exclusively about men having multiple wives, learning to equate those multiple partnerships with coercion and abuse, and learning to see the fight for legal recognition of multiple marriages as a shady maneouver pulled by fundamentalist individuals with questionable motivations and an eerily strong grasp of the Constitution and legal precedents. (The article states, “Laws against plural marriages are so rarely prosecuted that a strong case can be made that they are already de facto legal.” … “Should polygamists win in court – a real possibility – Canada’s already suspect polygamy law would be blown out of the water.”)

In contrast to the picture this paints, I’d say it’s essential to look at the situation from a much wider perspective. Let’s take Winston Blackmore and his crew, and put them on one end of a very wide spectrum. To this spectrum you would want to add a whole whackload of other forms of non-monogamy, virtually none of them coercive or abusive. As I see it in my little world, for example, polyamory is a fairly common thing, whereas actual marriage, singular or plural, is relatively uncommon. And the average polyamorous person, in my world at least, is more likely to be a loosely affiliated Pagan, Buddhist, Jew or atheist than a fundamentalist anything; more likely to be queer or super-queer-friendly than ramrod-straight; more likely to be an urban high-tech geek or cafe owner than a farmer; more likely to have one or two kids, or none at all, than 80; and more likely to hang out at the local BDSM club a couple times a month than attend church twice a week.

So… would legal multiple marriage be a good thing? Sure, I suppose. For some people.

For people like Winston Blackmore, it could potentially make their existing coercion easier because it would be sanctified within the bonds of marriage. Then again, spousal abuse is already illegal, as is child molestation… so perhaps, legal marriage or no, if the Canadian investigators pulled their heads out of their monogamous asses and started looking at the real issues in Bountiful, they’d still have a case. And such a case wouldn’t hinge on how many partners anyone has but on whether or not anyone’s being hurt.

For other people, legal plural marriage could be a real boon. This might include people like, say, a lesbian couple I heard about from a friend yesterday – apparently, they were trying to get pregnant and one of the ladies fell in love with their sperm donor. The other one thought this was OK, so they invited him to join their household. Nowadays they’re taking prenatal classes as a triad, and the lucky preggers gal gets two sets of hands to hold when she starts her contractions. Sweet!

For me, though, I’m gonna stick with my usual rant: marriage kinda sucks. Why don’t we stop trying to contort it to suit our needs and just abandon the institution altogether? We should have a list of legal protections that can be signed up for individually, in whatever combination suits the partners involved, rather than a single package deal that we expect will suit the needs of a pluralistic and diverse society.

While I’m at it, I’ll also say that no, I don’t believe polyamorous people should join hands with creeps like Winston Blackmore, however dubiously positive the potential outcome may seem. Let’s just stay waaaay the fuck away from associations with anyone who represents religious fundamentalism, wife coercion and child abuse. The theoretical benefits of marriage are not worth that kind of terrible PR. I’d rather throw in my polyamorous lot with the trannies, queers, sex workers, BDSMers and people involved in other sex-positive political movements hinging on personal freedom, thank you very much.

That being said – one last little point to make. I firmly do not believe that multiple marriage has anything at all to do with same-sex marriage. The MacLean’s article says, “Marriage, already open to same-sex couples, could become a very crowded institution.” Oh, for Chrissakes. Did you really need to toss a sprinkling of homophobia into the mix? Because we queers are crowding the straights, is that it? Invading their personal space, perhaps? I didn’t realize that marriage was a room with a maximum capacity. Are we a frickin’ fire hazard now? Screw you. Get the fuck over it, people.

Oh, and nobody’s going to try to legalize interspecies marriage or incest anytime soon, just in case you were curious. Just to bring up another one of the absurd things I’ve heard homophobic pundits say. Maybe they’ll get a bleeding ulcer from the stress of worrying about it, though. That might distract them from spouting bullshit for a while.

In addition to all this, it’s really hard for me to see the common ground in a bunch of queer activists fighting for the social recognition of marriage across gender lines, and a potentially child-abusing religious zealot challenging the law based on an obscure reading of the Old Testament so he can legally impregnate his 27th wife, who may be no older than some of his daughters and may only be letting him fuck her because the “bishop” down the street said she’d go to hell if she didn’t. The queers deliberately left religious reasons off the roster when fighting for same-sex marriage, and I somehow doubt that Winston Blackmore and the fundamentalist Mormons are champions of queer rights, y’know what I’m saying? Puh-leeze. You find me a group of polyamory activists fighting for plural marriage, and then maybe I’ll have a listen, and maybe, maybe, there will be some common ground in the arguments. Anyone?… Anyone?… Ya. I didn’t think so.

9 Responses

  1. Whether or not you think the argument for equal marriage extends from same sex marriage to polygamy depends on the kind of argument you think best supports gay marriage. If you think the best argument is one which relies on the ability of adults to run their own lives, decide for themselves which sorts of relationships they prefer, etc, then there is a natural extension from same sex marriage to polygamy. If it’s about the freedom of adults to choose then many other options ought to be available besides the two person deal. The reason that argument doesn’t get us down the slippery slope into the land of kids and dogs is simply that they aren’t rational autonomous choosers. Again, freedom of contract may not be the best argument for same sex marriage but if it is your argument, then I don’t see why triads, quads and moresomes get left out. Bit I agree with your main point that we ought to stay clear, very clear, of the religious polygamists who seek to confirm, not question, the tradiitonal version of gender and power in marriage.

  2. Hey sex geek – How wonderful! I enjoyed this post very much. I am one of the poly activists embroiled in the debate over whether polys and polygamists should join forces for activism purposes. I agree with your position entirely, as I do with just about all of the others here. And pepper’s partner, should have guessed. Pepper’s a great guy and very good indeed at activism.

    Thanks for taking the time to express what you have here, you are definitely going in my Technorati favs and on my blogroll. Too few people are blogging on these issues, and it’s great to meet a new one. I have a post up on the subject of marriage rights for polys at http://practicalpolyamory.blogspot.com/2007/05/should-polyamorists-seek-marriage.html

    and one on forming alliances with religious polygamists at

    http://practicalpolyamory.blogspot.com/2007/05/is-alliance-between-polyamorists-and.html

    The fundamentalist polygamists have indicated that they are basing their argument for marriage rights on religious freedom – a strategic approach that comes prepackaged with the side benefit of making forming alliances with polyamorists a non-issue. Fine with me.

    BTW, if you want to join a poly activists list, send email to lovingmorepolyactive-subscribe@yahoogroups.com

    Best,
    Anita Wagner

  3. Sam: thanks for the excellent food for thought, as always. I absolutely agree – freedom of choice and freedom of contract should be extended to all adults of sane mind, period. I happen to think marriage is a crappy institution and it’s getting more than a little annoying that all the alternative folk seem to want in on it these days; I really think we could be coming up with something way better. But in principle, if it floats yer boat and you’re willing to put in the (considerable) activist work, yeah, go for it.

    Anita: How lovely to see you here! We met briefly at the Boston(ish) poly conference in 2004, same place I met Pepper in fact, and I’ve followed your work through various lists and such since then. Thanks for the links, I’ll make sure to check them out. It can only be a good thing to establish cross-border ties between poly activists, even if our legal contexts are different. I’m so glad you stopped by my blog for a visit, please do come again! :)

  4. A Crowded Institution

    I like this post of Andrea’s about polygamy, but I have to respectfully disagree with her on one point …

  5. You don’t appear to have trackbacks enabled. I’ve responded here.

  6. You say we should abandon marriage: here in Quebec, at least, people kind of are. More and more couples don’t bother getting married.

    But this sort of misses the point. There is a notion of family – potentially an elastic concept – which is legally enshrined. Not just in marriage, but in common-law arrangements. I like to think of a couple of friends in college – both straight men – who at one point realized with some amusement that they’d shared an apartment long enough to qualify as common-law partners. Really, what common-law arrangements and marriages allow us to do is declare that certain people are family – and this has legal consequences: taxes, insurance, inheritance, medical, and so on. So it seems to me that the primary legal problem poly groupings run into is the notion that a family is blood relations – parents, siblings, children – plus one partner. The form of the legal acknowledgement of that partner, marriage or common-law, isn’t so relevant, but (for example) when the intent is to let family members make medical decisions for us when we’re incapable, the legal notion of what constitutes a family becomes important. And our current law doesn’t really cope with loving stable triads (for example; pairs plus casual sex partners pose no problem).

    I’m not at all conservative, don’t get me wrong, but it seems to me that legal marriage is as good a way as any of marking a relationship as committed. But what really matters is whether the state is willing to recognize our notions of family, whatever they are. This is not just a queer issue – I have quite a few friends who would like the government to view particular friends as family long before it viewed their biological family as family.

    What family structures should the government support?

  7. I’m not the most well-versed person when it comes to the specific details of Canada’s marriage laws and what’s included vs. what’s not. But the big problem I see with marriage, and the reason I think it’s not “as good a way as any of marking a relationship as committed,” is that marriage is actually a package deal of legal rights, privileges and responsibilities, none of which are optional. In other words, institutionally speaking, you’re in or you’re out, but you have no say in the specifics.

    Not to mention that in addition to the legal specifics, there are all the para- or quasi- legal elements of the package deal to consider that aren’t built into the official law but that surface in any number of other officially sanctioned social situations, whether explicitly (like the automatic transfer of a business license to a marriage partner upon the original holder’s death in some states) or implicitly (the chances of being taken more seriously in the professional world if you wear a wedding ring).

    E.J. Graf actually does a good job of articulating the “package deal” thing in her book “What Is Marriage For?” She does it in an effort to prove that queers should have access to marriage because it’s a social and cultural rather than solely governmental and legal institution, but in fact in my opinion it thoroughly highlights the many ways in which the package deal phenomenon is problematic and something we should opt out of rather than into.

    In my opinion, the government should take the list of privileges that come with marriage and split them into a checklist that individual couples could opt into one at a time – financial rights, living arrangements, child “ownership,” power of attorney upon mental incompetency, whatever. Then they should also include the option of working additional clauses into the marriage contract that are specifically tailored for each pairing (or multiple grouping) with the help of a lawyer. In other words, everyone should have the option of signing a legally binding relationship contract with their mate(s) of choice in the ways that suit them and their relationship, rather than making it an either/or deal. And on top of all this, the contract should be open to people in any relationship form – including siblings or friends who want to raise a child together, gay men who want to pair with lesbians in a non-sexual committed relationship, sexually intimate couples, and so forth. I think this is one of the few ways we can really redefine marriage without making it automatically exclude a whackload of people and families who might benefit from these contracts.

    The most interesting piece here is that despite all the discussion of marriage that’s taken place over the last five years or so, and all the critiques of the institution, I’ve seen virtually no work done on potential legal alternatives to it. I think this would be an incredibly valuable and cutting-edge area of research, study and recommendation, and should be carried out by people far better qualified than myself.

  8. Hmmm. After having recently been in a 22-year lesbian “marriage”, wherein we had no “rights” and our relationship not recognized/sanctioned by the state, I have come to the conclusion that “marriage” should not come with any “rights” for anyone. You want commit, bond, have kids together, wonderful. But keep the state, insurance benefits, perks, tax breaks, et cetera out of it. (We handled a lot of legal stuff through our wills, and registering as “domestic partners” with the city, so that if one of us was hospitalized, we could prove that for instance, M said J was to be allowed to visit her in the hospital. Here’s her signature on this legal document.) Those things can easily be handled in other aspects of our lives, like through jobs, parenthood, Lion’s club, whatever. I often thought that we should have incorporated as a business and kept our private lives private. Corporations have more rights in a lot of ways than people, after all. In any case, the state assumes the right to regulate my private affairs, and I cannot really understand why anyone would want to subject themselves to more government control. I left the marriage because I realized that I didn’t really want to be monogamous. That’s oversimplifying it of course, but hey, we just met. And I am late for something, so I have to go. Thanks for the discussion though. There are a lot of sites out here in www-land that have not been posted to for months if not years. I appreciate the fresh thoughts and information.

  9. As an ex-mormon psychologist with strong interest in non-monogamous relationships, I had several reactions to your blog post.

    I agree that, ultimately, it is probably not in the best interests of either polys or fundy polygamists to join forces in marriage rights activism. My thoughts on this are complicated, and biased by my experiences of being intrinsically queer-affirming, and at the same time having spent most of my life as a devout mormon, who eventually left the mormon church primarily related to its anti-gay activism.

    The fundamental difference between polys and fundy polygs lies in the difference between highly individualistic vs. highly collectivistic approaches to life. Polys, IMHE, are looking for ways to more suitably navigate the legal and social issues related to having highly differentiated and specialized relationship commitments (versus the highly standardized family “units” that grew out of Industrialism).

    Mormon polygs believe, fundamentally, that “God” is a man married to a nearly infinite number of wives, and that heaven is an eternity of polygyny. Their ultimate goal is to live “the principle” with the aspiration to convert the world to this way of life. It is not a “live and let live” philosophy, by and large. The values of fundamental Mormon polygamists are deeply distinct in many ways from those of a sex-positive, choice-affirming, diversity embracing polyamory culture.

    I think, for many years, I looked for ways to be a responsible and devout mormon who could could embrace diverse orientations, personal choices, and self-expression. But, truly, there is not much flexibility or tolerance for this in Mormon culture, and much less so in the culture of fundamentalist Mormons. Eventually, I had to make hard choices about who I wanted to be, and how I wanted to live my life, and I left the mormon church at great personal cost so that I could be free to think as I liked.

    The “way of being” between these two groups is so at odds, that it almost blows my mind to imagine how these groups would be able to form healthy and effective coalitions of activism.

    Perhaps what I am trying to contribute to this conversation is that it is not just the rational, philosophical aspects of this issue that should be considered, but also the emotional ones. The poor psychological “fit” between these two groups seems to be a particularly salient factor, at least in my eyes.

    Thank you for writing so well related to issues of coercion and abuse in fundamentalist Mormon culture. I cannot adequately explain the intense psychological pressure that people in submissive roles in that culture experience, but you can see the outcomes, such as women who rotely recite their support of the sexual exploitation of their girl children. It does not take much to deduce the psychological health of mothers who would both tacitly and verbally support child marriage and sexual abuse. From there is it a short step to understanding the cultural factors that led to such a state.

    This exploitation has everything to do with local culture, and the tolerance of *some* communities that allow those abuses to continue without proper investigation and prosecution. While I believe that there are mormon polygamists who have healthy, loving homes, it is realistic to state that these are the exception, and not the norm. No change in laws about marriage would significantly alter that situation, for better or for worse. The situation was not legally created, and will not have a legal resolution.

    Thanks to all for such thoughtful comments. I am glad I happened on to this site.

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