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Posted by on Apr 28, 2014 in Ireland, Secularism | 5 comments

A Response to David Quinn and his Polygamy Red Herring

David Quinn has a blog post on the Iona Institute website where he employs the “if we allow same-sex marriage then why not polygamy” trope, citing an instance where three women claimed to be married to each other.

Now, here is my question to those who support same-sex marriage; if gender is not essential to the nature of marriage then why limit it to two people? Why not allow multi-partner marriages like this if more than two people are willing to commit to one another?

The biggest problem with polygamy is that in reality it almost exclusively exists as polygyny i.e. one man with multiple wives. It is an inherently sexist practice which treats women as mere possessions. However, as the example in the article is three women  Quinn believes this excuse us no longer valid.

A standard objection to multi-partner marriage is that it tends to arise in very patriarchal societies. But a ‘marriage’ between three women overcomes this charge automatically.

In Brazil, a civil partnership involving three people was recognised by a local notary 2012. At least one person in the relationship was reportedly bisexual. Should a person be limited to marrying just one person of the two sexes they desire? It’s hard to see how this kind of relationship is ‘patriarchal’ either.

In addition, if one woman can marry two men, or two other women, or three men can marry one another, then the charge of ‘patriarchy’ loses even more of its force.

Note, however, his examples do not include a female with multiple husbands. Also, one marriage between three women does not overcome the charge of patriarchal society influencing polygamy any more than having one woman in government overcomes the charge of sexism in politics. Even if we allow both men and women to have multiple partners that does not mean the patriarchal composition of our society won’t influence polygamy to the detriment of both men and women. It is therefore necessary to ensure that gender equality is achieved before any thoughts about legalising polygamy can be entertained.

Sociologists argue that the reason we are moving away from polygamy to monogamy is because it reduces major social problems.

In cultures that permit men to take multiple wives, the intra-sexual competition that occurs causes greater levels of crime, violence, poverty and gender inequality than in societies that institutionalize and practice monogamous marriage.

Considered the most comprehensive study of polygamy and the institution of marriage, the study finds significantly higher levels rape, kidnapping, murder, assault, robbery and fraud in polygynous cultures. According to Henrich and his research team, which included Profs. Robert Boyd (UCLA) and Peter Richerson (UC Davis), these crimes are caused primarily by pools of unmarried men, which result when other men take multiple wives.

However, these negative aspects only exist in patriarchal societies and may not apply in a fully egalitarian society. As sexism is still an issue in society it could easily be argued that the problems that present themselves when polygamy is lawful in a patriarchal society are enough to warrant its prohibition.

But lets pretend we live in a fully gender equal society, would polygamy be permissible then? Studies suggest that the answer is no, there are still many negative consequences to polygamy. Due to the fact that polyandry does not exist for it to be studied, all studies regarding polygamy are actually studies about polygyny. However, they are enough to suggest that polygamy is not a good thing.

There is increased conflict in the relationship as co-wives compete for the affection of their mutual husband and it sows a deep-seated angst. Women in polygamous marriages are at a higher risk of low self-esteem and depression. There is also an increase in emotional abuse. Children also suffer in polygamous marriages.

Considerable research [shows] that children of polygamous families experience a higher incidence of marital conflict, family violence, and family disruptions than do children of monogamous families

The same study reveals that children raised in polygamous marriages are more likely to have behavioral and developmental problems.

This is but a brief synopsis of the arguments on why polygamy is and should remain illegal. As is clear, the arguments surrounding the issue of polygamy are exclusive to polygamy and do not have any bearing or relationship on the equal marriage debate.

Next red herring please.

Edit: Just a clarification, I am not arguing for or against polygamy. The purpose of this article is tho show that the arguments for and against polygamy are entirely independent of the equal marriage debate. Polygamy has no more of a relationship to equal marriage than it does man/woman marriage. It should be argued on its own merits divorced from the equal marriage debate.

For rather excellent and thought-provoking defences of polygamy please read the comments made below.

  • Ann

    As a person who is indifferent to the question of same-sex marriage, and one who thinks that no one should prevent people from marrying each other if they choose, I spent considerable time probing people who oppose same-sex marriage to uncover the fundamental basis for their beliefs.

    It is my observation that opponents of same-sex marriage are trying to demonstrate their point by suggesting that polygamy is next, or why not “a man and his dog” or brother-and-sister marriage. Here is my analysis of their actual point which these remarks only serve to blur rather than illuminate.

    I think that what they intend to say is this:
    > Throughout the entire history of our species, the most likely route to personal happiness and social health is a man-woman marriage with the culturally-appropriate number of children, (Some non-marriage conditions must prevail, too — modest prosperity and the absence of life-altering catastrophes, for example.)
    > In terms of “social health,” adults in this relationship are more productive, better citizens, more stable, more likely to be property owners, better taxpayers, less criminal or disorderly, etc.
    > In terms of “personal happiness,” people whose lives were spent in this life pattern are more likely than others to rate “high satisfaction” with their lives at the end of their days.
    > The universal occurrence — in every place at all times — of “man-woman marriage and children” suggests it is biologically founded (one of the few social customs to be universal.)
    > A man-woman marriage is essentially the ONLY vehicle for bringing forth children for the next generation.
    (Now I myself don’t have any idea about how true or not true any of these assertions are.
    I am saying that opponents of same-sex marriage believe these assertions as facts.)

    Society recognizes the extremely high value to individuals and to the group of “man-woman marriage with children.” Therefore, many social forces (tax credits, etc) are bent toward encouraging it, supporting it, promoting it, and so on.

    This wish to support “ideal” families (as they see them) is one reason that birth control was once illegal, or that there are protests when schools carry books titled “Alice has Two Mommies.”

    The opponents of same-sex marriage don’t particularly care if a guy
    shacks up with 3 women, or if two or more homosexuals live together.
    They may care only in principle if siblings live together as spouses, or
    if men are having sex with animals.

    But what they care about is this:
    If society redefines “marriage” as anything other than “one man and one woman,” it is diluting the MEANING of marriage to such an extent that it will eventually mean nothing. At that point, the society will lose its ability to promote the “best” life choices.

    This is what distracts them into saying, “Well, if we do this, then polygamy is next!”
    They mean, “There is one “best” life style, and the government needs to define it and support it.”

    Arguments against this view are futile as long as the argument defends multiple lesbian marriage, or tries to make a case that polygamy should be kept illegal on some other grounds.

    If you wish to defeat this world view, you must argue that the basic premises are incorrect, or that recognition of other kinds of marriage will always be too trivial to matter.

  • Liam

    As a queer person who does not practice monogamy, I would appreciate if you did not try to throw one group oppressed by heteronormativity under the bus in order to save another.

    As a scientist, I would appreciate if you didn’t use observational research that does not control for important covariates such as patriarchal culture. The following is a better explanation of the research you’ve referenced:

    Increased patriarchal control increases the likelihood of polygyny. Increased patriarchal control increases the likelihood of the dependent variables measured, such as depression. Likely there is an interaction effect between polygyny and patriarchal control for these variables. There is no reason to assume an independent effect for polygyny, much less polygamy.

    The kind of research presented here is similar to that groups like Iona use against same sex marriage, referencing research that does not control for things like adoption or foster status of children.

    As an Irish person, hello.

  • Kate Quinn

    Just because the Iona Institute says polygamy is bad, doesn’t mean we have to agree and support their backward worldview. During the abortion debate, the pro-choice crowd, and Labour politicians were often accused of wanting the limited legislation so that they could introduce abortion ‘on demand’ and many people tried to say ‘of course not, that’s not what we’re after.’ Then when several Labour politicians were caught saying the new Protection of Life during Pregnancy Bill was a stepping stone towards more liberal laws, the consersatives had a shit-fit, their conspiracy theory confirmed!

    Whenever they say that we want more liberal abortion laws, I say of course we fucking do!

    When they say marriage equality will lead to polygamy, we should say so what!?

    • kraut2

      Marriage equality is still supporting the two person marriage, and the question of tying it in with other subjects like polygamy is a very smelly red herring.

  • Vivisectus

    I don’t think we can claim to know that polygamy is objectively worse than monogamy and then argue that we should legislate accordingly. This is essentially the same route people take when they try to use (often flawed) studies to argue against gay marriage so they can use the familiar “I am not a homophobe, I am just worried about the children”
    excuse.

    Divorce is also shown in studies increase your children’s statistical likelihood to
    encounter negative outcomes, and yet we recognize a person’s right to end a
    marriage, children or no. We do not, as a rule, legislate against things that
    can potentially increase the chance of negative outcomes on dependents. If we
    did, we would forbid all parents to smoke and drink, to name just some obvious
    examples. However, we feel that this is an invasive and unacceptable hampering
    of someone’s freedom… and for good reason, I think.

    So even if polyamory can be said to be
    statistically less successful than other types of relationships (something of
    which I am far from convinced) I STILL do not see how we can reasonably object
    to legally recognizing polyamorous relationships on those grounds. It seems to
    me that Mr. Quinn is right (for all the wrong reasons) when he says that if we
    stop denying gay people the right to be treated equally, we may (heaven
    forbid!) also have to extend equal civil rights to people in other types of
    relationships that he personally dislikes, in the fullness of time.

    Quinn’s argument is a typical
    thin-end-of-the-wedge style of argument, designed to play on the fact that a
    large amount of people are uncomfortable with the idea of polyamory. It has
    nothing to do with any rational objection to either gay marriage or polyamory, but
    is more like an excuse that allows him to rationalize his opposition against
    the equal treatment of people of different sexual orientations. I am surprised
    to see you apparently taking a page from his book and trying to establish that
    there is something objectively inferior about polyamorous relationships and
    that this justifies not allowing them equal recognition.