Maybe the Slippery Slope is a Good Thing? Slate Has An Interesting Call For Legalizing Polygamy

Wedding Ring and Anniversary Gift
The slippery slope rebuttal can be pretty annoying depending on how dumb the person using the argument wants to be.  For example, many people say all the surveillance cameras we have everywhere are a slippery slope towards totalitarian governments.  While I think we still have a few tricks up our sleeves before we have to be worried, I give the argument some credibility because in the past one of the greatest tools totalitarian governments had at their hands was to create a snitch society.  When your neighbors (or even your kids) are going to potentially rat you out to the government, it means you really have to watch what they catch you doing.  Even something that is innocent (as far as the government’s rules) can be dangerous if your neighbor misinterprets what you’re doing.  So if you don’t have to worry about neighbors, but have video everywhere – all the worse!

A slippery slope argument I have less tolerance for is the one that says that gay marriage leads to an erosion of all marriage.  What if someone wants to marry an animal or a child or have polygamy? They say.  Which, of course, is ridiculous because two able-minded adults are entitled to do as they wish (as long as it doesn’t lead to actual harm to anyone).  I can’t see how two men or two women getting married hurts my marriage.  I still love the female form and anatomy.  Children and animals, on the other hand, are not legally afforded the capacity to make such decisions.  So that’s a dumb argument.  And leads to one of my favorite songs of the past couple years, Garfunkel and Oates’ “Sex with Ducks”:

Polygamy, on the other hand, is in another category – after all, it involves adults.

And, according to at least one writer on Slate – why not legalize polygamy? It’s an interesting question.  I guess we can tackle this on various grounds: religious, civil, and mental/emotional.  Anyone raised in Christianity and Judaism knows that the patriarchs and kings practiced polygamy.  Sometimes it was portrayed as a fact of life and other times it was portrayed as the reason a king turned from God – one of his wives wants him to worship HER god.  As we know, there is no polygamy in the New Testament. However, the intelligent question to ask is this: why is there no polygamy in the New Testament? Does it reflect a change in what God wants his people to do? (Such as the end of the need for animal sacrifice) or does it simply reflect a change in society?  During the New Testament time period, Israel is part of the Roman Empire.  So perhaps it seems too barbaric to have multiple wives? Additionally, polygamy is traditionally a rich man’s game.  It costs a lot to raise many children and provide for many wives.  In nearly every culture, including pre-1970s Vietnam, polygamy is seen as a sign of wealth.  Even in Islam, followers are told not to take multiple wives unless they can provide for them all.  The Old Testament is about kings and tribal leaders.  The New Testament is about the people.  In other words, and I can’t believe I never realized this until writing this article, but the Old Testament is about the 1% while the New Testament is about the 99%.  (At least locally – if you compare Abraham to Egypt he’s a nothing)  So I’d say that religion (at least the Abrahamic ones in the majority in America) is a little inconclusive.  If you wanted, you could ignore the reasons why we don’t see polygamy in the New Testament and say that by itself is an indictment against it.  Fair enough, but America isn’t a theocracy, so let’s consider the civil reasons for and against it.

Marriage is a contract – it always has been.  It’s just that in the modern world the only people who think about it that way are lawyers and accountants.  Historically it was used by aristocrats and monarchs to gain power and/or land.  My country and your country don’t want to fight anymore so what if my kid marries your kid.  Now the alliance is a little more solid because if you attack me you’re attacking your descendents.  Among the poor (the middle class is a relatively recent invention in the time scale of human history), marriage is a contract that has allowed for various things. For example, back when we were all farmers – compensation for losing free labor (your daughter or son depending on who went to live with who’s in-laws).  Or it could be used to gain status if your daughter could marry into a higher social class.  Why does the government care about marriage? Well, in modern times it has to do with taxes, property ownership, benefits, and who’s responsible for any children spawned from the marriage or adopted into the marriage.  So why would the government care about polygamy? I imagine that the government as an entity doesn’t give a care about polygamy. I have been known to sometimes fail to think outside the box so I’d like to see what others think.  However, my guess is that the only reason government cares about polygamy is that government is made of people and those people care. Perhaps the men are loathe to face a shortage of women as the handsome and the wealthy end up with more than one. After all, as an aggregate the natural birth process yields only slightly more women than men – last I heard it was 51% to 49% in favor of women.  So given the competition men currently have (including women who decide to be single – which is possible in the USA since ~ the 1960s without negative consequences), they might not want to allow some men to have access to all the women.

So we are left with the emotional/mental argument.  It is here that the Slate piece linked above spends most of its time.  The Slate piece mentions that those who are not into polygamy venture that the women involved don’t truly have a choice.  (Not counting certain Mormon sects where that may very well be true) This line of thinking goes that all women are loathe to share a man so the type of woman who goes into a polygamous relationship must have some mental issues we have to protect her from by making sure that polygamy is illegal.  The Slate article argues that this is not the case – women are perfectly capable of making the choice to share a man with another (or many other) women.  The Slate article goes to an even more important point – given that polygamy is going to happen no matter what for religious reasons (Mormons and Muslims), are we not making things worse for those women by marginalizing them? The article mentions that the women in those relationships are subject to abuse (as are the children) because they can’t go to the cops.  Otherwise they’ll find out about the polygamy and the innocent may end up in jail or have their character impeached to such a degree that no jury would side with them.

The most interesting thing about Slate’s arguments, and what drew me to write this response piece, is that many people make the same argument against porn and prostitution as they do against polygamy. For example, that the women are only into it because they’re damaged.  With pornography and prostitution as with polygamy the problem is that we can’t see into people’s minds.  (Yeah, that would have all kinds of scary implications, but go with me here) All we know is that when women are interviewed for porn and prostitution we find both types of women.  We find those that were forced into it either because of mental issues, abuse, or finances that meant all they had left to peddle were their bodies.  We also find those who claim they enjoy doing it and find it liberating to be able to use their bodies for profit while they can.  Are they lying? And even if they’re telling the truth, are they damaged and don’t know it? All we know is how we THINK women are supposed to behave and these behaviors don’t conform to that.  So the first reaction is that something must be wrong.

Those in sex work also face the same issues that Slate mentions the women in polygamous marriage have – they can’t go to the cops if they’re abused or mistreated by their clients or bosses (be that pimp or madame). It’s a large part of the reason that the sex slave industry can work.  As I read in Tokyo Vice among other places, it’s the inability to go to the cops if you’re in sex work (in addition to the fact that your family in the home country might be in danger) that makes it such a powerful cage.  Does that mean it should be legalized?

It’s a very interesting comparison because both sex work (the non-coerced kind) and polygamy involve consenting adults. The only difference is that the motivation behind the two is that one is motivated by love and the other is motivated by lust.  Or at least that’s how it seems on the surface. There is no requirement for marriage to be based on love. As I mentioned above, that was almost never the reason for marriage until much more recent times. In fact, there was a very long tradition of women getting the love portion of their relationship fulfilled by admirers and serenades. And while probably 99.99% (unscientific number) of all sex work revolves around pure lust – there will be some percentage of people who are simply paying for sex because it’s the only way they can get some. And sex is a recognized human NEED, not a want. On the scheme of things, it’s much more ethical for someone like that to directly pay for sex than go through the charade of a first date on the odds of maybe getting sex.

When all is said and done, I’m not sure what my final position is on polygamy. The Slate article got my mind going. I now have a better understanding of those in a polygamous relationship not as freaks or cult members, but people who want a different marital arrangement. Would I ever partake in one? Heck no! It’s enough work for me to juggle the needs of my wife, daughter, family, and self without adding another adult woman to the mix. I’ve been thinking a lot about the gay marriage issue since it’s been in the news so much and I wonder if a lot of the people against it are just acting on simple fears. For example, it’s now going to be a LOT more complicated to explain marriage and sexual relationships to my daughter. Because I believe our sexual orientation is a part of us, I would no sooner berate her for being gay than I would for being OCD, schitzophrenic, or left or right handed. (Sorry for comparing to mental illness – I know gayness used to be in the book that defines nutty behavior) So I don’t want her to feel that she has to hide herself from me. At the same time it’s probably tiring to explain all the different couplings that could happen.  And maybe that’s part of what people don’t want to deal with when it comes to polygamy. “Daddy, why does Jon have five mommies?” Then again, that does bring up an important point, you can’t control (at least it’s my belief that you can’t) being gay. You CAN control how many people you marry.  Does that make it right or wrong to legislate against? Who knows. That’s beyond what I can currently conceive.

I know I generally only have about 4 regular commentators despite an average of 100 visitors on a slow day, but I’d be really curious to hear from others what you think about this topic. Good reasons for or against? Hint: good reasons are generally not “Because God said so” given, as I said before, this is not a theocracy. However, if you do have Bible verses (or Torah or Koran) to quote for and against, it’d be interesting to see if my paragraph on religious reasons pro and con is on the money.


7 responses to “Maybe the Slippery Slope is a Good Thing? Slate Has An Interesting Call For Legalizing Polygamy”

  1. (this is a long comment!) I would say that I’m pretty torn on this issue. I don’t think it’s the end of the world if it were to happen but I am not particulary in support of it either. For the record, I’m also against legalizing prostitution.

    But from my perspective, it still feel that polygamy not good for women . Mostly because from an evolutionary standpoint, it’s almost always going to be a man with multiple wives (as seen from the Slate article and your response). It’s hardly even considered that a woman would have multiple husbands – and that’s fine because biologically, we’re different. But it still feels like it’s stemming from very patriarchal backgrounds. And I think while women can find a way work within those systems, it doesn’t mean that that’s what we should condone.

    Do I think it would ruin the institution of marriage? No. Do I think it makes the game much harder to play for females? Yes. Already cheating and divorcing and not being there for your kids is a double standard. Could polygamy compound the idea that men are going to be on the look out for younger pretty women? Does it work like “it’s not cheating, it’s dating”? Will it compound the fear the women have of aging and competing with each other? Are the high incidence of abusive relationships in polygamy a fluke? Is it a compounding of the idea that men can do whatever they want?

    The Slate article discusses the feminist perspective of “it’s my damn choice”. This may be true. But it’s hard to say whether this would turn into a somewhat forced choice. You mention the fact that polygamy may lead to a smaller group of men having many wives while some men have none. Well, if all the great guys have wives – is it a better decision to be polygamous or stuck with a terrible guy? Is that really a choice? Not that I think it would come down to this. There’s also the fact that marriage is a choice you don’t have to make. As you point out – you can’t control who you love or how many people you love. But as you mentioned earlier, marriage isn’t 100% about love.

    Also, one thing that I don’t know – not being multi-amorous. Is it something you know or figure out like I’ve assumed being gay is? Or is it like, you think you’re in love with one person until maybe another person comes along and you realize you’re also in love with them? Like could it possibly be a surprise after a decade of marriage? Because Slate talked about it like a lifestyle decision – which to me kinda sounds like maybe marriage isn’t the decision everyone should be trying to get to.

    Last – about legalizing making it easier to come forward in abusive relationships. I wonder how much that would actually help given that abused women in legal marriages have a lot of difficulty getting out and are hesitant to involve police.

    I have a lot of other thoughts on how this could lead to messy relationships but relationships in general are tricky. And I’m sure there are people out there that can make polygamous relationships work.

    • You gave a lot of interesting stuff to chew on from a woman’s perspective, granted it’s just one woman’s perspective, but I think it really helped me see things in a way I didn’t think about when reading the original article or writing mine.

      In your paragraph 2: Interesting point when it comes to biology. Although I hate using biology when talking about relationships because it seems that it’s almost always used to justify male cheating, you do have a point. Because the male does not carry the baby and because that’s all nature cares about, (not careers or technology or society) it makes more sense for a man to be with multiple woman than the opposite. (Which leads to an interesting though experiment – what if a} men would stop producing sperm when they got a woman pregnant or b) men carried the baby despite women having the eggs – like a seahorse. What an interesting world that might be and perhaps more equitable in scenario a and flipped from reality in scenario b) So we’re motivated to have certain emotions about want to be settled or wanting to be free and I could see a polyandrous relationship leading to male on male violence. But I don’t have the anthro or sociology background to know if there have been successful polyandrous relationships in other societies. But, if it helps to eliminate this concern we could just imagine a world where any combination of men and women who have all their mental faculties would be allowed to enter into a marriage.

      I found your paragraph 3 to be the most profound in the sense of my not thinking about ANY of that. (At least partially from the fact that I’m a man) While a man can certainly be cuckolded, you are very right about the greater fear (whether it’s learned behavior or biological) among women about being cheated on. It doesn’t help that, at least in modern USA, there is significantly less pressure against men growing old. I think it’s because the features we most value in men (looks-wise) tend to become enhanced with old age (until REALLY old age). For example, men are supposed to be chiseled and have angles to their face and I think age intensifies that in men. There’s also a lot less stigma against men getting grey hair. (More of a stigma against baldness which is so unfair – but it appears society views him as less manly for some reason – which is weird because usually baldness goes along with increased body hair) In that context I think the whole “I’m not cheating on you, I’m trying to find another wife” thing is pretty strong and would definitely be a big weight on the woman. Additionally, as I’ve heard second-hand from people with polygamy in their family, there is definitely an element of competition among the woman. Any human has only so many hours in the day and so it would be hard for the man in a polygamous relationship to adequately fulfill the emotional needs of his wives. (Good point there, Kai!) And don’t misread that as me saying that women are exceptionally emotional – all of us humans have emotional needs. But the man would have 2 (or more) women to satisfy his needs – comfort, listening, being understood, etc Also, assuming you take the Bible as a historical document, it’s been there since the first mentions of polygamy – Jacob preferring one wife to the other. (Interestingly, in that story God applies some karma by making it so that 10 out of the 12 kids Jacob has are with the wife he doesn’t love. The other one is described as barren for most of the marriage)

      As for paragraph 5, I’m as much in the dark as you are. When I went to a hacker conference they had a side track that wasn’t on technical topics – it was on social and emotional topics. One of them was about being in open relationships and what that means. And I guess, for a first or second order approximation, it’s not too different from polygamy/polyandry. After all, it’s about being able to share your partner. And in some cases, rather than randomly swing, some people end up always being open with the same partners and forming a de facto polygamous relationship. I have to say that my gut feeling was the same as what the Slate article criticizes – how can anyone with a healthy self/mental/emotional image be OK sharing their partner with others? It all goes back to not having the technology to prove this one way or another.

      But if I could respond to paragraph 5 in a different way – it’s a well-known fact that a long-lived marriage takes work if you want it to be based on love. People naturally fall in and out and back into love with their partners. Any good pre-marriage counseling (more or less required by pretty much all Christian sects) will tell you this. While there is definitely some percentage of marriages that happen through coercion (shot-gun), mistake, or contain abuse of some sort, the thought is that a lot of divorce could be prevented if people knew this and didn’t feel that if they fell out of love that the marriage was over. So I think everyone is probably capable of being multi-amorous – or falling in love with more than one person. For example, while it doesn’t involve the exact same bonds (or sex), think about how you have room to love you parents, grandparents, kids, and partner. We’re already capable of loving more than one person at once. And I do know from having heard from some friends that what lead to their divorce was falling in love with someone who wasn’t their partner and then being forced to make a choice – since they were in love with both of them. I think it’s hard to separate what society has taught you and I is acceptable from the fact that you might be entirely capable of loving more than one man. You would simply never allow things to progress to that stage unless you were thinking of leaving your current guy.

      In the end, 1) thanks for taking the time to write the long comment – it really brought to light some things I hadn’t even remotely considered simply because of my gender
      2) Out of curiosity, what is your argument against sex work? Granted I’m not for it, but I am curious if it mostly revolves around your paragraph 3 or if there are other things I’m not noticing as a guy.

      • I’m ok with the idea of loving more than one person. But polygamy would assume then that all parties want to be in a marriage together. So I can see loving two people and not being able to choose – but it’s definitely not a given that the two people I love will even like each other, let alone love each other enough to want to enter a multi-partner marriage. Whereas open relationships always seem like they could be kept relatively separate.

        My argument against sex work (and more so prostitution than pornography) is a bit different. Not so much the concerns of getting older and men looking for younger women, but more of the concern that selling your body to me seems dangerously close to viewing people as objects. And I think women a lot more than men already have to combat this idea and there’s always going to be more female prostitution than male. But is this significantly different than hiring a someone to give you a massage? Yes and no. Yes, it’s technically a transaction for sex. But how easy is it to separate the service from the person performing it? Are you buying sex or are you buying the woman who’s going to have sex with you?

        Then there’s the idea of choice, where it’s a forced choice for many women. They have all around bad options. But I realize there are educated, well-off women who make this choice too (which I would say is more about $ than, say, empowerment). So this is where I’m torn because I do realize this is a valid choice for some women. But I wonder – why aren’t males going into prostitution and stripping and escort services? Is there just no market? Are females not willing to pay boatloads of money? I know I’ve read about “boyfriend” services before, but it doesn’t seem as common. Or is it more a societal thing that women are finding a way to make the focus on their looks, body, and youth (and the acceptance that men want to sleep around) work for them? It could be empowering but you’re still working within rules that I don’t think are good for women.

        ps. I find pornography as different because it seems less women specific (as often you need a male actor and I think women are more willing to consume porn than they are to seek out prostitutes) and less objectifying (it seems that you’re selling a movie rather than yourself). Though I’m sure I could think of a bunch of reasons against it.

        • Good point there in paragraph 2. I think humans have a very hard time separating sex from feelings and I think it’s one of the best non-religious arguments for not sleeping around and especially not doing it young before you’re truly emotionally ready.

          Also good point about separating the act from the person in that we already have so much objectification of women.

          It’s weird that the male services seem to be more common in Japan and other Asian countries than in the US. My guess is that it has historic roots. Throughout history it’s been easier for a man to get a job that nets a lot of money. For women for a long time they were limited in how much money they could make – with sex work being one exception.

  2. > “it’s now going to be a LOT more complicated to explain marriage and sexual relationships to my daughter.”

    Relax, it’s not nearly as complicated as one would expect. With our kids (including our youngest daughter, now in her teen years), we just put it as “There’s all kinds of different people in the world. Some have boyfriends, some have girlfriends, some want a family, some just want a companion, and a few just don’t want anybody, and they’re fine with that. There’s no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with relationships, as long as everybody involved is consenting.”

    Teen culture right now is also far more accepting of alternative lifestyles. Report I hear in my daughter’s school is that several of her peers already identify as something besides heterosexual and it’s not a big deal.

    So far, we’ve tried to raise our kids with a healthy and easy-going attitude towards sexuality. It’s a good thing because at least I don’t have to worry that they’d be struggling through something and not feel comfortable talking to us about it.