Leave the Polygamists Alone?

The XX Factor
What Women Really Think
July 22 2011 2:51 PM

Leave the Polygamists Alone?

sister wives
Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Law professor Jonathan Turley wrote an op ed in the New York Times yesterday asking for the right to privacy for polygamist families. He represents one, the Browns, consisting of a husband, four wives, 16 children, and the production crew of TLC who films them for the reality series Sister Wives. Turley, smartly, is not seeking to get all four “marriages” recognized; he is arguing that consenting adults have a right to form the family structure they like and that as long as there is no coercion or child abuse, being polygamists is none of the state’s business. After all, John Edwards, who made a multiple family on the sly, may be morally repugnant, but he is not in legal trouble for impregnating a woman who wasn’t his wife. Turley makes a persuasive argument, and he notes that civil liberty organizations have been reluctant to back him, probably because his cause seems to undermine the case for gay marriage. As Turley writes: “The reason might be strategic: some view the effort to decriminalize polygamy as a threat to the recognition of same-sex marriages or gay rights generally.”

Opponents of gay marriage have used the specter of legalizing polygamists and polyamorists. But with more and more states recognizing gay unions as equal to heterosexual ones, the question of why society draws the line at couples is going to have to be answered. I am in favor of gay marriage, but it’s going to be seen as increasingly arbitrary to say that people who have a moral and religious belief in multiple unions hold unacceptable views. (I do find polygamy inherently oppressive to women and distasteful. But if the participants don’t, so what if many of us are appalled.)  Polygamists can cite the ancient history of multiple marriages (we’re talking about you, King Solomon) and the fact that it is a custom widely practiced in the world today.  If gay marriage eventually becomes completely legal in America, there surely will be test cases of people in multiple unions demanding their rights to the sanctity and protection of marriage. XXers, what are the arguments about why polygramy, et al., shouldn’t be next?

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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