Whether you call it polygamy, or polyamory, or consensual nonmonogamy, the notion of multiple partners in a single relationship is just over the horizon.
Australian activists for same-sex marriage have always insisted, that it will not lead to polygamy or polyamory. Never, ever, ever. Gay marriage is just like traditional marriage, except for the sex of the spouse. Activist Rodney Croome wrote last year that “studies show most LGBTI people want to be part of a two-person marriage, while partners in polyamorist relationships (most of which begin as heterosexual unions) say they don’t want their relationships recognised as marriages.” Former Greens leader Bob Brown described a push for polyamory as “nonsense”.
This is a crucial point for supporters. If they were to concede that same-sex marriage would ultimately lead to polygamy and more imaginative forms of marriage, they would prove that there is a slippery slope. So they are forced into vehement denials.
How odd, then, that a Polyamory Action Lobby (PAL) has been founded in Australia “to combat the image of poly people as relationship bogeymen”.
PAL is testing the waters by spruiking a public petition on Change.org, an internet site for activists. “For too long has Australia denied people the right to marry the ones they care about. We find this abhorrent. We believe that everyone should be allowed to marry their partners, and that the law should never be a barrier to love. And that's why we demand nothing less than the full recognition of polyamorous families.”
PAL contends there is no rational reason adults should not be able to form committed relationships with more than one person. “Polyamory often isn’t a choice; if people love more than one person, they can’t help it,” says its manifesto. The argument for same-sex relationships runs in the same groove: it can’t be helped; it can’t be denied; it is wholesome and loving.
“We’re sick of being treated like the bottom of a slippery slope, the fat end of the wedge and the scary inevitable consequence of legalizing same-sex marriage,” it continues.
As far as the law is concerned, PAL says that the government must not restrict relationships for consenting adults based on love and respect. “The legal, health and financial protections enjoyed by a spouse in a monogamous relationship must be extended to all partners in a family.” And in a sentence which has been repeated endlessly in arguments for “marriage equality”, the document adds, “A family should be about security, stability and love; not about its structure.”
Are these activists serious? Is this an elaborate hoax?
No. Although the petition has attracted fewer than 40 signatures, the three people behind PAL are associated with the Greens, a party which at the moment holds the balance of power in the Federal Senate and in the state of Tasmania.
It is quite likely that the Greens will be annihilated in next election, but the polyamory agenda will survive. It is the logical consequence of redefining sexual relationships. It is not the love child of a few extremists in an extreme party.
Polyamory has had supporters in Australia for some time. Nico Antalffy, a lecturer at Macquarie University and a leader in the polyamory movement, made a passionate plea in The Australian not long ago. “Would people in multiple relationships want more recognition? Absolutely,” she says.
Other academics are shaping the legal, sociological and psychological case for polyamory in the United States. In February, the first International Academic Polyamory Conference took place in San Diego. Dozens of participants gave papers. Using arguments which have been tempered in the fires of the same-sex marriage debate, they contended that monogamy, both heterosexual and homosexual, is an antiquated lifestyle.
“Numerous anthropological surveys have demonstrated that monogamous marriage is required in only a small minority of societies,” say the conference organisers. Taking their cue from the dolphins-do-it-why-can’t-we argument, they cite compelling research which shows that: “The surprising frequency of polyandry among hunting and gathering people suggests it may have been even more common in very ancient times, and even among pre-human ancestors.”
A recent article in Scientific American gives a taste of the burgeoning academic sub-specialty of research into “consensual nonmonogamy”, a lifestyle which includes a committed couples hooking up with anybody and everybody, and polyamory. According to research published in peer-reviewed journals, these relationships can even be happier and more fulfilling than traditional marriages. Normally there is no jealousy or sexual possessiveness. In fact, the experts say, polyamorists can teach ordinary married couples how to strengthen their relationships.
Admittedly polyamory seems radical, but at every stage of the sexual revolution, the next step has seemed impossibly bold, according to the organisers of the San Diego conference.
“Modern society's ideas about love, marriage, family and sexuality have undergone drastic changes in recent decades, and evidence suggests further changes will occur in the near future. At the beginning of 2001, the marriage of gay and lesbian couples was illegal everywhere, and few anticipated the situation would ever change. Virtually no one could have foreseen that within the next 11 years, same-sex marriages would be legalized in a dozen nations, including much of North America and Western Europe…
“Despite claims for some quarters that ‘the sexual revolution is over,’ there is no reason to believe any kind of stable equilibrium has been reached, or that the situation will not continue to evolve for the forseeable future. What is likely to happen next?”
That was a question raised by a former High Court judge with an international reputation, Michael Kirby, who is a passionate supporter of “marriage equality”. In May 2012 he told an Australian Senate inquiry that if same-sex marriage is passed, there could be further redefinitions in the future.
“Nothing is finally written,” Justice Kirby said. “The question that is before the parliament at the moment is the question of equality for homosexual people. There may be, in some future time, some other question. The lesson in courts and in the parliament, I suggest, is that you take matters step by step.”
Which is exactly what is happening. The question is, which step comes after the legalisation of same-sex marriage? The winds are blowing in the direction of polyamory.
Michael Cook is editor of MercatorNet