This slippery slope doesn’t lead toward patriarchal polygamy

The welcome news of the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of marriage equality has been accompanied by a flurry of media analyses concerning whether the decision portends a slippery slope to polygamy, a question three of the Supreme Court conservative justices broached in their separate dissents. The reasoning goes: if marriage is not the union of a man and a woman, then why should it be limited to just two people? The conservative argument has been used as a worst-case scenario to caution against redefining “traditional” marriage by legalizing it for lesbians and gay men. Some declared their slippery-slope reasoning confirmed after the husband of a polygamous family in Montana applied for a marriage license to legally wed his second wife. According to the husband, “It’s about marriage equality. You can’t have this without polygamy.” A commentator for the Christian Post lamented:

“If your mantras are ‘Love is love’ and ‘I have the right to marry the one I love,’ and if you really advocate “marriage equality,” then why can’t any number and combination of consenting adults join together in ‘marriage’? If you say, ‘But that’s not marriage,’ you have just shot yourself in the foot, since marriage has never been the union of any two people but rather the union of a man and a woman.”

The conservative argument is rather disingenuous. There are obvious differences between arguments in favor of legalizing same-sex marriage and those for legalizing polygamy. Most clearly, polygamy has traditionally meant patriarchal polygyny—the union of one man and more than one wife—which predates the legal conception of state-sanctioned heterosexual marriage. Gay-marriage advocate Jonathan Rauch makes this case fervently in his response to a Politico story arguing it is “time to legalize polygamy” as the next step of social liberalism. Rauch points out: “Unlike gay marriage, polygamy is not a new idea. It’s a standard form of marriage, dating back, of course, to Biblical times and before, and anthropologists say that 85 percent of human societies have permitted it.” According to Rauch, there is compelling government interest in banning polygamy as harmful to individuals and to society that cannot be made in the case of same-sex marriage.

Historically, the concept of a “slippery slope” is a misnomer. Recognition of polygamous relationships flourished in societies long before legal recognition of same-sex couples became a possibility in democratic countries. In the United States sanctions against Mormon polygamy in the late 19th century actually laid the foundation for campaigns for same-sex marriage. As the historian Nancy Cott recounts, government action to abolish polygamy among White Mormons relied on racist notions of “barbaric African and Asiatic practices” to consolidate the power of heterosexual monogamous marriage. This monolithic marital regime – itself rooted in patriarchy (e.g., the concept of coverture) – has transformed to embrace the ideals of sexual and emotional intimacy as we know them now. The conservative argument is thus correct that since marriage has evolved to mean a freely chosen loving relationship, no rational basis exists for defining it as a union of a man and a woman. Same-sex marriage challenges the patriarchal roots of monogamous marriage and of polygyny, regulated by the state or the clan to give men power over their families. The slope of same-sex marriage thus tilts away from patriarchy rather than towards a more restrictive regime of polygyny.

Will there be mobilizations for legal recognition of polygamous marriage similar to the campaigns that led to same-sex marriage’s legalization in the United States? Just as marriage has evolved, so has polygamy. Polyamory embraces gender-neutral and egalitarian values of uniting multiple partners in loving relationships. Some forms of non-monogamous relationships involve bisexual or same-sex partners. There is certainly a possibility that those in multiple, polyamorous or more conventional polygynous relationships might seek public recognition of their loving relationships through marriage. This possibility merits a broader discussion concerning how to support loving, caring relationships and what role the state should have in regulating familial and sexual intimacy. The legalization of same-sex marriage in the United States may provide that motivation.

Melanie Health is an associate professor in sociology at McMaster University. She is the author of, One Marriage under God: The Campaign to Promote Marriage in America. Follow her on Twitter at @DrMelanieHeath.

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