We’ve seen a lot of successes for the campaign for equal marriage recently. In the UK, the first same-sex marriages will be performed on 29th March 2014, while 17 US states now grant equal marriage rights to same-sex couples. Although there’s a long way still to go, public opinion is swaying and for almost everyone in my social circle, this is a no-brainer – as uncontroverisal as desegregation or equal pay for women.
Still, you occasionally here some bigoted old fossil railing against all this new-fangled compassion and tolerance. What next? they ask, faces twisted with distaste: Bestiality? Paedophilia? Polygamy?
Well, why not polygamy? After all, there’s no reason not to sanction permanent relationships between freely consenting adults, right?
This has been the crux of the argument for marriage equality: that the state’s interest in sanctioning permanent romantic relationships applies just as much to gay relationships as straight ones. Married people give each other long-term emotional support, helping each other through illnesses, redundancies and bereavements, and on the whole married people are happier and healthier than people not in permanent relationships. They share domestic labour and household costs, reducing the demand for housing and infrastructure. Often, they will raise children together and it’s recognised that stable, permanent relationships help children feel happy and secure. In old age, married people contribute much of the £119 billion of unpaid care given every year in the UK, far outstripping the government spend on social care. With all of these benefits, it makes sense that the state should encourage people to form these kinds of relationships, and make it easier financialy to live as single household than as separate ones. Gay people do all of these things with their spouses, so there’s no reason they shouldn’t also enjoy the privileges of marriage.
There’s another group of people who also do all these things for their partners, and that’s polyamorous people. These are the group most people have in mind when they talk favourably about legalising plural or polygamous marriage. After all, if three or more people are all providing each other with the benefits of marriage, the more the merrier, right? And, like with same-sex marriage, you can hardly argue that a polyamorous person seeking marriage isn’t a freely consenting adult – to go against the dominant cultural expectations means that it’s very unlikely you’re being coerced or pressured.
There’s an uglier side of polygamy, however, which I’m going to call ‘traditional polygyny’. This is the biblical version – a man taking several wives, one after the other. Fundamentalist Utah Mormons practice this sort, as do some conservative Muslims. In the UK, the issue of state sanctioning of polygamous marriage came to a head recently when the government’s approach to dealing with the immigration and support of polygamist Muslim families came under scrutiny.
Unlike polyamoury, women in polygynous relationships are unlikely to be making a choice unburdened by heavy cultural expectations. Unmarried women in patriarchal cultures typically have very low status, meaning being a second, third or fourth wife might be preferable to staying unmarried. And almost every problem which besets women in communities and marriages where they have little power is multiplied if they are part of a polygynous marriage.
Some of the reasons for this are the same as the reasons that the majority of people are not polyamorous – jealousy is an almost ubiquitous human experience and not many people are able to overcome it to the extent that they can be happy with their significant other having other significant others. There’s plenty of evidence that women in polygynous marriages are not immune to jealousy. Maintaining an intimate relationship takes energy, and not everyone has the energy to commit to more than one person; fulfilling the emotional, financial and sexual needs of more than one wife is likely to be beyond most men.
There are a host of other problems which attend traditional polygynous marriages. They drive down the age of first marriage. They make it easier for husbands to exert control over their wives. Women in traditional polygynous marriages, and children of these women, are more likely to experience violence and abuse, especially at the hands of other wives. The financial situation of the large number of people who end up relying on a single breadwinner is particularly poor if the husband experiences redundancy, illness or death. Morover, the fate of men who can’t find a wife in communities which practice traditional polygyny is often dire; there are believed to be up to 1,000 ‘lost boys’ expelled form Utah fundamentalist Mormon communities with little more than the clothes on their back.
So we have two types of relationships that would be legally sanctioned if polygamy was permitted – polyamorous relationships and traditional polygyny. I’m not convinced that the benefits to polyamorous people outweigh the harm that would be done by giving state sanction to traditional polygyny. There are arguments that legalised polygyny would protect the status of vulnerable women while doing little to increase the number of polygamous marriages; that’s certainly a liberal argument in favour of Utah’s recent change in the law. There are others who suggest that the laws could be structured in such a way to disadvantage traditional polygyny, while still sanctioning polyamorous relationships – only allowing group marriages, for example, or requiring all existing marriages be dissolved before a new person enters the marriage.
I’m not convinced. I don’t think 16-year-olds who sleep with their 15-and-364-day-old girlfriends should get a criminal record. Likewise, I have tremendous sympathy for long-lost half-siblings who unknowingly meet and fall deeply in love. Nonetheless, I don’t think the solution is to abolish the age of consent or legalise incest, and for the same reason I don’t think the injustice done to polyamorous people by refusing state recognition of their relationships is enough to justify dignifiying the relationship of a 60-year-old man with his penniless 18-year-old fifth ‘wife’ with the respected an honoured label of ‘marriage’.
Mainstream Mormons and Muslims both recognise these problems inherent in traditional polygyny, and are waging their own campaigns against them. If we want to see an end to polygamous unions, this sort of campaign from within the communities themselves is going to be the only way to effect real cultural change. We need to focus on supporting the people pushing against polygamy and for women’s rights and voices in religious communites, and I worry that legalising polygamy would set these struggles back an almost irrecoverable amount.
Legalised polygamy isn’t a no-brainer, yet. Let’s come back to it when we’ve had another 50 years of feminism.