Politics & Policy

A Lesson on Marriage from a Polyamorist

The 1969 comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice explored open relationships.
The “born that way” argument is irrelevant if fulfillment is all that matters.

Slate magazine deserves credit for publishing a series of articles about polyamory. The first, “Why I’m Still in the Polyamory Closet,” by the pseudonymous “Michael Carey,” elicited angry letters because Carey compared polyamorists with homosexuals. Polyamory (the desire — need? — for multiple sexual partners) is a choice, the letter writers protested, whereas homosexuality is innate, like skin color.

Carey has certainly hit a nerve. The idea that homosexuals are “born that way” is central to the drive for same-sex marriage. If homosexuality is no more a choice than skin color, it strengthens the case that limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples is a form of bigotry. (Though it isn’t dispositive, since marriage is about more than adult fulfillment.)

#ad#In a second post, “Is Polyamory a Choice?” Carey responds to this argument.

Sexual orientation . . . is informed by both nurture and nature. Otherwise you couldn’t possibly get the vast differences that are observed across cultures and eras. There’s good reason to believe that it’s partly genetic and perhaps partly developmental as well, but at the margin, there are surely some people for whom same-sex intimacy is a choice.

Perhaps there are more such people now, as the stigma is vanishing, he speculates.

The “born this way” argument has been politically useful, Carey writes, but it isn’t necessary. “Nobody ever claimed that Mildred and Richard Loving were born with some kind of overwhelming predisposition to prefer partners of another race. . . . Choosing an interracial partner was, and is, a choice. So what? . . . What matters is that people love each other, treat each other with respect, and live happy, productive lives.”

But is that all “that matters”?

Advocates of gay marriage tend to argue that those in opposition are no better than the drunken thugs who beat up homosexuals outside of bars.

Carey has done a service by reminding us that the slippery-slope argument is not fallacious. If what “matters” is that adults treat one another with respect, etc., what is the principled case against polyamory once same-sex marriage has become legally enshrined? What is the principled basis for objection?

Carey writes,  “For many polyamorists, the idea of a partner telling them that they can never, under any circumstance, embrace their feelings for a new partner feels terrifying and stifling.”

In other words, polyamorists cannot find true personal fulfillment unless they are free to indulge in many sexual relationships. He’s not saying he was born that way, merely that justice demands that his wishes be given the same legal recognition as monogamous heterosexuals — and in many states, homosexuals.

“It is tragic, and morally offensive, that there are still places in the world, even in this country, where gay people face consequences like loss of custody of their children, loss of employment, rejection from family, or even violent attack, all simply for loving who they love. The same logic applies, with equal force, to polyamorists. In this sense, the slippery slope argument — that if we have to ‘tolerate’ gay relationships, soon we’ll have to ‘tolerate’ poly relationships — is correct.”

For the record, that will mean that those preferring polygamous marriages and open marriages will soon be demanding, and very likely getting, legal recognition.

As Ryan T. Anderson, Sherif Gergis, and Robert P. George ask in their brilliantly argued polemic What Is Marriage? Man and Woman: A Defense, “If marriage is primarily about emotional union, why privilege two-person unions, or permanently committed ones? What is it about emotional union that requires these limits?”

Personal happiness and fulfillment are frequent benefits of marriage, but they are not its purpose. Marriage is the institution that provides social stability because it attempts to ensure, insofar as possible, that the mother and father who create a new life commit to caring for that child until adulthood. No other adult arrangement has ever been shown to benefit children as much. To enshrine gay marriage is to say that two mothers, or two fathers, are just as good for children as a mother and a father. And if sexual complementarity is dispensable, by what logic are the other aspects of traditional marriage — exclusivity and permanence — to be maintained?

It’s indisputable that traditional marriage was in crisis before the gay-marriage movement began. The behavior of heterosexuals accomplished that. But as the Carey essay demonstrates, the gay-marriage movement has done a different kind of damage by undermining our understanding of what marriage is.

Mona Charen is a nationally syndicated columnist. © 2013 Creators Syndicate, Inc.

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