culture politics

The Coming Polygamy Showdown

Critics of legalized same-sex marriage have often made the point that many, and perhaps all, of the arguments in favor of what the Supreme Court in Obergefell can also be applied to the legalization of polygamy marriage and plural marriage. Proponents of marriage redefinition have often responded by dismissing this claim as slippery slope scaremongering; Andrew Sullivan’s “conservative case” for gay marriage explicitly repudiated such “open” marriage contracts. For years leading up to the legalization of same-sex marriage in 2015, the idea that redefining the relationship between marriage and gender would precede a similar redefinition between marriage and persons was scorned out of court.

But I don’t think all the scorn in the world can ignore what’s going on in this essay in Chronicle of Higher Education. Moira Weigel (yes, the Moira Weigel who recently entered The Atlantic‘s “We Regret the Error” hall of fame) has written a profile of Carrie Jenkins, a philosopher at the University of British Columbia who lives in an “open” marriage. In case you’re wondering what that means, the article helpfully includes a photograph of Jenkins, her husband Jonathan–and her boyfriend, Ray. Jenkins and her husband identify as polyamorous, meaning their marriage is not exclusive and that both husband and wife may be and are sexually active outside it.

Before you dismiss this as just another, relatively insignificant example of absurdity in the lives of professional philosophers, consider also reading this Atlantic piece from 2014 on the “trend” of polyamory and open relationships. Even if this practice is now more or less at the margins of American social life, these two pieces in tandem clearly indicate a mainstream fascination with “nonmonogamy.” It’s real, and it’s happening now.

What makes, I think, the profile of Jenkins more interesting than The Atlantic’s piece is that, whereas the latter essay is framed more or less as an on the ground examination of a lifestyle still surrounded by social stigmas, the former clearly aspires to something more like normalization. Jenkins is, after all, a prestigious academic, and as Weigel notes, she and her partner(s) carefully weighed potential blowback to their careers before, to use the term Weigel does, “coming out.” In this essay, Jenkins (and Weigel) makes a clear and positive case for polyamory, with unmistakeable reference to the recent legal battle over same-sex marriage.

Listen to how carefully Jenkins articulates the moral reasoning of her menage a trois:

Take, for instance, the claim that it’s unhealthy to have multiple sexual partners. Jenkins and (husband Jonathan) Ichikawa pointed out that this was simply untrue. It is perfectly possible to maintain sexual health with multiple partners; indeed, a person who has openly discussed the pros and cons of opening a relationship with a partner is more likely to practice safe sex than is the frustrated partner who resorts to “drunken flings, clandestine affairs, or other ill-considered hookups.”

What about the assumption that nonmonogamy is psychologically damaging? “Different people are different,” Jenkins and Ichikawa wrote. Many nonmonogamous people report that they come to feel less jealousy over time; conversely, many monogamous people complain of experiencing sexual jealousy. In response to the charge that nonmonogamy is “unnatural,” Jenkins and Ichikawa pointed out that virtually no species are sexually monogamous, even if they are socially monogamous or pair-bond for life. (“Not even swans.”)

For a moment, let’s just brush aside the content of the moral claims being made here (the argument about nonmonogamy and jealousy reminded me of a line from True Detective: “People incapable of guilt usually do have a good time”).  The immediate takeaway is that Jenkins believes in a philosophically positive case for the inherent goodness of polyamory and open marriage. This isn’t mere personal narrative. It’s an objective claim about the nature of love, the purpose of marriage, and the good life. It is, in other words, a fundamentally political idea.

Jenkins goes on to acknowledge that her case for polyamory intersects with the political trajectory of same-sex marriage. She says: “We are creating space in our ongoing cultural conversations to question the universal norm of monogamous love, just as we previously created space to question the universal norm of hetero love.” Jenkins believes the case for polyamory is historically significant, clearly implying that she hopes to see its legal and political ramifications:

“Let’s not forget that it took many years of serious scientific research to convince (most) people that there is no biologically superior race or gender,” writes Jenkins. “Getting a proper grip on the biology of love may help us unravel the idea that there is one biologically superior way to love.”

Doesn’t this sound exactly like the rhetoric of same-sex marriage? This connection isn’t incidental; it’s foundational. Jenkins isn’t merely some hedonist, thumbing her nose at the culture and its oppressive strictures. She is instead making an intellectually serious case in the public square, a case that she knows is politically potent in a post-gay marriage era. Her arguments are going to be reckoned with.

And the question is, of course, what could a culture that no longer believes in the inherent value of male and female possibly say to this kind of reasoning? Are there any people left who endorse the legalization of same-sex marriage but would oppose the legalization of plural marriage? If there are, on what grounds? I’m afraid there aren’t any. After all, you love who you love. If it doesn’t matter whether that’s a man or a woman, why would it matter if it were 2 men, or 4 women? A fundamental right to human self-determination, at any and all costs to transcendent moral reasoning, does not simply end at #SameLove. The “right side of history” is much longer than the eye can see.

By Samuel D. James

Believer, husband, father, acquisitions editor, writer.

1 reply on “The Coming Polygamy Showdown”

What is the argument here? I’m not sure that I can find one.

First, polyamory is legal in the US. Nothing forbids it. Some states still have criminal laws on the books forbidding it, but those are surely unconstitutional.

Second, polyamorous relationships are rather idiosyncratic, which defies the creation of any kind of default rules to govern civil duties and obligations within such relationships. In the context of civil marriage, the cost-benefit analysis works out in favor of extending existing civil marriage laws to include same-sex couples. The administrative costs of extending such rights is negligible, and there’s a fairly substantial benefit to the couples and any children. The same is not true of polyamorous relationships. Polyamorous relationships are fairly idiosyncratic, and often are intertwined with the specific theological doctrines within certain Christian sects (e.g., fundamentalist LDS groups). The administrative costs of creating a workable system would be high, and the benefits may be marginal (as civil law cannot take account of certain religious principles that govern the central features of those relationships). So, the cost-benefit analysis doesn’t favor the creation of a civil system for registering polyamorous systems. In fact, I’m not sure than anyone is even requesting any such thing.

Lastly, is this only outrageous because it’s two men and one woman? After all, any Christian would be fairly hard pressed to come up with a biblical case against polygamy. Monogamy was imposed on the post-exilic Jews by their Greek and Roman rulers; it’s a secular Greco-Roman concept, not a Judeo-Christian concept. Thus, the biblical case for polygamy is stronger than the biblical case against it. The same is not true for polyandry, so maybe that’s your objection? Or is it the fact that the relationship is open? And what’s supposed to cause me outrage? I get outraged if people suffer material harm without their consent. I couldn’t care less what consenting adults do, as long as they leave me and others alone.


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