Last night was the premier of Sister Wives, one of my favorite voyeuristic pleasures. For those not in the know (and you should be proud of that), Sister Wives is the story of a family that practices plural marriage, known more commonly as polygamy. The show is cagey about what religion they actually practice but I believe they’re part of the Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints or something similar. All told, there is one husband, four wives, and about 20 kids. I think. Oh, and one of the wives is pregnant. And they all just left Utah and moved to Vegas. Because nothing says polygamy like Vegas.
Sister Wives always raises interesting question, not the least of which is how did that annoying Kody with his bad hair convince four different women to marry him? Is the selection of polygamist men really so crappy that he starts to look like a prize? The premier also raised a bunch of red flags about Wife Number 2 Janelle. While the rest of them seem to like the new set-up with separate houses so they can enjoy time with their own kids and focused time with Kody, Janelle is lonely and miserable. Which says to me that she doesn’t much like spending time with Kody or her kids, and preferred the set-up where she worked, other wives helped with her kids, and she could escape Kody’s hair.
The there question that Sister Wives always raises is why is polygamy illegal? And why does someone like me, who is a supporter of same-sex marriage, not want to open the door to making polygamy legal? I mean, assuming that the people involved in the marriage are all competent adults, what is wrong with them loving each other in whatever configuration works for them? The answer: nothing. But that doesn’t mean it should have the same legal standing as monogamist marriage.
I have no problem with polyamory, or the practice of being involved with more than one person at a time. Well, I’d have a problem with it for me because I’m not into that kind of thing but if it floats your boat, rock on. Just don’t do it in the streets and scare the horses, ‘mkay? However, I don’t see a place in the legal framework of marriage to accommodate recognizing plural marriage. It can be acceptable socially, even sanctified by particular denominations, but the legal construct of marriage is between two people. Why only two? Because the line has to be drawn somewhere and we, as a society, agreed on two a long time ago.
Marriage is a contract recognized by all US governmental entities. The civil aspects of marriage bring with it certain privileges such as hospital visitation rights, shared property and inheiritance laws, and shared entitlement benefits such as Social Security survivor benefits. The contract is written to apply to two individuals. There’s no reason on earth that the gender, race, ability, or religion of the individuals should matter to the state, which is why miscegination laws and prohibitions on same-sex couples marrying are stupid. But there is a larger social issue involved in adding more individuals to the contract. For example, if Kody fell off his motorcycle and smashed his helmet-less head and died (and what kind of dad rides a motorcycle without helmet? Idiot.), should all four of his wives be entitled to full survivor benefits from Social Security? Or would they have to split the payments four ways? You might say they should split it but that would open the door to religious discrimination claims against the government for not recognizing all the marriages equally. And what about power of attorney and medical proxy decision? Would hospitals have to accept consensus decisions in cases like that? And how would they proceed in the event that one spouse could not be reached? I know that sort of thing happens in families now but we all know that adds to the complications at treatment. (Note to self: do medical proxy paperwork).
Like I say, setting the maximum number of participants in a marriage at two is arbitrary. Someone came up with that one day and the entire legal framework for marriage grew up around that idea. To alter it now would be complicated and controversial. And, given that there’s not a great need to alter it to accommodate polyamorous families, I see no need to even raise the notion. I also don’t see the need for laws like the one in Utah that ban not only legally recognized polygamous marriage but also ban extra-martial relationships like the ones the people on Sister Wives have where they do their own thing and don’t expect the government to recognize it. As long as everyone is an adult and no coercion is going on, eh. Fine by me. And it can make for some good television.