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29.9.05

Rebutting Some Forms Of Polygamy

Dan Savage relays an interesting argument on the topic of "gay marriage will lead to polygamy" made by E.J. Graff. Graff argues that western ideas of marriage are in the process of shifting from a model of marriage as men's ownership of wombs to marriage as a partnership of equals. Same-sex marriage is (as Ampersand recently pointed out in arguing for a switch to the terminology of "gender-neutral marriage") the logical next step in that movement. Polygamy, on the other hand, would be a step back, creating a situation in which "one man owns many wombs and grows lots of household labor." So if there's any slippery slope created by same-sex marriage, it slips away from polygamy.

I think Graff's argument is half right. She gives an effective response to the doubts of "Stymied In Canada," who wrote to Savage because as a feminist, she was worried that her support for same-sex marriage might open the door to the Mormon-patriarch-with-a-harem-of-15-year-olds style of polygamy. But Savage jumps the gun when he ends his column by saying "Now get off the table, SIC, and go argue with your right-wing acquaintances." I think Graff's argument is much less effective against right-wing users of the slippery slope argument, because she deals with only one of the two models of polygamy on offer.

In addition to the "Mormon patriarchs" model of polygamy, we can imagine another, which the polyamory community has been practicing (albeit without legal recognition) for some time now. In Graff's historical schema, polyamory is just the opposite of "Mormon patriarchs" polygamy. Polyamory extends the idea of marriage as a free and equal partnership by asking why that partnership can only include two people. So Graff's argument not only doesn't rebut the idea that same-sex marriage would open the door to polyamory, it practically encourages it.

As far as I know, feminists have little problem with polyamory. However, right-wing users of the slippery slope argument are as concerned, if not more so, about polyamory than about "Mormon patriarchs" polygamy. The connotations of free love and promiscuity attached to the former are strong motivators behind the conservative feeling that polygamy is obviously bad. To respond effectively to her right-wing acquaintances, SIC would need to either show that polyamory is inconsistent with marriage equality, or to convince them that there's nothing wrong with polyamory.

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