The polyamory trap

The right wants to use the "slippery slope" of polyamory to discredit gay marriage. Here's how to stop them

Topics: Polyamory, Gay Marriage, Marriage, LGBT,

The polyamory trapSupporters of same-sex marriage cheer in front of San Francisco's City Hall (Credit: AP/Darryl Bush)

Newt Gingrich may have scored political points by refusing to talk about an ex-wife’s assertion that he asked that their marriage be “open,” but he also thrust polyamory into the national conversation.

This was new territory for many people, but not for LGBT advocates, who hear about it all the time. Won’t legitimizing same-sex marriage lead to legitimizing polyamorous relationships too? If two men can marry one another, why not one man and two women?  This argument is a favorite of former U.S. Sen. Rick Santorum, the so-called Christian right and the right-wing blogosphere.

Responding to these arguments is a challenge. On the one hand, I reject the tactic of distinguishing the good gays from the “bad” poly people. Further marginalizing the marginalized is just the wrong trajectory for any liberation movement to take. And it reminds me of the way that some mainstream gay activists have sold out transgender and gender-nonconforming groups. We’re the married gays who make neighborhoods stable and herald the arrival of cool coffeehouses; we’re not those awful drag queens. This is all trash, it sells out members of our own community who deserve more than that, and it’s a punt, really, not an argument.

On the other hand, I don’t want to fail to draw any distinction, either. I don’t know what polyamory’s approval ratings are, but I bet they aren’t high — Newt Gingrich notwithstanding. At the very least, it would be bad politics to agree and argue that there really is no difference.

How about this response, instead: to question whether the “slippery slope” is the right way to argue at all.  Philosophically speaking, it certainly isn’t. You don’t decide the ethical value of a decision based on other decisions; you decide based on the decision at hand. Is euthanasia of a brain-dead human being morally permissible? Maybe or maybe not, but the answer does not depend upon the slippery slope of whether it’s permissible in other cases, say, of chronic pain, or mere dislike of aging. The slippery slope is a dangerous fallacy.

Of course, policy is not the same as philosophy, and in policy discussions, the slippery slope is commonplace. We draw bright-line rules to prevent slippery slopes all the time, even if the lines may be a little over- or under-inclusive. Driving a car while texting may be safe if you’re an excellent driver or if you’re on an empty road. But we as a society can’t get into those details, and if we allow even some texting, we might allow too much. So, bright line: no texting while driving.

Some value choices, though, are just too important for bright-line, prevent-slippery-slope decision making.  Marriage is one of them. It affects too many people, and asks too many important questions on its own.

Consider interracial marriage. When the Supreme Court held that it was a constitutional right in the case of Loving v. Virginia, it represented a change from centuries of law and custom (including what some called a Biblical justification: Genesis 9:25, the “Hamite myth”). And, indeed, the precedent it set led to various slippery slopes of subsequent court decisions. Yet the decision was right. The laws were racist. They violated the Constitution. And, although obviously not part of the court’s ruling, they were morally wrong as well.

You Might Also Like

As it turned out, Loving was part of a “slippery slope” of personal liberty cases that also includes Roe v. Wade, cases we still argue to this day. But it’s a common occurrence for Supreme Court opinions to recognize that they may open doors to other questions, but expressly reserve judgment on them for later.

We should do the same when it comes to polyamory: just decline to answer. Really, there are a host of questions that arise in the case of polyamory to which we just don’t know the answer. Is polyamory like sexual orientation, a deep trait felt to be at the core of one’s being? Would a polyamorous person feel as incomplete without multiple partners as a lesbian or gay person might feel without one? How many “truly polyamorous” people are there? Are there compelling policy reasons why we would want to discourage polyamory (as we do incest or sex with minors), or are those reasons really just fears? These are all important questions, and the answers are not self-evident. We don’t really know.

Yet we do know the answers when it comes to same-sex marriage. We do know that sexual orientation is “a deep trait felt to be at the core of one’s being.” We do know how incomplete and alone many gay people feel without the possibility of fully accepted partnership, and we know there are millions of gay people out there in the world. We do know that the policy arguments sometimes brandished against gay people (child welfare, encouragement of homosexuality) are hot air, unsubstantiated by evidence.

These are all important bits of information that we lack when it comes to polyamory, but that we possess when it comes to homosexuality. We as a society are in a position to make an informed decision about same-sex marriage, but not yet, it would appear, about polyamorous relationships.

This position neither endorses nor rejects such relationships. And because the distinction is one of process (how to make an informed decision), rather than substance, it clearly distinguishes same-sex marriage from polygamy and polyandry, without stigmatizing the latter.  Now, it may alarm some people not to totally shut the door to legitimized polyamory. Maybe it’s not a strong enough rebuke to curry favor with some conservatives. But it is the only intellectually responsible position for LGBT activists (and allies) to take. Whether Newt is our ally or not.

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 13
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Young Daya has yet to become entirely jaded, but she has the character's trademark skeptical pout down pat. And with a piece-of-work mother like Aleida -- who oscillates between jealousy and scorn for her creatively gifted daughter, chucking out the artwork she brings home from summer camp -- who can blame her?

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    With her marriage to prison penpal Vince Muccio, Lorna finally got to wear the white veil she has fantasized about since childhood (even if it was made of toilet paper).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Cindy's embrace of Judaism makes sense when we see her childhood, lived under the fist of a terrifying father who preached a fire-and-brimstone version of Christianity. As she put it: "I was raised in a church where I was told to believe and pray. And if I was bad, I’d go to hell."

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Joey Caputo has always tried to be a good guy, whether it's offering to fight a disabled wrestler at a high school wrestling event or giving up his musical ambitions to raise another man's child. But trying to be a nice guy never exactly worked out for him -- which might explain why he decides to take the selfish route in the Season 3 finale.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    In one of the season's more moving flashbacks, we see a young Boo -- who rejected the traditional trappings of femininity from a young age -- clashing with her mother over what to wear. Later, she makes the decision not to visit her mother on her deathbed if it means pretending to be something she's not. As she puts it, "I refuse to be invisible, Daddy. Not for you, not for Mom, not for anybody.”

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We still don't know what landed Brooke Soso in the slammer, but a late-season flashback suggests that some seriously overbearing parenting may have been the impetus for her downward spiral.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    We already know a little about Poussey's relationship with her military father, but this season we saw a softer side of the spunky fan-favorite, who still pines for the loving mom that she lost too young.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    Pennsatucky had something of a redemption arc this season, and glimpses of her childhood only serve to increase viewer sympathy for the character, whose mother forced her to chug Mountain Dew outside the Social Security Administration office and stripped her of her sexual agency before she was even old enough to comprehend it.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we got an intense look at the teenage life of one of Litchfield's most isolated and underexplored inmates. Rebuffed and scorned by her suitor at an arranged marriage, the young Chinese immigrant stored up a grudge, and ultimately exacted a merciless revenge.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    It's difficult to sympathize with the racist, misogynist CO Sam Healy, but the snippets we get of his childhood -- raised by a mentally ill mother, vomited on by a homeless man he mistakes for Jesus when he runs to the church for help -- certainly help us understand him better.

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    This season, we learned a lot about one of Litchfield's biggest enigmas, as we saw the roots of Norma's silence (a childhood stutter) and the reason for her incarceration (killing the oppressive cult leader she followed for decades).

    The 12 most incredible pint-size look-alikes in "Orange Is the New Black" season 3

    While Nicki's mother certainly isn't entirely to blame for her daughter's struggles with addiction, an early childhood flashback -- of an adorable young Nicki being rebuffed on Mother's Day -- certainly helps us understand the roots of Nicki's scarred psyche.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>