Why Should Polygamy Be Illegal?

Anti-gay rights activists often ground their argument against gay marriage using the "slippery slope" analogy: If we allow this, soon we'll have to allow polygamy, pedophilia, and bestiality. This, of course, is silly (and gravely insulting). We don't "have" to do anything. Slippery slopes do exist, so the analogy is not always a red herring, but in this case it's a bit like arguing that we shouldn't allow women to vote because soon children, prison inmates, and farm animals will want the vote as well. Besides, the fundamental line of separation here is mercifully clear and uncontroversial: it's consent--at least for most of the cases. Children are not capable of consenting to sexual acts they (and their bodies) do not understand. Sex with children will thus always be unacceptable and a crime (all arguments about the age at which a person is mature enough to consent aside). Animals have no way of expressing consent and, at the risk of stating the obvious, there is little reason to think they would give it if they could! That leaves polygamy.

Polygamy (which includes polygyny and polyandry) is not socially acceptable in most places in "Western" countries. Even the Mormons no longer allow it. If we follow the consent principle, though, it is hard to find solid arguments for outlawing it. Let me make one thing clear right here: no good arguments for disallowing something does not equal good arguments for engaging in something. I'm not promoting polygamy (or even polyamory) here. What I am promoting is people's choice to be polygamous if they and their partners wish. It's about freedom and consent.

"Polygyny is degrading to women." I'll admit on an emotional level it sure seems odd to share one man among several women. In the end, though, this comes down to claiming to know what's good for others better than they know it themselves. This is always tricky. We do accept such paternalism as the norm in some cases, however. Seatbelt laws are just one example. The reason we have them is because they save lives because we are all apparently too shortsighted to save our lives without laws mandating that we do so! So do people always make the best choices for themselves? Obviously not. But the harm in polygamy is not clear, or at least not clear enough to make it criminal. It seems to me your family and friends (if anyone) should be the ones telling you not to do it, not the state. Besides, we're talking about polygamy as a whole here. Is polyandry degrading to men? Are men considered equally incapable of judging what is good for them? If not, then the whole argument about banning polygamy because it is degrading to women centers on women being incapable of thinking for themselves. Who's degrading women now?

This reminds me a bit (tangentially) of calls to ban Islamic face coverings and head scarves. Some also consider these to be degrading to women. Once again, though: How do we pick out those who are pressured into wearing them by their husbands and fathers and those who choose to do so out of a personal sense of piety? (I have known some women in the latter group.) This topic is less controversial in the US, with its strict tradition of freedom of religion and religious expression, than in Europe. But as one woman in an English class I taught in Austria pointed out (she was the only one in the class against banning face coverings): "Prohibiting women from covering their faces is just as bad as forcing them to cover them. No matter what, they are not free to choose."

So bans on polygamy are based in religious tradition and paternalism and are thus overly restrictive of individual freedoms in my book (you all know I'm a social--but not economic--libertarian). Thoughts?


  1. Polyamory is not really socially unaceptable. It is more and more prevalent and is very "hip" right now. Depends on your micro-society. Polyamorists really feel that this is a "new" enlightened choice. Though I think, most committed relationships which try to go this route end in disaster, illegal? No. Disruptive, maybe. It is not to be confusted with adultery where one person is not in agreement. All silly to me, complicating lives and creating such drama and needs, but illegal? How would that even play out- people who are only dating? People who have not even agreed to monogomy in wedding vows (though adultery is ILLEGAL in 23 US states!)....

  2. Hey Heidi. Thanks for that. I made a mistake with my terms (how embarrassing). I meant to be talking about polygamy, not polyamory. Fixing that now.


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