What do liberals think of polygamy?

Conservatives love the “Gay marriage will lead to polygamy! Are you saying you really support polygamy?” argument.  Surprisingly, I rarely hear the intelligent, correct liberal response to this.

Instead, I hear a lot of mealy-mouthed waffling.  Libertarians (and some liberals) say “Hell, yeah! There is nothing wrong with polygamy!” which doesn’t quite feel right to most liberals. Other liberals will simply say “Well, that’s totally different” without explaining why it’s totally different.

So, at the risk of being presumptuous, I’m going to step up and give the correct liberal response to the issue of polygamy.

LIBERAL POINT #1:  If you are a liberal, then you really don’t find anything inherently morally objectionable to a group of consenting adults getting together and forming a romantic bond.  A true liberal might say “I think that would be complicated” or “I believe that would involve some troubles” or “I wouldn’t want that for myself”… however, a true liberal is open-minded enough to know that just because he isn’t interested in that kind of relationship, doesn’t mean he has the right to impose that preference on other people.


LIBERAL POINT #2: If you are a liberal, you are also very sensitive to unfairness in power structures, and the way that historical power structures can perpetuate discrimination and inequality. Liberals are always the ones that talk about the lasting effects of history in a culture. For example, liberals will tell you that a white person saying “nigger” and a black person saying “cracker” are not the same, because there is a huge long history of abuse and intimidation and subjugation that goes along with the use of the N-word, and whenever you invoke the N-word it necessarily pulls on all of that cultural baggage.


This is the reason that most liberals feel uncomfortable with simply greeting polygamy with open arms. Historically, polygamy has been used by men to subjugate women.  Historically, polygamy has been a way to establish male-dominance both within families and across society at large. Historically, polygamy has been tied to all kinds of abuse.

As a result, the notion of polygamy carries a huge amount of baggage along with it.



As a liberal, I do not reject polygamy on moral grounds on the face of it.  There is nothing morally wrong with polygamy “in the abstract”.

But, of course, polygamy never happens in the “abstract”.  It happens in real situations.  And, as a liberal, before I could embrace the legalization of polygamy, I’d need some kind of evidence that polygamy could be done without abuse, without misogyny, without subjugation, and without intimidation.

If we describe “polygamy” as three (or more) truly consenting adults, then there is no real liberal argument against it.

The liberal argument against polygamy is only this: prove to me that polygamy can be done that way. Then, legalization is a no-brainer.

But the fact is, the happy liberal “in-the-abstract” kind of polygamy, with three (or more) equal partners all working toward an equal relationship, is not the kind of polygamy that we see when we look at history.

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  1. Men have used monogamy to subjugate women, as well. Marriage as an institution, polygamous or otherwise, has been a way to establish male-dominance both within families and across society at large. Historically, marriage itself has been tied to all kinds of abuse. Monogamous marriages carry at least the same amount of baggage as polygamous marriages, and the amount of baggage will vary from culture to culture.

    And although I agree that use of the words “nigger” and “cracker” by a white person and a black person, respectively, are not the same, I would never argue to outlaw the use of either word on the mere premise that there is potential for abuse, despite a history of intimidation and subjugation.

    I don’t think the potential for or the perpetuation of unfair power structures is any more of an argument against polygamy than it would be against monogamy, to be quite frank. Unless you are prepared to argue against marriage as an institution, I think this is a judgment best left to consenting adults.

    Of course, there is the question as to whether consent is sufficient for marriage (but definitely necessary), however this would also apply to monogamous marriages. If we apply this standard to polygamy, we must also apply it to monogamy.

    However, your argument is not a hypothetical one, but an empirical one: What does the evidence imply?

    For a moment, though, let’s assume the following:

    – same-sex couples ARE more likely to be abusive than opposite-sex couples
    – same-sex couples ARE more likely to break up than opposite-sex couples
    – children raised by same-sex couples ARE different from children raised by opposite-sex couples in terms of their psychological issues or how well-adjusted they are

    Hypothetically, this sort of evidence against same-sex marriage would not cause my position to change (i.e. I would remain in favor of same-sex marriage despite these findings). Essentially, I would have to be convinced that same-sex marriage has a significant detrimental effect on overall social utility for my position to change. “Same-sex marriage dooms nations.” For example, alcohol, tobacco and drugs probably aren’t good for us either (or our marriages, for that matter), but I remain in favor of their legality because these things do not have a significant detrimental effect on society. (In fact, their being illegal has shown to have a detrimental social impact.) My concern for social utility in this example does not outweigh my concern for freedom.

    Similarly, unless you can show me that polygamy (any more than monogamy) has a significant detrimental effect on overall social utility or women, I will continue to argue in favor of polygamous marriage on the same grounds. I am certain that abusive power structures will be perpetuated with the legalization of polygamous marriage (in some cases), but I am also certain these same power structures will be perpetuated as long as any sort of marriage is an institution in our society given the history of marriage. To that point I defer to the role marriage has had historically, statistics on domestic abuse, violence against women and so forth.

    • Greg Stevens says:

      I definitely understand your point, and agree in principle. Honestly, if I woke up tomorrow and received a ballot in the mail asking me to vote YES or NO to a proposal to make polygamy legal, I would likely vote “YES” … for all of the reasons you stated, and that I stated in favor of it originally.

      But there is one possible unintended consequence that one might want to consider: IF in fact it were simply made legal tomorrow, nation-wide, there also could be a massive surge of abuses in certain parts of the country. There would be places in Utah where polygamy WOULD be used to subjugate women. There would be places where rich men would offer to marry hordes of poor and desperate women in return for “favors”. Creepiness would abound.

      That doesn’t mean I think it SHOULDN’T be legalized. But it something to think about from a practical perspective.

      Maybe something like the “Voting Rights Act”, so that that creepy bigoted southern states would have to have their right to grant polygamous marriages reviewed by a federal oversight committee. LOL

      No, that’s a joke. But my point is that it’s all fine and good to say that “This should be legal even though there might be abuses, because there is a principle involved!” I agree with that.

      But it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t think long and hard about those possible abuses, and think about how we might avoid them, before charging forward.

      • You act as if the legalization of a certain type of marriage is needed for these things to occur, or as if they don’t already occur. There are plenty of de facto marriages, same-sex and polygamous alike, everywhere in the United States. The intimidation and subjugation of women is independent of whether a certain type of marriage is legal. Unlike gun regulation as it relates to guns as a tool for violence, marriage is not necessarily the tool used for intimidation and subjugation of women, but you’re treating it as such.

        These “marriages” being illegal aren’t a mitigator; it doesn’t stop these things from happening. For example, there are plenty of rich men paying hordes of poor and desperate women (and men) for “favors” despite prostitution being illegal. There are plenty of rich people paying hordes of poor and desperate people to take jobs with minimum wage and terrible working conditions, also. What illegal same-sex and polygamist marriage does, however, is prevent certain groups of people, e.g. gays, lesbians, polygamists, etc., from being treated equally under the law. There are benefits to be gained by their legalization, and little to fear other than what is already happening regardless of legality.

        Bottom line: I don’t think these concerns are substantiated. They are exaggerated and unsubstantiated fears, just like conservatives argue that we’re all going to start getting high and be less productive as a society if we legalize marijuana.

        • Greg Stevens says:

          You make a good point. And in other domains, I have said that it is illogical to argue that “X shouldn’t happen” simply because “X might be abused”. Therefore, for consistency, I have to concede that point here as well.

  2. Saul says:

    Interesting article, and I think you’ve really hit upon the relevant issues at hand. I’m an advocate of polyamorous relationships — which, in my part of the country (CA) and in my social circles, seem to allow MORE equality between the sexes and a more thoughtful approach to relationships overall.

    My instinct is to feel a bit queasy about the more traditional forms of “polygamy” — but, ultimately, I don’t feel comfortable making a judgement against it. I feel as though I have to support polygamy by default, because to support any legal constraints on that lifestyle could lead to more legal constraints against MY lifestyle. Ultimately, I’m MORALLY uneasy about polygamy — and would happily advocate against it from a moral perspective — but have no choice but to support it from a legal perspective.

  3. Thank you for this article. I’ve been thinking the same thing lately, that somebody needs to stop conservatives from getting away with the “slippery slope” argument.

    Another possible take–
    Hasn’t a lot of the argument focused on the legal benefits that couples receive from the state?
    So… Wouldn’t it become too expensive and complicated for the state to be required to recognize more than two people as legally married? Even if we could “prove” that such a relationship could work, imagine the tax nightmare of including 13 people in a “married filing jointly” tax return, for example.
    Is that argument too pragmatic and simple-minded?

  4. Josiah Jennings says:

    Just out of curiosity, Greg: What would that proof look like?

    • Greg Stevens says:

      Well, obviously I don’t mean “prove” in the deductive inference sense.

      Instead, there would have to “proof by an accumulation of evidence”. Evidence that such relationships can persist in our culture without becoming inherently dysfunctional.

      The argument would look similar, in its format, to the types of arguments that have been put forth for gay marriage. Think of the kinds of statistics that are brought to bear in support of gay marriage:

      – same sex couples are no more likely to be abusive than opposite-sex couples
      – same sex couples are no more likely to break up than opposite-sex couples
      – children raised by same sex couples are no different from children raised by opposite-sex couples in terms of their psychological issues or how well-adjusted they are

      ….and so on and so forth. The requirement isn’t, of course, that same-sex couples are “perfect”… merely that they aren’t, on the whole, statistically, any worse off than opposite-sex couples.

      This is the TYPE of argument I would expect to be put forth for polyamorous relationships, as well.

      Moreover, I want to make this clear: in terms of my PERSONAL opinion, I’m not saying that I doubt that such evidence could appear, over time, if our cultural circumstances permitted such an inquiry. I’m only saying that that is the kind of evidence that would have to be marshaled in order to allay the fears of many — based on historical precedent — that polygamous relationships carry the “baggage” of being unequal and abusive relationships.

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