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Will legalising same sex marriage lead to the legalisation of polygamous marriage? Claims that it might are typically met with accusations of scare-mongering. 

However, in a provocative article for Slate, Jillian Keenan – an enthusiastic support of same sex marriage – not only accepts the legal recognition of polygamy as a possibility, but regards it as one to be welcomed.

  • “While the Supreme Court and the rest of us are all focused on the human right of marriage equality, let’s not forget that the fight doesn’t end with same-sex marriage. We need to legalize polygamy, too. Legalized polygamy in the United States is the constitutional, feminist, and sex-positive choice.”

In defence of her position, she applies a number of standard-issue socially liberal arguments – such as the principle of harm-reduction:

  • “…legalizing consensual adult polygamy wouldn’t legalize rape or child abuse. In fact, it would make those crimes easier to combat… Right now, all polygamous families, including the healthy, responsible ones, are driven into hiding… In the resulting isolation, crime and abuse can flourish unimpeded.”

Then there’s the appeal to diversity:

  • “Most polygamous families are motivated by religious faith, such as fundamentalist Mormonism or Islam… there is no constitutional reason why they shouldn’t be able to express that faith in their marriages. Legalized polygamous marriage would also be good for immigrant families, some of whom have legally polygamous marriages in their home countries that get ripped apart during the immigration process.”

And also the appeal to liberty:

  • “If a woman wants to marry a man, that’s great. If she wants to marry another woman, that’s great too… And if she wants to marry a man with three other wives, that’s her damn choice.”

And not forgetting the appeal to equality:

  • “Though polygamists are a minority—a tiny minority, in fact—freedom has no value unless it extends to even the smallest and most marginalized groups among us.”

Keenan rather understates her case here. Though the formal practice of polygamy may be rare in the west (outside of certain minority cultures), informal polygamy is relatively common – for instance, in the case of a man who maintains a long-term relationship with a partner other than his wife). Why should the ‘other woman’ in such a relationship be marginalised as a ‘mistress’ when she could enjoy equal rights within some form of modern marriage?

As for the interests of children, western societies already tolerate – and, in many respects, encourage – a variety of non-traditional family structures.

Admittedly, the recognition of polygamous marriage would raise a number of legal complications – due to there being more than two people and more than one relationship involved. However, as we’ve seen in this country, same sex marriage has also raised certain complications, which have been resolved in various ways (for instance, by having no legal concept of consummation).

Of course, if you were to ask those who support same sex marriage whether they’d also support polygamous marriage, then most of them would say no – especially the politicians. But on what grounds would they justify their opposition? Certainly, as Jillian Keenan makes clear, the socially liberal case for legalising polygamy is pretty watertight. So what other grounds does that leave?

Well, one could always assert a traditional cultural norm – but social liberals may want to think twice before pulling on that thread.

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