Ménage à cinq

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Rufus F.

Rufus is an American curmudgeon in Canada. He has a PhD in History, sings in a garage rock band, and does a bunch of other stuff.

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41 Responses

  1. Avatar Brett says:

    I think polygamy throws a couple of kinks into the “legal” side of marriage that same-sex marriage doesn’t. If the husband, for example, ends up in the hospital, do all the wives have the right to sign off on medical treatment, or only the one (s) the husband specifies?Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @Brett, That’s a good question. I wonder how that’s handled in countries where polygamy is more common. There might be a general rule of thumb, or it could be taken on a case by case basis. It would definitely take some figuring out though.Report

  2. Avatar M.Z. says:

    Arguments against polygamy have generally focused on how they are deleterious to relations between citizens, tending to strengthen clans and conflicts therein.

    I tend to find more interesting the arguments that polygamy is less yucky than gay marriage, given as you stated above the greater tolerance historically for the former over the latter.Report

    • Avatar Rufus says:

      @M.Z., It’s worth considering whether polygamists are more tolerant or less tolerant towards gay marriage. I’d suspect the latter, given the religious justifications for polygamy. But one would wonder if the social opprobrium they’d receive in most western countries wouldn’t make them, at least, a bit sympathetic towards gay couples who want to tie the knot.Report

  3. Avatar Andrew says:

    My problem with polygamy is an economic one. American society is set up to provide all sorts of benefits to a single spouse; providing them to multiple spouses would be a mess. My employer provides health insurance to an employee’s spouse- would they have to provide insurance to two or more spouses? What about Social Security benefits? Et cetera: it gets expensive, quickly. Moreover, there’s a corresponding issue of equality; as things stand, single people subsidize the married. Legalized polygamy would punish singletons further.Report

    • Avatar Rufus says:

      @Andrew, Okay, and that’s a big concern in the US, for sure. The French wouldn’t have the same issue, at least with health care. But, I get the feeling this law is very important to the French for reasons of the cultural patrimony, which is often a heated issue in France.Report

  4. Avatar Jaybird says:

    There are cultural differences galore so that while something may, prima facie, be similar to something else, the undercurrent makes it something *VERY* different indeed.

    Let’s look at abortion.

    In America, abortion is something that women have the right to choose. If a woman decides that she wants to finish college, or start a career, or maintain her position as a champion sportswoman, she can choose an abortion and not be shackled with a child years before she wants one for real. Later in life, she can choose to have a real baby in the context of having a real family.

    In Asia, most of the abortions are because the fetus is a girl and the parents want a boy. And it’s not a 52/48 most. It’s, like, an 80/20 most… and assuming that half of the abortions that are not sex selection are split 50/50 gender-wise, we can do a back of the envelope and guess that 90% of the abortions are of women.

    On the surface, it looks similar, right? Underneath, there are cultural differences that belie spectacular differences.

    Polygamy. In our culture, we tend to think of our friends in Seattle who have finally found balance with their polyfidelitous “square”. He lives with her sometimes while she lives with him, then they change partners when he has to go up for grad school for a while… everybody’s more or less healthy and more or less normal. Hell. Why *NOT* allow polygamous marriage?

    Well, then we go to Utah and see that polygamous marriage there is reminiscent of polygamous marriage in Saudi Arabia. Women are second-class citizens and wives are property. People in power can reassign wives from underperforming husbands to overperforming ones. The communities are insular, there is a lot of cousin marriage, and, if “brainwashing” isn’t the best description of the education system there, it’s, at worst, a fair one… and that’s what’s going on in our country without getting into some of the issues to be found in, for example, Arab Countries where men are allowed polygamy.

    On the surface, it seems similar enough. Under the surface, there are some creepy things swimming.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @Jaybird, Oh yeah, I’m sure I’d not want to look too deeply into the hearts of men. I’m just not sure that leads me to believing the law should err on the side of caution when it comes to prohibitions. I used to have a coworker from Lebanon whose marriage struck me as horrid- he saw his wife on a street corner and rushed off to meet her father and barter for her, then got to know her, after having her sent to the US to live in his apartment, which he generally forbade her to leave. Of course, legally, it was all on the up and up. Which, I suppose, goes back to the question that’s been raised here lately, about whether the law sanctions abuses or just fails to prevent them.Report

    • Avatar Gorgias says:

      @Jaybird,

      Unfortunately, as a poly person myself, I find that far and away most people envision Saudi Arabia when I tell them I date multiple people. Polyfidelitous marriages just aren’t on most people’s radar, even in progressive parts of the country.

      I think the argument against polygamous marriage is that in a certain context it tends to exacerbate patriarchy and magnify the power differentials between the sexes. Not (as much) a problem for people who live in places where the power between the sexes looks a lot more just than what it once did, but I can appreciate the notion that the institution does more harm than good.

      Ultimately, it’s a balancing act, and I don’t know what the right policy is.Report

  5. Avatar North says:

    Ah the French. I’ll stop there before my Grandmothers British Canadian influence makes me say something ungentlemanly. On to Polygamy!

    Rufus, polygamy comes up a lot in gay discussions so I’ll try and share some of what I’ve run across and come up with on it with you.

    To start, and importantly, I think you’re using the wrong word. Polygamy is a non-starter in a modern country because it applies different rules to men and women. To wit; polygamous societies allow multiple wives and only single husbands. A polyandrous society would similarly allow multiple husbands but only one wife. Either of those systems would be pretty much non-starters as I said but if you replace the term with polyamoury which would allow multiple husbands or/and multiple wives then this issue is removed.

    Non-knuckle dragging objections to polyamoury come in pretty much two colors, practical and principled.

    The practical objections have been loosely described by some of our esteemed commenteriate above. Essentially the entire body of law around legal civil marriage in western countries is built on a binary foundation. As a practical matter in order to implement a polyamourous system you’d have to rebuild the whole system from the ground up. In matters of taxation, permits, rights, inheritance, custody, property, parentage etc the system currently has no way of handling three(plus)somes.
    Add into this mix the fact that no advanced legal system has been in place anywhere to handle a polyamorous society. There have been a raft of primitive troglodyte like polygamous societies but you can be sure that few would be interested in importing their retrograde systems of female oppression into the elegant edifice of western law. So we’d pretty much have to write a system of polyamourous marriage from scratch. It boils down to “Implementing polyamoury would be messy and complicated”.

    On the principle side of things the objections to polyamour are kindof spongy. Objections to polygamy or polyandry on principle are pretty air tight but when you merge the two together into polyamoury most of those principled objections are rendered moot so I won’t go into them. There’re only a couple of principled objections to polyamoury that I’ve seen hold water.

    Religion; if religion is your thing there aren’t really any of the big organized ones they endorse polyamoury. While many of the big old religions are all about polygamy they are pretty up front in forbidding polyamoury. Since I’m pretty a-religious this one doesn’t have much pull with me.

    A lot of people argue that an inclination to polyamoury isn’t fundamental so to speak. That it’s a kink or fetish more than a necessary drive in human beings. This stems partially from the Kinsey idea of heterosexual or homosexual inclinations being on a spectrum and that while you can flex a bit away from your ideal there are points on the spectrum that would give you no happiness. Obviously while you could be at the midway on the spectrum where you would be able to enjoy relations with either men or women nothing in the scale would suggest that a person could –only- be happy with multiple partners. Of course sexuality is a murky field to say the least so this is a pretty spongy point.

    Instability is pretty much the only principle objections I’ve heard that seems to get any traction. While it’s hard to scientifically measure what indications there are (and intuitive sense agrees) that polyamourous relationships are inherently volatile. There is a body of writing pretty much encompassing the entire written history of humanity discussing in detail how damned hard it is to get two individuals to align their interests and form a unified whole. The idea that three or more individuals can pull it off as easily seems preposterous.

    So is there a point in encouraging polyamourous relationships via official sanction via civil plural marriage? Opponents of course say no. I personally say maybe but polyamourous couples probably will need to make their case. Certainly any attempts to hitch plural marriage to other reforms to marriage is ludicrous due to the great practical impact plural marriage would have to the system.Report

    • Avatar Jaybird says:

      @North, most of my experiences with polyamory (observed, never participated) date to my 20’s. My god, the drama. Drama, drama, drama.

      It’s like you had all of these people who were saying “oh, I know that *I* can have multiple partners, but I’m hurt that *YOU* would want to!”

      And everybody gets into screaming fights and everybody is trying to get everybody else to break up and there’s all of this jockeying to become primary and my god.

      Well, most of the folks from that era have settled down into polyfidelitous triads or quads. The ones who haven’t have gone native and are now in, gasp, monogamous relationships.

      My opposition to polyamory is generally of the form “this won’t end well” because, generally, it doesn’t. Polyamory, in practice, means selfishness rather than having a heart big enough for more than one person.

      (Note: I’m sure that the poly folks reading this are completely different and totally integrated and, as such, should not feel accused by anything I’ve said above because I am totally not talking about them.)Report

      • Avatar North says:

        @Jaybird, Well you have far more experience than I Jay. I’m married to the first guy I dated. But yeah, that certainly sounds in keeping with what I’ve heard and read.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @North, I’m not terribly versed in the subject, but my understanding of the terminology is that “polygyny” is one man with multiple wives, “polyandry” is one woman with multiple husbands, and “polygamy” is the catch-all phrase for either of the above. So, that’s why I went with polygamy. But, if polyamoury is a better term, we can use that.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        @Rufus F., I kinda think that polygamy is the best distinction… because (and now I give a speech from my 20’s) polyamory means “multiple *LOVES*”.

        If we’re talking about the gummint, they can only sanction multiple marriage. Love ain’t got nothin’ to do with it.

        The fact that, in practice, polygamy pretty effectively means polygyny belies a fairly important cultural dynamic.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        @Rufus F.,
        That could be Rufus, my own education on the subject came from the interwebs so perhaps I have my terminology wires crossed.Report

    • Avatar Simon K says:

      @North, Oh dear Polyamory. You’re right of course that there’s no way polygamy or polyandry would work in Western law. It would have to be full-on plural marriage.

      But dear oh dear. All the poly people I know are crazy. The endless rules and negotiations and shouting would drive anyone crazy. There’s just no way its worth it.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        @Simon K, Honestly Simon, my own few polyamorous friends are as crazy as cuttlefish but I couldn’t throw that tidbit in and still sound fair minded.Report

        • Avatar Rufus F. says:

          @North, Yeah, it probably doesn’t help that few of us know any nice elderly threesomes. But I do know a few couples who have made relationships work in which there was a strict status distinction between the primary partner/spouse and the secondary partner/lover. I don’t know if I’d want to be anyone’s boyfriend on the side, but as long as the secondary doesn’t try to become the primary… well, I’ve known people who’ve made it work for years. And, incidentally, this isn’t a lot different than many respectable French marriages I’ve known of!Report

  6. Avatar Will says:

    Rufus, the quality of your Franglais is superbe.Report

  7. Avatar Simon K says:

    This is one of very few issues where I’m a straight-up cultural conservative. There’s no way any kind of plural marriage would work in any Western cultural context – how does divorce work? what are the rules over custody? how are finances organized? what about medical decision making? who sits at the end of the table at dinner? who rides shotgun? The questions are endless.

    I know people make this argument about gay marriage too, but it seems whatever features of marriage and society may ever have made it unsuitable for homosexuals no longer exist. The married (and otherwise LTR) gay couples I know are basically indistinguishable from the straight couples – they have basically the same stuff (kids, flatware) and much the same legal rights (here – and where there are anomalies they seem straightforwardly unjust). Moving to full marriage equality seems like a minor, sensible fix, not a wild social experiment, That’s not true for the poly folks – their relationships are endlessly complicated, rule-laden and drama-filled and impossible for outsiders to understand. Thats not a good reason for them not to have those relationships – they’re welcome – but it is a good reason not extend them full legal recognition unless some norms for poly families start to emerge.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @Simon K, “Moving to full marriage equality seems like a minor, sensible fix, not a wild social experiment.” I think that’s the key to why it seems like an inevitability to me.

      It’s not inconceivable that non-monogamy could eventually go the same way, but you’re right that it’d be a lot harder to get there and a lot farther to go.Report

      • Avatar Simon K says:

        @Rufus F., Definitely not inconceivable for plural marriage to go the same way. But its taken decades of social change in the straight world, and activism by the gay community, to get us to the point where the genders of the people getting married seems like a detail that could easily be accommodated. To get it to the same point with the number of people getting married seems like it will take a lot more work.Report

    • Avatar Dan Miller says:

      @Simon K, “how does divorce work? what are the rules over custody? how are finances organized? what about medical decision making? ”

      There would definitely be a lot of work to do in terms of social arrangements; on the other hand, the US has more lawyers per capita than any society in the history of humankind. If there’s one group of people that can overcome this hurdle, it’s us.Report

      • Avatar Simon K says:

        @Dan Miller, No better argument for bottom-up social change and leaving legislation until the social norms have been established has ever been made.Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        @Dan Miller, Yeah, it could be great news for the lawyers. Also, we have a therapist friend (my wife’s a therapist, so we have lots of therapist friends) who specializes with non-monogamous couples and apparently does quite well.Report

    • Avatar T. Greer says:

      But how can those norms emerge if the canon of Western law continues to outlaw polygamy in its entirety?

      I am not sure I buy any of the arguments folks have put up. They seem to fall into one of two groups: 1) I don’t like polygamy because it never works out right and 2) polygamy would screw our current system over. I find neither of these to be very compelling. #1 is subjective, and the same logic is easily rejected when applied to other circumstances (e.g. we should outlaw consensual teen sex because it never seems to turn right). The second one has a bit more validity, but ultimately I think it suffers from a very similar problem. There have been other times in the history of man where it was argued that the current structure could not accommodate the demands of justice or equality (e.g. circa 1860 many folks were saying, “Our current system of governance cannot handle a massive influx of freed slaves and jobless plantation owners”), and these arguments are rarely judged kindly by posterity.

      In such cases it strikes me as rather wrong headed to say, “Our current system cannot handle this, forget it and throw it at the bottom of the pile.” If the demands of justice truly call for certain social changes, then our discussion should be focused not on whether the system can handle these changes, but on how we can reform the system so that it will be able to handle the changes we agree must come.

      So in the end the matter down to this: does justice demand that we allow polygamous marriage? If justice demands that homosexual unions be given legal weight of those of the heterosexual type, then I can see no sensible objection to polygamous unions being afforded the same privilege.Report

      • Avatar Andrew says:

        @T. Greer, those are reasonable objections. Though the key question is, *does* justice demand that we allow polygamy? What’s the principle on which it hangs? With gay marriage, as with other sorts of civil rights, the answer is simple: equality. What’s the answer in the case of polygamy?Report

      • Avatar Rufus F. says:

        @T. Greer, I don’t know if I look at it solely as a matter of justice, but I basically agree with you on this. What got me thinking on the topic was an article I read a while back written by an anti-gay marriage activist. About halfway through, it dawned on me that the guy simply could not conceive that there is be a romantic aspect to gay relationships. For him, it was basically akin to straights who choose to engage in homosexual sodomy for kicks, but there couldn’t be any romantic aspect there, and so gays wanting to get married really must be about defying the larger society or offending Christians. Now the rest of us I think understand that gays and straights tend to form relationships in the same way. Most people just want someone to talk with in bed before falling asleep. As that knowledge has spread, that gays and straights love each other the same way, much of the justification for only allowing straights the right to marry has evaporated. Ultimately, western civilization adopted what’s called the love marriage some time ago and, if gays love too, as they do, there’s no real reason to deny them the privileges of married people. Especially since they’ve been given to Brittney Spears.

        It seems conceivable to me that some people can and do fall in love with more than one person at once, especially since there are stacks of books and movies about this, and I’ve seen it happen several times. It does seem like it would be exceedingly hard to maintain, but of course, the same is true, at times, of any marriage. So, if someone can do it, I’m not convinced that the fact that I probably couldn’t hack it is much of an argument against their relationship.

        Incidentally, I also liked your comment on Confucius, which I’d like to excerpt when I get to him, if that’s okay.Report

        • Avatar Andrew says:

          @Rufus F., I’ve seen people love more than one person at a time. But marriage as a legal institution isn’t about love; it’s about rights and responsibilities. As a society, we don’t ask anybody whether you’re in love before they get married. So as a matter of law or policy, I don’t see love as relevant to the question of whether polygamy should be allowed.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            @Andrew, I get that the law is neutral on love, but society never asks this? What was the justification for changing the definition of marriage to include interracial couples and now same sex couples if love wasn’t part of the discussion? I can see rights and responsibilities figuring in as well, but it’s hard to imagine that nobody asked or told whether they were in love in the process of rallying for new social norms.Report

      • Avatar North says:

        @T. Greer, T. Greer, if Polygamists wish to have civil support for their relationships I certainly don’t begrudge them asking for it and making their case. But polygamy is so fundamentally different from gay marriage that the idea that they could just hitch their cart to the back of the SSM train and hitch a ride seems ludicrous to me.

        Plural couples need, I think, to start talking about how actual workable plural relationships work. They need to show society what they’re like. Gay couples have been in the business of familiarizing straights with gay partners for decades now and are only really just beginning to get real traction.Report

        • Avatar Jaybird says:

          @North, I’m thinking about anything that might be close to being categorized as the mainstreaming of polyamory/polygamy and I’m coming up with Big Love.

          Is there anything else out there?

          Bob, and Carol, and Ted, and Alice, I’ve had explained to me, is not about polyamory and it’s just a sign of my closed-mindedness that I might think that it had anything to do with it.

          Saint Elmo’s Fire?

          (You’d think that plural marriage/polyamory would make for a fine sitcom. “That’s My Mohammed” (not *THE* Mohammed, just *A* Mohammed) telling the wacky stories of domestic life in a domestic household with a fairly rich guy and his four wives seems like comedy gold. A poly sitcom called “Hi honey, I’m home!” or whatever could also provide fertile ground. They could do a compare/contrast between the ethical poly guy and the serial monogamists who are constantly hoist upon their own petard. It writes itself!)Report

          • Avatar North says:

            @Jaybird, Big Love is all I got Jay though I haven’t watched it myself so I don’t know if polygamists would be pleased with its portrayal of their relationships.

            But over all, no, I haven’t myself seen, heard or read of much of a mainstreaming of polygamy. This could easily be observer bias, I have always thought of polygamy as an institution that had its time in history and is receding behind us rather than coming up before us.

            As for the sitcom idea, I dunno. The conservatives would hate it as a sign of declining moral fabric of America today and also as sympathetic Muslim coverage. Liberals would hate it as a sign of a chauvinist man treating women like interchangeable parts on a lawnmower. Plus, networks are kindof controversy shy.Report

          • Avatar Rufus F. says:

            @Jaybird, Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice is profoundly disappointing, given the name and title. It’s about some nice suburban couples who might try swapping, but get cold feet at the end and walk off glumly, realizing that the sexual revolution has passed them by. You have to wonder if anyone asked for their ticket price back.Report

      • Avatar Simon K says:

        @T. Greer, I don’t know that we do outlaw polygamy, do we? Marriage is a legal state that you can choose to enter into. The law only allows 2 people to enter into that state, not 3, or 4, or 1 for that matter. Nothing (in the US) prevents units of 3 people or however many choosing to live together and share finances, childcare, flatware, etc – its just that we don’t formally recognise these relationships as forming a legal unit.

        Now personally I’m not sure I see the point in marriage as a legally sanctioned state. In my ideal legal regime it would be a private contract and at that point you can write it how you like – I don’t care. But since we are in a world where marriage is a quite strictly defined legal state and not a private contract it seems very difficult to extend it to groups of more than 2. Again, though, this doesn’t really prevent such groups from doing what they like and other individuals choosing or not choosing to recognise those relationships – it just doesn’t offer them legal recognition.

        Again I think the contrast with gay marriage is informative – its obvious how to extend the current institution of legal marriage to gay couples. Its not obvious how to extend it to poly families. If a consistent form of private contract, whether formal or informal, grew up in the poly world and because de-facto equivalent to marriage (as gay relationships have done) I’d be in favour of granting it de jure recognition as equivalent.Report

  8. Avatar John David Galt says:

    The most common argument I hear consists of lumping all (actual or wanna-be) polygamists in with that cult in Texas that forced underage girls into “marriages”. Which is silly. As with drugs and other topics now overregulated by government, it’s only the fact that the law doesn’t accept polygamy that forces it underground and enables these abuses of it to occur.

    I’ve lived in northern California all my life, and know numerous people who’ve “married” same-sex partners and/or multiple partners, often with religious ceremonies (and well before 2008). The law doesn’t bother those folks here, and they aren’t any worse-behaved than their neighbors.

    I say the best cure for prejudice is to laugh at it, and at those who harbor it.Report

  9. Avatar ScottinAL says:

    I think it is interesting that this conversation has focused almost entirely on polyamory rather than traditional polygamy and the (typically religious) patriarchy upon which it is built. I think traditional polygamy is pretty evil and is deleterious to society and the rights of women. It would be a travesty if we ended up allowing the government to legally sanction poly relationships (using the free and kinky polyamorous ones as our example) and then end up enfranchising traditional patriarchal polygamy as a result. Traditional , religious, patriarchal polygamy is BAD and we shouldn’t allow it. Just my .02.Report

    • Avatar Rufus F. says:

      @ScottinAL, I guess I drifted away from religious polygamy because I know little about it. The scriptural examples seem, to me, to be related to groups trying to establish themselves and essentially sanctioning lots of pregnancies. Other than that need to be fruitful and multiply, I’m not sure what the religious traditions are. It’s been suggested elsewhere that my “lack of a clue” should prevent me from speculating, but the point of the post was to learn more and start a discussion. So, out of curiosity, what are the evils traditionally attached to religious polygamy? I know many polygamists seem to get engaged to very young girls, but is that typical?Report

      • Avatar ScottinAL says:

        @Rufus F.,
        Rufus I am not aware of a single instance of religiously motivated polygamy that doesn’t have patriarchy at its foundation. This means that wives and daughters end up essentially as property in the patriarchal universe. They have no rights, no freedom, no autonomy. There are many examples of this, especially in many Muslim countries cultures (which is where this conversation started isn’t it?) In fact all the Abrahamic religions have had groups or sects in their history that practiced a patriarchal-based polygamy (even Christianity if you include the Mormon church). And its nearly universally true that women were oppressed (often just considered the property of the men over them) in those instances.Report