Kudos to John Tierney! I find myself in the rare instance of agreeing with Tierney in today's NY Times op ed (see below). He writes that there's nothing to fear about gay marriage or polygamy, or-- I would add--any other healthy love arrangement.
I have a very simplistic view: any way people want to love one another is O.K. with me, as long as it is consensual and isn't harmful to any of the participants. As for those outside of the relationship--they're outsiders--and it's none of their business. Personal relationships, I believe, should be regarded as the most private of "privacy issues" and protected absolutely from government intrusion. What's good for one, isn't necessarily good for all and vice versa.
In this, the 21st century, you would think we would be tolerant of any kind of relationship, no matter how foreign to our social upbringing, that involves love.
It seems we have devolved in the last ten years or so to be more tolerant of war, killing, and death than we are of alternative loving lifestyles.
In the "sixties", we had our priorities right when we chanted "Make Love, Not War." God only know's what happened to our sensibilities since then.
Who's Afraid of Polygamy?
By John Tierney
The New York Times
If gay marriage becomes legal, its opponents have been warning, the next step in America's moral deterioration will be legalized polygamy. These conservatives won't be happy with "Big Love," the HBO series starting tomorrow night.
This story of a husband with three wives in Utah will not terrify Americans. Polygamy doesn't come off as a barbaric threat to the country's moral fabric. It looks more like what it really is: an arrangement that can make sense for some people in some circumstances, but not one that could ever be a dangerous trend in America.
After watching the husband on the show struggle to pay for three households and watching his three wives struggle for his attention, the question that comes to mind is not how to keep polygamy illegal. The question is why we bother to ban something that takes so much work these days.
When polygamy was outlawed in the 19th century, the Supreme Court upheld the ban by citing the "evil consequences" of a practice that "has always been odious among the northern and western nations of Europe." It dismissed polygamy as "a feature of the life of Asiatic and of African people," as if that were reason enough to damn it.
Yet an institution that has been around for so long must have had something going for it. Humans aren't as inclined to polygamy as some apes are — we probably evolved as hunter-gatherers who mostly had one mate at a time — but some form of polygamy has existed in the vast majority of cultures.
Some opponents of polygamy call it the exploitation of women by rich men, and that's true if the wives are coerced into the marriages. But many wives have willingly chosen it, like the three women on "Big Love," who have married a successful businessman.
These three wives, who live in adjacent houses, sound much like the women in polygamous marriages I've talked to in rural Africa. The African wives told me they had mixed feelings about the arrangement — and their fellow wives — but over all, they figured it was better to share one prosperous husband than to marry someone else without land, cows or a job.
That's the way social scientists figure it, too. Polygamy isn't the cause of women's low status in traditional societies, but rather a consequence of their trying to move up. The biggest losers from polygamy are the poorer men who end up with no wives. Women benefit because polygamy increases their number of marriage prospects — and in traditional societies, marriage is often the only way for a woman to improve her status.
Even in those societies, polygamy is practiced by just a small minority because few men have enough resources to entice more than one wife. As a society modernizes and women become educated, they gain other economic options and become less and less willing to share a husband. Eventually polygamy is out of question for practically everyone, men and women. At that point, the monogamous majority can safely proclaim its moral superiority and outlaw the practice for everyone else.
Critics say children would be better off growing up in a home with a full-time father, but a part-time one is better than what's in many homes today. The father in "Big Love" is more like Ward Cleaver than today's alpha males who've dumped a series of wives and families.
Polygamy isn't necessarily worse than the current American alternative: serial monogamy.
Elizabeth Joseph, a lawyer and journalist who was married to a polygamist in Utah, says her experience handling divorce cases made her appreciate the stability of her marriage. She also appreciated other perks, like the round-the-clock day care that enabled her to keep an unpredictable schedule at work and to relax when she came home.
"If I'm dog-tired and stressed out, I can be alone and guilt-free," she explained in a speech to the National Organization for Women. "It's a rare day when all eight of my husband's wives are tired and stressed at the same time." She told the NOW audience that polygamy "offers an independent women a real chance to have it all" and represented "the ultimate feminist lifestyle."
She won't persuade many American women, feminists or otherwise. But if a few consenting adults like her still want to practice polygamy, there's no reason to stop them. And if the specter of legalized polygamy is the best argument against gay marriage, let the wedding bells ring.
Photo credit: John Tierney. (Fred R. Conrad/The New York Times)
For Further Reading:
- “The Evolution of Desire: Strategies of Human Mating” by David Buss. Basic Books, 320 pp., June 2003.
- “Why We Love: The Nature and Chemistry of Romantic Love” by Helen Fisher. Henry Holt, 320 pp., January 2005.
- “A Treatise on the Family” by Gary S. Becker. Harvard University Press, 304 pp., April 1991.
- "On the Return of the 'Civilizing Project'" by Richard A. Shweder. Daedalus: Journal of the American Academy of Arts of Sciences, vol. 131, no. 3, pps. 117-121. Summer 2002.
- “The Mystery of Monogamy” by ERIC D. GOULD, OMER MOAV, and AVI SIMHON, Hebrew University. Working paper, December 2004.
- “Economics in a Family Way” by Ted Bergstrom, University of Michigan. Working paper, February 2000.
- ABC News: Mormons Not Laughing About Polygamy Comedy 'Big Love'