Polygamy is making a play for acceptance

by phil on Tuesday Mar 31, 2009 2:49 AM

With America's apparent fascination with the hit HBO Show Big Love, polygamists are making a play for acceptance. Oprah was somehow granted exclusive access to the YFZ Polygamist Ranch recently: Click here to see three videos from the Interview.

While I disagree that legalizing gay marriage will automatically flip a switch making us accept polygamy, I do believe that the same winds of tolerance that are ushering in gay marriage will lead to more openness to polygamy. And the movement is coming from both the right and the left. On the right, we have the Ron Paul-style "get the government out of the bedroom"-movement. On the left, we have the perennial "who are we to judge" mantra.

What's my personal opinion on polygamy?

For one, I don't automatically accept the argument that polygamy leads to child abuse. The evidence always seems a little hand-wavy, and only refers to the cults that get raided. These cults exist on the fringes of society, but we have a hand in pushing them there by making it illegal. i.e. the Prohibition phenomenon.

Second, I'm skeptical about monogamy (not personally) but in society in general. I won't go so far as to say "our marriage system is broken." It's more like it's turned into a disingenuous act, in that most Americans get married with their fingers crossed, sometimes literally with pre-nups, and others are in a willful doublethink. i.e. They know that the odds of their marriage lasting are low, but they tell themselves, "ah hell, I'm in love." With the high rate of affairs, just how monogamous is America?

Third, I think polygamy is curious in general. Taboos invite curiosity to me. Actually, in general, anything where people just want to suspend conversations and stop thinking invites my curiosity.

Tim Hartford from Slate masterfully discusses numbers and polygamy:

A little over one in 100 American men are in prison--but there are several states where one in five young black men are behind bars. Since most women marry men of a similar age, and of the same race and in the same state, there are some groups of women who face a dramatic shortfall of marriage partners.

Economist Kerwin Charles has recently studied the plight of these women. Their problem is not merely that some who would want to marry won't be able to. It's that the available men--those not in prison--suddenly have more bargaining power. Goodbye to doing the dishes and paying the rent; hello to mistresses and wham, bam, thank you ma'am. The women whose potential partners have had their ranks thinned by prison are less likely to marry, and when they do marry, are likely to marry a man less educated than they are. Meanwhile, the remaining men, finding a surfeit of marriage partners, suddenly seem in no hurry to marry. And why would they?

The women's response makes sense: girl power. The women affected do everything to make the most of single life, including staying at school for longer and hunting for more paid work. The American prison system hasn't left them much choice.

For counterpoint, William Saletan from Slate makes the argument that somehow the number "one" is sacred. However, he seems to be falling into a "say-it-to-make-it-so" trap. That maybe if he can just keep hammering the point, it will make monogamy seem like the right sexual organization of society.

Whatever happens, everybody needs to take a deep breath. Our growing comfort with polygamy is nowhere near our greatest sin.

Creative Commons License