What’s Wrong With Polygamy?

I was reading through a heated debate on Facebook recently regarding the topic of marriage equality. The protagonist of the argument was stating that gay and lesbian marriages were un-Australian and shouldn’t be allowed. He went on to use the fallacious debating technique of the slippery slope. To quote: “If we accept gay and lesbian marriages, what is to say that any consensual adult relationship isn’t equally valid? It is the slippery slope to accepting polygamy.”

While the statement was clearly intended to win points against those supporting equal marriage rights, and the debate pretty quickly settled the matter as not being relevant, it got me thinking.

What’s actually wrong with polygamy?

Or polyandry for that matter. Let’s keep things fair. In short, why not allow consenting adults to choose how they define their relationships?

And then add legal protections.

Recently I finished reading “The Moon is a Harsh Mistress” by Robert E. Heinlein. In order to support the society that the colonists on the Moon find themselves in, they adapt societal norms and allow for a multitude of different marital definitions. The main character in the novel is a member of a Line Marriage (a marriage where alternating genders are added over a period of decades), but clan marriages and other types are mentioned also. Each type of marriage served a purpose, namely, to serve those members of it.

Marriage was originally an agreement to support and protect one another. In some cultures, the strong protect multiple people, in others, the marriage contract allows for the protection of goods and financial interests. While few people these days would argue with “what goes on in the bedroom is none of my business”, what happens when people in non-traditional relationships break up? What protects their financial interests? Who sorts out the property if they have all been contributing? What if a member gets sick and there are visiting rights, funeral issues, investments, custody of children?

Ultimately, for me, it is a matter of not caring. With reality TV shows marrying off couples who have never met before, celebrities getting married for less than 72 hours and the high divorce rate, it could be argued that the sanctity of marriage as a tradition is largely over. If heterosexuals can’t take in the institution seriously, I don’t believe they have the right to complain about it changing in definition. If it changes definition, why can’t we include everyone?

What do you think? Apart from the legal complications, does polygamy actually harm anyone?



  • 26 Years & Counting

    I don’t believe there is anything wrong with multiple marriages at all.

    The quantity of people does not affect the quality of a relationship.

    Having said that, it’s important to acknowledge historical issues with polygamy, especially in closed societies – important to note, not important to judge modern relationships based on the past.

    As an anthropologist, I have studied and researched many cultures where multiple spouses are the norm – including within Australia. It is not as uncommon as people may think.

    Personally, I am for the recognition of gay and multiple marriages.

    In a submission on gay marriage legalisation once, I wrote about my discomfort when I got married – the fact that the legal definition of marriage in Australia is “one man and one woman, to the exclusion of all others” and that I was legally obliged to say this in order to get married… I view this as being forced to agree to a belief that is not my own. Isn’t that normally called duress?

    To go a bit basic – if you don’t like gay/multiple marriages, no one is forcing you to have one.

    • Hayley Ashman

      You’re an anthropologist! That’s so interesting!

      • 26 Years & Counting

        Interesting, but little work haha :)

    • http://cookingwithtoomuchsalt.wordpress.com/ An Idle Dad

      There is no evidence to support anyone could be forced into a gay marriage.

      There is tonnes of evidence – giving by young women alive today (not from some ancient times) – that women are regularly forced into multiple marriages.

      Multiple marriage is also the realm of the privileged – either the educated equality privileged like you and me, or the powerful within a society that enforce social standards from the top down.

      Your argument could be applied to the minimum wage – no one is forcing “you” to work for $5 an hour, so we don’t need a minimum wage. But we have a minimum wage, because there are some who lack the experience or awareness of the law to prevent themselves from being taken advantage of – and as a society we have that, even if it means some business that might survive on a workforce of $5 an hour will not be viable with a workforce on $16/hour.

      When multiple marriages within closed groups of society are indeed a thing of the past, then I’ll join you in supporting individual freedom to choose your relationship mix and have that mix legally recognised. Until then, I’ll lean towards protecting the vulnerable of society.

  • Cassandra Goodwin

    Historically traditional marriage hasn’t exactly been between equals either. Does that mean marriage in general shouldn’t be allowed?

    • http://cookingwithtoomuchsalt.wordpress.com/ An Idle Dad

      I think people want their relationships (call it marriage or call it something else – it doesn’t bother me) recognised legally with the associated protection it brings.

      There is no legal impediment to polygamy – marriage is just a legal contract between two consenting adults. There is no reason to limit it, legally, to two people. It could be twenty-five, the courts would iron out the edges if the law wasn’t good enough to begin with.

      It doesn’t change that the vast majority of 3+ marriages are harmful, far more harmful than a marriage of two individuals. I think legalising it would give life to those who benefit from that harm.

  • vanessay

    I agree. There is never going to be equality among partners in polygamous marriages. Marriage is a complicated arrangement, if you want more than one partner then marriage is not for you. You can use a lawyer to protect your assets in a polygamous arrangement, but you can’t use a lawyer to protect your heart, sanity or self esteem. I also agree that there is harm in legitimising religious cults (which you kindly call sects), it is not just the polygamy, these ‘sects’ have other worrying rules surrounding the raising of children, the ‘place’ of women etc. We all have a place in deciding what is best for society as a whole, I think marriage should remain between two consenting adults (of any gender).

    • http://cookingwithtoomuchsalt.wordpress.com/ An Idle Dad

      I wish I could be as eloquent and straightforward as you just were – I tend to waffle!

  • Hayley Ashman

    In theory I support the idea of multiple people entering a marriage if they are all truly consenting. By that I mean this is a choice they have made as an adult and a free from being influence by outside forces. But before we get on the polygamy bandwagon I think we need to look at why polyandry rarely happens. Polygamy is dominated by men taking multiple wives.

    There are enough issues with marriage without complicating it further. A common argument against legalising polygamy is that there are no protections for people forced into these relationships. It’s well known that polygamy is mostly practiced by religious groups and the consent involved is questionable at best. This same argument could be applied to marriage between two people. How many people worldwide (mostly women) do you think are forced into marriages now?

    I support the choices of consenting adults but on this one I think there will be more harm than good. We need to protect the rights of the many first.

  • Tree

    I would sooner do away with the concept of legal marriage than try to expand it, however, as it currently exists, I feel that it is exclusionary. But to broaden the definition, to find a way to legally tie people together?

    I have very good friends who exist in polyamorous relationships, and it works so well for them. It’s a shame they can’t be married as the three that they are, but so many different marriage definitions and a society not ready to deal with most of them (it’s still stuck on same-sex) I think it’d be just easier to do away with marriage as a legal function and keep everyone’s belongings and titles to themselves, but I’m not a lawyer, so I don’t know how impossible that could be either.

    What I do believe, though, is that polygamy/polyamory should not be considered as part of a slippery slope. It harms no one if the relationships are based on love and equality. If some aren’t- well, that’s not polygamy’s fault- that’s the fault of the people *in* the relationship.

    • http://johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

      Agree with you about not using the “slippery slope” argument – we shouldn’t confuse modern polygamy/polyamory relationships with male-dominated patriarchal polygamy that can be so abusive…

    • 26 Years & Counting

      Yes, I see the ‘slippery slope’ argument as implying marriage as it stands never has abuse or divorce.

  • Donna

    That comment is akin to going to a dinner party and, upon someone bringing up a topic of conversation, advising it had already been discussed with different people in a different way 2 years ago. Rude.

    • http://johnanthonyjames.com/ John James

      Hi Donna,

      I’m sorry you feel that way – I didn’t realise that my comment could be taken in that way – it was never my intention to sound like I thought no one else could write about this subject because I already had – if I had thought for a moment that anyone would imply that from my comment, I would never have included the link…

      Honestly, all I was doing was sharing my opinion, and linking to an older post because I thought some newer readers might be interested in it…

      For the record, I thought this was a great post. The great thing about KK&T is that it allows different writers to revisit the same subjects and exchange new ideas and views… and that’s a great thing! :)

  • Rhesus Monkey

    There’s nothing wrong with polygamy, the same arguments against it sound an awful lot like those against gay marriage.

    The “power” dynamic argument relies on the critical assumption that any given case would be indicative of all others and that because it’s a possibility, we shouldn’t allow polygamy because we know better than they do.

  • Liberal Mariah Yonce

    I’m all for Poly relationships! I want TLC to have a show about Bisexual Polyamourous Couples that include multiple Men and Women of various sexualities!