Polyamory, Marriage Rights, and Social Control I

So as same-sex marriage and same-sex partnership rights spread, there has been a lot of talk about benefits.  People in queer relationships, like those in heterosexual ones, now have the dubious privilege of being able to marry for health insurance.  And of course, there’s a big valid point here about equality.

But I’ve been thinking about polyamory and marriage equality.  First gut instinct reaction: hey guys, quit talking so much about how “don’t worry, the slippery slope of same-sex marriage won’t lead to polygamy or anything,” because that’s not very nice.  Second reaction: but wait… were I to buy into marriage in the first place, would I really want the government to confer benefits on me based on the status of my intimate relationships?

Of course, poly people aren’t completely excluded from the legal and employer-based benefits of marriage.  Many poly people are married, to somebody.  But the question is, should the law allow marriage to more than one person, and thus benefits?

From a legal perspective, it gets very sticky of course, because who “counts,” how many marriages can you actually have, etc.?  From a social perspective, people are going to throw Mormon polygamy and sexism in your face.  And then I have to ask, well, are government benefits really what I want in the first place?

Here’s the thing: marriage is a form of social control.

You could argue that it’s no longer, in some places, used specifically to control women, but it does control relationships.  It mandates that some relationships are legally more important than others.  It encourages people to get married, and it advocates a certain family structure.  And of course, like so many laws, this one has wider consequences.

Because marriage gives us all these nifty benefits, and is a recognized legal union and all, it also has a particular social meaning.  We are taught in schools and often in our families that marriage is a sort of holy grail of relationships (nevermind that pesky 50% divorce rate).  And what we also learn is that marriage is better than other types of relationships.  Married people are a unit, often symbolized by the sharing of a name and more practically, a bank account.  Marriage is a rite of passage, and it’s the foundation of a particular type of nuclear family.  Even though married people can, of course, have extended families, have poly relationships, have an open relationship, etc., what’s legally sanctioned and recognized by everybody else is that core marriage.

And I don’t need to tell you that this is particularly convenient to white, middle and upper class, often hetero people (though not, of course, to all of them).

So I don’t want benefits because I don’t want the government being the one who gives my relationships a particular “status.”  I don’t want polyamory to become a pick-and-choose game between which relationships are important enough to me to select legal and social benefits and responsibilities on their basis.  For me, polyamory is at least in part about fluidity.  That doesn’t mean that I don’t have meaningful, lasting, committed relationships.  It does, however, mean that I decide for myself what my various relationships are, and how they are defined.  I don’t need the government to do that for me.

Stay tuned!  In the next installment, I rant about more communal options, about socialism, and about how indigenous people, as they so often do, kind of got it right (before we sent them on a death march).

This post was originally published on the blog Sex Positive Activism, which has now merged to become the sex & relationships section of Queer & Now.


  1. I love the thought, but I think the thing that made me decide to jump at the chance to marry my lover and to hell with principles is– well, to use a modified quote from the Patriot: I have medical bills and want to have children, I can’t afford principles.

    I realise that my rights are made of tissue paper at best–I am young enough to have grown up in an America were nothing was true and no one was free and everything I was taught in school about America’s freedom and tolerance and dreams and such was basically a lie–but hell if I’m not going to grab for those tissue-paper rights as soon as they’re dangled and use them for as long as I possibly can. I hate it, I hate it and I agree with you all the way–but I’m too scared of how little control I have over whether someone separates me from my husband to stay unmarried to him.

    We’ve already had our lives threatened multiple times, over our lives; and we both have extensive medical procedures to look forward to, which will involve being unconscious and in the hands of total strangers who don’t care about us for long hours–I’m already terrified that being married won’t keep them from taking him away from me and doing terrible things to him–or taking me away and doing terrible things to ME while keeping him from me. I know getting married offers a tiny chance that won’t happen. That’s all we’ve got–that tiny chance. That tiny, fake promise of rights.

  2. In the UK healhtcare is government funded which avoids that problem, and private companies are not allowed discriminate on marriage/relationshio status. For example my pesion scheme allows for some benefits to be given to any named person.

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