We Aren’t Seriously Talking About Legalizing Group Marriage, Are We?

The Atlantic posted an op-ed this morning discussing the numerous strategic pitfalls of turning to a battle to legalize polygyny, or group marriage, now that gay marriage has been legalized. This, following a Politico op-ed about why polygyny should be legalized.

Conor Friedersdorf over at The Atlantic quotes heavily, in turn, from another recent Politico op-ed by from Jordan Rauch (oh my god, it’s an online media ouroboros), who then, in turn, quotes from a 2012 study about polygyny and monogamy conducted by Joseph Henrich at the University of British Columbia, and this is precisely where I lose my patience. I’ll just go ahead and quote the quoted quote in Friedersdorf’s piece, so to be clear, this is me quoting Friedersdorf quoting Rauch quoting Henrich:

Here’s a 2012 study, for example, that discovered “significantly higher levels of rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud in polygynous cultures.” According to the research, “monogamy’s main cultural evolutionary advantage over polygyny is the more egalitarian distribution of women, which reduces male competition and social problems.”

…monogamous marriage “results in significant improvements in child welfare, including lower rates of neglect, abuse, accidental death, homicide and intra-household conflict.” And: “by shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, institutionalized monogamy increases long-term planning, economic productivity, savings and child investment.”

OK, so first, I’m going to point out the fact that this is obviously the very beginning of what may or may not turn into a larger cultural conversation about group marriage. It’s obvious because we have a bunch of writers – all white guys, by the way – who are sort of flailing around, quoting each other, trying to find evidence to back up what sounds an awful lot to me like their gut instincts against (or in DeBoer’s case for) group marriage.

And I have to point out that social research is not always 100 percent dependable, although actually, Henrich’s body of work is very good (I’ve read it extensively, by a weird coincidence). One study on a marginalized group of people doesn’t necessarily constitute a set of undeniable facts.

Second, I’m super-uncomfortable with the language cited about what monogamous marriage does for men and women for the following reasons:

  • Marriage, or any social institution, does not guarantee an effect on its participants. The difference between language like “institutionalized monogamy increases” rather than “institutionalized monogamy tends to increase” is a difference I wish Henrich had paid closer attention to, now that his study is being used to prop up a status quo.
  • Speaking of that language, it’s worth noting that that exact same logic – that marriage confers certain character benefits on its participants – has been used to demonize single mothers for a long time.
  • Furthermore, that language was used to demonize gays before the fight for same-sex marriage began in earnest – that people who lived outside the traditional bounds of heterosexual, monogamous marriage were morally corrupt and tended toward crime, and, ergo, gays were a blot on the moral purity of our nation, etc.
  • Lastly, that thing about marriage shifting male priorities from wife-seeking to paternal investment says a lot about our still-ingrained ideal of marriage: That it should have specifically to do with parenthood. That argument hurt the fight for same-sex marriage for a long. Long. LONG. Time. The fact that same-sex marriage advocates like Rauch and Friedersdorf are willing to quote that argument in order to cast doubt upon polygyny is, to me, totally Bizarro World.

Which is not to say that I support fighting for polygyny right now. I agree with Friedersdorf that it would be strategically stupid for the progressive community to play precisely into the slippery-slope narrative conservatives have been presenting for years about same-sex marriage – that once gays could marry, polygamy would be legalized, and then we’ll all be marrying our dogs, etcetera.

But, moreover, were gay rights advocates and allies to start fighting in earnest for the right to marry in groups, it would just be terrifically ignorant. I’m not sure why we’ve even started treating the argument seriously, when the trans* community – that last part of “LGBT,” after all – suffers the following sorts of violence, according to the Office for Victims of Crime:

  • 12 percent of trans* kids in K-12 settings are sexually assaulted by peers or educational staff
  • 13 percent of Black trans* individuals are sexually assaulted in the workplace
  • 22 percent of homeless trans* individuals are assaulted in shelters
  • In 2009, 50 percent of the people who died in hate crimes based on LGBT status and trans women, assault and genital mutilation being a common occurrence before the murder; many of the other half of those hate crimes were committed against gender-nonconforming men
  • 11 percent of all hate crimes, for any marginalized status, were committed against trans women

Which is only a tiny snapshot of the bigger picture of violence against trans* individuals. And none of that even approaches the intersection of violence against LGBT people of color.

It has to be possible to respect polygamous/polyamorous relationships and understand that in terms of satisfying a basic right to physical safety and a more complex right to community belonging, the legal battle for protection of polygynous marriage is sort of small potatoes right now in comparison to the fight to legally validate transgender identity, and the fight to stop institutionalized and other violence against people of color. And while the Internet is a big, big place and there’s room for all discussions, I just have to side-eye how seriously we’re appearing to take this polygyny conversation in this particular cultural moment.

[The Atlantic]

[Politico (1), (2)]


[Office for Victims of Crime]

[The Advocate]

[Image via Shutterstock]
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