The Challenge of Post-Modern Polygamy: Considering Polyamory

AuthorMaura I. Strassberg
PositionAssociate Professor, Drake University Law School

Page 439

    I would like to thank Drake University and Dean Peter Gopelrud for the sabbatical that made this research possible, Mildred Strassberg, whose generosity and support were crucial, and my family-Johanna, Sierra, and Anya-for putting up with me during the time this piece was written.

Arguments for same-sex marriage have, in the past, been tested by concerns that allowing any extension of marriage beyond the traditional, two-person, opposite-sex framework would require the legalization of polygamy,1 a marital practice once the subject of considerable effort to eliminate from the United States.2 In defense of same-sex marriage, I took up this challenge in a previous article and proposed a principled way of distinguishing polygamy from same-sex marriage.3 However, a new and importantly distinctive, polygamous practice has begun to emerge in the United States. Contemporary practitioners have coined the names "polyamory"4 and "polyfidelity"5 to describe a wide range of partner Page 440 arrangements that vary as to the number of people involved, the sexes of those involved, the sexualities of those involved, the level of commitment of those involved, and the kinds of relationships pursued.6

Imagined as a form of commitment which is flexible and responsive to the needs and interests of the individuals involved, rather than a rigid institution imposed in cookie cutter fashion on everyone, this new polygamy reflects postmodern critiques of patriarchy, gender, heterosexuality and genetic parenthood.7 Such a 'postmodern polygamy' Page 441 might occasionally look like traditional patriarchal polygamy, but it differs in important ways.8 For example, it could as easily encompass one woman with several male partners as it could one man with multiple female partners.9 It also includes the expanded possibilities created by same-sex or bisexual relationships,10 neither of which is contemplated by traditional polygamy.11 Page 442

As it happens, postmodern polygamy has moved from being a utopian dream or an interesting thought experiment,12 to being a real, albeit fringe,13 American social practice.14 The internet has allowed previously isolated individuals and groups interested in or practicing various forms of polyamory 15 to meet others like them, to communicate about a variety of lifestyle issues, and to organize local and national groups of like-minded people.16 A nationally circulating magazine devoted to polyamory is called "Loving More.17 Both on and off the web, a polyamorous "community" is developing. At the same time, stories about postmodern practitioners of polygamy have started to attract regular press, often Page 443 sympathetic, on both a national and state level.18 The development of community solidarity,19 together with a nascent public presence,20 suggests that polyamorists may be on the verge of "coming out of the closet" as an interest group with a political agenda.21

The emergence of polyamory suggests that continuing efforts to legitimize same-sex marriage may raise questions about whether legalizing the marriage of same-sex partners would force the future legalization of polyamorous group marriages.22 It would seem to be important, therefore, to consider carefully whether defenders of same-sex marriage ought to Page 444 view group marriage as a principled extension of same-sex marriage and make common cause with the polyamorous,23 despite the negative political repercussions such a move would create. If, on the other hand, it is possible to draw a principled distinction between same-sex marriage and polyamory, it may be important for defenders of same-sex marriage to be prepared to make this distinction. In this article, I will apply to polyamory the analysis I developed to evaluate and compare the political consequences of same-sex monogamy and patriarchal polygamy. At issue will be whether postmodern polygamy is subject to the same criticisms as patriarchal polygamy and, if not, whether it poses any unique challenges to a liberal democratic state.

I What is Polyamory?
A Winnowing The Field

"Polyamory" means "all forms of multi-partner relating."24 There is an enormous range of relationship forms covered by this word. One form of polyamory has as its basic unit an individual who has multiple, concurrent but discrete dyadic relationships with others.25 Another form has as its basic unit a couple, in which one or both engage in additional discrete dyadic relationships with others, known familiarly as an "open marriage."26Another form has as its basic unit a triad, consisting of two or three dyadic relationships, depending on whether each of the three is sexually involved with the other two or whether only one of the three is sexually involved with the other two.27 Another version of the triad may exist where three is either the basic sexual and relationship unit or exists alongside the dyads.

With basic relationship units larger than three, the combination possibilities increase, but the same basic triad forms are played out. The Page 445 internal relationships may be dyadic, triadic, greater than triadic, or a combination of both. All the dyadic or greater relationship combinations may be actualized or, alternatively, some in the group may not in be in direct relationships with some others. There may also exist combinations of the individual and group forms, in which one or more persons are part of a triad or larger group, with all its internal relationships, yet may also be involved in discrete relationships external to the group. This is actually a variation on the open marriage, with a larger basic unit.

Within these different forms of relationship, variations can exist as to the degree of commitment between the partners.28 One polyamorist theorist has described three levels of commitment two or more people can have to each other. "Primary relating"29 involves typical marriage level bonding in which the partners share their lives as a whole.30 "Secondary relating"31includes ongoing emotional support and specifically chosen commitments that may be long term, but the aspects of life that are shared are limited.32"Tertiary relating"33 involves short-term bursts of more or less intense sexual and/or emotional connection that occur erratically, but are not a consistent part of life.34

Where the individual is the basic unit, it is not clear that primary relationships are possible or even desired. An individual with multiple discrete relationships probably cannot have primary relationships with each partner, as the discreteness of each relationship interferes with attaining the highest level of shared life. It is more likely that these relationships are secondary or tertiary, with the individual preferring independence over a primary commitment to any partner. Once a primary commitment is made to one partner, the relationship begins to look more like an open marriage in which there is a primary relationship between the basic dyadic unit with secondary or tertiary lovers.35 An alternative to this is a couple with a secondary relationship to each other, and tertiary relationships with others.

Within a triad or larger group, individuals can all relate to each other at the same level of commitment, or relate to different members of the group Page 446 at different levels.36 In a group marriage, for example, all members of the group view themselves as part of the group marriage and each is in a primary relationship with at least one other member of the group, but some members may only be in secondary relationships with some other members of the group.37 In what some call a polyfidelitous group marriage, or just "polyfidelity,"38 each member of the group is in a primary relationship with and views themselves as married to every other member of the group.39 In yet another polyamorous form, called an intimate network,40 all the individuals in a group of friends are involved in secondary or tertiary dyadic or larger relationships with some or all of the others in the group.

Groups of any size, from two on up, can limit their sexual relationships to those within the group or can allow extra-group sexual relationships.41Where a single individual has a web of relationships...

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