Wednesday, March 23, 2005

Does Kurtz really believe this?

There are a lot of really stupid, fuzzy-headed ideas being floated around in academia, and Stanley Kurtz defends the validity of a one such "deconstructionist" argument, in attempting to prove the larger point that "if we allow for gay marriage, then we must, according to the same principles, allow for polygamy."

Perhaps there are convincing arguments to be made on behalf of polygamy (for instance, in my opinion the strongest is "if it's truly consensual, and truly adult, -- something that polygamy rarely is in the real world -- government has no business in regulating such voluntary arrangements) but you will find no convincing case here from Kurtz and his left-wing foil, Elizabeth F. Emens.

The reason why their case is so weak is because it attempts to make an equivalence between the "polygamous" orientation and the "homosexual" orientation. But in reality polygamy is not, nor is there any reason to believe that it will be primarily practiced by those who have a special "polygamous" orientation, as there is good reason to believe that almost all gay marriages will be composed of real homosexuals.

More deeply, Emens lays out a sophisticated case for treating polyamory not just as a practice, but as a disposition, broadly analogous to the disposition toward homosexuality. That, in turn, allows her to call a whole raft of laws into question — from marriage laws to partnership laws, to zoning laws, to custody laws. All these laws, says Emens, place unfair burdens on those with a "poly" disposition.

Polyamorists have long treated their inclination toward multi-partner sex as analogous to homosexuality. Polyamorists intentionally use phrases like "in the closet" and "coming out" to link their cause with the fight for gay marriage. What's new here is that a scholar has built this analogy to homosexuality into a systematic and sophisticated case.

Kurtz assumes that the existence of real homosexuals -- that is folks who truly cannot flourish or find their "better half" in anyone other than the same sex -- is an important part in the case for gay marriage. Well in order to make an equivalence between the case for gay marriage and for polygamy, he also has to find "real polygamists" as well, that is folks who cannot flourish in any other relationship than a bigamous one.

But aren't at least some people at one end of the sexual continuum intensely homosexual? Yes, says Emens, but the very same thing is true of polyamory. According to Emens, whether for biological or cultural reasons, some folks simply cannot live happily unless they are allowed multiple, simultaneous sexual partners. And for these people, our current system of marriage and family laws is every bit as unjust as it is for homosexuals. A person with an intensely polyamorous disposition simply cannot be happy, says Emens, outside of a polyamorous family setting. For these people, argues Emens, our social hostility to polyamory imposes a vast range of unjust legal burdens.

Just because someone argues that "these people exist and cannot be happy unless they live under such an arrangement" doesn't necessarily make it true. But even if they do exist, the cross-cultural history of the practice of polygamy tells us that they aren't the ones who are primarily motivated into the practice.

Experience with polygamy tells us that it's what we think of as "normal" men (well, the more dominant ones in any particular society) who are primarily attracted to the institution. And given that polygamy has been very very widely practiced, there is a lot of data to go by. Wherever practiced:

1) polygamy is almost (with some rare exceptions) always one man and many women and not the reverse;

2) the men who successfully practice it tend to be the "Alpha Males" in their culture -- however that culture defines Alpha Males. In our evolutionary state, it was the biggest, the physically strongest, and the most aggressive males. In present day America, arguably Bill Gates and Donald Trump are our "Alpha Males" (what would you expect in a nation that was founded as a "commercial republic"?);

3) the polygamists hoard the women to the exclusion of the lesser men, leaving large number of men without marriageable mates (and young unpartnered men often present serious problems for society);

4) and probably most important for this discussion, there is no "special polygamous orientation" that leads to the practice. Men as an entire group have this orientation -- it stems from the desire of a male to spread his seed farther and wider than lesser males. Richard Posner (mentioned in Kurtz's article) in Sex & Reason estimates that in our evolutionary state only 50% of the males actually mated, and they did so with the entire crop of fertile females.

These Alpha Males don't share; they hoard the women. And these men, in a civilized egalitarian society do by in large have the ability to flourish in monogamous relationships. Marriage isn't perfect. Many men, because of their nature will cheat (women cheat too, but that's usually because the men aren't fulfilling their emotional, as opposed to sexual needs). And many leave their wives as they get older for younger, more attractive women. But having a norm against polygamy prevents us from having Genghis Khans in our society (just look at how far and wide that uber-Alpha-Male spread his genes).

Steve Sailer is a conservative "realist" on gender issues. So maybe Kurtz will read this article which is consistent with everything I have written.

In it, Sailer writes:

In reality, however, polygamy victimizes men. You never hear about it because few men want to claim this particular kind of victimhood: that of the sexual rejectee....But who's missing from this picture? Isn't there somebody else affected? This reporter, like all I've seen since him, forgot the existence of the people who were most definitely damaged by polygamy: namely, the 149 guys who didn't get a wife at all because Mr. Marriage-Minded had married 150. I have been looking in vain for 20 years for an article about polygamy that mentioned that for one man to take a second wife means, in the normal course of things, that another man will get no wife at all.

Elsewhere I have written (after Jonathan Rauch):

Note that the grounds for prohibiting polygamy seem entirely different than the ones for prohibiting same-sex marriage. But the two are related in this sense: We outlaw polygamy for precisely the same policy reason why we would demand the recognition of gay marriage: the meaningful chance for any individual to marry a person they love. The gay man, like the single-unlucky male in a polygamous society cannot marry any person he loves.

Now some may respond, "but what if there is some small but significant % of the population -- say 3%, just like gays -- who truly do have a polygamous orientation?" I would reply, how would you guarantee that only they are the ones who take advantage of such an arrangement?* Human nature and cross cultural analysis of polygamy as practiced reveals that the majority of those who would take advantage of polygamy are men who have an otherwise normal orientation, desiring to spread their seed farther and wider than the rest.

Finally, this passage of Kurtz's reflects the views of someone living on another planet:

Another one of Emens's case studies is an example of Mormon polygamy that was written up in Redbook. This case is important because Emens uses it to develop a feminist argument for Mormon polygamy. According to Emens, classic one man/multi-woman polygamy is the perfect solution to the problems of the modern career woman. In classic monogamous marriages, women have no choice but to make painful compromises between love, work, and motherhood. But in a family with one husband and nine wives, eight of the wives can work full time, while the ninth stays home and does paid care for everyone else's children. Here Emens puts forward an argument against those who claim that Mormon-style polygamy oppresses women. (And don't miss the discussions of group sex in a couple of Emens's case studies.)

What woman, who are possessive and monogamous by nature, wants to share her husband with 10 other women? Moreover, as this post notes (written by someone who has seen it firsthand), in those Mormon communities where this is the norm, the women do not want this, they are coerced into polygamy as minors and then trapped there, and large numbers of men are in essence exiled from the community because they have no mates. How one could possibly hold this up as the "egalitarian" version of polygamy defies credulity.

*Anticipating someone asking me: How would you guarantee that only homosexuals take advantage of homosexual marriage? I cannot see anything other than a minuscule number of heterosexuals choosing to enter into "gay-marriage," and for some very strange reasons on their behalf. The point of this post is that a significant number of what we think of as "normal" heterosexual men -- indeed far more than those who have a real "polygamous" orientation, if such exists -- are likely opt for polygamy, which inevitably results in "lesser" men without mates.


DannyNoonan said...

How would you address this?

Marty said...

Polyamory as an orientation? Don't tell my wife, but i might just qualify!

Kidding aside, Dr. Herek unwittingly makes the same observations about pedophilia, framing it as the same unchosen and uncontrollable (and ostensibly 'amoral') impulse that defines "identity" in the same sense as homo or hetero (or poly) sexual.

And who are you and i to draw any lines, in any sand, anywhere at all?

You claim that you can draw the line behind you, after allowing gay marriage in. Forgive me for not trusting you, but i say the line has been moved far enough already, and should even come back a notch or two, so that marriage still means "til death do us part" and kids don't have to wonder about who their "real" parents are/were.

Jonathan said...

"And who are you and i to draw any lines, in any sand, anywhere at all?"

We have to use our reason to draw the line. Pedophilia is an easy case: It harms children, therefore it's unacceptable, even if it does stem from an unchosen and unchangeable orientation.

I don't know much about "pedophilia," but from what I do, I understand that there is

1) much more of a connection between sexual abuse of the pedophilic perpetrator in his childhood in "creating" the pedophilic orientation than there is with homosexuality. And

2) Strangely enough, much of what is called "pedophilia" isn't real pedophilia but rather lusting after a post-pubescent, but underaged teen. And that has a completely different cause than real pedophilia. Ephebophilia is "normal" in that it is caused by an general underlying sexual orientation. But it's "wrong" for the same reason that pedophilia is wrong: they both harm the underaged actors involved.

Jonathan said...


You know what, I would ask Marty or other religious conservatives what they think about brother and sister incest marriages.

If you believe in the Biblical story of creation, then the entire human race was propagated by brother-sister incest.

If Adam & Eve were the first two humans, and all other humans stem from them, then who did their sons marry?

Was that okay? Is the prohibition on bro-sis incest a moral absolute? If yes, then God made human beings do something that was absolutely wrong in order to perpetuate the human race. Do they get a pass for that sin?

If that bro-sis incest wasn't wrong, then that's effectively an endorsement of "situational ethics."

Mark said...

It seems to me that Sailer assumes that everyone has a "right" to a wife or a husband. This is nonsense. I think widespread polygamy is not desirable for a number of reasons, but it does not violate anyone's rights if it is consensual.

Marty said...

JR: "We have to use our reason to draw the line. Pedophilia is an easy case: It harms children, therefore it's unacceptable, even if it does stem from an unchosen and unchangeable orientation."

Sure, but "harm" is such a fluid little word, subject to different cultural mores at different times and places. I understand that it was Scandalous for any young boy of breeding not to have an older lover, in Roman times. Certainly Plato and his peers were on both the giving and recieving ends of such relationships, coming to no obvious "harm"...

This is also entirely consistent with many post-modern scholars (not to mention NAMBLA) who suggest that there is nothing inherenly harmful about a youthful education in sexuality by way of a homosexual mentor, and certainly more than a few catholic preists feel the same way.

So i ask again, who are YOU to say when and where we draw the line? Or at least, why are "We The People" not capable of drawing such lines when and where we see fit? If you can claim a societal right to draw a line just beyond same-sex marriage, then certainly "We The People" have a right to draw a line just shy of it.

Marty said...

Someone above, not sure who, basically used biblical theology to advocate for incest. Good luck with that pal -- clearly incest AND polygamy (and even pedophilia) have more cultural and historical backing than same-sex marriage. Talk about putting your cart before your horse...

Jenni said...

I'ma woman who has been married for 11 years and polyamorous for 5 (first in Indiana, now Austin). I'm actually leaning against the idea of legal group marriage--it would be a lot more complicated to implement than same-sex marriage. (Take the Schiavo case--what if two spouses disagreed on what their incapacitated partner would've wanted?)

But that said, I do want to try to dispel one notion here. In my personal experience, the most common poly live-in configuration has been one woman and two men. You are correct that there are lot of men out there with the fantasy of a harem. But how many of them would really commit to the work involved? (Take a recent beer commercial, where a man decides he wouldn't want two beautiful women after all, once he imagines them nagging at him in stereo.)

When you also take into account that some men might want to be in single-sex group marriages as well, I think that the numbers of men and women willing to give polygamy a try just might be closer to equal than many people think.

trilobite said...

Jenni, I've also noticed that trios tend to be two men, one woman. Mark Twain among others pointed out another reason: most men physically can't sexually satisfy more than one woman on a regular basis; the same is far from true for women.

I also agree that whatever the similarities may be in the "rights" column between gay marriage and polymarriage, it's much less practicable to institutionalize polymarriage than gay marriage. We can give every right now held by a straight spouse to a gay spouse with one simple law. We have no idea how to allocate rights among several spouses. Let alone how to stop people from abusing the form of marriage in order to get testimonial immunities, green cards, health insurance, etc. And I would bet good money that the nascent poly community will take about a century to "process" these questions before launching a political movement to get a solution enacted. So, I'm not too worried about a slippery slope.

Marty said...

So "practicality" is the high moral principle that will ensure that polygamy doesn't follow ssm? I know i'm reassured...

Kate said...

Many traditionally polygynous societies are also very warlike. I'm not trying to imply a cause-and-effect relationship, here; I'm just saying, if you have a lot of widows around, who will marry them?

Maybe if the Iraq war goes on long enough (or if, heaven forbid, the US goes to war with other countries), polygyny will be the most practical solution to the widow problem in the US. said...

I don't think that is as practical as many would actually think. However, the fundemental problems arise when help is not issued toward the problems of widows having to deal with this in other countries as re-integrating them into the mainstream society is concerned.
It is an undoubtedly problematic scenario that needs some attention and addressing if not just a little help and understanding.
Definitely a social issue that should take a front seat.
relationship help guy

Taipan said...

The key issue here is consenting adults. Wipe the slate clean about religious zealotry and start thinking with a clear head.

Those apposed to polgamy always trot out the issue that people are forced into polygamous relationships and because of this it is bad. Are there not arranged marriages - yes. This is another red herring.

For a true polygamous relationship to exist - it needs all the parties to consent. To say I do! (You certainly wont be saying that in a church).

Opposition to polygamy has as much to do with power and property then the love of individuals involved.

In eastern societies males seem to hold the balance of power in a marriage. In western societies it is women who have the power. (Look around at your friends).

Allow polgamy and you potential devide that power by 50%. In western societies women run the households and for most successful marriages to work one party or other will control the household.

In chinese socities where a male might take more then one wife - it was always number one wife who controlled the money and the household and thereby the power.

There have been suggestions here that some men would take 150 wives. Id like to see him pay for that! Unless he was extremely wealthy he would become a significant minority in the relationship. Even if he did have lots of money - there would become a dominant group of females who would control his time.

Lets get the issue of age out of the way for a few minutes and that we are dealing with mature adult people with sound minds.

Let us for a moment consider two couples. Let us consider that one of the partners loves the other couple and is most unhappy in there marriage. What if this love has been going on for 10 - 15 years without physical contact (sex).

Now the law says this is illegal and immoral. Is love immoral? (Remember consenting adults). Relationships exists before institutions of marriage come into existence.

This is where the issue of same sex marriages raises its head. Until society can accept that tenant, then the issue of polygamy cant be discussed.

In other words everybody plays happy households but only one household has real love in it. Release that unhappy household and you allow the other partner to find their true happiness elsewhere.

Alpha (male/female) is an issue. Lets for a moment consider that the person lives in a pretty average lifestyle - and the opportunity arises for that person to join another couple in a loving relationship who are wealthy. Wouldnt they take it.

Can polygamous relationships work - of course they can and do. Do same sex marriages work - yes they do. This is never an issue about the individuals involved - but about others who for a variety feel uncomfortable about there own sexual identity.

It would be like making a republican vote democrat. Underneath they will always be a republican.

There is little enough of true love in the world - let people experience life, and make their own mistakes instead of enforcing laws that make others feel comfortable.

At the end of all things - isnt love what all humans crave - love of their partner/s, love of their family?

Get over the sexual and power issues and maybe just maybe a little love can be rewarded.

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