Polyamory: Not Harmful to Society

If we're going to discuss what's harmful to society, I'd argue that things like racism and sexism and heterosexism and every other form of oppression we live with are far larger threats to the common good than my two partners, my daughter, and me.
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Recently, in an blog post titled "Gay Marriage: Good; Polyamory: Bad," Eli Lehrer offered his opinion on why polyamory will never be widely accepted. In Lehrer's words, "Gay marriage is, at the very worst, neutral for society while polyamory is pretty clearly harmful to society." But as a polyamorous feminist who is firmly committed to all varieties of social justice, it's important to me to refute what Lehrer sees as the "obvious harms" brought on society by families like my own.

Though Lehrer uses the term "polyamory" throughout his piece, the only form of multi-partner relationships he addresses are those of a fundamentalist, patriarchal variety. Though such relationships clearly do exist -- and are problematic in many ways -- they are not the only form that multi-partner relationships take. Though exact numbers are unknown, it's estimated that between 4 and 5 percent of Americans are in some form of openly non-monogamous relationship, many of them polyamorous. Defined as the practice of romantically loving more than one partner simultaneously, polyamorous relationships do not adhere to a patriarchal, heterosexual "one husband, many wives" model, but instead include every imaginable combination of genders and sexual orientations. Many polyamorous women, like myself, are in loving, committed relationships with multiple men. And a large number of us -- from my observation, seemingly a larger percentage than of the general population -- consider feminist values to be central to our relationships.

Lehrer is also concerned with the social problem of polyamory creating an inherent scarcity of partners. But again, this is only a concern if you assume that polyamory only means one man with many women. But given the reality of modern, egalitarian polyamorous relationship configurations that include one woman with several men, three or more men or women all in a relationship together, quads made up of two men and two women, and many more, it is difficult to imagine how polyamory can create a scarcity of available partners of one gender or the other.

It is of course true that granting legal recognition to polyamorous families would also have the effect of granting legal recognition to patriarchal polygamous families as well. But the unfortunate reality is that many women still live in oppressive, fundamentalist monogamous marriages, and we do not use that as an excuse to eschew marriage all together. The problem is patriarchy itself, not the particular form relationships take. If anything, decriminalization of multi-partner relationships would allow more women in polygamous relationships who are being abused to access social services without fear of punishment.

Though I am living in a life-committed relationship with two men myself, I am not particularly interested in arguing for the legal recognition of polyamorous marriages anytime soon. Like the vast majority of polyamorous activists, I am much more interested in simply increasing social awareness and acceptance of families like mine. Lehrer might be correct that increased acceptance of polyamory would lead more people to live polyamorously, but this is only something to fear if one accepts the premise that polyamory is in fact harmful to society. Increased acceptance of same-sex relationships has obviously not caused people to become gay, but it has lead to more gay and lesbian men and women being able to live openly as who they authentically are. For many of us, polyamory feels like the most authentic way to love and relate to our romantic partners. I believe a vast majority of people will always be more comfortable with monogamy. But the increased visibility of polyamorous relationships will help more of us who do not feel comfortable with monogamy live and love in a way that feels most authentic to us.

If we're going to discuss what's harmful to society, I'd argue that things like racism and sexism and heterosexism and every other form of oppression we live with are far larger threats to the common good than my two partners, my daughter, and me, who have the audacity to live in a modest home in the suburbs together, where we regularly commit such scandalous acts as playing board games, watching Netflix, and cuddling with dachshunds. But ordinary, loving families like mine certainly do suffer when people like Lehrer choose to perpetuate misunderstandings about who and what we are.

No matter how much opponents of polyamory wish to claim that it has nothing at all in common with gay marriage, these alarmist cries about how polyamory will destroy the moral fabric of America sound awfully similar to the discourse surrounding same-sex marriage a decade or so ago. And just as though there has never actually been a serious threat that same-sex marriage would destroy the institution of heterosexual marriage as we know it, we polyamorous folks have no agenda of destroying the institution of monogamy. We only want a future where monogamy as seen as just one possible way among many ways to love, make commitments, and build families.

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