Polygamy: Red Herring or Real Threat?

Posted: Jan 23, 2006 12:05 AM
Last week, a small storm erupted in Canada when the media discovered a government study recommending that Canada legalize polygamy. The study was authored by three law professors at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. The government commissioned the $150,000 study into the legal and social ramifications of polygamy just weeks before it introduced divisive same-sex marriage legislation. Same-sex marriage was legalized in Canada last June.

Events in Canada have proven that the advocates of marriage are not being hysterical when they warn of the cultural and legal slide into polygamy. Defenders of marriage have been saying all along that legalizing same sex marriage would open the door to legalizing polygamy. Advocates of same sex marriage scoffed at that so much and so often that the term, “slippery slope,” denotes irony and derision, rather than a serious argument deserving serious consideration.

But no matter where they stand on the issue of same sex marriage, Canadians can see the connection between creating legal institutions to accommodate same sex couples and creating legal institutions to accommodate multiple spouses. For instance, Sayd Mumtaz Ali, president of the Canadian Society of Muslims said last year that he opposes same sex marriage, but if it is legalized in Canada, polygamists would be within their rights to bring legal challenges to legalize their choice of family life.

And this Canadian government study implicitly makes the same connection. A Status of Women Canada document recommended further study of the connection between legalizing same sex marriage and legalizing polygamy, saying “In order to prepare for possible debate surrounding Canada’s polygamy policy, critical research is needed.... It is vital that researchers explore the impacts of polygamy on women and children and gender equality, as well as the challenges that polygamy presents to society.”

Now you tell us. It would have been nice to conduct this research BEFORE legalizing same sex marriage, rather than studying the potential effects of legislation that has already been passed. Talk about closing the barn door after the horse is already out.

But even without a $150,000 study, I could tell you pretty simply the impact of polygamy on women, children and gender equality. Polygamy harms all three.

Women have to compete for their husbands’ attention, not just with the football game on TV, but with other women in their own homes. The competition for husbands’ attention does not increase the status of women. It makes them more subservient, more willing to do whatever their husbands want. Their husbands have a ready alternative immediately at hand.

Women don’t just have to compete for attention for themselves. They must also compete on behalf of their children. They have to compete for their husbands’ time, attention and resources.

Any woman who has experienced the serial polygamy of multiple divorce and remarriage knows what I am talking about. It’s not fun, whether you are the first wife who feels abandoned, or the second wife who feels that her nest is continually being raided. Needless to say, this is not a good situation for children.

Polygamy does not help make women more equal to each other, or to men. Quite the contrary. Polygamous societies are extremely common over the course of world history. I seriously doubt that even the most ardent defender of polygamy could not show a single, actually existing society, in which women are even close to being equal to men.

It is monogamy that as a matter of historical fact, has brought about equality between men and women. In cultures that insist upon lifelong monogamy, men and women have a much better chance of operating on equal footing inside the household. Each woman gets to be the queen bee of her own home.

Monogamy even increases the equality among men. To put it simply: in polygamous societies, the rich guys hog all the desirable women. Make no mistake. In all societies, rich guys have a better chance of getting younger, prettier and wealthier wives. The difference is that in a monogamous society, even the richest guy only gets one wife. The men who are less well-endowed still get a chance to compete. Polygamous societies have the problem of poor young men, who are not married and have no reasonable prospect of getting married.

Each man gets to have a wife. Each woman gets to have a husband. The institution of monogamy levels the playing field among men, among women, and between men and women. There is someone for everyone.

Don’t kid yourself about polygamy being “just another life-style choice.” That language is meant to stifle discussion. The Life-Style Choice argument is meant to imply that we should all be delighted to embrace within our society to demonstrate what open, tolerant and all-round good people we are. Polygamy is a bad thing. And it is not a small thing. It is not something that can be introduced into society as one item on a menu, with no impact on all the other choices on the menu. Permitting polygamy will change marriage for everyone, because it will change the terms under which competition in the “marriage market” takes place.

Don’t kid yourself. Polygamy is waiting in the wings of the same-sex marriage debate. If we lose the same-sex marriage debate, we better be prepared to defend monogamy. Because that’s next.

Note to readers: Jennifer Roback Morse is the founder of Your Coach for the Culture Wars, a business that helps organizations maintain their core values in the face of today's culture wars. She is also a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty. She filed this column from Rome where she is participating in an Acton event. She will give her readers a full report in a future column.