Many polyamorous partnerships are deeply intimate, loving, meaningful relationships, so why aren’t they included in the marriage rights discussion?
At this point in the same-sex marriage debate, everyone is familiar with the “slippery slope” argument relied on so often by conservatives: If we allow gay marriage, then soon we’ll be allowing groups of three or more people to get married, next we’ll be allowing people to marry children and chairs and dogs. As the Supreme Court prepares to rule on DOMA and Proposition 8, these arguments can be found on virtually every conservative talk show or website.
Of course, I understand the anger people feel about comparing same-sex relationships to pedophilia and bestiality. But as a polyamorous woman, who honestly would like to one day have the right to legally marry both of my partners, it’s disheartening when same-sex marriage advocates respond to this rhetoric by invalidating the idea of multi-partner marriage, insisting that it is nothing at all like same-sex marriage and will never, ever happen.
I do believe that there are some practical reasons why legal same-sex marriage cannot immediately lead to legal multi-partner marriage. The legal framework of two-party marriage already exists, and it is a simple process to apply the same rights and regulations to same-sex couples. Legally defining multi-partner marriage would be a much more complex process with regard to things like taxes, property rights, and child custody. I don’t object to this necessary legislative process being pointed out as a reason why multi-partner marriage will not simply happen overnight once same-sex marriage is federally recognized. But I do object to ethical arguments against multi-partner marriage, which respond to “slippery slope” arguments by essentially throwing polyamorous folks under the bus.
One of the arguments frequently given by same-sex marriage supporters against multi-partner marriage hinges on what we know of people currently practicing polygamy in a religious context. Polygamy is patriarchal and abusive, the argument says, and frequently involves underage women being taken as wives. It’s certainly true that such fundamentalist, patriarchal polygamy exists. But this brand of polygamy does not resemble my polyamorous relationship any more than a fundamentalist, traditionally-gendered, monogamous marriage resembles a marriage that is progressive and egalitarian in nature.
Horrible abuse and misogyny happens all the time in monogamous marriages in the name of religion and tradition; this is not given as a reason to put an end to the institution of marriage all together. The abuses of women and girls that frequently take place within religious polygamous sects are illegal; we do not need to criminalize the structure of the relationship in order to be able to target and prosecute such abuses. And if anything, the criminalization of polygamy might make women more reluctant to come forward for help when they are being abused, out of fear that they will be punished for practicing polygamy. Keeping polygamy illegal does not protect women, it only forces their lives into a far more dangerous state of secrecy.
Even when thinking about modern, non-fundamentalist polyamorous relationships, many defenders of same-sex marriage have a knee-jerk response against the notion of multi-partner marriage. On Tuesday, a caller challenged Rush Limbaugh on the issue of same-sex marriage, and Limbaugh responded with the classic slippery slope rhetoric, asking the caller why multi-partner marriage would be any different. When asked if he “would deny those people their love,” the caller responded: “Yeah, I would. I would oppose that…’Cause I think that, in general, two people are necessary to raise a family unit. You need two parents.”
Obviously, Limbaugh was attempting to make same-sex marriage look bad by comparing it to multi-partner marriage, not attempting to make a pro-polyamory statement. But I am frequently surprised and discouraged by the frequency with which arguments against polyamorous marriage—made by supporters of same-sex marriage—resemble classic arguments against gay marriage. I have heard many times, for example, that polyamory is a “lifestyle choice,” and therefore deserves no legal rights or protections. And I have also heard, more times than I can count, the argument that polyamory is not love, merely a sexual practice. Of all people, gay men and women should understand how hurtful it is to have your meaningful, intimate, loving relationships reduced to no more than a deviant sexual proclivity. But while there are certainly plenty of advocates for polyamory within LGBTQ communities, many folks simply do not see the similarities, or the irony of their arguments.
Before simply responding in a reactionary way to conservatives’ “slippery slope” arguments, I’d like it if same-sex marriage advocates could really stop and think about whether they can make a strong ethical argument against the future possibility of multi-partner marriage. Unlike bestiality or pedophilia, polyamory—like same-sex marriage—is about relationships between consenting adults. Like gay and lesbian couples, our relationships are not merely a sexual practice; we form families, share our homes and lives with one another, and raise children. Yes, marriage is traditionally between two people. But it’s also traditionally between a man and a woman, and the majority of us have already realized how restrictive and unjust that tradition is.
Many people don’t understand why we desire this form of relationship, and don’t see our love for one another as legitimate. But this is true of conservative views on same-sex relationships as well, and our response to opponents of same-sex marriage is that they don’t need to understand it or even like it in order to accept it as a human right. If the argument for same-sex marriage is that people who love differently than the norm deserve the same rights and protections as those who follow a traditional path, is there really a solid argument against extending that same concept to people who love more than one? Can we really reasonably say “Love makes a family…as long as that family only includes two adults?”
At the moment, few polyamorous people are really interested in fighting seriously for marriage rights. Though many of us agree that it’s something we’d love to see someday, we realize we’re very far away from a time when we’d stand a chance at winning legal recognition. Right now, we’re more concerned with achieving basic awareness of and respect for our relationships. We would be happy just to see our loves and our families treated as valid by a decent portion of society. But every time a supposedly progressive, “open-minded” person supports same-sex marriage by arguing that such marriage has nothing at all in common with the sexual deviancy of polyamory, we are moved further away from that validation. Polyamorous people are often told not to make any comparisons between our relationships and same-sex relationships, because we will make gay and lesbian folks look bad. But does anyone consider how insulting it is to be told that your most intimate, meaningful relationships are so illegitimate, it is an insult to compare them to the meaningful relationships of others?
What we need is solidarity between all people who are oppressed and marginalized as a result of who they love and how they form families. So what if the “slippery slope” is actually true, and expanding the definition of marriage to include same-sex couples does in fact logically lead to validating polyamory? The notion that granting rights to one group of people might someday lead to granting rights to even more people should not be seen as a downside. After all, every gain in social justice throughout history could be called a “slippery slope” toward the next. This is what we call “progress,” and it should be celebrated, not feared.
Angi Becker Stevens lives in the metro-Detroit area, where she is an active member of The Organization for a Free Society. Her writing on feminism and other forms of social justice has appeared in such places as RH Reality Check, the Ms. Magazine blog, AlterNet, and Common Dreams. Her first collection of short fiction will be available in 2014 from Aqueous Books.