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The slippery slope to polygyny

By Moira Clarke - posted Friday, 15 June 2012

Harems, sibling unions and people getting hitched to their pet Chihuahuas -- allow same-sex couples the right of marriage and we open the floodgates to unbridled depravity, causing civilisation as we know it to come crashing to its knees. . . .

This is the classic slippery slope argument, favoured by conservatives such as Archbishop Peter Jensen, certain Liberal MPsand US Republican Rick Santorum. The gist of it is that a seemingly harmless relaxation of rules will surely lead to chaos. In this case the pit of the slope is that unholy trinity of incest, bestiality and polygamy.

Given the regularity with which the slope is trotted out whenever same-sex marriage is on the table, this 'argument' could do with closer inspection.


For a start, the only threat it makes that the public takes seriously is that of polygamy – or rather, polygyny, since the one-man-multiple-wives model is by far the dominant form. These relationships are not easily ignored. They're happening here and now in Australia. Only recently the issue has been injected with a new lease of life with the unusual caseof Marc Glasby, his wife Belle Glasby, and her twin, Dorothy Loader.

Slippery slope proponents can't claim they've got a rational argument unless it can be established that: (1) the causal relationship between same-sex marriage and polygyny is valid, and (2) polygyny, the base of the slope, is a disaster as advertised. Both of these conditions would need to be met for the slippery slope to survive scrutiny. I will demonstrate here that only one of those conditions holds, that while the practice of polygyny is indeed harmful, there is no reason to believe our society will embrace it as a direct or indirect consequence of same-sex marriage.

Let's step back in time for a moment. It's 1967, and the landmark case of Loving v. Virginiais being heard in the US Supreme Court. The state of Virginia claims that interracial marriage is on a par with incest and polygamy. Think about that for a moment. Only a few decades ago, mixed-race couples were denied marriage. It was considered repugnant. We're now in 2012, and although these antiquated laws have been overturned in all US states, none have given the green light to polygamy, the base of the slippery slope back in 1967. This isn't exactly strong evidence that modifications to the Marriage Act in Australia, providing equality to same-sex couples, will lead to other unintended consequences.

More importantly, the battle for polygyny will be fought irrespective of other changes to the Marriage Act. It can and probably will be fought on the grounds of religious freedom. That battle has already been fought, in Canada.

The Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints(FLDS) who are to be distinguished from the mainstream Church of Jesus Crhist of the Latter-Day Saints, is an example of everything that is wrong with polygyny. Its leader, Warren Jeffs, is currently serving a life sentence in prison for child sexual assault. In 2011 British Columbia's Supreme Court ruled unanimouslythat the Canadian law criminalising polygamy was compatible with the constitutional requirement for religious freedom, and should be upheld due to the adverse physical and psychological effects of polygynous marriage on women and children.

The studywith the most influence on the court's decision found that, in addition to gender inequality, polygyny produces a negative outcome for society as a whole. Young men, particularly those who are poor and uneducated, are as much the losers as their sisters. Communities encumbered with large pools of unmarried men suffer higher rates of poverty and violence. Polygyny also leads to child neglect and poor paternal investment in children, underage marriage, legal quagmires and economic imbalances.


Given such evidence, it would be impossible for polygamy to succeed on merit alone. Even so, could it scrape through on the basis of 'equality', as the slippery slope suggests? Australian law currently defines marriage as a union of two people of opposite gender. If the rule on gender is relaxed, why not, it could be argued, the rule on number? But as William Saletanwriting for Slate magazine points out, the number isn't two at all; it's one. One is the number of people to which each party commits. Furthermore, this number matters as it is based on human nature: 'One isn't the number of people you want to sleep with. It's the number of people you want your spouse to sleep with.'

Nowhere is this more evident than in the forum on the Glasby caserecently run by SBS Insight. Belle Glasby admits that she agreed to 'share' Marc with her twin in a state of naivety and a desire to 'give happiness to both of them'. Nayarri Marika reveals that she would prefer to be her husband's only wife, while Fatimah Youssef's support for polygyny becomes heavily conditional once confronted with the idea of finding herself in such a marriage. Danielle's story is the most poignant of all. Miserable and confused, she nevertheless insists that her situation must be good. After all, 'he buys me flowers' . . .

In all likelihood there will be attempts to legalise polygamy in Australia but, regardless of what happens with same-sex marriage, those attempts can be based on religious freedom. These are two completely separate challenges. The point of same-sex marriage is to give everyone an opportunity to marry. Polygyny only serves to reduce that opportunity.

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About the Author

Moira Clarke is a software engineer and is also on the committee of the Secular Party of Australia. Her main interest is human rights.

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Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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