Will polyamory follow same-sex marriage?

Michael Cook
7 Aug 2013
Reproduced with Permission

When the Supreme Court struck down section 3 in the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) in US v Windsor in June, same-sex marriage was not the only beneficiary. The decision seems to have given fresh impetus to polyamory as well.

This is not news that "marriage equality" fans welcome. They look upon legalised polyamory as a dangerous foe because it confuses the message of their own campaign. "Marriage should be extended to people who can't get married, not those unable to marry six people," says Jonathan Rauch, author of Gay Marriage: Why It is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America.

However, Anita Wagner Illig, a long-time polyamory spokeswoman, told Newsweek that the DOMA decision had been a great help: "A favorable outcome for marriage equality is a favorable outcome for multi-partner marriage, because the opposition cannot argue lack of precedent for legalizing marriage for other forms of non-traditional relationships."

The Court has ruled that it is unconstitutional to interpret "spouse" and "marriage" exclusively as terms for a relationship between a man and a woman. For polygamists and polyamorists the logical question is, how can it be acceptable to discriminate on the basis of the number of spouses?

Polyamory comes in all shapes and sizes. It is typically a ménage à trois, a woman living with two men, but it might be two couples living together -- or just about anything else. But its supporters insist that it is not the same as polygamy. This is normally patriarchal and religious. Polyamorous relationships are often centred on women and are resolutely secular.

Polyamorists claim that there are 500,000 families openly living in polyamorous relationships in the United States. A recent poll by Loving More magazine found that nearly two-thirds of them would seek legal recognition if they could. More than 90 percent thought that their relationships should have the same rights, privileges and responsibilities as two-party marriages. Politically active polyamorists complain that they are discriminated against in housing, employment and child custody.

"It would be nice… to have households where our spouses are equal under the law, and moving forward in terms of pensions, and inheritances and property division," says Zoe Duff, the head of the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association.

At the moment, however, multiple relationships are about as popular as homosexual relationships were 20 years ago. They stink. According to a recent Gallup poll, 59 percent of Americans believe that homosexuality is morally acceptable, but only 14 percent approve of polygamy, and only 6 percent of adultery. It would be inconceivable for a politician in an openly polyamorous relationship to be elected.

But 20 years from now, will Americans be more accepting?

The chances of this are good. Polyamorists have learned from decades of campaigning for same-sex marriage. Strategies road-tested by gay activists are now being deployed by polyamorists.

Getting positive spin in the media. Media coverage is provocative but positive. Showtime, a cable TV network owned by CBS, has created a reality series about a cast of characters navigating multiple relationships in southern California, "Polyamory: Married and Dating". Its second season begins on August 15. And in the wake of the DOMA decision, magazines like the Washingtonian, Slate and Salon have run features on the normality of polyamory. They make it sound challenging, but rewarding. As one woman put it in Salon:

"Just like any relationship: [we need] communication, honesty, trust and respect. The ability to compromise comes in handy. But for the most part, we celebrate one another's individuality, and we never try to stifle or control one another. Our life is comfortable and peaceful…

"When my daughter talks about same-sex marriage or polyamorous relationships, she always looks perplexed and says, "I don't understand why anyone is angry about people being in love and not hurting anyone." And I long for a world where everyone is able to see it so simply."

Born that way. Homo sapiens is not naturally monogamous, according to polyamory advocates. Fidelity is all but impossible in contemporary society. Writer Meghan Laslocky argued on CNN recently that only 3 to 5 percent of all mammal species are monogamous. A closer examination of avian romances shows that monogamous species like lovebirds and penguins engage in extramarital affairs. Scientists claimed to have discovered an "infidelity gene". "Whether a person succeeds at being sexually monogamous depends as much on biology as environment," says Laslocky.

There seems to be a growing sense that a liking for multiple relationships is not a lifestyle choice, but is genetically determined. This was one of the strongest arguments for redefining marriage to suit homosexuals. If they cannot help their orientation, surely it must be discriminatory to deny them the right to marry. The same argument works for polyamorists.

An ethical choice. The polyamorist way of life is being described as one of wholesome, self-sacrificing love. Most polyamorists struggle not to become jealous when a partner forms a new romantic relationship. But this exclusivity is regarded as selfish and struggling against it is regarded as proof that polyamory is far more than mere promiscuity. It has an elevated ethical vision, theorists argue, which encompasses "five main principles: self-knowledge, radical honesty, consent, self- possession, and privileging love and sex over other emotions and activities such as jealousy." If same-sex marriage becomes legal, it is easy to imagine how seductive this rhetoric might become.

Forging a legal case. Just as the case for same-sex marriage is based on rejection of discriminatory attitudes, polyamorist legal scholars, relying on an enormous corpus of feminist and gay scholarship, argue that statutes should be amended to encompass an expanded range of sexual preferences. Ann E. Tweedy, of Hamline University School of Law, has argued in the University of Cincinatti Law Review that polyamory is a kind of sexual orientation:

"Because polyamory appears to be at least moderately embedded as an identity, because polyamorists face considerable discrimination, and because non-monogamy is an organizing principle of inequality in American culture, anti-discrimination protections for polyamorists are warranted. Moreover, polyamory shares some of the important attributes of sexual orientation as traditionally understood, so it makes conceptual sense for polyamory to be viewed as part of sexual orientation."

Tweedy also points out that polyamorists and their children are often bullied, stigmatised, and verbally abused because of their lifestyle. Legal recognition of their relationships would help to change this.

Children are optional. Children are almost never mentioned in the literature about polyamory. It is a lifestyle which is devoted to romance, comfort and sexual satisfaction. The children who appear fleetingly in media reports seem to be the offspring of first marriages. Arguments in support of polyamory only touch upon adult satisfaction, not the creation of a safe and nurturing environment for children. Lawyers, therefore, can plausibly argue that no one will be harmed by legal recognition, especially because polyamorous relationships seem to be flourishing among prosperous professionals who can afford the trappings of a happy childhood.

So are we on a slippery slope to legally recognised polyamory? It all depends upon the success of campaigns for same-sex marriage. Many people in polyamorous arrangements, like many, if not most, homosexual couples, are not in favour of polyamorous marriage. They feel that they might be too restrictive. But for those who crave social recognition and respect, marriage will become a political necessity. As one poly blogger put it,

"If you accept the framing of civil rights and social acceptance as a slippery slope down, you've lost the debate before you open your mouth. So no wonder you can't make sense. Slipping on a slope is a painful accident that leads downward. Instead, reframe it as a stairway up. Each step is a deliberate, effortful, carefully chosen advance toward a more humane, just, enlightened world."