From the Fringes: A Marital Blitz

April 2017

It’s no secret that marriage in America has undergone a radical recalibration. The traditional definition of the term is “a legal union of a man and a woman as husband and wife.” That’s so 1950s! The new-fashioned understanding of marriage, imposed on all fifty states by the U.S. Supreme Court’s Obergefell v. Hodges ruling (2015), is a legal union of one man and one woman, or of two men, or of two women. This more expansive conceptualization became a matter of convention so quickly that opposition to marriage between two men or two women evaporated almost immediately after the court handed down its decision. Within a matter of days, Donald Cardinal Wuerl, archbishop of Washington, D.C., could be heard proclaiming, “The law of the land is the law of the land. We certainly follow what the law says.” We would have hoped that the good cardinal were more interested in following the law of God rather than the law of men. Alas, our Catholic leaders would have us submit to Caesar in this too.

But even the Obergefell-begat reboot seems somewhat outdated now. It’s so 2015! If we can expand the meaning of marriage to include not only one man and one woman, but two men or two women, why can’t we expand it even further to include, say, one man and two women, or two men and one woman, or two men and two women, or more? The combinations are limited only by our ability to count!

We’re talking, of course, about polygamy, another social taboo just waiting to be toppled. Frankly, the leap from the legal recognition of same-sex marriage to the legal recognition of “plural marriage” isn’t that large — certainly not as large as the leap from opposite-sex to same-sex marriage. This proximity of causes is something Chief Justice John Roberts noted in his dissent from the court’s majority decision in Obergefell. “It is striking,” he noted, “how much of the majority’s reasoning [re: same-sex marriage] would apply with equal force to the claim of a fundamental right to plural marriage.” There may be “relevant differences” between same-sex marriage and polygamy that “compel different legal analysis,” Roberts said. “But if there are, petitioners have not pointed to any.”

Though many same-sex-marriage supporters scoffed at what they saw as Roberts’s right-wing alarmism, a social movement had already been organized to normalize multiple concurrent romantic partnerships well before Obergefell was even a gleam in Sonia Sotomayor’s eye. It’s called the polyamory movement. Shoot, we wrote about it in these pages seventeen years ago. Polyamory is the practice in which multiple people engage in an intimate relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all involved. Polygamy is the nuptial formalization of a polyamorous relationship: It is a “marriage” of three or more people.

Polyamorists, we noted in a New Oxford Note titled “Don’t Call It ‘Adultery,’ Call It ‘Loving More’” (Mar. 2000), have organized into a “poly community” that is supported by an organization “with the fetchingly inclusive and expansive name of Loving More.” The group even rated a write-up in Time magazine way back when (Nov. 15, 1999). There was at the time an emerging “poly” science, spearheaded by Helen Fisher of Rutgers University, whose research, it was claimed, proved that people aren’t programmed for monogamy. “People are biologically poly,” Ryam Nearing, a Loving More leader, told Time. Sound familiar? One of the bedrock arguments in favor of same-sex marriage is that homosexuals are “born that way,” and we must therefore accommodate their built-in biological needs in the interest of creating an inclusive society built on “love.” (Remember all the #LoveWins signs that popped up virtually everywhere one looked in the immediate aftermath of Obergefell?)

In these seventeen years, polyamory has become something of a pop-culture phenomenon. It has been analyzed and discussed across numerous media platforms. It has been featured positively in such publications as Newsweek (2009), Slate (2013), The Atlantic (2014), and Good Housekeeping (2017 — evidently, it’s earned the coveted Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval). From 2012 to 2013 the cable-TV channel Showtime ran a reality series called Polyamory: Married & Dating (the show is currently on hiatus, though not canceled). Through it all, Loving More has been going strong, maintaining its status as an IRS-recognized 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization, producing its own eponymous magazine and website (LoveMore.com), and hosting two annual conferences, one on each coast. The oldest and longest-running poly advocacy group, Loving More has been joined by such likeminded groups as The Polyamory Society and More Than Two.

While polyamory, at least as a definable term, might be of recent vintage, polygamy has been around a lot longer than seventeen years. It was a prominent feature of westward expansion in U.S. history, practiced by that most American of religions, Mormonism. Sure, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints banned polygamy just under a hundred and thirty years ago, but that hasn’t prevented polygamy from remaining associated with Mormonism in the popular imagination — or in popular culture. Yes, there’s even a reality-TV show centered on a polygamous family: The cable channel TLC broadcasts a weekly series called Sister Wives, which recently concluded its fifth season, chronicling the lives of a fundamentalist Mormon man and his four wives and their combined seventeen children.

Polygamy, of course, goes even further back than the advent of Mormonism. It is featured prominently in the Bible — even the great kings of Israel, David and Solomon, practiced it. (It has been argued that polygamy triggered the downfall of Israel in biblical times.) According to Jonathan Rauch, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, polygamy has been “a standard form of marriage” for eons. “Anthropologists say that 85 percent of human societies have permitted it,” Rauch wrote in Politico Magazine (June 2015). And polygamy isn’t limited to ancient Jews or modern-day schismatic Mormons. Islamic marital jurisprudence allows Muslim men to practice a form of polygamy called polygyny — that is, they may have more than one wife, up to four wives at a time, under certain conditions. (Muslim women, of course, do not enjoy the corresponding legal freedom to have multiple husbands.) There’s even a Christian polygamy movement (christianpolygamy.info) that aims to bring together “conservative, evangelical, Scripture-based Christians” to promote the “Scriptural truth of Christian Polygamy.”

So why shouldn’t polygamy be the next step in the evolution of marriage? It has a historical pedigree that’s impossible to ignore. It’s been practiced in more places across more cultures than same-sex marriage. It boasts a burgeoning movement seeking to restore the ancient “rights” of its socially and politically marginalized practitioners. The groundwork is there. Polygamy just seems to fit our times: it’s ultra-inclusive and oh-so democratic!

But why stop at polygamy? Why limit the definition of marriage to include only persons of the opposite sex, persons of the same sex, or multiple persons of the same and/or opposite sex? Why not include family members? Heck, why limit it to persons? Why not include pets? Or inanimate objects?

No, we’re not being facetious. As anyone who regularly reads The News You May Have Missed will have noticed, people have actually attempted to achieve such “marriages.” We’ve seen a woman who is suing to be able to “marry” her stepdaughter (Jan.-Feb. 2017), a man who “married” a tree (Jul.-Aug. 2016), and a woman who “married” a dog (Nov. 2014). And that’s only scanning the past few years.

Further back, we wrote a New Oxford Note called “Marriage on the Fringes — For Now” (Sept. 2008) in which we discussed nutty nuptial trends — e.g., a woman who was celebrating the twenty-ninth anniversary of her “marriage” to the Berlin Wall, a woman who had “married” the Eiffel Tower, and another who “married” a bottlenose dolphin. Such “offbeat stories,” we wrote, “are not yet commonplace and seem to be little more than an outgrowth from the very fringes of humanity.” That was then. That was before the Supreme Court blew down the barriers. Now, the fringes aren’t merely encroaching on the center; the fringes are becoming the center.

As the movement to increase the number of eligible parties to a marriage gains wider and more favorable recognition, there is activity at the other end of the spectrum as well. There is also a movement to reduce the number of parties to a marriage — all the way down to one.

“Self-marriage is a small but growing movement,” writes Abigail Pesta (Cosmopolitan, Dec. 20, 2016). This too should come as no surprise to readers of The News You May Have Missed: Our May 2016 column featured a story about a Seattle woman named Beautiful Existence who flew herself to Paris for a week, where she conducted a self-marriage ceremony under the Eiffel Tower that was overseen by an “officiant” via Skype, an online streaming video service, since she couldn’t find anyone in France to do so in person.

The good news for the growing number of women like Ms. (Mrs.?) Existence who want to marry themselves — and yes, if we can extrapolate from Pesta’s article, the self-marrying kind are exclusively women — is that they no longer need to go it alone, so to speak. Self-wedding consultants and self-wedding planners are “popping up across the world,” Pesta tells us. Self-marriage has become a mini-industry. A service called Marry Yourself Vancouver launched last summer in Canada, offering consulting and wedding photography; Cerca Travel in Japan offers a two-day self-wedding junket in Kyoto; and here in the U.S., the website I Married Me sells “Self-Wedding In-a-Box” kits (featured on CNN and in Time magazine) that range from $50 to $230, depending on whether you want to give yourself a sterling-silver or a fourteen-karat-gold wedding band.

And if you need a little emotional support as you tie the knot to yourself (or tie yourself in a knot), Dominique Youkhehpaz, a self-marriage counselor and “minister” in northern California, offers a ten-week self-marriage program via her website, Self Marriage Ceremonies. For $200 she’ll send you weekly e-mails and six pre-recorded phone calls with “inspirational” reflections on self-marriage designed to guide you in the writing of your own vows and, finally, marrying yourself at the end of the program.

Of course, self-marriage isn’t legally recognized anywhere in the world. And there doesn’t seem to be any reason for it to be recognized. The legal concerns that helped force same-sex marriage’s recognition in U.S. law — inheritance and visitation rights, tax status, custody of children, etc. — don’t apply to self-marriage. But they could apply to plural marriage. As Chief Justice Roberts hinted, one could easily conjure up arguments for its legalization that are just as compelling as were those for same-sex marriage.

It remains to be seen whether the Supreme Court will make polygamy a legal option. But it seems a safe bet that the redefinition of marriage (or its devolution, if you prefer) has not reached its terminus. The question is: How far can it be expanded before it pops like an overinflated balloon?



DOSSIER: Marriage, Divorce, Annulments & the Assaults on Marriage



New Oxford Notes: April 2017

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