1.25.2011

Sexual Heterogeneity

I've mentioned before on this blog, I come from Mormon stock - from the perspective of my family history, then, the polygamy in 'So Long a Letter' did not have an exotic factor to it for me. My birth name is Roper, and the first of the Ropers in America was a woman who crossed the Atlantic from Great Britain in order to pull a handcart across the American prairies to Utah, where she was the plural wife of a Mormon man there. In fact, the only thing I know about this plural marriage was that she didn't like the way the man treated her with the other wives, much like the characters in Ba's book.


Polygamy, when growing up was (albeit only historically) a given to me. It was something people used to do - and not in the sense of ancient Israel (in fact, the whole Abraham and Hagar thing has always struck me as probably a somewhat skewed account, and not a great indication of Abraham's good virtues). There are echoes of this polygamy even now: no, to be perfectly clear, Mormon men are no longer allowed to marry multiple wives, but, for instance, a man can, if he is widowed (and even if he's divorced in some cases) be sealed to a second wife for time and eternity, whereas a woman cannot - because men can have multiple wives in heaven, while women can have 1 (or, in some sense, part of 1) husband. This struck me as unfair, but then, marriage in general struck me as unfair to one party or the other, usually.

Because the pioneers who practiced polygamy are the mythic great fathers of the Mormon stock, though, it was remarkably difficult to get a real approximation of what it must have actually FELT like to be a person in a polygamous household. I always wanted to know, both the practical details (so, do the women all have seperate bedrooms? Did all the wives and the one husband - in my very chaste childhood image - just sleep in one really wide bed?), and the more profound ones (if you're a multiple wife, do you feel married to the other wife, too? Do you feel like sisters? Rivals?). In that sense the book was deeply interesting - though I do not know that the logistics of the multiple marriage in Islamic Africa were the same as Utah. 

The interesting aspect, to me though, is this: so, the relationships in this book were unhealthy, but is it possible to have a healthy polygamous relationship? And what would that feel like? Maybe if it was a true menage a trois, emotionally and/or physically, instead of a man who has two women, who both have one man. Or maybe that would make it worse. Or maybe if women had more rights in the culture. At some level, though, one is left to ask, is a man being allowed multiple wives a bad thing for women? Does it make women 'disposable' without any social stigma, the way that occurs in the book, and that seems to have occurred to my ancestor?

In this sense, one sees perhaps an argument for the laws in the United States that outlaw polygamy. And we ARE Afraid of polygamy here! (I don't know how this is in, say, Europe, I'd be interested to hear in the comments?) In fact, when people object to Gay Marriage, one of the arguments is that it would lead to a slippery slope where someday we'd have to legalize polygamy - and frankly, any practice that is used as an example of somethign scarier than Gay Marriage for Americans must be very scary indeed. And, it's worth pointing out, that what examples there IS of polygamy that make it into the news, these days, are not pleasant ones - generally religious cults (particularly fundamentalist Mormon splinters). Many of these communities seem to have problems with yougn girls being wedded off at a language that would be child sexual abuse, and women certainly don't seem to be respected - though even here, the vision we get of the communities is awfully skewed by the OHMIGAWD, and THEY TOTALLY HAVE MORE THAN ONE LADY TO SLEEP WITH shock coverage of the news. So, who knows.

So, then the question is this: does an anti-bigamy law protect  anyone? And is it an ethical law to have? I don't know. It's not as if, for instance, we ban people from preaching from the Pauline Epistles, which are certainly bad for women in parts - of course not, people have the right to believe what they like. After all, it only hurts them, right? 

Only, it doesn't. IT affects those people's children, if nothing else, no? So, at what point should we legislate to protect the auxilliary people? 

So, look at the question from a different direction: many radical feminists, particularly on the left, felt like 'normal' marriage was damaging to women, in the precise same way that we think of polygamy, now. There argument isn't even an awful one - it's one I can see the merits of. So, if marriage could be illustrated to be as damaging to society as polygamy, should it be illegalized? And how woudl you even measure that? At some level, I'm inclined to one of two possible end scenarios.

First, we could simply legalize any relationship between consenting adults. Yes, this would be complex. Yes, many forms woudl have to be rewritten. But, at some level, we let people have sex with whoever they want anyway, so if three people want to make a home together, under what right do we prevent them from doing so? The implications for US law are complex - how do you file taxes? But in a sense, this complexity exists now, it is simply hidden. IF three people are polyamorous, and truly love each other equally, now, if one member dies, then only of the remaining partners retains the protection of US law for the same things that homosexuals lack now - and if nothign else, bringing polygamy out of the shadows would, I would think, allow any healthy forms of it to flourish - in the shadows, only sickness grows.

The other option, of course, would be to stop legislating marriage and partnership, altogether. Why not? At some level, it's rather odd that we DO stick our nose into it as a country. IF two people want to sign a contract with each other not to diddle anyone but each other, perhaps we as a coutnry shouldn't spend our energy enforcing this contract - considering its impossible to enforce fairly, anyway. Then, people could simply make whatever agreements they like, as long as noone is put in a situation of nonconsent. 

Both of these solutions have problems - but both point out, to me, that there is a lot more sexual heterogeneity in the world than the rest of us are willing to admit - polygamy in the traditional sense, is simply the most obvious form. I'd love to hear what other people think: why is polygamy so scary? Are the problems in it problems of polygamy or society at large? And how SHOULD it be treated by society?

16 comments:

nicole said...

I tend to wonder how much Americans actually are "afraid" of polygamy. Freaked out, yes; I agree with you 100% about the OMG factor to news coverage of things like the FLDS. But a big part of me thinks it's just so reactive and unthinking. The vanishingly small number of people who would actually go ahead and contract a plural marriage couldn't genuinely scare anyone, could it? (Of course, I assume it is vanishingly small. I think that's a pretty safe assumption though.)

The only remotely compelling argument I've heard for banning polygamy, in terms of societal consequences of allowing it, is that it will cause a situation where a large number of lower-status young men end up with no mate. This is just not good for stability in a society; those who were stuck as bachelors would potentially funnel into a culture of crime, violence, what have you. But since I do think the number of people who would actually get on the polygamy boat is pretty small, I don't think this is a real issue either. Am I really going to marry half of some rich guy instead of a whole middle class one? I am not. Maybe lots of other ladies would though.

Jason Gignac said...

I think it is very difficult to say what people's opinions are about polygamy, because those opinions, now, are sort of inextricably connected to their fears of fringe religions, you know? Though, the ooky-spooky aspect of it DOES make a strong news showing :D. I think polygamy is in some ways where homosexuality was 100 years ago: there is sort of the rumblings of the fringiest of fringe religions doing weird things with it, the way that the fringiest versions of, say Sufiism had some homosexual overtones, etc, and then there is a sort of tiny boheme that is experimenting with the idea of polyamory being a living lifestyle choice, I guess. I don't know if that means it's actually a lifestyle people would want to lead. If you take the SEX out of the equation, if we were all chaste creatures, I've known people who are happier living in the sort of person-with-a-bunch-of-close-friends-living-as-roommates lifestyle. But again, it begs the question of what marriage and a family really ARE: even in a monogamous house. It's clearly more to people than sex, and more than religion as well. So what is it? And is it something three people can have together the same as two people can?

Jason Gignac said...

Oh, and on the subject of a number of unmarried men (assuming of course that society did not have an equal number of women with multiple husbands), this is much the situation China is in now, because there are far more young men than yougn women, because of the once child per family laws - interesting, I hadn't considered that.

Amanda said...

The problem I see with not regulating marriage at all is again with the children. If people are free to create and dissolve partnerships at will, then one parent (or neither in some case) will assume responsibility for the children and there would be no legal way to enforce support by the other parent. Same as like what happened in Between Mom & Jo - the biological parent had the right, on leaving her wife, to forbid contact between her ex-wife and son, despite the son growing up with that other person as his other mother. Legally, the ex-wife could do nothing about it. I think family law is important for these and many other reasons, completely outside the sphere of plural marriage.

Jason Gignac said...

I agree with you - there are a LOT of complications with not regulating marriage, too! So, then, would you liberalize it, to where you can marry whoever you want, however many you want, as long as there's legal consent? Or just leave it as is?

Trapunto said...

Strangely, the mention of China's population imbalance between men and women suddenly led me to imagine l system in which every *person* was entitled to one child in the case of men, and extras in the case of women as long as they were helpfully providing an unmarried childless man with his rationed child. Uncle-dads. Back door polyandry.

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Trapunto - fascinating idea - The problem I woudl think is that men want a childin order to carry on their family name - part of a larger family tradition, that would normally involve them not being single dads, you know? Sounds like a fascinating sci-fi novel... :D

Emily said...

I agree with you - we desperately need a way officially to recognize sexual heterogeneity in our culture. And I mean, just ADMINISTRATIVE heterogeneity, too. I am all for abolishing legal "marriage" and instituting lots of flexible boilerplate forms with no moral cargo attached, that would be cheap and common to execute/file. You want to designate a next-of-kin? Done. Hospital visitation and medical decision-making? Fine. Estate planning? You got it. There are so many reasons that people even in traditional marriage-style relationships should want to alter these details, and it shouldn't cost a grand to a lawyer to get them done (which is what David and I paid to get all our legal stuff squared away in the absence of a marriage license).

It's probably good that child custody remain a little more complex and regulated, but again I think it's ridiculous that adoption costs as much time and money as it does - I know married and unmarried couples who have theoretical access to legal adoption of the child they're raising but have stuck with an informal arrangement just because of the hassle and expense. We should be making it easy for people to do the right thing, I think. Being able to safeguard your legal rights shouldn't be the privilege of those who happen to be both wealthy and of the correct number/gender/etc.

Amanda said...

I'm definitely not for leaving it as-is, considering the whole gay marriage thing isn't legal in most states...

nicole said...

inextricably connected to their fears of fringe religions, you know? Though, the ooky-spooky aspect of it DOES make a strong news showing

Yes, this is sort of what I was trying to get out when I said they were more freaked out than actually scared. For all the talk of slippery slopes, I really don't think most Americans think polygamy could possibly be that frightening because they assume it would be so rare (as I do).

As an anarchist I don't have much to add to the policy discussion tho :)

Trisha said...

I think the primary problem for me is the cult(ure) aspect of polygamy. If consenting adults, raised in "the norm" of society, want to become part of a polygamist, poly-amorous relationship, I have no problem with it. When someone is raised in a cult(ure) where polygamy is required and marriages are arranged, then I have a big problem with it (and anything underage really gets my gander up). I recognize that we can't legalize one without legalizing the other though, so I am not sure which way is better for people as a whole.

If we could reorganize the laws so that marriage didn't provide so many financial benefits for people - make marriage purposeless outside of religion - this would be best in my opinion and negate the problem for consenting and informed adults.

I'm not sure if Americans are scared of polygamy so much as they are afraid of the issues that seem to come with it: forced marriages, girls marrying their uncles, female subjugation, abuse, etc. While I recognize that much of our opinion is skewed by the type of polygamist relationships which are portrayed in the media, it is clear that the dark side of polygamy is pretty dang prominent (amongst those who practice, not as a whole in the culture), and as such I don't think it can be ignored.

There are just so many issues to think about here...off to think more...

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Emily - I agree that, at some level, our legal culture is built around the assumption that the ideal is for two people to be married - I mean, to the degree where (I presume?) you and your partner can't even file your taxes together, which ought to be simple. Even little, stupid things are so ingrained in us - when I took Amanda's name when we got married it was like PULLING TEETH to get my license and social security changed, and I STILL have to ask what they want me to put every time I fill out a form. I think that if families LOVE each other, and are willfully consenting, and not abusing their power over their children, we ought to be embracing whatever family they want to form.

Amanda - point taken :D.

Ms Nicole - Ironically, as a semi-socialist (maybe an anarcho-socialist...), I agree with you at some level - there is those things, in my mind that the government should ensure (public health and safety, a welfare safety net, etc), and then there's things that really shouldn't matter at all to the state. Like who you sleep with, and how you configure said sleeping arrangements. That child support and custody business is a sticky one though. But then we do it with unmarried couples all the time now, I suppose.

Ms Trisha - I agree that the cults that HAVE polygamy are DEFINITELY frequently problematic. But then, if a cult was arranging monogamous relationships between grown men and 12 year olds, I'd have a problem with that too. At some, like I hinted, I wonder if dragging the issue into the light might improve it?

Amy said...

Okay first off, I really have no problem with polygamy being legalized or whatever. I have never really understood why it's not--all those fundamentalists you hear about aren't doing anything that would be legal anyway. (since they are often "marrying" children)

I was also VERY curious about polygamy and what people who entered into it felt like--what their state of mind was and a few years ago stumbled across a network of blogs that I read with voyeuristic fascination for quite some time. Mostly men were blogging, but also women and not everyone was religious. I was really sad when one of them stopped blogging because clearly the relationship wasn't exactly bringing her the joy she thought it would. Her last post was full of sorrow and uncertainty.
So anyway--I do recommend blogs as a peek into the way different people live :) I hope you won't judge me everyone always looks at me rather strangely when I tell them I read these blogs for awhile.

I think these issues are complicated...making laws about protection and deciding who is worth protecting. What is bad for one person is not bad for everyone such as your suggested banning of the teaching of the Pauline epistles. Same here...while a polygamous relationship might not work in one family doesn't mean it isn't the best solution for someone else. So while I don't really know a lot about marriages and laws, I have a hard time thinking polygamy should be completely outlawed.

the Ape said...

I think it's useful to understand that most people understand polygamy as it has been practiced in America, not as an abstract issue. They see one older man with a bunch of young wives and it looks to them like exploitation and intimidation.

I can't myself imagine ever being in a polygamous relationship and I also don't understand how a healthy one would work. But, I also cannot formulate a logical argument against it if my premise is that any consenting, competent adult can make whatever domestic arrangement of their life they wish.

I also think that when people argue against gay marriage saying the next step would be to legalize polygamy they are both fear-mongering and right. Once the definition of marriage takes away "man" and "woman" then it stands to reason that "a" is just as arbitrary.

christina said...

Hey Jason! I have to admit that my interest was piqued by the convos on twitter about your post, so I came to snoop. :)

I'm exhausted, so I don't know if all of this will come out but I knew if I didn't write now while reading it (and the comments) that I would just put it off until the eventual 'not gonna happen'.

First I have an immediate frustration when people automatically associate a polyamorous relationship with religion. I mean, i get it. It's what's been in the news as of late and so the reaction makes sense. But it can (and would I be too over myself to speculate that most...) be in the form of choice. When I was in college polyamory was all the rage, and I suppose I say this loosely because I'm basing it off of my own experiences and interactions. Different extents from different people, but none based on a religious prerogative. While reading this post, I thought of one couple in particular. They had been living together for a couple of years and met an individual who seemed to clique with their desire of community (for lack of better words). For them, it was an equal partnership between the three. I lost contact with them after they moved to California. Who knows how many years it actually worked for them.

Which leads me to another point. If most Americans want to be honest, we're really good at serial monogamy but terrible at marriage. It's been awhile since the last time I looked up the statistics, but I do know that even second time marriages ending in divorce are reaching the same extraordinary highs as first time marriages were. We all walk into relationships planning on that being it. If we didn't we probably wouldn't make the commitment to begin with.

I do agree that children bring a whole other factor into this. Yet, unfortunately as far as I see it, we have MORE rules on partnership than we do on parental-ship. Hell, I could go out and spend the next few years procreating up a storm and people might judge, but no one can ban me from making babies. Partnerships (mono,poly,homo) are judged and there are laws. Which situation could potentially cause the most harm to those who have no choice? It's a no-brainer, to me. Having kids. Consenting adults? We're mostly in charge of our own destiny, so our consequences are owned by nobody but us.

I don't really have an answer, and I probably just rambled more than anything. Bottom line is I don't think polygamy will ever really have a chance at being an option unless we have such a huge backlash with the lack of community in our society that individuals begin creating larger family units with their peers - which may or may not include sexual relationships alongside the emotional aspect.

On another completely DIFFERENT topic, one of my good friends is Mormon. Or at least non-practicing? (I view mormonism in the similar way I would judaism. It's not just a religion, it's a culture). Anyways, she explained the whole husband getting married twice only if the first wife died that you brought up. I thought that was pretty wild. She's had it pretty rough as she's kinda been excommunicated (right word choice???) from the church because she left her husband with her two boys to build a relationship with another woman. In fact, they've been together for nearly eight years and this past year was the first time that her parents even acknowledged her partner. (They refused to be in the same house if her partner was there). When we talk about the church she misses the community the most.

Ah well, I have taken up enough of your time and it is way past my bedtime. I'll be snoring (and yes, I do snore!!) in less than twenty minutes. :)

Jason Gignac said...

Ms Amy - Not at all! I'm frankly fascinated, it's always interesting to get a window into someone else's interests too - I hope you won't think ME voyeuristic for being interested in your interests :D. Personal blogs are such a funny thing, they can be very powerful when the person writes them well - and at the same time, awkward to comment on, even if you WANT to, I could write a whole post on that...

The Ape: CONCEPTUALLY I can imagine a healthy polygamous relationship - the difficult, I think, would simply be in social conditioning: ie, we're trained to believe that if someone we love also loves someone else, that it means they don't love us - that love is a sort of competition for a limited resource. Which I don't know - it's socially ingrained, it's difficult to tell if it's true or not?

Ms Christina - Yes, I do hope I didn't sound TOO Much like I was limiting the argument to those who are polygamous for religious reasons! Like I commented to The Ape, I think people COULD have a very healthy relationship that was polyamorous, but it WOULD be very difficult (in much the same way that a homosexual one was at the turn of the century - and still is in some ways, now). To respond to your side note: as a former mormon with some gender/sex issues, I can completely sympathize. Mormons are VERY good at having a strong community, it IS more like a culture than a religion. But that has it's bad side, if one is estranged from it.