Adam Lee has a post on polygamy and polyamory that I largely agree with, saying that adults should be allowed to do as they please with regards to their personal relationships, but marriage as a legal institution should be a one-legally-recognized-partner-per-person deal, largely due to practical difficulties with institutionally-supported polygamy. But in the middle of it all there’s a disappointingly illogical, even bigoted, swipe at polyamory:
the libertarian in me rebels against the idea that the state has any business butting into people’s private relationships. Mutually consenting adults should be able to enter into any kind of arrangement they please. I have to admit that I find considerable justice in this argument. If three people rather than two want to share household responsibilities, by what right can we deny them that? A larger family structure might even, arguably, be superior to pair marriages in terms of sharing childcare duties and other responsibilities, and more resilient against tragedies like the death of one partner.
On the other hand, these lofty principles, so clear and simple-seeming in the abstract, inevitably get snarled in the complications of the real world. And here’s one whopping big complication that atheists and freethinkers should be especially sensitive to: in the real world, one of the most common manifestations of plural partnerships is in religious cults that use polygamy as a way to keep women subjugated.
There’s a little more to the part of the post I want to talk about, but let’s stop there for a moment. Is it really true that religious cults are one of the most common manifestations of plural partnerships? I’ve never actually met anyone who was in a plural partnership because they were forced into it by a religious cult, though I have met people who were poly because that’s what they wanted. Certainly my experience may not be representative since I spent the last four years of my life living in uber-liberal Madison, WI rather than rural Utah, but at any rate Adam’s claim isn’t obvious. Well, if your list of “manifestations” of plural partnerships consists entirely of “religious cults” and “less crazy forms than religious cults,” I suppose “religious cults” could make the top two.
Also, while in those cults it may be that polygamy and subjugation of women are closely intertwined, saying that polygamy is used as a means for the subjugation of women implies the rather silly assumption that there are lots of people out there who want to subjugate women as an end unto itself. The should-be-obvious truth is that cult leaders, like many powerful men throughout history, have often wanted larged harems of women, and women generally only join large harems when forced to–subjugation of women is a means to the end of polygamy, not the other way around.
Now the rest…
Escapees like Carolyn Jessop and Elissa Wall have written grippingly of their virtual imprisonment in isolated sects like the FLDS (Fundamentalist Church of Latter-Day Saints – an extremist offshoot of the Mormons), which force girls into harem-like polygamous marriages with older males whom they’re expected to obey absolutely. (See also this article, or my older posts on Warren Jeffs.)
This is an evil that no society should tolerate – but if we legally permit polyamory, how can we prevent it? Better enforcement of age-of-consent laws would help, but even so, this would not prevent women who feel they have no place else to turn from being coerced into these relationships of subjugation.
By the end of this section, we’ve been given a vague sense that all plural partnerships suffer guilt-by-association with the FLDS, but no coherent position on the issue. What, for example, does “legally permit polyamory” mean here? It’s ordinary meaning would be “not fine or imprison people for practicing polyamory,” and if that’s what Adam means, then he’s seriously considering fining or imprisoning people for practicing polyamory. That he is considering that is also suggested by the structure of the post: “the libertarian in me rebels against the idea that the state has any business butting into people’s private relationships… on the other hand…”
Now, Adam doesn’t say any of this out right, he didn’t mean to say “permit” but rather “legally support,” and the other meaning got in there by accident. But it sounds an awful lot like he wanted to hint at outlawing private polyamory even though he couldn’t bring himself to say it outright, which is worrisome.
Whatever “permit polyamory” means, the connection with the FLDS is a non-sequitur. Better enforcement of age-of-consent laws is far from the only thing that can be done. Laws protecting people of all ages violence and coercion would also obviously help. In contrast, our legal policy towards plural relationships matters little: the FLDS did what it did in spite of the fact that polygamy is not legally supported in the U.S., and jailing people for consensual polyamory wouldn’t have affected the FLDS case. Yes, doing out best to enforce existing laws won’t prevent every abuse, but neither can we hope to prevent every act of domestic violence in monogamous relationships or prevent every case of a woman staying in bad (monogamous) relationships because she feels she has nowhere else to turn to. Certainly we wouldn’t try to prevent the abuses that occur in monogamous relationships by abandoning marriage as an institution (or worse, outlawing sex altogether!)
Generally I like Adam. Among other things he wrote a very nice review of my book. Liking him makes me reluctant to call what he wrote bigoted, and in some ways what he wrote is pretty mild as it doesn’t amount to a strong anti-poly position. But the lack of a strong position is actually what bothers me most–rather than take a reasoned if controversial position, he takes an aproach of “polyamory makes me uncomfortable, so I’m going to tar it with a vague guilt-by association.” And that’s something any enlightened writer should be embarassed to do.