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Polygamous Future? - Now that Gay Marriage is Inevitable, will Plural Unions next be Legalized?
Hank Pellissier   Oct 1, 2012   Ethical Technology  

How Big is Our Love? Can humans truly romantically love more than one person? Will there soon be group weddings with three, four, or five brides and/or grooms? What about ‘Jealousy’?! Or ‘The Family’?!  Is polyamory / polygamy a transhumanist issue?

Two years ago I predicted the success of gay marriage; that conquest now seems inevitable, throughout the world. This expansion of the definition-of-marriage has many pundits pondering, What’s Next?

Attention is swiveling sharply now, with both smiles and scowls, to the ancient-and-new practice of polygamy - the union of more than a “couple”.  2+ arrangements have anthropologically and science-fictionally always existed - 3somes, 4somes, 5somes, etc. were common in pre-colonial Hawaii, in Melanesia, in aboriginal tribes of Australia and North America, in the Toda group of South India, in communal households like Oneida and Kerista. Additionally, polygamy was-and-or-is widespread among Muslims and Mormons, and frequently found in scifi, notably novels by Robert A. Heinlein, short stories by Ursula K. Le Guin, and David Brin’s Infinity’s Shore.

Sweden is perhaps today’s most polyamorous nation; they’ve got “Poly Day” (August 2) and “poly groups” in Goteborg, Malmo, Stockholm, and Uppsala.

Recent USA and UK activity includes NPR hosting a show entitled “Would Gay Marriage Lead to Legal Polygamy?”; Christian conservative Matt Barber spewing “Polygamy is inevitable is same-sex marriage becomes the law of the land”; a British ex-bishop huffing that gay marriage would logically lead to legalization of both polygamy and incest; and a National Review article noting that Muslims might start “seeking their own redefinition of marriage.”

Dee-Dee Garcia Blase of the Tucson Citizen also recently conducted an online poll of the topic.  The result? 60% of respondents favored plural marriage with only 20% voting No.

What does H+ think about polyamory? To find out, I queried two associates, Lincoln Cannon (IEET writer and founder of the Mormon Transhumanist Association) and “Molly Lem Bloom” the pseudonym of a San Francisco polyamorus bisexual transhumanist artist designer thinker mother. Below are my questions and their responses:

Hank: Do you think there will be a move to legalize Polyamory in the future, after gay marriage is legalized? Do you think polyamory will become a more acceptable lifestyle?

Molly: Not all polyamorists are interested in formalized unions, but some are and they should have that option.  I do think it is the way of the future.  

Lincoln:  I expect the US Government will eventually extend the rights and responsibilities of marriage to groups, irrespective of the genders, sexual orientations, or even sexual (dis)interests of their members. Although technically illegal, polyamory is already practically decriminalized. Our national and local governments generally prosecute polyamory - whether it be polygyny among religious fundamentalists or free love among social anarchists - only when perpetrators engage in other illegal behaviors such as child abuse or welfare fraud. Polyamory is also increasing in social tolerance, as exemplified by shifts in our media, away from demonizing polygamy as a relic of barbarism, toward humanizing polygamy in popular television shows like “Big Love.”

It seems plausible that, as legalization of gay marriage is following tolerance of gay relations, legalization of group marriage will follow tolerance of polyamory. Some suggest our governments will not legalize group marriage because it would introduce an impractical administrative complexity. However, that overlooks the precedent of corporate law, which already manages complexities analogous to group marriage at least as well as marriage law has managed complexities like gay marriage.

Hank:  Are you in favor of polygamy and polyamory?

Lincoln: I’m an advocate of consensual committed relations, for personal well-being and for social stability. I’m also an advocate of marriage because it correlates with greater consensual commitment. I’d like to see… more commitment and less promiscuity, whether it be among straights or gays, or among couples or groups. I’m not necessarily in favor of polyamory generally, but I’m certainly in favor of extending the rights and responsibilities of marriage to groups, which may be more accurately described as “polygamy” than “polyamory”…  Polygamy is gender-neutral. Polyandry is to have many husbands, and polygyny is to have many wives. I’m not in favor of sexism, abuse, neglect, fraud, or any other oppressive or antisocial marriage practice, and I’m not in favor of polygamy to the extent it’s practiced in such ways. However, to the extent it’s practiced with consensual commitment among peers, polygamy should be legal.

Hank: Do you think Men or Women will be more interested in Polyamorous Marriage unions?

Molly: There has always been a sizable segment of population for which non-monogamy is the natural preference, but our culture had no outlet for it.  People who wanted to be in long term relationships practiced non-monogamy in the form of infidelity, without realizing that there were any other options available to them. The internet has already done a a lot in terms of forwarding the cause. Pornography is much more accessible and discussing one’s sex life anonymously has become easy (and popular) on line.  Sexual minorities of any kind have found an outlet to discuss their desires, which lead to a higher expectation on sexual satisfaction now that they can see there is a pool or like-minded individuals looking to fulfill corresponding desires. 

Infidelity has become easier thanks to sites that cater to people looking for other married partners. This is not anything that polyamorists endorse, but it has served to point out how many people find their long term relationships unfulfilling.  If poly unions were more accepted and legalized, I think many people would be interested, and it would cut down on infidelity and divorce.

It has always been idealistic to look for one person to satisfy all (or most) of one’s needs and desires:  there is no perfect one mate for anyone at any point, and when one accounts for the fact that people change throughout lives and whoever seemed perfect in the twenties no longer is in the thirties, and this applies to every aspect of life.  Economically independent individuals have no incentive to stay in relationships where the sex life has dried up and/or other compatibleness has changed.  

Young people under the influence of the most powerful drugs known to humanity (released in the process of sexual infatuation) are the last people who should be making life long decisions about whom to spend lifetime with.  The proponents of arranged marriages have figured as much—but of course those who arrange marriages are often the family or the community elders with their own agendas.       

Hank:  Do you think women will get exploited by polyamorous legal institutions?  

Lincoln:  Women have been and are relatively exploited. This is a problem independent of polyamory, as illustrated by innumerable monogamous heterosexual marriages in which husbands exploit wives… Historic polyamory, polygamous and otherwise, has shared in this exploitation. However, I don’t know of any reason to conclude that polyamory is necessarily or even in tendency more sexist than monoamory. In popular imagination, we often associate polygamy with a greater degree of sexism, but a careful analysis of history may refute that idea.

For example, the patriarchal polygyny practiced by early Mormons may have been less sexist than the patriarchal monogamy practiced by their non-Mormon contemporaries. Early Mormon women attained high degrees of education, as lawyers and doctors, that were uncommon among their non-Mormon female contemporaries.

Hank: One positive benefit of Polyamory Unions is that more people might become financially connected and supportive of each other. Do you regard this as true? 

Molly: Sure, this is the case for some polyamorous unions.  But one thing about polyamory is that every poly relationship can and does establish their own rules, there really is no standard, so some set ups are more supportive than others.  One might save on rent and childcare on one hand, but on the other hand keeping a couple of relationships going simultaneously outside of a shared housing can be time-consuming.

Hank:  What types of relationships do you see forming?  2 men, 1 woman?  2 women, 1 man? Both?  2 men 2 women? 3 women? 3 men?  Do you think there should be a limit in size?

Lincoln: In an environment of legalized group marriage, I expect monogamous marriage would remain most prevalent. Despite common fantasies among adolescent males, most of us seem to prefer monogamy in practice, even if serialized. On the other hand, some of us clearly desire group marriage relations, and perhaps many more would if society were structured to support it.

One of the most important factors to consider is the well-being of our children. As descendants of Mormon pioneers, my family and I have many polygamist ancestors. We like to joke about an occasion when one of them, George Q Cannon, patted one of his children (among 32 from five wives) on the head and asked, “whose fine son are you?”  The situation was less than ideal for the boy.

I’m neither an anarchist nor a totalitarian. Governments can do too much and too little in all areas, including laws related to marriage. We might imagine large group marriages resulting in problems analogous to those resulting from large corporations, in which case some degree of regulation may be reasonable.

Hank: How would legalization of larger marriage groups impact social concepts, like the Family?

Molly: What is a Family Structure? Are we talking about nuclear family structure consisting of heterosexual couple and kids?  There have always been blended families, single-parent families, families where aunt, uncles, grandparents, participated in child-rearing, really, families with multiple partners are barely that different.  

Lincoln: Analysis of historical records and our genome suggests our ancestors have long been moderately polyamorous. However, many of us consider patriarchy to be sexist. So… legalization of egalitarian group marriage might be traditional to the extent it reflects our history of moderate polyamory, and it might be non-traditional to the extent it reflects our growing consciousness of sexism.

There’s an alternative conceptualization of family that I like better: we are all sisters and brothers, the children of God. Early Mormons demonstrated an embrace of this alternative by performing rituals, somewhat like marriage ceremonies, to recognize and reinforce important non-marriage relations. Some understood these rituals, called “sealings”, to be part of a grand work to unify all of humanity into a single family. This inspires me. As I value the ceremony that formalized the relation between my wife and me, I like the idea of formally recognizing and celebrating my most important friendships. As much as my biological siblings, my closest friends are family.

Hank: That’s interesting, Lincoln. I like the notion of allowing best-friends-who-are-not-sexually-attracted-to-each-other to form a legal lifelong bond. What do you think, Molly?

Molly: I have no opinion on that.  The concept of lifelong bond makes me nervous, but that might just be me, it might work for others. I just think people change too much over lifetime.

Hank: Polyamorous Marriages would provide more benefits to the multiple spouses - like health benefits. This would put a financial strain on public services and insurance companies because they’d be obliged to cover more people. Do you see this as an obstacle to Polygamous success? 

Molly: Maybe full benefits are imaginable for one additional partner, but 2 or 3 additional partners—that is unrealistic.  If there is a union with only one partner working and several dependents that clearly wouldn’t work in term of benefits, but it wouldn’t work economically in any other way, unless the one working partner was exceptionally high earning. 

Hank: Do you think people might link up just for the benefits, but not be sexual?  If so, isn’t the union very much like a business partnership?

Molly: There is already a concept of  *chosen families* often used within LGBT community as a counterpoint to the (often disapproving/rejecting) bio-families.  That kind of union is very different than a business partnership.  It is based on friendship/shared experience (of discrimination) and necessity and is much closer than most business partnerships.

Hank: What about Jealousy? Wouldn’t polygamous unions be volatile with envy?  Can Jealousy be transcended? It must be evolutionarily ingrained. 

Molly: Is ownership/envy evolutionarily ingrained? People get jealous in number of ways, and not just of lovers, of friends as well.  And they will keep getting jealous, it is not something inherit to poly relationships.  Jealousy happens in monogamous relationships. 

People in polygamous relationship do not expect to live jealousy free. It is just that they feel that benefits out weight the drawbacks of living in monogamy.  For people who are naturally poly, and there are such people just as much as there are people who are naturally monogamous, being with just one person is a difficult predicament.  To them the trade-off is worth-a-while.  

Lincoln: Jealousy is a vice, not a virtue, so it’s not something to admire or encourage… Hopefully, we learn compassion rather than jealousy from early childhood onward, both in family settings, where we compete with parents and siblings for time and attention, and in other social settings, where we compete with peers. Sexual relations probably present greater risks of jealousy than any other kind of relations, but they also present greater opportunities for intimacy. Perhaps polygamy presents the greatest relational opportunities to those willing and able to manage the greatest relational risks? Some early Mormons thought something along these lines, positing that only polygamists would attain the highest degrees of heaven.

Hank: I am imagining that Polyamorous Unions lead invariably to group sex. Do you?

Molly: The answer to this is no. Poly unions do not lead to group sex.  There are almost as many rules and possible scenarios  to polyamorous unions as there are unions.  In some unions group sex might happen, in others it never does.  I would say group sex is more likely an exception, but I am not sure if anyone has done a survey.

Hank: What is your vision for the future of sexuality? What do you think the average person REALLY WANTS TO DO? 

Molly: I think many people attempt monogamous unions because they feel  that if they want to be in a long term loving relationship and monogamy is the only option. This leads to infidelity and divorce.  I think polyamory needs a lot more visibility.  People living poly lifestyles need come out and make themselves visible.

Hank: Do you think polyamorous unions would be violently opposed by the conservative religious groups?

Lincoln: Some of the most conservative religious groups, including mainstream Muslims and Mormons, either practice polygamy today or have family histories that include the practice of polygamy. It would surprise me if these groups became violently opposed to group marriages. On the other hand, the most powerful conservative religious group in the United States is fundamentalist or evangelical Christians, who have long expressed hostility toward polygamy. It wouldn’t surprise me if some of the more radical among them violently oppose group marriages, as they’ve violently opposed abortions and other legal social practices with which they’ve disagreed.

Hank: Is polyamory and polygamy a “Transhumanist” issue?

Molly: According to sci fi writers the future holds many different relationship models. There is a reason why the future is imagined that way—non-monogamous relationships come very natural to humans, and I think the time is coming that they will be tolerated, expected, approved of.  With gender and human form changing through H+ though, who knows what kind of relationships might work for people?  









Hank Pellissier serves as IEET Managing Director and is an IEET Affiliate Scholar.


Seems like a selective use of science fiction for transhumanist ideas. Many SF writers have promoted fantasies of group marriages and such, but many of them have also viewed democracy as a passing phase in human history, and they postulate the return of feudalism, hence all the stories about hierarchical social structures, noble houses and monarchies set in “the future.” So what makes polyamory a “transhumanist” value, but not neo-feudalism?

“Is polyamory / polygamy a transhumanist issue?”

IMO, yes unless someone happens to want the status quo.
Yet is there any reason a transhumanist should want the status quo?


“Many SF writers have promoted fantasies of group marriages and such, but many of them have also viewed democracy as a passing phase in human history, and they postulate the return of feudalism, hence all the stories about hierarchical social structures, noble houses and monarchies set in ‘the future.’ ”

A way to sell books. In English speaking nations kings, queens, princes and princesses are still important to the ‘dumb’ public. Star Wars had it, even Star Trek: Shatner looks like the archetype (picture him with long hair and a beard on a playing card). Princess Di dies and it was a Big Deal; the royal marriage last year was really really overblown.
So that SF writers should use monarchism in their future-scenes isn’t surprising.

I don’t see this as a core transhumanist issue. It’s possible to have a broadly technoprogressive stance and embrace positive visions of a post- / enhanced-human future without necessarily condoning group marriage. What they both share, of course, is a determinedly progressive stance (with all that’s good and bad about that).

point taken about many sic-fi scenarios being undesirable.  There is more doomsday scenarios imagined than utopian futures—perhaps because it makes for a better read. But sic-fi lit does a good job in describing future wide open in terms of gender fluidity, life extension, and very different relationship/social contracts. 
The way polyamory could/should play out would bring more personal freedom and choices, not neo-feudalism, and that is the way current secular polyamorist try to live it. 
Expanding relationship models beyond the one presently standard in western culture might not be a core TH issue, but it does relate to few of them.  Take life extension/immortality: ”’ till Death Do Us Part” takes on whole new, even more threatening meaning, if there is no *natural* death. And if our bodies are not gendered, or gendered any way we desire, if we are to if we are to download consciousness to a hard drive, or house more than one mind in one body or any other possible scenario, then the concept of monogamy starts to look pretty irrelevant.
Of course we are not there now and monogamy seems to work well enough for a fair number of humans, but we are perpetually scandalized when it fails. Instead we should look into why is it desirable in the first place, especially given that it has not been likely the standard over the history of human evolution or across cultures.  I do think it is a transhumanist principle to question the status quo and experiment with social contracts that bind us, that is, for those who find them binding.

I’m not sure that polyamory is necessarily a transhumanist thing. What is transhumanist is the freedom to choose to live in a way that suits one’s own personal style rather than any particular cultural or religious norm. I’m sure that some will try to have more wives than Solomon, while others will remain content with one, or even remaining single. The point is that it should not be culture that dictates anything that is not directly linked to the health of the community. So child brides (or grooms) are out, but marrying the entire cheerleading squad (assuming you get their approval) is OK.

How can you be sure all brides and grooms of the future will necessarily be human?
Either way, you don’t know.

Make it an entire football team.

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