Will Polygamy Follow Same-Sex Marriage?

shutterstock_2067196 - 2When the Supreme Court struck down section 3 in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in US v Windsor in June, same-sex marriage was not the only beneficiary. The decision seems to have given fresh impetus to polyamory as well.

This is not news that “marriage equality” fans welcome. They look upon legalised polyamory as a dangerous foe because it confuses the message of their own campaign. “Marriage should be extended to people who can’t get married, not those unable to marry six people,” says Jonathan Rauch, author of Gay Marriage: Why It is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.

However, Anita Wagner Illig, a long-time polyamory spokeswoman, told Newsweek that the DOMA decision had been a great help: “A favorable outcome for marriage equality is a favorable outcome for multi-partner marriage, because the opposition cannot argue lack of precedent for legalizing marriage for other forms of non-traditional relationships.”

The Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to interpret “spouse” and “marriage” exclusively as terms for a relationship between a man and a woman. For polygamists and polyamorists the logical question is, how can it be acceptable to discriminate on the basis of the number of spouses?

Polyamory comes in all shapes and sizes. It is typically a ménage à trois, a woman living with two men, but it might be two couples living together — or just about anything else. But its supporters insist that it is not the same as polygamy. This is normally patriarchal and religious. Polyamorous relationships are often centred on women and are resolutely secular.

Polyamorists claim that there are 500,000 families openly living in polyamorous relationships in the United States. A recent poll by Loving More magazine found that nearly two-thirds of them would seek legal recognition if they could. More than 90 percent thought that their relationships should have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as two-party marriages. Politically active polyamorists complain that they are discriminated against in housing, employment and child custody.

“It would be nice… to have households where our spouses are equal under the law, and moving forward in terms of pensions, and inheritances and property division,” says Zoe Duff, the head of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association.

At the moment, however, multiple relationships are about as popular as homosexual relationships were 20 years ago. They stink. According to a recent Gallup poll, 59 percent of Americans believe that homosexuality is morally acceptable, but only 14 percent approve of polygamy, and only 6 percent of adultery. It would be inconceivable for a politician in an openly polyamorous relationship to be elected.

But 20 years from now, will Americans be more accepting?

The chances of this are good. Polyamorists have learned from decades of campaigning for same-sex marriage. Strategies road-tested by gay activists are now being deployed by polyamorists.

Getting positive spin in the media. Media coverage is provocative but positive. Showtime, a cable TV network owned by CBS, has created a reality series about a cast of characters navigating multiple relationships in southern California, “Polyamory: Married and Dating”. Its second season begins on August 15. And in the wake of the DOMA decision, magazines like the WashingtonianSlate and Salon have run features on the normality of polyamory. They make it sound challenging, but rewarding. As one woman put it in Salon:

“Just like any relationship: [we need] communication, honesty, trust and respect. The ability to compromise comes in handy. But for the most part, we celebrate one another’s individuality, and we never try to stifle or control one another. Our life is comfortable and peaceful…

“When my daughter talks about same-sex marriage or polyamorous relationships, she always looks perplexed and says, “I don’t understand why anyone is angry about people being in love and not hurting anyone.” And I long for a world where everyone is able to see it so simply.”

Born that wayHomo sapiens is not naturally monogamous, according to polyamory advocates. Fidelity is all but impossible in contemporary society. Writer Meghan Laslocky argued on CNN recently that only 3 to 5 percent of all mammal species are monogamous. A closer examination of avian romances shows that monogamous species like lovebirds and penguins engage in extramarital affairs. Scientists claimed to have discovered an “infidelity gene”. “Whether a person succeeds at being sexually monogamous depends as much on biology as environment,” says Laslocky.

There seems to be a growing sense that a liking for multiple relationships is not a lifestyle choice, but is genetically determined. This was one of the strongest arguments for redefining marriage to suit homosexuals. If they cannot help their orientation, surely it must be discriminatory to deny them the right to marry. The same argument works for polyamorists.

An ethical choice. The polyamorist way of life is being described as one of wholesome, self-sacrificing love. Most polyamorists struggle not to become jealous when a partner forms a new romantic relationship. But this exclusivity is regarded as selfish and struggling against it is regarded as proof that polyamory is far more than mere promiscuity. It has an elevated ethical vision, theorists argue, which encompasses “five main principles: self-knowledge, radical honesty, consent, self- possession, and privileging love and sex over other emotions and activities such as jealousy.” If same-sex marriage becomes legal, it is easy to imagine how seductive this rhetoric might become.

Forging a legal case. Just as the case for same-sex marriage is based on rejection of discriminatory attitudes, polyamorist legal scholars, relying on an enormous corpus of feminist and gay scholarship, argue that statutes should be amended to encompass an expanded range of sexual preferences. Ann E. Tweedy, of Hamline University School of Law, has argued in the University of Cincinatti Law Review that polyamory is a kind of sexual orientation:

“Because polyamory appears to be at least moderately embedded as an identity, because polyamorists face considerable discrimination, and because non-monogamy is an organizing principle of inequality in American culture, anti-discrimination protections for polyamorists are warranted. Moreover, polyamory shares some of the important attributes of sexual orientation as traditionally understood, so it makes conceptual sense for polyamory to be viewed as part of sexual orientation.”

Tweedy also points out that polyamorists and their children are often bullied, stigmatised, and verbally abused because of their lifestyle. Legal recognition of their relationships would help to change this.

Children are optional. Children are almost never mentioned in the literature about polyamory. It is a lifestyle which is devoted to romance, comfort and sexual satisfaction. The children who appear fleetingly in media reports seem to be the offspring of first marriages. Arguments in support of polyamory only touch upon adult satisfaction, not the creation of a safe and nurturing environment for children. Lawyers, therefore, can plausibly argue that no one will be harmed by legal recognition, especially because polyamorous relationships seem to be flourishing among prosperous professionals who can afford the trappings of a happy childhood.

* * * *

So are we on a slippery slope to legally recognised polyamory? It all depends upon the success of campaigns for same-sex marriage. Many people in polyamorous arrangements, like many, if not most, homosexual couples, are not in favour of polyamorous marriage. They feel that they might be too restrictive. But for those who crave social recognition and respect, marriage will become a political necessity. As one poly blogger put it,

“If you accept the framing of civil rights and social acceptance as a slippery slope down, you’ve lost the debate before you open your mouth. So no wonder you can’t make sense. Slipping on a slope is a painful accident that leads downward. Instead, reframe it as a stairway up. Each step is a deliberate, effortful, carefully chosen advance toward a more humane, just, enlightened world.”


This article originally appeared at Mercator.net.

Image credit: shutterstock.com


Michael Cook


Michael Cook likes bad puns, bushwalking and black coffee. He did a BA at Harvard University in the US where it was good for networking, but moved to Sydney where it wasn’t. He also did a PhD on an obscure corner of Australian literature. He has worked as a book editor and magazine editor and has published articles in magazines and newspapers in the US, the UK and Australia.

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  • JMC

    Like all sexual disorders, this one is also innately selfish. Does no one consider how the second “spouse” in a polyamorous relationship feels? Yeah, both may make all the noises about not caring, but at night, when one is chosen as that night’s sexual companion, the other one cannot avoid being jealous. It’s why Mormon sects which still practice polygamy keep each wife in a separate house, because they’ve learned that the women cannot live together without constantly bickering. I imagine women who attempt to practice polyamory are going to find out they’re going to have to keep their husbands carefully separate from each other, too, since jealousy in men tends to get a lot more violent…and the woman herself may even end up being the target of that violence.

  • Pay

    Would not polygamy be a step up from homosexual “marriage”?


    how about the campaign of some psychologists to view pedophilia as no longer a mental disease?

  • BillinJax

    Why of course! Don’t we know that it takes a village to raise a child? The more mom’s or dad’s you can get under one roof the better for the children. That’s liberal secular progressive 101. Also if two (or more) people love each other they must be entitled to the bands of matrimony as our courts have now stated. Morality is now determined by majority vote i.e. Roe vs Wade. It is just a matter of time with another liberal judge or two on the SC and Obama and the democrats can’t wait to accomplish that.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    Actually, I’ll spare you the explicit details, but unlike polygamy, polyamory is about NOT having to choose one or the other (or the other or the other – depending just how free their free sex group is).

  • QuoVadisAnima

    No, they are on the same hedonistic playing field – and polyamory is NOT polygamy. It’s basically regular orgy-style sex.

  • Howard

    “The chances of this are good.” No.

    Seriously, you’re old enough to know that history changes faster than people expect and in unexpected directions. Two years before the fall of the Berlin Wall, I attended a speech by the West German foreign minister in which he said he thought Russia and France would never allow Germany to reunite. The rapid, peaceful collapse of the Soviet Union was not even contemplated until the fall of the Berlin Wall. For that matter, the fall of the last Czar took everyone by surprise.

    Prohibition is perhaps a better parallel. Exactly one hundred years ago, the Prohibition movement was an unstoppable juggernaut, leading to the 18th Amendment to the US Constitution in 1919, but 14 years later, the 21st Amendment was ratified, making Prohibition the first and so far only constitutional amendment to be explicitly repealed. Today, of course, Prohibition is seen as almost quaint but distinctly un-American.

    Guessing the future is always problematic, but what you’re doing is looking at a major change and guessing where that could lead “if things keep going the way there are and there are no major changes.” Meanwhile, there are several other crises that are hitting us at the same time, whether your perspective is the US or the world. The US budget, which has long been a joke, has lately become a very unfunny joke. The fate of the Euro and the EU is up for grabs. NATO has insisted on maintaining a hostile stance towards Russia, but Russia is beginning to reassert herself. China continues to develop, but into what?

    The one thing that seems most certain is that things CANNOT keep going the way they are, but how they will change is entirely unclear.

  • Howard

    You can’t blame Pay for the question. After all, the title of this posting is about polygamy, but most of the article itself is about polyamory.

  • Howard

    It’s like paganism. Paganism in cultures that have never heard the Gospel is different from paganism in Christian apostates. Polygamy was always a bad idea — just look at the trouble it caused Abraham, Jacob, Solomon, and others — but it had a kind of innocence in pre-Christian societies that it cannot regain through apostasy.

  • QuoVadisAnima

    Yes. People seem to assume that polyamory is synonymous with polygamy, but they are indeed different.

  • Although I see no reason to marry 6 people. I see no reason not to. It should be allowed as well.