Polygamy, polygyny, polyamory

Figleaf has a brief description of his own experiences with jealousy that completely jibes with my own. The times I’ve experienced romantic jealousy have all been times when I deeply longed for a certain intimacy, and saw someone else getting it. If I am not feeling loved and desired by my partner, to see him loving and desiring someone else is upsetting: if I am secure and happy in the knowledge that he loves and desires me, then his also feeling that way towards other people bothers me not a whit. Not sure if that’s true for most people or not, but it is for me.


I want to write about our experience on the talk show, and I will — when I’m able to post a link to the show itself, if not sooner — but right now I want to address a confusion about words. One of our fellow guests on the show was a woman who had been in a polygamous sect (I imagine fundamentalist Mormon, though I don’t think she ever said specifically), married at 15 to a man who had 5 wives before her and 4 after her. Partly for that reason, the show’s producers wanted us to avoid using the word “polyamory” on the grounds that people would confuse it with “polygamy.” (Viewers are Morons, after all. And, not to bite the hand that fed me my 15 minutes of fame, but in this show’s case they’re probably mostly right.) The funniest thing to me is that, even though we carefully said “non-monogamous” and “open relationship” an audience member still addressed us as “the polygamists.” So clearly the confusion is there.

Let’s just get dictionary definitions out of the way. Polygamy means multiple marriage: any marriage configuration where more than two people are involved. Polygyny means a man has multiple wives, but women are only permitted one husband. Polyamory is this newfangled Greek/Latin hybrid of a word referring to a specific cultural movement, emphasizing loving and mutually fulfilling relationships with more than one partner, where honesty, openness, and communication are paramount. (Yes, there’s also a word for women having multiple husbands — “polyandry” — but in our patriarchal heritage that word’s been practically irrelevant for many centuries. I was tickled to learn it when I was a kid, though, and enjoyed the idea of having more than one husband at a time. Shoulda figured I’d end up a hedonistic reprobate.)

Polygynous fundamentalist religions are almost always referred to as “polygamous” even though it is inevitably the men getting the multiple partners. And the history, and current illegal practice, of oppressive polygyny is a huge problem for those of us who think it might be nice someday to legally marry more than one person. While the ideas of polygyny and polyamory might be easily confused in the popular mind, they are very nearly opposite in moral philosophy. Polygyny is deeply sexist, both in structure and in common practice. Polyamorous communities are usually ahead of the cultural curve in gender equality. Polygyny demands that its participants submit and repress their feelings to conform with its rules about acceptable social and sexual behavior. Polyamory encourages people to understand their desires and seek out ways to satisfy them in harmony with the needs of others. Polygyny is imposed from without, often upon people too young to make a sound decision about lifelong matters. Polyamory comes from one’s inner sense of what is right and healthy for oneself. (At least, it should. I know there are many people who feel coerced into trying or adopting polyamory because their partner is insistent on it, and this is unhealthy both for the individual and for the relationship. But the poly community frowns heavily on this.)

So it’s kind of funny to me that the two groups in American culture that would like to see polygamy decriminalized are so profoundly opposite in overall philosophies of life. It’s awkward, because while I like the idea of being able to marry more than one lover, I’d rather never see that freedom if the cost is oppression of young girls married off before they have a chance to understand the world and the choices they make within it. But how to draft a marriage law that would allow my kind of polygamy without paving the way for theirs?

One idea is to impose a much higher age of consent for a multiple marriage than we impose for a monogamous one. 25, maybe? With no loophole for parental approval? (A loophole I think shouldn’t exist in an case.) A 25-year-old might make bad, self-destructive decisions, but by 25 most people have scoped out the world a little and are ready to start on their own chosen path in life, ready in a way no 15-year-old can be. Polyamory in the broadest and most literal sense — building loving and nourishing relationships with multiple people — requires emotional maturity, whether it’s being done within a religious sect or among godless hedonist reprobates like myself.

And the heart of the matter really lies in the difference between “polygamy” and “polyamory.” The “-gamy” suffix means “marriage,” which despite our modern romanticization, has been a political and commercial arrangement as much as it’s been a romantic and self-fulfilling one. I am reluctant to defend multiple marriage in and of itself, just as I’m reluctant to defend marriage, period. A marriage is only as good as the love and respect given by its members to one another. As our fellow talk-show guest related, polygamy without concurrent polyamory is soul-destroying. The love, the respect, the commitment and devotion to caring for each other through good times and bad… that is what makes a good relationship, whether or not it’s exclusive and whether or not it’s formalized.

5 thoughts on “Polygamy, polygyny, polyamory

  1. >> One idea is to impose a much higher age of consent for a multiple marriage than we impose for a monogamous one. 25, maybe? With no loophole for parental approval? (A loophole I think shouldn’t exist in an case.)

    Personally, I’d go with keeping it a bit more simple:
    * Get rid of parental loophole entirely. (Wonder what the statistics of how often getting married at 15 (historically?) with parental loophole is actually about legitimate 15 year old consent vs… oh say shotgun style weddings.)
    * Up age of consent for marriages to 18 or maybe tie the movement to some kind of rational age of adulthood movement (age you can vote = age you can join miltary = age you can get married = age you can drink = ….).

    I understand you’re trying to up that age to 25 because you are thinking this will sort of seperate the oppressed polygynists from the unoppressed ones or something, but I think that consenting adults make choices that appear mysterious all the time. I don’t actually agree that its appropriate to give more weight to the consent of a 25 year old than an 18 year old. Honestly, not sure I’d say its appropriate to give more weight to the consent of an 18 year old over a 15 year old. I think the issue of minors and consent has more to do with some combination of: (a) is the minor experienced enough with life to have a reasonable chance at understanding what s/he is consenting to? and (b) are the likely outcomes of the situation bad enough to warrant pre-emptive intervention? This is why 16 yo having sex with a 16 yo raises less eyebrows than 16 yo having sex with 30 yo.

    Also: I guess I don’t really want to get into a “X poly is better than Y poly” debate. I mean, the polygynists (including some portion of the 15 year olds) will think their way is better too. False dichotomy perhaps, but not a pretty debate to have either way. Not sure if its winnable, really.


    1. You might be right that the debate can get ugly, but I have no problem proclaiming — from the rooftops if necessary — that “poly” entered into because one is afraid of going to hell if one makes a different choice, or “poly” where one sex is flatly barred from the freedoms granted to the other sex, is worse than the kind I practice. I accept that many choices and lifestyles are valid and acceptable, even if not something I would wish, but I will always oppose the use of religious threats to coerce women and children into a lifestyle they may not have otherwise chosen.


  2. An adult should be able to share love, sex, residence, and marriage (or not) with ANY consenting adults. Some women do consent to polygyny. A woman should have the right to marry a man who is already married, if that is what everyone wants. She should also be able to marry another woman or two, or more. And she should be able to marry more than one man. I support full marriage equality, but that only is possible with the freedom NOT to marry, the freedom to stop being married, and gender equality.


    1. I agree. I have no problem with an arrangement where a man has multiple partners and his female partners do not — as long as the women freely choose to be in that arrangement, and have the freedom to renegotiate and take other lovers later if they so desire. People’s wants and needs change over the course of a lifetime.


  3. I especially like the last paragraph you wrote. Similarly for me, I believe that marriage is a cultural, governmental, and religious institution, and I have come to believe that despite many people equating it with committed, loving, relationships, in reality marriage has very little (if anything) to do with that. I know in my life the state of my relationship has had nothing whatsoever to do with my & my partner’s marital state as recognized by the government. And my experience of the marriage aspect has been nothing but governmental paperwork, and bureaucratic bullshit. I honestly don’t know why anyone would ever want that in their life (I know it won’t be a part of my life ever again).

    Also, my experience of a long-term, committed (monogamous) relationship before and after officially getting married has been that marriage brings with it a host of expectations associated with gender roles that are very unhealthy. In my relationship, those expectations were not nearly as present before we were “husband and wife”. So nowadays, I’m inclined to view marriage as nothing but patriarchy’s biggest tool to culturally oppress women, and therefore irredeemable – something that needs to be done away with entirely.

    Also, I want the government OUT of my personal life in general, so why the hell would I want to add more government regulations? I suppose they can protect others by restricting the ability of people to do shitty things (like marry young girls so they can essentially rape them whenever they want), but I question how much laws, police, etc really protect people the way we intend them to, and how much they are instead used to oppress and control people (the way the government intends).


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