Fast-track to Polygamy?

Here’s an interesting idea. Wait until you see who wrote it.

Gay Marriage - What next?So there’s one aspect of the pro-gay-marriage brief that deserves a mental asterisk. A second argument that has always been a bit weak has been the attempt to minimise the extent to which allowing same-sex marriages will change the definition of marriage for straight married couples. When conservatives have argued that gay marriage would “devalue traditional marriage“, the response has often been to ridicule the idea that straight people’s marriages will change at all. (“OMG! Marriage is now worthless!”) This isn’t a serious response. Obviously the legalisation of same-sex marriage represents a major change in the institution and in the meaning of the word, much as the meaning of phrases like “all men are created equal” changed significantly when they began to be understood to include, say, women. For people who have a strongly gendered understanding of their own marriage, this is a paradigm shift. The government is now saying it understands marriage as a long-term legal commitment between two people who are assumed to have a sexually attached relationship to each other. Gender is irrelevant; marriage is simply a paired relationship. It’s a big deal when social institutions change this way, and if conservative heterosexuals feel their marriages are affected, they’re right, even when the way they phrase their complaints is wrong.

Which brings us to moderately off-the-mark argument number three. One of the assumptions that gay marriage calls into question, for many conservatives, is: why pairs, then? If not man-woman, then why not man-woman-woman, and so forth? Again, the response of gay-marriage proponents is generally ridicule. I don’t think this is a ridiculous question. “Why can’t you marry your dog, then?” is a ridiculous question; marriage, in our society, is between consenting adult persons. (Though states where girls can marry below the age of legal adulthood violate this premise, and show the traces of a premodern understanding of marriage as a reproductive contract between extended families that few Americans would say they support today.) But “why only two?” isn’t a ridiculous question. It’s easy enough to show that gay marriage does not empirically lead to pressure to legalise polygamy; that hasn’t happened anywhere that gay marriage is legal. But this is different from explaining why opening up the boundaries of the 20th-century understanding of marriage shouldn’t raise the possibility of legalising polygamy. Why shouldn’t it be legal for more than two consenting adults to marry each other?

There are, obviously, a whole lot of societies in the world where polygamy is legal and normal. In fact the anthropological record suggests that the overwhelming majority of human societies have allowed men to have more than one wife simultaneously. I don’t want to be taken to be making a creepy dirty-old-man argument in favour of polygamy. But the reflexive belief that polygamous marriages must be evil and oppressive even in societies where they are traditional is basically an expression of cultural prejudice. I would never want to be in a polygamous marriage myself, because I’ve grown up in the West and it seems freaky and inegalitarian to me; but for people who grew up in Yemen, or in Swaziland, or in Vietnam before the 1950s, that is not necessarily the case. Women in polygamous societies may decide to become a rich man’s second wife rather than a poor man’s only wife, and do not necessarily feel oppressed by that choice. Their children usually turn out well-adjusted. To take the typical paradigm-upender, if you imagine a Sudanese man with two wives (and children by each of them) who wins the Green Card lottery and is told he has to divorce one of his wives before coming to America, you have to wonder whose interests the government thinks it is defending.

And yet modernisation in almost every country seems to entail a shift from polygamy to monogamy. This is actually something of a puzzle, according to “The puzzle of monogamous marriage“, a paper published last year by Joseph Henrich of the University of British Columbia, Robert Boyd of UCLA, and Peter Richerson of the University of California Davis. It’s particularly confusing, they note, in that in any polygamous society, the most powerful men are likely to be the ones who benefit from polygamy. How does a society make a shift in norms that greatly disadvantages its most powerful members? Their argument is that in the case of Europe, the dynamic that led pagan, polygamous Germanic tribes to shift to monogamy and Christianity was competition between proto-states at the group level. In polygamous societies, high-status men marry a disproportionate share of the women, leaving low-status men to fight and scramble for the rest. Monogamous European societies outperformed polygamous societies economically and on the battlefield, the argument runs, because low-status males in polygamous societies were more often engaged in debilitating violence against each other. So monogamous Christian societies defeated and converted polygamous heathen ones, and monogamy gradually spread.

Now this argument may well be wrong. But any other plausible explanation is likely to be similar in that it explains the transition in terms of enhancing the economic welfare and institutional reach of monogamous cultures and states. Monogamy thrives in the service of power. Having grown up in a monogamous society, we respond instinctively to its myths: the brilliant state-building legend of Romeo and Juliet, “one girl, one boy”( to quote the Leonard Bernstein version), the might of the sovereign (“the Prince expressly hath forbidden bandying in Verona streets!“) decreeing that marriage as a tool of clan alliance or rivalry will make way for marriage as a pairing of two autonomous individuals in a romantic attachment, answerable to no one but the law. This is the way the state will recognise sexual bonding, because this is the codification of sexual bonding that makes for the strongest state. We absorb these norms, we learn to embrace them, we thrill to them from the age when we watch our first Disney film. Today, gay men and women want to have their sexual bonding embraced within the same norms, to achieve equality, and that’s their right. But my guess is that the real answer to the conservative question “why not more than two people, then?” is that we will stick to pairs because marriage is a creature of the state and pairs are the form that makes the state strongest. Nobody, though, gays or conservatives, finds this way of thinking about the issue very appealing, so it probably won’t get much play.

Where’s that from? That bastion of right-wing Christian fundamentalism, the Economist.

Andrew Lilico has also written on this theme previously.

Andrew LilicoThird, Mr Moghal’s point is powerful – why should we not facilitate Muslims in their contractual relationships regarding polygamy?  Is the point that some people believe polygamy to be wrong?  Well, virtually everyone thinks adultery is wrong, yet we marry adulterers.  Do we think that these relationships involve asymmetric power interactions?  So, you really believe that a 35 year old businessman divorcee who marries his 16 year old schoolgirl mistress is in a symmetric power relationship?  Yet our law allows these to marry.  Is it that some polygamous marriages might be abusive?  Are there no abusive monogamous marriages?

No.  We have long since deserted the concept in Britain that legal marriage has any connection to morality or power.  It is simply (a) a convenient way to wrap up a number of contracts that people might undertake separately; and (b) a mechanism that simplifies division of property in the event of separation.

So, I go further than Mr Moghal.  Whilst Baroness Warsi wants honouring polygamists to be treated worse than adulterers, I want them to have access to official legal sanction – I want there to be civil unions for polygamists.  These should obviously be available to anyone (including multiple men and the same woman or all men or all women or multiple men and multiple women) – you shouldn’t need to belong to a specific religion to access them.  They should not be “marriages” in the sense that churches would be obliged to offer them.

Many of you will have objections.  My challenge is this: In your objections swap the term “polygamist” and “homosexual” and see whether your objections really look any different to the objections many offered (mistakenly) against homosexual civil union.  Why should polygamy be any less honoured before the law than homosexual union (which I favoured)?  (And the answer had better not be “because polygamy is wrong”, for we established at the time of the Section 28 and age of consent equalisation debates that it was not the function of the law to provide moral signals and the legal provision of homosexual civil union had nothing to do with the belief that it was morally right.)

32 Comments on “Fast-track to Polygamy?

  1. “When conservatives have argued that gay marriage would “devalue traditional marriage“, the response has often been to ridicule the idea that straight people’s marriages will change at all. (“OMG! Marriage is now worthless!”) This isn’t a serious response.”

    Perhaps not, but I’ve yet to see any decent argument how redefining marriage to include homosexual couples affects my heterosexual marriage in any *concrete* sense. And this Economist article doesn’t do so either, it just blithely affirms it’s “a big deal”.

    And “why not polygamy” is an interesting question. Why not any other real or historical or hypothetical ways of structuring families and communities? The more arbitrary / historically contingent that monogamous heterosexual marriage is recognised as being, the more unnecessarily cruel it seems to deny gay couples the right to marry as well.

    • “Perhaps not, but I’ve yet to see any decent argument how redefining marriage to include homosexual couples affects my heterosexual marriage in any *concrete* sense.”

      So let me ask you a question. As a man, on what basis should you be able to register the birth of your children?

      • My brain isn’t working very well so I’m sure I’m about to stumble into some very obvious point I haven’t thought of…

        I registered both my children on the basis of being their biological father. But if we had, say, legally arranged to adopt an as-yet-unborn child (does that happen in this country?) then perhaps I could have registered them on being the legally recognised guardian? I guess?

        Sorry, can’t see where you’re going with this… (probably just because it’s Friday afternoon… :)

        • OK – but was it the fact that you were their biological father that gave you the right to register your child’s birth? Can all biological fathers register their children’s birth?

          • To be honest, I don’t know if it was because I was the biological father or the husband of the biological mother. I don’t really know much about it… enlighten me!

              • Presumably because my marriage is seen as a sign that I am actually quite committed to the mother and the child.

                  • Oh I know they are, more in some cases, I wasn’t suggesting that. I mean that the STATE recognises marriage as a sign of commitment.

                    Go on, what’s the real reason?

                    • The state currently recognises marriage as normatively a procreative union so it assumes that the husband of a pregnant wife is the biological father of her child and so assumes his parenting.

                      Now, how will that work with two women?

                    • Couldn’t the state just assume that the legal partner of a biological parent will take on the parenting role? If that was the case, it would have made no difference to us, and would also make it okay for lesbian or gay couples.

                      My point wasn’t that there wouldn’t have to be a redefinition of marriage, just that any redefinition wouldn’t have any real effect on those of us who are already married.

                    • So just to be clear, you are happy with the idea that the assumption in law that you are the biological father of your children is removed. The *biological* father.

                      i) What might the consequences of that be?
                      ii) How can you now claim that same-sex marriage doesn’t affect your marriage when introducing it will have to remove from you the assumption you are the biological parent of your wife’s children?

                    • Hmmm. Well, I didn’t even know that the state assumed anything about me until just now, so one one level I really don’t care.

                      To be honest I rather think that being a biological parent accords too many rights as it is; there are too many children exposed to abusive situations from biological parents (though that is a different topic).

                      To answer your question directly, I really can’t think what the consequence would be as long as our marriage continues. Were it to dissolve then under the current system I guess I would be disadvantaged in terms of access rights etc. But that could be solved by changing the laws about what rights being a biological parent automatically confers on you.

                      I fully concede the point that it will be a lot more work for the legislators than simply saying “right, gay people can get married now”. I’m sure there are all sort of bits of family law which will need amending. But I can’t see that that is a good reason for not proceeding, nor do I think in the end that it will effect us heterosexual married couples in any noticeable way.

                    • Daniel, I’m afraid this sort of “we all know that such-and-such happens” generalisation won’t really do. Ask anyone involved in abuse cases who the usual perpetrator is, and in the vast majority will tell you: “Mum’s boyfriend”. If you think that biological parent abusers are being in some way protected by law, you are very much mistaken. It is precisely the undermining of the role of married, biological parents caring for their children that is letting children down.

                    • Tom, I have to say that sounds rather like naive wishful thinking to me. There are many biological parents who are abusive in this country (and I’m including in this neglect or emotional abuse, not just physical). They may be in a minority, though I am guessing accurate figures would be hard to come by, but they certainly exist.

                      Even if it was possible to establish as a statistical fact that the “vast majority” of parental abuse comes from non-biological parents, there are still clearly enough abusive biological parents and enough committed, loving non-biological ones that the automatic legal discrimination in favour of the former and against the latter seems absurd to me.

                    • But is there discrimination? Actually, you don’t have to be married, or even in a relationship, to become an adoptive or foster parent. Traditionally, the idea behind marriage in this country is to maintain a link between sexual faithfulness and the conception and upbringing of children, hence divorce on the grounds of adultery.

                    • “Traditionally, the idea behind marriage in this country is to maintain a link between sexual faithfulness and the conception and upbringing of children, hence divorce on the grounds of adultery. If marriage becomes simply a way of sharing assets between committed people, then you’ve broken that link.”

                      I think this is the crux of the matter. While sexual faithfulness is still seen as an important aspect of marriage in this society (not that it’s always observed of course) I think in practice the link has already been broken between marriage and reproduction. Many, many people get married with absolutely no intention of having children, or in the knowledge that they are physically unable to do so. I am not aware of the Church of England ever condemning such people, nor the use of contraceptives.
                      In another words, as far as I can see the Church of England has alread implicitly given its consent to the idea of breaking the link between marriage and children, so it can’t really then prohobit gay marriage on the basis that such a union cannot lead to children.

                    • I don’t entirely disagree. There’s certainly a case to be made for Christians simply accepting that wider society no longer shares their vision of marriage.

                      However, when the CofE agreed to the principle of contraceptives for the purposes of family planning, I don’t think they really understood what it would lead to. With infant mortality dropping steeply, and often the poorest families the ones having far more children than they could afford, it must have seemed like the only sane solution to prevent dire poverty, overcrowding and abortion. It’s true they have been very silent on the subject of what used to be considered ‘the abuse of the marriage bed’ (couples getting married for the sake of the benefits and then deliberately not having children), but they’ve never conceded abortion as a ‘back-up’ for contraceptive failure, as the population controlests and some feminists insist is necessary.

                      I think what the CofE is stating is that they now agree that civil partnerships are a good thing (they weren’t so clear about it at the time), but they are seeking to maintain their vision of marriage as the correct context for heterosexual relations, and an institution designed for the support of any children that come out of those relations, planned or unplanned. (N.B. It’s estimated that about a third of pregnancies in the UK are unplanned)

                    • I guess I just don’t think there’s anything inherently ‘Christian’ about linking marriage with children – in fact I don’t really think there’s any such thing as a “Christian vision of marriage”, just the vision which has traditionally been part of the cultures where Christianity has taken root.
                      Nothing wrong with tradition, of course, but “we’ve always done it that way” is never really a satisfactory explanation of why something must never change.

                    • I’m afraid you’ve lost me. I was trying to explain why the Church of England might want to hold on to a particular understanding of the purposes of marriage. I’ve obviously done it really badly if I’ve given the impression that this view is exclusively Christian or the CofE is being obstructive because it’s afraid of change. The point is that we’re not talking about customs – like the bride’s dress – that might change. We’re talking about biology, which doesn’t change. Have I misunderstood your argument?

                    • Well obviously the biology doesn’t change. But marriage, as we understand it in the modern West – and the model of family life that goes along with that – has clearly changed in different times and different places. So why can’t marriage continue to change? it seems wrong to me that the Church of England should hold on to one particular model – fine if it works and if everybody is happy with it, change for change’s sake is pointless and often destructive. But if people are feeling oppressed by the exclusivity of a particular vision of marriage, then you need to be *very* sure that that vision is ordained by God. And I see nothing to convince me that it is.
                      My contention I guess is that there is nothing fundamentally Christian about the traditional idea of marriage (i.e. that it is being primarily about child-rearing), and conversely that there is nothing fundamentally non-Christian about other models of child-rearing (including being brought up by a same-sex couple).

                    • Ah, I get you now. Thanks for clarifying. Yes, you are certainly not the only person looking at Christian principles and thinking ‘is this traditional procreative view even necessary to Christianity in the first place?’ And that’s something the Church is going to have to deal with in terms of whether it allows same-sex weddings in services in the future. It’s going to look increasingly out-of-touch if it doesn’t. So, I agree with you, it needs to be very sure it knows where it stands and why.

                      However, this would be a *serious* revision of centuries of Chrisitan thought about marriage. What I was disagreeing with was your claim that the CofE broke the connection between marriage, sex and procreation when it allowed contraception. Yes, this was a big change of mind on something that the church had been condemning for almost a millenia. However, I think it’s a bit of an exaggeration to say that they were deliberately doing away with the procreative concept of marriage altogether. What they agreed to was not contraception in any context, but contraception *for the purposes of family planning* – ie. to restrict family to a manageable size to avoid the problems of overcrowding, dire poverty and abortion. Given the amount of flack the RC Church has had for continuing to oppose contraception, you can see why.

                      Officially at least, the Church has continued to oppose other things that wider society has embraced – abortion, sex outside marriage. And, although you don’t get a lot of sermons on ‘the abuse of the marriage bed’, churches do tend to be very pro-family and children. The implication is that marriage and having children is a good thing and there’s something a bit odd about young fertile couples who live together (married or unmarried) without going down that route.

                      Was that too long-winded an answer?

                    • Well, I admit I’m no Bible scholar, so this could well be tosh… but I can see Genesis 2:24 referring to a heterosexual union, I don’t see what’s procreative about that verse?
                      And this may be a translation issue, but certainly in the NRSV it reads to me like an explanation of an existing cultural norm rather than a moral command, i.e. it sounds descriptive, not prescriptive.

                    • What I meant was, that verse doesn’t seem to say that you *should* procreate if you are in a heterosexual union (unless I’m missing something).

                    • The idea of marriage being a normative procreative union doesn’t mean that *all* such unions have to procreate to be valid marriages (though I grant you Roman Catholic theology suggests you should at least have a go!). This is the common misunderstanding. Rather, a couple who for various reasons choose not to have children don’t undermine the general principle because they *could* be procreative if they wanted to. A couple where one is infertile don’t undermine the general principle because they *could* be procreative if the issue causing infertility was fixed. A couple who are now too old to have children don’t undermine the general principle because they *could* have had children when they were younger (and we don’t make women divorce once they’re menopausal).

                      Compare this to a same-sex couple who can never ever procreate a child.

                    • Just to get a sense of how attitudes have changed, this is from Daniel Defoe, 1727.

                      “For a young, handsome and agreeable Lady, with all the
                      Blushes and Modesty of her Virgin Years about her, and under the best of
                      Education, to marry, go naked to Bed, and receive the Man, as it were, in her
                      Arms, and then say, she hopes she shall have no Children, and she desires to
                      have no Children, this is a Language I cannot understand; it will bear no
                      modest Construction in my Thoughts, and, in a word, is neither more or less
                      than acknowledging that she would have the Pleasure of lying with a Man, but
                      would not have the least Interruption from her usual Company keeping; the
                      Jollitry and Mirth of her younger Years; that she would not abate her
                      Pleasures, she would not be confined at home, or loaded with the Cares of being
                      a Mother.

                      In a word, she would have the Use of the Man, but she would
                      not act the Part of the Woman; she would have him be the Husband, but she would
                      not be a Wife, and, if you bear the blunt Stile that some People put it into,
                      she would only keep a St ___n.”

                      I’m guessing that last word is ‘Stallion’. Then he argues the same thing about men who want to get married, but can’t stand the noise of children. He also suggests that children are the only good thing most women get out of marriage as living with most men is so difficult. She’d have to be mad to give up her liberty for anything else. This was before the married woman’s property act and when all women promised to obey.

                    • Daniel – nothing naive about it. It is an opinion formed by working in a large city centre A&E department, and one shared by the child protection team of that same large city.
                      I’m happy to be corrected of course. And I’ve seen biological parents who have abused their children sexually, physically or neglectfully. But I stand by the observation that it is most commonly men within the household but who are not related to the child who are the (worst) perpetrators.

                    • The Baby P type parents get the headlines, along with the likes of that couple that were responsible for burning all their kids in a house fire.

                      But the social services stick with their policy of ‘good enough’ parenting because in the vast majority of kids do best with their biological parents. If one biological parent gets themselves cleaned up enough to take back responsibilty for the child then social services will wip them away from their nice middle-class two-parent household and try their darndest to make this relationship work. It’s a real myth that biology doesn’t matter in parenting. Blood is thicker than water.

                    • ‘To be honest I rather think that being a biological parent accords too many rights as it is.’

                      Daniel raises a really interesting point that’s not discussed in this debate around marriage/adoption/new families issue. Do children really benefit from being brought up by their biological parents in the first place (an assumption at the heart of traditionalist marriage)? Is biology a credential for good parenting, or should it be based on other things – money, intelligence, stable relationships, mental health, age?

                      These are the criteria for adoption and fostering, but why not for all parenting? So couples who have their children artificially (because they’re gay or infertile) claim that they’re better parents than heterosexuals because their children were planned, cost a lot of money and effort, and so will be loved more than the one that happened by accident after one too many glasses of wine.

                      There are different opinions about the ability of biological parents. So, girls under 16 used to have no right to their biological children in this country. The Australian government has now apologised for years of taking children away from unmarried mothers and giving them up for adoption. Communist states believed that families were not fit to educated their children because they lacked knowledge, and so used schools to undermine religious education at home.

                      Are roles like mother and father simply social constructs that are interchangeable? Caroline Farrow from Catholic Voices wrote a long blog post about why she felt offended and threatened by gay men registering as ‘mothers’. Does carrying your baby for nine months, going through labour and then breast feeding every four hours through the night for the next year not have anything to do with motherhood?

                      It’s another topic that’s not properly discussed because people who bring it up simply get ridiculed with ‘heterosexual parents are all on drugs’.

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