The Economist 8 April 2013
THE excitement over the Supreme Court arguments on gay marriage has probably died down until the court comes back with a decision. And what with a majority of senators now in favour, it certainly looks like, whether by judicial or legislative action, gay marriage is on a fairly rapid road to acceptance across America. So this moment, when fewer people are paying attention and it can’t do too much harm, seems like a good time for people who support gay marriage to admit that there are a couple of arguments for it which they’ve always thought were wrong.
….One of the assumptions that gay marriage calls into question, for many conservatives, is: why pairs, then? If not man-woman, then why not man-woman-woman, and so forth? Again, the response of gay-marriage proponents is generally ridicule. I don’t think this is a ridiculous question. “Why can’t you marry your dog, then?” is a ridiculous question; marriage, in our society, is between consenting adult persons. (Though states where girls can marry below the age of legal adulthood violate this premise, and show the traces of a premodern understanding of marriage as a reproductive contract between extended families that few Americans would say they support today.) But “why only two?” isn’t a ridiculous question. It’s easy enough to show that gay marriage does not empirically lead to pressure to legalise polygamy; that hasn’t happened anywhere that gay marriage is legal. But this is different from explaining why opening up the boundaries of the 20th-century understanding of marriage shouldn’t raise the possibility of legalising polygamy. Why shouldn’t it be legal for more than two consenting adults to marry each other?
There are, obviously, a whole lot of societies in the world where polygamy is legal and normal. In fact the anthropological record suggests that the overwhelming majority of human societies have allowed men to have more than one wife simultaneously. I don’t want to be taken to be making a creepy dirty-old-man argument in favour of polygamy. But the reflexive belief that polygamous marriages must be evil and oppressive even in societies where they are traditional is basically an expression of cultural prejudice. I would never want to be in a polygamous marriage myself, because I’ve grown up in the West and it seems freaky and inegalitarian to me; but for people who grew up in Yemen, or in Swaziland, or in Vietnam before the 1950s, that is not necessarily the case. Women in polygamous societies may decide to become a rich man’s second wife rather than a poor man’s only wife, and do not necessarily feel oppressed by that choice. Their children usually turn out well-adjusted.