Thursday, May 22, 2014

Why Polygamy Is Not Ethical Non-Monogamy

Dear Viny,

I was wondering what your take on polygamy is, given that you believe in what I think you call "ethical non-monogamy." Are you okay with polygamy? Do you think it should be outlawed? I recently watched a video about a polygamous "sister wife" and she said she was very jealous at first of another sister-wife having sex with their shared husband, but that she eventually realized that she could "want for you what I desire for me." She equated it to the "pure love of Christ." Is that what you're talking about?

Is there a difference?


Dear Wondering,

Since I'm a word-nerd, I need to point out that polygamy comes from the late Greek πολυγαμία, which means marriage to many. In its stripped-of-connotation, purely definitional form, the term covers any type of non-monogamy in which more than two partners consider themselves to be married to one another. (I say “consider themselves to be married” because most countries, including the U.S., do not currently recognize polygamous marriages.) I have no problem with group marriage, either in theory or in practice, as long as each person in the group is a consenting adult. However, the video you watched was about a family that practices a culturally specific, religious form of polygamy that could more accurately be described by the word polygyny (poly = many; gyne = woman/wife). I do have a problem with this particular version of polygamy, for two reasons: 1) in my opinion, religious fundamentalism is simply crawling with dangerous memes; and 2) the way in which group marriage is practiced among fundamentalist sects is frequently unethical.

In order to explain why I don't think religious polygamy is properly covered by the “ethical non-monogamy” umbrella, even as broad as that is, I'd like to share the Ethical Sex Manifesto I'm currently working on as part of the book I'm writing. {NOTE: this manifesto is a WORK IN PROGRESS. Please feel free to chime in with comments/feedback/questions/suggestions! Thanks!}



  • My sexuality is mine, and mine alone. I have the right to think whatever I think and feel whatever I feel. I also have the right to express (or repress) my own sexuality in any way I choose, as long as doing so harms no one else in any way I could have foreseen and prevented.
  • Your sexuality is yours, and yours alone. It is my moral responsibility to respect your autonomy: I will never impose myself upon you. I will engage with you sexually only with your informed consent and express permission. If I know that you are unable to give informed consent and express permission, I will refrain from engaging with you sexually, and I will protect you from harm by doing what I can to ensure that others respect your autonomy.
  • We are all connected. Sex between truly autonomous individuals is one manifestation of this deeper truth.


  • Every human being has the same inviolable right to autonomous sexual expression, regardless of ability to exercise it. Someone who is temporarily impaired (e.g., not sober, not awake) has not given up that right. Someone who is permanently impaired (e.g., physically or mentally disabled) has not given up that right.
  • Some people (e.g., children, elders, developmentally delayed individuals) may need guidance or assistance so that they do not express their sexuality in ways that harm themselves or cause distress to others, but I will not assume that these people have no sexual needs.
  • I will do my part to work against systems of oppression that marginalize individuals on the basis of gender, gender expression, sexual orientation, body type, relationship status, or any other aspect of sexuality.

  • I will give you any information you need in order to give your consent to any sexual activity we engage in together. I will ask you for any information I need in order to give my consent. And I will do everything I can to ensure that everyone whose sexual health could be affected by my choices has access to any information they need in order to make their own choices.
  • I will be clear about my yes and no.
  • I will not play sexual games unless all players have agreed to the rules.

  • No sexual “contract” is binding. People can always change their minds, which means that consent is necessarily a continuing dialogue. I will never hold you to a promise you made on behalf of your future self: I understand that if you ever rescind your permission, you are now saying no, regardless of what you might have said earlier.


  • I don't know everything there is to know about sex, ethics, or any other topic. I assume that you know more about your sexuality than I do, and I will behave accordingly.
  • In general, I will avoid interfering in other people's sex lives. Consenting adults do not need my approval to engage in sexual activities of their choosing. If intervention becomes necessary because someone's sexual autonomy is being violated, I will defer to group consensus on the best course of action to take. 
  • My definition of ethical sex is my definition. I understand that your definition may be different.

As you can see, polygamy – at least as it is usually practiced among fundamentalist Mormons and other fringe religious groups in the U.S. – completely bombs my “Is it ethical?” litmus test. In these groups, wives and children are too often treated like property, teenage girls can be married off to old men against their will, and religious leaders work to create a climate of paranoid secrecy. In short, this kind of polygamy is a set-up not just for unethical sex as *I* have defined it, but also for widely-recognized violations of individual rights ranging from marital rape to the systematic sexual abuse of children.

So, to answer your question: Yes, Wondering, there is a difference. A HUGE difference.

No, I'm not saying religious polygamy is all bad, or that everyone practicing it is necessarily either a perpetrator or a victim of sexual abuse. Nor am I trying to claim that there are no similarities between religious polygamy and what I consider to be more ethical forms of non-monogamy. For example, I have no doubt that the polygamous woman in the documentary you watched has experienced the joys of compersion, a neologism coined by the polyamorous crowd that means something like, “the feeling that comes from taking pleasure in a loved one's pleasure.” I can see why a sister-wife might have equated this wonderful feeling with the "pure love of Christ" – but I would argue that the spiritual benefit of compersion comes at great cost whenever it occurs in a larger context of coercion.

Finally, I found it interesting that you asked me whether I think polygamy ought to be outlawed. As I've already noted, polygamous marriages aren't legally recognized, and some of the practices common among fundamentalist groups (e.g., arranged “marriages” in which girls as young as 13 or 14 are paired with much older men) are actually punishable violations in the U.S., and many other countries, too. For all intents and purposes, then, religious polygamy has already been outlawed. Did you mean to ask whether I thought polygamy ought to be somehow stopped? Well, that's a tricky one. Let me preface my answer by noting that modern-day religious fundamentalists refer to their doctrine of plural marriage as “The Principle.” I'm always going to put people above principles – my own included.

Beets and Beatitudes,

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