Special Report

The More the Merrier?

Challenging the illegality of consensual polygamy.

By 9.2.10

Send to Kindle

While the United States is occupied with the federal challenge to California's Proposition 8, Canada has its own pending marriage case, which is likely headed for the Canadian Supreme Court. Canada, which redefined marriage nationwide to include same-sex couples in 2005, against the backdrop of successful provincial lawsuits against the country's marriage law, could be moving on to bigger things -- literally. Specifically, polygamy and polyamory, as this case invokes the question of whether the government can continue to criminalize multiple-partner marriages. The case itself, initiated by the British Columbia Attorney General under a special provision of that Province's law, arises in the wake of failed prosecutions of polygamous sect members in British Columbia.

Advocates of polygamy and polyamory seem to have an ally in the Law Commission of Canada, a statutory body of government appointees who propose changes to modernize Canadian law and report to the Justice Ministry. In 2001, the Commission issued a report, Beyond Conjugality: Recognizing and Supporting Close Personal Adult Relationships, that questioned the continuing illegality of consensual polygamy in Canada.

Recently, the case has been uniquely complicated by an intervening interest group called the Canadian Polyamory Advocacy Association. The Association is seeking an adjudication of sorts that the Canadian laws regarding polygamy (one man with more than one wife) do not apply to polyamory ("multiple conjugal relationships"). CPAA's "twist" on the law is that polyamory is just fine, and ought to be allowed, while polygamy can remain unsuitable for Canadian society. The rationale for their argument is the contention that, beyond the social science data that shows it is harmful, polygamy promotes gender inequality, and often involves coercion.

"Polyamory," by contrast, is strictly egalitarian and consensual, according to CPAA, and thus does not involve or promote one gender over the other. Affidavits filed in court detail (1) a woman and her male partner who live and have relationships with two other adults in the household (they also have a child living in the home) and who have agreed that each can pursue relationships with others, (2) a woman who lives with two other men (two of her teenage sons also live in the home), (3) a husband and wife who live with another adult (and the married couples' two young children and the third person's teenage children), and (4) a man who lives with a woman and another man (with whom he is raising a two-year-old child). Polyamory advocates also tout a lack of social science evidence showing any harm from its practice. In other words, the CPAA is arguing that since you can't prove that polyamory is bad for society, it must be good. By this rationale, we can all rest assured that Jimmy Hoffa is alive and well.

It may also be true that there is a dearth of published studies of harm caused by polyamory. This would not be surprising given the novelty of the practice and its small set of practitioners. There seems to be no shortage of breathless stories in newspapers and magazines about these kinds of arrangements but these do not equate to research. Any study of polyamorous "families" is likely to be plagued by methodological difficulties -- large holes in data, voluntary samples, reliance on self-reporting, small sample sizes, poor comparisons, and misplaced focus.

Even if the courts accept the egalitarianism, consent, and no data arguments as true, the proposed distinction between multiple-wife polygamy and polyamory in terms of social harms is spurious. In fact, it may be the case that acceptance of polyamory would, if possible, be more harmful.

For instance, the social science data we do have on children who experience a succession of relationships with parents' cohabiting partners (a kind of de facto serial polyamory, or as the sociologists call it, "multiple partner fertility") is not encouraging (here and here). They are at higher risk for abuse, behavioral problems, and household instability. The presence of two sets of unrelated children mentioned in some of the affidavits also does not sound promising for the well-being of younger children. We should not be sanguine, therefore, that children raised in polyamorous homes will be just fine.

If we take seriously the idea that marriage laws have an educative function, polyamory raises red flags. On each of the core functions of marriage -- promoting fidelity, providing a tie between children and parents, securing permanence for spouses and their children -- polyamory seems particularly harmful. Both traditional polygamy and polyamory promote types of infidelity (though the former is of a more orderly variety), of course, but the chaos of polyamory blurs distinctions of parenthood more significantly than does a setting where a child has an established set of parents and lots of half-siblings. The ethic of "choice" at the root of polyamory does not bode well for permanence either.

As complicated as the day to day existence must be for children in homes with multiple adults acting as "parents," the breakup of polyamorous relationships would be dramatically more complicated for children. There would be an exponential increase in the possible divisions of a child's time, of decision-making authority and demands for the child's loyalty, when the dispute involves three or more people than when only two disputants are involved.

Clearly, when it comes to marriage, the adage "the more the merrier" does not apply.

Like this Article

Print this Article

Print Article
About the Author

William C. Duncan is the director of the Marriage Law Foundation.