Doctor Science Knows

Sunday, November 26, 2006

Legalizing polyamory & polygamy; includes Heinlein

Amanda posted at Pandagon about efforts to prosecute polygamist Mormons as rapists and accessories. The comments kind of veered into an issue that keeps coming up in discussions of marriage equality for same-sex couples: "is legalizing polygamy the next step?" I'm going to summarize my comments there, and other thoughts have been percolating on this issue for a while now. There are also discussions going on at Feministe and Abstract Nonsense, doubtless elsewhere as well.

In the first place, moving from traditional man-woman marriage to marriage equality is very straightforward. Indeed, equal marriages are *easier* to fit into our system of laws than traditional marriage, because all you need is two consenting adults who aren't too closely related -- you don't have to legally define "man" and "woman". Once women have all the legal rights of men, equal marriage for same-sex couples was IMHO inevitable, because things that are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.

But polygamy does not map so simply onto the pattern of conventional marriage.

There are two basic categories of polygamy that people bring up when they're talking about how legalizing same-sex marriage may lead down a "slippery slope" to all kinds of kinky multiple relationships (not to mention the box turtles).

Traditional polygamy -- as found in the book of Genesis, among "fundamentalist" Mormons, in Islam, pre-modern China, etc. -- is what biologists call "polygyny", one male mated to more than one female. In most (all?) traditional societies, polygynous marriages are legally a set of overlapping monogamous marriages: the man is married to each woman separately. The co-wives do not inherit from each other, they do not get custody of each other's children, they cannot sell each other's property.

In recent decades there's been some development of the concept of polyamorous marriages: multiple-partner marriages in which all parties are considered married to each other, regardless of gender. Property is held in common, but I don't know what the usual arrangements are for child custody, powers of attorney, inheritance, and so forth, or if there *are* any consistent patterns being developed.

I know of no culture in which this kind of egalitarian polyamory is traditional. The examples that spring to mind are all in science fiction. In fact, as I sort through examples in my mind I'm coming up with more egalitarian-poly sf cultures than traditional-polygyny cultures -- can anyone think of an example of an sf or fantasy novel with traditional polygyny where it is *not* presented as something to be fled? I'm drawing a blank. Does Orson Scott Card ever show polygamy? As a Mormon, his view is liable to be more textured than most, because it's a volatile religious issue either way and because he probably saw polygamy in action while he was growing up.

I was a big fan of books about polyamory while I was young -- Heinlein's The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Donald Kingsbury's Courtship Rite are two examples that spring to mind -- but as I get older and more realistic (you might think "jaded" or "cynical") I see the crucial aspects of poly marriage that they don't explore.

Take "The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress", for example. The protagonist, Manuel, is part of a "line marriage": the married group adds younger spouses over the decades, alternating sexes, so that the marriage does not end.

Heinlein emphasizes the sexual & emotional benefits of this kind of marriage, but he doesn't really go into what I now see as the core issues of marriage: property and status. The great benefit of line marriage would be that the property never has to be broken up: there is no generational transfer. The marriage becomes a kind of corporation, a way to concentrate and perpetuate wealth.

In TMIAHM one of the daughters of the family is married back into the line, which Heinlein presents as both reasonable and romantic. What he doesn't present is how this makes her the only true heir to the family wealth & influence, how it cuts the other children of the family out. Normal human behavior predicts that there would be a bitter struggle among the spouses to have one's favorite child be the heir, and it could easily lead to hellish levels of incestuous pimping.

Even without that, I don't know that the poly community -- or even the religious polygynist communities -- have got a handle on the issues that are the core of marriage as a legal institution. The legal issues aren't about how people live and sleep and work together, but more about transitions: medical decision-making, inheritance, insurance payments, child support.

Our current marriage law is *barely* able to deal with the complexities that arise when a marriage has only two partners, and that despite hundreds of years of experience dealing with traditional (inegalitarian) two-partner marriages. I know of no long-running legal tradition with egalitarian poly marriages, or even inegalitarian marriages but where the wives are legally married to each other. Without this kind of experience, we don't know how these relationships would "play out" legally. I don't think we can or should have legalized polyamory until polyamorists have built up legal structures & experience with them.

I don't know how well-organized this is, and there are other thinky thots I wanted to work in, but I shall stop now because it's probably the last warm Sunday afternoon of the year and I'm going to clean up my garden OR ELSE.

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  • There aren't any egalitarian traditions of plain old marriage, either. I honestly think that women in traditional, bad-old-days polygamist relationships would benefit quite a lot from polygamy being legalized. As it is, when you're one of multiple wives, you're not likely to be legally married to your spouse, and therefore aren't likely to have any legal claim to your shared assets. At least being married in to the family would make it so that a wife could go through the divorce process and probably come out with some kind of assets, whereas if she's only married by the church, she'd have to start completely over if she left her family one day. Being legally married offers some protection from financial and other material avenues of control a husband of many wives could exercise over someone who wants out. Being legally married does not protect against things like rape or incest, but those things are alread illegal, and being unmarried offers even less protection.

    By Blogger saraeanderson, at 11:59 AM  

  • women in traditional, bad-old-days polygamist relationships would benefit quite a lot from polygamy being legalized.

    That seems to be the upshot of this Canadian government-sponsored study. The question I have is, what kind of legal framework are you talking about? We could borrow structures from Islamic law, for instance [all fall down laughing ironically], which stipulates that all wives must be given equal treatment as far as economic support, time with the husband, housing. gifts, etc. But it still leaves a huge mess to sort out about issues like medical decisions, child custody, and inheritance.

    By Blogger Doctor Science, at 12:39 PM  

  • Well, yes, it leaves a mess, but complicated is not the same thing as impossible. I've been reading the Pandagon and Feministe threads, too, and I've seen a few models proposed: ones where all involved are married to each other, ones where only some are married to each other, etc. I can see how there would be situations where either would work, and given the myraid ways that people would want their polygamous families to work, I think it's just that the arragements will necessarily be complicated. Like with a gay couple that wishes to cobble together a legal relationship equivalent to marriage, there are a lot of legal questions to remember to answer, and it's much easier to just go get married (like I did) than to tease out exactly what you need to do to be, basically, married. The fact that it's more complicated for gay couples to cobble together these rights is silly because they want the exact same legal relationship that hetero monogamsist marriage creates. People pulling for legalization of polygamy can't make the same claim, since what they're asking for will necessarily be different than the legal framework of monogamist marriage, but that's really neither here nore there. Making changes in law and breaking new ground are difficult, but if we're going to progress as a society, it shouldn't be something we shy away from so easily.

    By Blogger saraeanderson, at 1:45 PM  

  • Those wanting polygamy legalized have not thoroughly thought the ramifications of such an action. Below are the reasons why not to legalize polygamy/bigamy in America.

    It would be impossible for those made victim by bigamists to bring the criminal to trial. Those who marry to con and defraud their victims could continue their crimes with impunity. The victims of these bigamists both male and female would have no legal recourse.
    There are inherent human rights abuses in polygamy as it is practiced in America today.
    a. The unending need for females for marriage and the small pool of willing participants from which to draw has led many polygamists to take part in incest, child marriages i.e. Elizabeth Smart, kidnapping, stepdaughter/father marriages, coerced marriages and trafficking or trading of teenaged girls. Most polygamous organizations grow their own victims, indoctrinate them from birth, home school or deny an education past the elementary years or both, and marry them at a young age. In order to spread the women around, the two major organizations the UEP and the FLDS trade women and their children among the men at the discretion of the all powerful leader.

    b. Boy children are devalued in polygamous communities, denied or discouraged from receiving an education, worked as low paid often child labor, denied normal relationships with girls, and eventually many are forced out (except for the favored few) or leave in discouragement. The older males take the young females for their own wives. The young (better looking) males are driven off. It is more akin to the baboon social structure than human society as we know it. Without even a G.E.D. most are unable to join the military at 18 or go to college. They are often victimized on the streets.

    c. The teaching in Mormon off-shoot polygamy is that if a woman abide not The Principle (polygamy) that she should be forever damned. Young girls denied or discouraged from receiving an education and taught that they must have sexual relations with a married man in order achieve salvation are victims of sexual abuse. The United States Code says that if you take part in sexual relations out of fear other than fear of physical harm or death that is sexual abuse. Other groups such as the so-called Christian polygamists also use the power of religion to coerce women into having relations with men with multiple sexual partners. Christ never advocated polygamy in fact he stated that “the two shall become one”.

    A study of trafficking in Bangladesh by woman lawyers found one of the top ten reasons that women and girls are trafficked is for polygamy. Despite the fact a Supreme Court decision that taking girls over the border for polygamous marriage is a violation of the Mann Act, Cleveland vs. The United States, 1946, the very organization that decision was based on has continued to transport girls over state lines and into Canada and sometimes Mexico with impunity. The United States could easily become a center of polygamous trafficking for the Western, Middle Eastern, Southern Hemisphere, and the Far Eastern world if we declare bigamy and polygamy legal.
    The United States receives requests from women for asylum to escape polygamy in other countries. At least one woman has been granted asylum in the United States to escape polygamy. The United States would no longer be a beacon of hope throughout the world for abused women but rather on par with those countries which are considered inferior from a human rights standpoint where women are concerned.
    The United States is a signer on the International Human Rights Treaty which addresses coerced marriages, under-aged marriages and equality of relationships in marriage. When a man has many women as partners, there is no equality. Also the teachings of the polygamous groups in the American west is that only a man can achieve salvation from God, the woman has to achieve salvation through the man.
    The civil rights of victims in American polygamous groups has long been violated as law enforcement has refused to protect victims from coerced marriages, under-aged marriages, trafficking to and from Canada and incest. Legalizing polygamy would be to the benefit of the wealthy leaders of polygamous organizations and to the detriment of the victims.
    There are extremely wealthy and powerful interests and lobbies at work to legalize polygamy, for instance the Kingstons/Davis County Cooperative is estimated to have between $150 million and $15 billion, the FLDS/United Effort Plan is estimated to have $100 million. However, the victims are often penniless and even homeless if they escape these groups or are thrown out. The media often caters to the rich and powerful polygamous crime organizations and those who misrepresent polygamy on their behalf. One woman, Elizabeth Joseph, goes about speaking how polygamy is a woman’s choice, without ever mentioning that her husband married a nine year old girl. Hardly a woman. No one in the media ever questions that. Another man from the Kingstons speaks about how incest is their religious right, these groups can declare any crime their religious right and have. For instance non support of children they claim is a belief in self-sufficiency. Working children for no pay is a belief in volunteerism. These are the people the media caters to not the many victims who have no money, media access, or expensive attorneys behind them.
    The marriageable age of girls depends on the state, for instance in Texas it is 14 with parental consent. Right now there are trials for middle-aged married men who had sex with girls of that age in polygamy. The marriages are often approved by the parents, the groom and the religious leader, she has no choice, parental permission would be a given and she would never have the right to bring charges against her abusers as the marriage of the child would be legal. In addition, step fathers often marry their daughters in polygamy while married to the mothers. It is easy to get parental permission when the groom and the parent are one and the same. The small amount of protection these girls have now, in which, married, polygamous men are held to the same standard of sexual abuse as other men would be lost.
    If you legalize adult, married polygamous men having sexual relations with teenagers which is what would happen, then that would have to be true of all men. Discrimination in favor of polygamous men has long been occurring. For instance, one man in the FLDS found guilty of incestuous sexual abuse was sentenced to 3 days in jail, one man who impregnated his 16 year old stepdaughter was sentenced to 45 days in jail. For many years, the discrimination in polygamy has been against the victim and for the criminal. This would mean that all men could sexually abuse with no ramifications. Any man caught sexually abusing a teenager could claim to be a polygamist or claim religious discrimination if he did not have the same rights as polygamists.
    What of girls forced into polygamy who don’t escape until they are in their twenties as is often the case, since they were an adult at the time they would have no legal recourse either civil or criminals for the crimes against them. What of young women in isolated communities forced into polygamy at 18-21? They would have no legal recourse. Even now one woman coerced into such a marriage at 20 could get no law enforcement to investigate. Legalization of polygamy will not end the abuses but compound them. Legalizing homicide would not end murders and legalizing abuse will not end abuse.
    Decriminalization as is often suggested by polygamists is just a way for polygamists to engage in bigamy and father many children by their wives and still have the taxpayers support those children as children of unwed mothers as they are today. That is why many polygamists favor decriminalization over legalization because they can commit the crime and reap more benefits financially from the tax payer with no repercussions. Within certain groups nonsupport of children is a way of life. While the earnings of the father and/or mother go to the leaders of these groups children have worked for “brown money” i.e. food stamps or dumpster dived for food. Welfare checks have been turned over to leaders after being cashed.
    The known polygamous groups function exactly as crime organizations and have been investigated or charged with hundreds of crimes such as incest of all kinds, father/daughter, uncle/niece, aunt/nephew (must older nephew), sister/brother, cousin/cousin, physical abuse, homicide (over 50 murders since 1970), bombings, child homicide, sexual abuse, rape, child labor violations, safety violations, fraud, selling stolen cars, gaming violations, transportation of a minor for sexual purposes, violations of the Mann Act, kidnapping, fraud involving purported mob money, insurance fraud, welfare fraud, stepfather/daughter marriage, nonsupport of children, witness tampering, threatening a judge, threatening an attorney, denial of basic education, and international trafficking of girls. The extort money from their followers for wives and for salvation. To support legalization of polygamy is to support the polygamous crime organizations of the American west.
    Polygamy has been decriminalized for years. Kentucky has over 30 cases of bigamy charged each year; three times that of Utah in ten years. The only cases of polygamy/bigamy charges have come in conjunction with sexual abuse of minors, rape of a child and incest with a minor. So why are polygamists clamoring so for decriminalization or legalization when it is already decriminalized. It is not the polygamy they are concerned about, if polygamy is legal then girls from 14 to 18 depending on the state can legally be made sexual partners to older married men with many sexual partners with no ramifications whatsoever. It is the abuse they want legalized not polygamy.


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 7:47 AM  

  • Blackbird:

    Those are all good points. I don't actually see a *movement* to legalize polygamy, but I live out East so I may be out of the loop.

    Do you know of any organizations that are working *successfully* to give the women & children trapped in polygamous situations a way out?

    By Blogger Doctor Science, at 2:47 PM  

  • For whatever reason, the Gor series highlights unegalitarian polygyny in a positive light. There's a small knot of BDSM folk who swear by it.

    I think polyamory is a moral good, even though I think most of Heinlein's notions aren't (and I can barely stand to read him). That said, I think that these relationships are essentially heirarchical, and that the primary should be given the rights of a spouse while secondaries have the standing of any other girlfriend/boyfriend or mistress/suitor.

    By Blogger Daniel M. Laenker, at 10:41 PM  


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