Stan Kurtz is on the marital warpath again, this time eschewing a frontal assault on gay marriage advocates and taking aim at groups of polyamorists who, he darkly warns in a recent Weekly Standard cover story, will soon be clamoring for their own figurine-crowded cakes if we break the hermetic hetero-seal around marriage. The Standard story, which breathlessly touts a private cohabitation contract signed by a Dutch trio as a harbinger of the polyamopocalypse, provoked a short backhand from Rob Anderson at The New Republic Online, which in turn occasioned a riposte from Kurtz, who complains that Anderson just plain ignores his many substantive, knock-down arguments. Kurtz, unfortunately, will not share the magic glasses that allow him, like Roddy Piper in They Live, to see these splendid arguments—to the rest of us they remain cleverly disguised as either bald assertions or inchoate panic.
Let me get something out of the way at the outset—and for those of you who aren’t going to scroll all the way down to the byline, note that this isn’t Andrew writing: As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing particularly wrong with polyamory, and if the state’s going to be in the business of sanctioning romantic relationships, I do think there’s a good case to be made for providing some kind of legal arrangement for polyamorists. So, bereft of magic Kurtz-glasses, I don’t see broad acceptance of group relationships as the self-evident evil he does (a point to which I’ll recur in a bit): I don’t think this slippery slope is going anywhere particularly bad. But neither do I see quite as much Crisco on the ramp as does Kurtz: Even if he were right that legally sanctioning the tiny number of Americans who prefer their domestic bliss à trois (or more) would have dire consequences, the idea that this move flows straightforwardly from the acceptance of the argument for gay marriage just won’t hold up.
HOW SLIPPERY DO YOU LIKE IT?: Some of the arguments for gay marriage, of course, do cross-apply to polyamorous groups: There’s something intuitively unfair about government’s formally recognizing some relationships as valid and socially blessed while excluding other classes, whether homosexual or multi-partner. But what Kurtz harps on specifically is a civil rights argument, and the link here isn’t remotely as tight.
Gay marriage is plug-and-play. You’ve got a pre-existing two-person institution with rules that can be immediately applied to gay couples with little more than a cosmetic transposition of a “husband” for a “wife” (or vice versa) in the relevant statutes. The civil rights argument for gay marriage leans pretty heavily on the fact that marriage as it’s currently constituted could be easily extended to gay couples, but excludes them without compelling reason.
That’s pretty evidently not the case in the same way with group marriage: From child custody to taxes to immigration, the extension from the 2-person case to the N-person case would involve far more than merely removing a poorly motivated gender restriction. And consider for a moment that last area of law—immigration. One of the crueler upshots of hetero-only marriage is that straight Americans, but not their gay fellow citizens, can obtain residency for their foreign-born partners through marriage. Gay marriage in this instance would provide formal parity—the demand is, in essence, “let me, also, extend my residence rights to one romantic partner.” For the same rules to apply to polyamorous groups would entail not simply extending the same rights straights currently enjoy to a class currently excluded, but expanding those rights.
This is, in short, the difference between an African American objecting to being made to sit at the back of the bus and a portly guy objecting that the seats on the bus are too narrow to accommodate his frame. Both objections might have merit, but they’re of fundamentally different orders.
BI-CURIOUSER AND CURIOUSER: Kurtz tries to shore up his civil rights analogy by arguing that one-on-one marriage will end up being cast as discriminatory toward bisexuals. “I never say that bisexuals are polygamists,” he writes. “But I do claim that there is an important link between bisexuality and polyamory, and Anderson does not address the connections that I do draw.” What connections? As far as I can tell, Kurtz must mean the assertion that “what gay marriage is to homosexuality, group marriage is to bisexuality.”
I have no idea how to interpret that, unless as the claim that if equal treatment of homosexuals entails recognition of gay marriage, then equality for bisexuals entails recognition of polyamorous marriage. And there’s no way to make any sense of that without the presumption that bisexuals intrinsically require multiple (simultaneous) partners for romantic fulfillment. Consider, for a moment, some other dimensions of sexual preference. Along many of those dimensions, I have no terribly rigidly defined “type”. I’ve found myself attracted to blondes and redheads; to Anglo and Latina and black and Asian women; to lit majors and econ geeks. Kurtz, presumably, would infer from this diversity of romantic tastes that I need some kind of elaborately orgiastic living arrangement to be satisfied. And, come to think of it, that does sound like it might be fun. But it’s scarcely necessary—and the assumption that it would be is about as well supported as Kurtz’s parallel assumption in the case of bisexuals. Which is to say, not at all.
CATS AND DOGS, LIVING TOGETHER! IN GROUPS!: All that notwithstanding, what if we did decide to legally recognize polyamorous groups? There would, of course, be “public policy objections,” some of them worth taking seriously. As alluded to above, it’s not a terribly good idea to make group marriages or civil partnerships (or whatever they ended up being called) a way to hand out unlimited numbers of green cards, or of dividing child custody rights a dozen ways—group marriage couldn’t just be two-person marriage with a new paint job. Still, assume some kind of legal recognition existed. What would the problem be?
It’s a little hard to suss out, because for all the reams of paper and gallons of ink folks like Kurtz and Maggie Gallagher have expended warning us that gay marriage will have the same effect on hetero couplings that water does on the Wicked Witch of the West, they’ve never been wholly clear about the actual mechanism by which this is supposed to happen. Kurtz hints that it has something to do with decoupling marriage from the idea of parenting. That makes very little sense in the context of gay marriage: There are thousands of gay couples raising children now, and polls suggest that as many as half who don’t currently have kids would like to (either by adoption or artificial insemination). It makes still less sense in the context of polyamorous groupings involving both sexes. Recall, after all, that statistically speaking, the most “traditional” form of marriage is polygamy—and they seemed to have the “reproduction” thing down OK.
Of course, as Dahlia Lithwick has argued, cultures that endorsed polygamy have often manifested coercive or otherwise exploitative forms of it. But if that alone is a basis for condemning polyamory, you can make the equivalent case against marriage per se. I went to see Lucia di Lammermoor before Christmas—a tragedy about a woman whose brother forces her to marry a powerful noble instead of the man she loves, a family enemy. (The Met production’s mediocre, by the way; save your money and stay home with the Berlin Callas recording.) What’s abberant for the period, though, is not the brother’s insistence but Lucia’s resistance. What once was a mechanism for establishing trade between tribes, or cementing political alliances, or setting up household division of labor has become an institution deserving of the reverence it’s now afforded: It turned out that marriage didn’t inherently require treating women like chattel after all.
There’s no more reason to think that this is an intrinsic feature of polyamory, which is why Kurtz’s argument that polyamory will undermine norms of fidelity won’t fly: He’s using as a point of comparison polygamous societies whose high rates of infidelity, even on his own account, seem clearly bound up more tightly with background assumptions about the dominance of men than about anything inherent in the marital form. As it stands now, of course, polyamorists in committed relationships must either eschew marriage altogether, or if they are married, play havoc with those norms of fidelity. If you want to reinforce those norms, it seems to make more sense to let the married couple who’re de facto living as part of a trio formally add their third partner.
—posted by Julian