Walter Olson has a top-notch blog post over at Independent Gay Forum that describes why increased acceptance of same-sex marriage isn't going to lead to acceptance of polyamory.
I agree with all of his arguments and I'd add one. Gay marriage is, at the very worst, neutral for society while polyamory is pretty clearly harmful to society. The obvious harms of polyamory are likely to prevent its widespread acceptance.
The facts about gay marriage should come first. Now that we've had almost a decade of legal gay marriage, it seems reasonably safe to say that it has no detectable negative social impacts. If it did, say, harm heterosexual marriage or lead to more illegitimacy, that would be an argument against it. But there are no harms. Illegitimacy and divorce are both down from their highs; teen pregnancy is way down.
Meanwhile, only about 3.5 percent of the population identifies as gay indicating (no surprise) that increasing social acceptance of homosexuality is not exploding the number of people who identify as LGBT. Many people, me included, have come to support same-sex marriage because it's socially beneficial. In the long term, most of the impacts of gay marriage seem likely to be good: fewer people in intrinsically unstable "mixed orientation" marriages (leading to even less divorce), more loving two-parent homes for children, and more stable family environments for gay Americans. And these positive social externalities of gay marriage are likely to increase as gay marriage becomes more widespread.
On the other hand, a long social experience with polyamory indicates that the social results are awful. If they're patriarchal and primarily polygamous and limit the economic roles that women can take (as almost all known polygamous societies do) they will doom a lot of people to living in poverty. Self-described "fundamentalist Mormons" and the handful of backward Muslims that Olson mentions almost all live in poverty surviving off of government transfer payments and even crime. Polyamorous societies will, by definition, never have enough mates to go around. Always and everywhere, this has resulted in significant numbers of disaffected heterosexual males who have no hope of finding a mate.
And legitimizing polyamory would increase the number who practice it. Unlike being gay -- which, overwhelming evidence suggests, is not a choice -- polyamory clearly is. Its legitimacy would increase its prevalence.
If any major modern society ever moves towards legitimizing polyamory or anything like it, the social results are likely to be an unmitigated disaster in the short term. And this will create a very strong warning to anyone going down the same path. Gay marriage is increasingly accepted precisely because its results, to date, have been good for society. Polyamory on a large scale would have negative short-term results and that's a good reason to think it's just not going to happen.
Have you noticed that social conservatives’ notions of what gay-marriage advocates supposedly “must” believe are often very wide of what most actually-existing gay-marriage advocates do believe? Here’s social conservative Mona Charen writing at National Review:
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.
Do they? She gives no examples of which gay marriage advocates draw that uncharitable comparison, let alone enough examples to show that this is the general tendency of argument on our side. Certainly it would be hard to fit Jonathan Rauch’s Gay Marriage: Why It Is Good for Gays, Good for Straights, and Good for America into this category, or Andrew Sullivan’s famous and influential 1989 essay, or the work of John Corvino. Even among advocates less temperate in tone, few are unaware that most current advocates of gay marriage, from President Obama on down, previously took a position against it.
The rest of Charen’s article advances the oft-heard argument that polygamy is next, on the not particularly convincing ground that some magazine (Slate) just ran a piece by some pseudonymous practitioner of polyamory. (Yes, that’s the sure sign of a social movement on the cusp of mainstream acceptance; its spokesmen write pseudonymously). Such pieces have been a staple of reader titillation in the popular culture since well before the 1969 comedy Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice, which has at no point signaled that a serious social movement to introduce polygamy was in the offing.
Like her co-thinker Ryan Anderson, Charen imagines that no one can come up with principled reasons to back same-sex marriage that do not also extend to polygamy. The fact is that there are multiple and distinct principled reasons, which is one reason it’s not that easy to find anyone (let alone everyone) who is enthusiastic about both causes at once. Feminists, for example, surely a powerful influence on these discussions, have their own internally logical and consistent reasons to support SSM and oppose polygamy (which notoriously correlates around the world with weakened status for women, very much in contrast with gay marriage). Social-welfare advocates who know that being married is a powerful predictor of health, happiness and prosperity have often seen merit in same-sex marriage because it extends the hope of marriage to more persons, but have reason to look askance at polygamy since in polygamous cultures more males never find lifelong mates. And so forth for other groups.
Meanwhile, the West actually does have two real-world constituencies for legalized polygamy, both extremely small. One is the minuscule group of old-school Muslim and splinter-Mormon practitioners who typically ground the practice in tradition, divine will, and scripture, and who very often are implacably opposed to same-sex marriage. The other is the not much bigger fringe of polyamorists and free-love advocates, many of whom were at best tepid toward SSM, seeing it as herding gays into bourgeois domesticity. It should go without saying that the second group is unlikely to team up with the first into an effective public movement, nor are the numbers of either likely to grow radically, short of mass immigration from certain pre-modern parts of the world.
Our side is winning on gay marriage for a very simple reason, which is that millions of mothers think, “I didn’t choose for my kid to be gay, but since he is, I hope he settles down with the right person.” I have never, ever heard a mother say “I didn’t choose for my kid to want multiple mates, but since he does, I hope he settles down with the right three or four women.” Isn’t it time writers like Charen and Anderson dropped this trope?
late 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.)
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 more 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 Girgis 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 had done a different kind of damage by undermining our understanding of what marriage is.
To find out more about Mona Charen and read features by other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.
Revelers in the rainbow-washed crowd smiled and cheered this month as the little blond girl in the parade float pageant-waved to the B-52's "Love Shack."
Next to the float, the girl's father, Billy Holder, handed out fliers to the Atlanta Pride Parade crowd. His wife, Melissa, carried a banner along with Jeremy Mullins, the couple's partner.
"Polyamory: Having simultaneous close emotional relationships with two or more other individuals," read their purple-lettered banner, embellished with an infinity heart.
The "awws" and waves from the crowd gave way to some puzzled looks and snickers.
"What's poly?" a woman asked, looking toward a handwritten sign on the float that read "Atlanta Poly Paradise."
"Multiple partners?" the man next to her guessed.
Sort of. As the concept of open relationships rises in pop culture and political debates, some polyamorous families like the Holders and Mullins see an opportunity to go public and fight stereotypes that polyamory is just swinging, cheating or kinky sex.
It's not just a fling or a phase for them. It's an identity. They want to show that polyamory can be a viable alternative to monogamy, even for middle-class, suburban families with children, jobs and house notes.
"We're not trying to say that monogamy is bad," said Billy Holder, a 36-year-old carpenter who works at a university in Atlanta. "We're trying to promote the fact that everyone has a right to develop a relationship structure that works for them."
For the Holder-Mullins triad, polyamory is three adults living in the same home about 20 miles south of Atlanta. They share bills, housework and childcare for their 9-year-old daughter. They work at the same place, sharing carpooling duties so someone can see their daughter off to school each day.
Surrounded at the parade by drag queens from El Gato Negro nightclub, singers from a gospel choir and supporters of the Libertarian Party of Georgia, Billy Holder didn't stand out in his jeans, T-shirt and wide-brimmed, sun-shielding hat. That's sort of the point, he said: to demonstrate that polyamorists, or polys, are just like anybody else.
But, he's quick to add, "It takes a lot of work and it's not for everybody."
It's a common refrain from long-practicing polys. Jealousy among partners is one thing, but they also face or fear disapproval from neighbors, relatives and coworkers. The Holders and Mullins dealt with rejection from parents and one of Melissa Holder's sons when they revealed their relationship. They've also been the subject of a child welfare probe that ended in no charges being laid.
"We've been through it all," said 35-year-old Jeremy Mullins, a computer programmer.
That's why they're coming out, he said -- to change the status quo. And yet, their willingness to speak with CNN over the past 18 months came with conditions, such as the request to not name their employers.
Marching in the parade for the fourth year is just one way they're trying to promote public acceptance of polyamory. Someday, they want to challenge laws that criminalize adultery and cohabitation, Mullins said.
"We want to promote the idea that any relationship is valid as long as it is a choice made by consenting adults," he said. "In this regard, and as in most things, promoting public acceptance is the first step."
It's an uphill battle. Many traditional marriage counselors and relationship therapists discourage non-monogamy, and in the absence of more research on the long-term effects of polyamory, modern science and academia hasn't reached a consensus on whether it's a healthy relationship structure.
Even among a crowd as colorful as the Pride Parade, the giggles and questions suggest polyamory is still a way of life that's on the fringes.
"Polyamory is the nonpossessive, honest, responsible and ethical philosophy and practice of loving multiple people simultaneously," it said.
"Polyamory is not a swing club or group."
"Polyamory is not about recreational or promiscuous sex."
Otherwise, there are no universal rules for "how it works," one of the most common question polys say they hear, Holder said. The most common dynamic tends to start with a couple, married or unmarried, who might identify as straight, gay or bisexual. Guidelines are set within each relationship -- ideally, a negotiated framework of communication based on trust and honesty, he said. ...
Just looking at it, you wouldn’t suspect the house to be anything but normal. It’s large and white, it’s a home dedicated to “clean and sober living” and is located in a rural area of Eugene. Yet there’s a room in the basement of the house where activities take place that many people probably don’t know about: blood is shed intentionally, whips are flicked on soft skin and ropes decorate women’s bodies, which are then suspended from the ceiling.
It’s called the “dungeon,” a place where pleasure is synonymous with pain.
The dungeon belongs to “Mech,” a self-proclaimed “fireplay instructor,” rope rigger and artist and an “old submissive with a sadist streak.” Like many in the BDSM community, pain is Mech’s aphrodisiac, and he enjoys giving it just as much as receiving it.
“To a true sadist, hurting someone is erotic,” Mech said. “I can very often bring girls to orgasm without even touching them.”
Wearing all black with pierced ears (two earrings in each) and a goatee, you’d never guess Mech has worked as a mechanic before, then a firefighter EMT, then a firefighter chief. All you see is his passion for pain and pleasure: In the dungeon, his eyes light up as he gives a tour. On one corner is the “St. Andrew’s Cross,” an x-shaped wooden piece onto which he ties women up. In another are the fire torches, colored ropes and a scrapbook of various tattoo patterns he uses to cut “tattoos” in to the skin of others using outlines in the shape of butterflies or Hello Kitty.
Needless to say, the 70-year-old is no rookie to BDSM. He has been doing this for 12 years, first meeting his ex-mistress through a BDSM chat room after he ended his 30-year marriage. Today, he hosts weekly open houses and private sessions. Some of the lessons include teaching others the proper way to hit one another (“Just stay away from the kidneys”) and how to play with fire safely.
Mech also performs at Diablo’s Downtown Lounge, a nightclub in Eugene that hosts semiannual fetish balls and quarterly fetish nights. Though the club is soon closing down (its last fetish ball is Oct. 26), it has been a public space for much of the fetish community in Eugene for the last 14 years. On fetish nights, there’s everything from spanking and piercing to fire play and cutting.
“People often refer to us as ‘that’ fetish bar” said Diablo’s owner Troy Slavkovsky. “Diablo’s has introduced it more to the masses.”
Rob Reynolds, a performer at Diablo’s for the past four years, would agree. “Diablo’s has always given others the ability to check out the scene in a setting that isn’t intimidating,” he said.
When he performs, Reynolds uses “impact play,” a practice in which one person is struck repeatedly by another. Most of his subjects are naked and he hits them with instruments that are visually stunning and effective: like floggers, crops and paddles. He will use anything, he says, that can get them to “where they need to go.”
“I’m just the bus driver,” Reynolds said. “And they love it. Which means I do, too. Sometimes, I can’t even get them to get off the stage.” ...
The city Zoning Board Appeals has rejected a request from a group that caters to people with “alternative lifestyles” to operate a community center in Midtown.
The board voted unanimously on Tuesday against the change-of-use filed by the group Feel Me Breathe for the building at 1-11 Sterling St. Board members said they rejected the request because the building’s owner, Michael Piazza, did not show he would suffer “unnecessary hardship” if the change was turned down.
The change was needed because the building is located in an office zone. The community center operated at the site for 11 months until being shut down by the city earlier this month.
The city’s attorney, Andrew Zweben, said Feel Me Breathe did not obtain permission for the building’s use, did not undergo a required Planning Board review and did not get a parking variance.Supporters of Feel Me Breathe say it is a “discreet” group that provides a haven for people with alternative lifestyles. The group says its membership is more than 600, with many coming from different parts of the United States.People under age 18 are not allowed into the center, and non-members cannot enter unless invited.About 30 members of the group attended Tuesday’s Zoning Board of Appeals meeting.
Board members asked whether Feel Me Breathe allowed sexual activity inside the Sterling Street building. Accord resident Tina Woodbury, who heads the group, said no.
Woodbury said the building simply was a gathering spot where people with “alternative lifestyles” — such as gays, lesbians, transsexuals and cross-dressers — could gather “without judgment.”
“We embrace everyone who considers themselves alternative lifestyle — whether they are into SM, or they are bi or poly or trans or furry, cross-gender or cross-dressers,” Woodbury said. “If you feel you are different from the norm and you need a place where you can be embraced and not be judged, Feel Me Breathe wants to welcome those types of people.”
Woodbury, who identified herself as is bisexual, said classes given at the center have dealt with such subjects as bondage, domination, sadism and masochism. She said the classes are given so that people can conduct themselves safely.Woodbury said she was disappointed by the board’s decision.“Now we have no place to call home,” she said.
Zoning Board of Appeals member Andi Turco-Levin, a former city alderwoman and one-time mayoral candidate, said the Sterling Street location is inappropriate for Feel Me Breathe’s center because it is near the Boys & Girls Club of Kingston and a youth baseball field.
Midtown resident James Ritcher echoed that sentiment.
“If this is what they want, fine. Let’s find an appropriate place that is correct for it,” he said.
S&M fetish club or adult lifestyle community center?
Either way, Kingston is shutting it down. The owner of the building says he will fight to get it open again.
The business, called Feel Me Breathe, is about a block from the Midtown Boys and Girls Club, a baseball field and in the same building as a cheese factory. Owners appeared in front of a Zoning Board of Appeals board to ask for a variance Tuesday night.
But, despite passionate support from about 30 members dressed in purple, the board voted unanimously Tuesday night to not grant the business a variance, essentially telling them to hit the road.
Andi Turco-Levin, a zoning board member, said not enough information was provided by the building owner, Michael Piazza, to prove there was a financial hardship to grant the variance. A variance is essentially a waiver from zoning rules.
“It's never easy having to separate your heart from a decision to be made when serving on a public board,” Turco-Levin said.
Feel Me Breathe has operated out of 1-11 Sterling St. for about 11 months, a building that also houses a karate club and residential apartments. At question Tuesday was if Feel Me Breathe is adult use and, if so, can it operate inside that zoning area.
Tina Woodbury, one of the owners of Feel Me Breathe, said to Zoning Board members that the business works on donations, isn't open to the general public and supports alternative lifestyle activities.
But when Zoning Board members quizzed Woodbury further about specific activities, she told them members engage in activities from playing board games and going on vegetable picking trips to giving educational tutorials on sadomasochism and dominance. But ...
“Feel Me Breathe is not a sex club,” Woodbury said. “We don't have sex.”
Woodbury says the place is an adult lifestyle community center. Andrew Zweben, Kingston's city attorney, says the business falls into a zone that's limited for office space and 1-3 family homes. If you're not one of those you would need a variance, Zweben said.
“Whatever it is, it's not one of those,” Zweben said in previous interview. “But if that's what's going on, it has to stop.”
About 30 core members of Feel Me Breathe wearing purple T-shirts came out to support the club, calling it a place of openness and trust where people can feel comfortable to talk about their lives and relationships.
Members cited the popularity of such books as “Fifty Shades of Grey” and a six month investigation on "Oprah" as the practices jumping into the mainstream. Turco-Levin said she was concerned that the club was close to kids facilities on Greenkill Avenue.
“Our major concern is the proximity to the Boys and Girls Club,” Levin said.
Woodbury defended her club, saying that most members were responsible parents, members of the community or those traveling from as far as Canada to spend money in Kingston. Several members said they moved to Kingston to be closer to the club. ...
When my last essay appeared in Slate, a number of people were offended that I compared polyamory and homosexuality. The commenters’ chief objection seemed to be that homosexuality is innate, like race, and therefore “more worthy” of civil rights, while polyamory is a choice.
Even a cursory examination of the facts will blur any claim of a black-and-white, binary distinction. Sexual orientation—how sexual desire and emotional connection are informed by the physical sex and gender performance of a potential partner—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.
Meanwhile, there are some people whose innate personality traits make it very difficult to live happily in a monogamous relationship but relatively easy to be happy in an open one. Given the persecution heaped on gays in most of the world in recent generations, and the relative difficulty of “passing,” there are probably few people who would choose that identity unless they could not find happiness in straight life. So, sure, there may be a larger fraction of non-monogamists for whom their unconventional relationship is “optional” or “a choice.” But there are almost certainly also some “obligate” non-monogamists who would never feel emotionally satisfied and healthy in a monogamous relationship, any more than a gay man would be satisfied and healthy in a straight marriage.
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. If you’re a monogamist, the idea of your partner wanting somebody else may make you ask, “Why am I not enough for you?” But if you are innately poly, the idea of a primary partner trying to cut you off from even the possibility of new love fills you with a parallel anguish: “I promise I’ll never spend so much time and energy elsewhere that it takes away anything I promised to you, any more than I’d let work or hobbies take me away from you. You’ll get everything from me that you always have. Why isn’t my adoration and devotion enough for you?”
I have little experience with non-monogamists who are purely interested in outside sex without wanting emotional involvement. I would guess that among swingers, there’s a larger fraction for whom it’s “optional”—essentially a hobby. However, I also expect that if you asked enough of them, you’d find some who would tell you that they can’t imagine feeling fulfilled any other way; thatin order to be satisfiedwith their primary relationship, they need to experience others’ desire for their partner. Is that unusual, or even rare? Sure. But as long as everyone’s having fun and nobody’s getting hurt, why should that matter? The left-handed are also a small minority. That doesn’t mean we need to tag them as abnormal or aberrant. (Or sinister.)
I’m hopeful that the psychological and sociological studies of non-monogamists that are beginning to emerge will eventually address these issues clearly. My experience suggests that perhaps half to two-thirds of polyamorists—those who want to be able to fully embrace multiple loving relationships, with sex as merely part of that (albeit an important part, just as it is in monogamous relationships)—are “obligate poly.” I’ve heard a lot of stories from people about having a few miserable monogamous relationships before they were introduced to the concept of honest, consensual non-monogamy. I doubt there are many gay folks, anymore, who get to age 20 or 25 without learning that the kind of relationship they yearn for is actually possible. That kind of experience was common when I first joined the poly community in the ’90s. Media exposure is gradually ending that problem, just as it did for gays. I suppose it may also lead to an increase in the number of “optional poly” folks joining the community, just as increasing acceptance of same-sex relationships has probably encouraged more bi people to try a same-sex relationship.
Still, as much as I enjoy omphaloskeptical explorations of the origins of my tribe, when it comes to the more important question of social acceptance, this entire conversation is a red herring. The “born this way” argument has been politically useful, but the moral argument for acceptance of gay relationships doesn’t require it. Nobody ever claimed that Mildred and Richard Loving were born with some kind of overwhelming predisposition to prefer partners of another race and that they thus couldn’t marry somebody of their own race. Choosing an interracial partner was, and is, a choice. So what? The correct response to the nature vs. nurture question is: There’s no way to know for sure, and it doesn’t matter. What matters is that people love each other, treat each other with respect, and live happy, productive lives.
A monogamous bisexual has the “choice” to simply settle down with an opposite-sex partner, without ever trying intimacy with a same-sex partner. You could even argue that a “truly” monogamous straight person would “choose” to settle down with their very first partner. But very few of us would seriously recommend that. The statistics say that those who marry young divorce far more frequently. Those who take the time to experiment and figure out what they really want from a relationship when they finally do marry, stay married and are better able to invest in their children. ...