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24.11.06

A Surplus Of Horny Males?

Polygamy is an interesting issue, because it has such low levels of support -- indeed, 95% of people in the USA treat it as self-evidently unacceptable -- despite the serious weakness of the main arguments advanced against it.

The most common argument is that many present-day polygamist men (specifically fundamentalist Mormons) engage in child abuse and oppress their wives. But proponents of this argument have never explained why laws against the real crime are inadequate, and I distrust authority enough to be skeptical of any proposal to criminalize one thing in order to make it easier for the police to go after people who did something else wrong. They certainly don't show a causal relationship in which adding more wives to a household leads to more oppression. (Or as Alon Levy put it, "If that’s an argument against legalizing polyamory, then NAMBLA is an argument against legalizing gay marriage.")

The "it's too complicated" argument is weak as well. Yes, polygamy is more legally complex than monogamy, and we'll need to work out exactly how it's going to be institutionalized -- but egalitarian monogamy is more complex than monogamy with clearly defined gender roles, which is in turn more complex than having no legal marriage. No reason is ever given for establishing when "more complicated" becomes "too complicated." I don't know nearly enough about family law (or the dynamics of existing multi-partner relationships) to give a concrete proposal for how exactly to deal with all the complexities, but I trust that legal scholars and the courts can work something out. To confuse "I can't think of an obvious answer right now" with "no good answer is possible" is a form of the argument from ignorance. In any event, it's a pretty weak rebuttal to say to someone "you can't marry that person because it might end up being hard for judges to rule on."

Part of the problem, I think, is the tendency to use fundamentalist Mormons (rather than usually left-leaning urban polyamorists) as the paradigm case for polygamy. This makes it easy to see additional spouses as a sort of status-symbol luxury good. This conception then makes it possible to say that banning gay marriage deprives people of the fundamental right to marry the person they love, but banning polygamy doesn't. Having a spouse looks like a basic right while having a second seems like a frivolous extra that society need not sanction. Taking polyamorists as the paradigm, on the other hand, inclines one to see polygamy as a matter of allowing people to get legal and social recognition and support for relationships of mutual care and dependence. From that perspective, the significance of recognition of one such relationship is independent of the number of other such relationships that one of the partners already has.

After all that preliminary, I come to the argument I was really interested in rebutting in this post: the "surplus of horny males" argument. This argument states that if polygamy is legalized, a few men will monopolize all the (straight) women, leaving an underclass of men who have been deprived of their fundamental right to sex, and who therefore will cause social unrest. I'm skeptical of the empirical prediction this claim rests on. It assumes that men are far more interested in multiple wives than women are in multiple husbands. This is a questionable use of the "men are more promiscuous" stereotype -- after all, men's desire for multiple partners is typically contrasted with their lower desire for commitment, so it's unclear why (especially once the problems of carrying out polygamy in practice in modern society became better known) men would be so much more eager to tie the knot with multiple women. The prediction further assumes that women would consent to such an arrangement. While they might not have much effective choice in hyper-traditionalist enclaves like fundamentalist Mormon towns, feminism has been rather more successful in society as whole. My guess is that after an initial adjustment/experimentation period, US society would settle down to a mix made up mostly of unattached people and monogamous couples, with a small number of polyandrous households, a slightly larger number of polygynous ones, and a handful of multipartner same-sex arrangements.

More importantly, though, the "surplus of horny males" argument is insulting to both (straight) men and women. The insult to men should be obvious. The insult to women is that it treats their sexuality as a resource to be distributed for the good of society. (Fundamentalist Mormons have a similar conception of female sexuality, but they favor a hierarchical rather than egalitarian distribution). Every man becomes entitled to a minimum monetary income and a minimum amount of female companionship. It says to women who would want to join a polygynous household "sorry, you have to go marry your second-choice man in order to prevent him from becoming a sex-starved psychopath." Framing marriage this way could end up being a self-fulfilling prophecy, as it feeds directly into the "nice guy" attitude of resenting women for not giving them the sex they deserve, and resenting romantically successful men for taking "their" women.

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