Tuesday, November 22, 2011

De Facto Polygamy?

When conducting research for our feminism and religion project, I came across an article called "Polygamy from Southern Africa to Black Britania to Black America: Global Critical Race Feminism as Legal Reform for the Twenty First Century" by Adrien Wing. Though this article provided fascinating insight into the current state of polygamist communities in parts of rural Africa, Wing also put forth an idea that I find impossible not to discuss. According to Wing, an African American women, African American communities throughout the United States practice what she refers to as "de facto polygamy." Since many African American males are incarcerated, and the population suffers from high fatality rates at a young age, many young African American are left without any datable men in the community (Wing). As a result, the practice of "de facto" polygamy has surfaced in the localities where one man has several girlfriends. While I agree with Wing that de facto polygamy may be present in parts of the US, I would like to expand her idea farther. In fact, I want to radicalize her idea a little more.
By taking Wing's argument one step further, I argue that de facto polygamy is not just an African American anomaly, but an American cultural phenomenon that is occurs on many different levels.

I remember when I was in my teens, my father would constantly admonish me for listening to music- both "gangster" rap and hard rock- that were laden with disparaging messages about women. Though the lyrics were bad, sometimes the music videos were worse. In fact, the theme of many rap videos through the late 1990s and early millennium was pretty apparent. Every video had one man, surrounded the obligatory scantily clad 3 or 4 women who posed throughout the video in sexually compromising positions. Rap, techno, pop music- each of these genres most of the time incorporated misogynistic and sexist ideals into their lyrics and visual media.

Now, I want to reiterate that I am loosely, and generously, using the term polygamy. I am aware that many of these artists would never consciously admit that they approve of polygamy, or that their music was intended to convey this idea. But, one could not have attended an American high school in the new millennium without witnessing some manifestation of de fact polygamy.

To give a more brazen example of "de facto polygamy," I can recall one movie that most people will be familiar with. In Wedding Crashers, two men, played by Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn, attend weddings, each time under a different facade, to sleep with multiple women. Personally, I think sexual liberation is beautiful for both men and women, and I don't want to chastise anyone who may be sexually promiscuous and sleep with LOTS of people. However, I would argue that movies like Wedding Crashers glorify the much celebrated idea of young, handsome men sleeping with as many women as they possibly can, without any strings attached. But, if these men formed semi-relationships with some of the women they slept with, would it in fact be de facto polygamy? As a corollary to this idea, if an individual woman has multiple relationships with several men, is she practicing de facto polyandry?

Although I obviously cannot speak for everyone, most people I encounter have an automatic disdain for polygamy. Many attribute polygamy to the oppression and abuse of women. Others believe that it takes away a woman's personal autonomy. Few will rejoice polygamy as a positive, social good for women. I think that once people have sorted through the negative feelings associated with polygamy, the actual practice of polygamy, if personal choice is involved, becomes a little easier to bear. One caveat to accepting a polygamous relationship is that personal choice must mean complete autonomy, absent any duress or emotional/physical coercion.

According to scholar, Michele Alexandre, in her article "Big Love: Is Feminist Polygamy an Oxymoron or a True Possibility," an anti-essentialist view may help Western cultures understand the practice of polygamy that so many of us condemn. Furthermore, when one acknowledges the various forms of polygamy that are present in contemporary America, it becomes possible to see that women sometimes choose polygamous relationships on their own volition. As someone who has long been exposed to the anti-Polygamist sentiment, I find it hard to believe that any women has truly consented to a polygamist marriage. But, others may find it incredulous that some women and men engage in other sorts of sexual activities without coercion from other sources (such as "cultural" coercion or peer influence.) Where there is physical or emotional abuse, as can be the case in certain countries where women have no rights, I cannot dispense with my "westernized" view that such women are acting autonomously. But, absent these blatantly coercive circumstances, I think that Alexandre has a point. I know after reading Alexandre's article and Wing's in the same day, I started to rethink some of my misconceptions about polygamy. While I have not changed my mind drastically, I have challenged myself to consider my beliefs. That may be the most that any of us can do, but its worth a shot.


Caitlin said...

Polyamory is alive and well in the U.S. While it is stopping short of polygamy in the sense that couples in polyamorous relationships can't legally have relationships recognized, I have several friends who are practicing polyamorists and they generally are very happy doing so. It is interesting that de factor polygamy certainly is described by Wing and Alexandre, but that many are far more open about the idea that they can be in committed long term relationships with more than one person at the same time.

Also interesting, however, is the issues that are unique to polyamory. One of my friends recently broke up with one of her lovers when he failed to disclose to her that he and his other girlfriend had started having sex without condoms--despite the fact that my friend and her lover had specifically agreed that they would discuss any condom-free trysts with others before it would be acceptable.

I personally think its hard enough to be in a relationship with one person--imagine how infinitely more difficult it becomes when more people are added in!

Ringo1985 said...

Caitlin, I have two reactions to your post. First of all, I am curious to know how your friends who are in polygamous relationships characterize their relationship. Are they an "open" relationship, or do they refer to themselves as polygamists? Secondly, when you mentioned that your friends have multiple lovers, I immediately thought of the potentially adverse health risks that can come with multiple sexual partners.

Personally, I have mixed emotions about polygamous relationship. I think that any aversion I have to a non-monogamous relationship is probably due years of indoctrination that I was exposed to since a child. However, the older I become and the more I realize that my conceptions of marriage and relationships are more a product of my surroundings than any other "natural" process, I have come to question and challenge some of my ideas about these subjects.

In terms of polygamy, I think that sexual liberation and personal choice are key to any happy and healthy relationship. I am also skeptical of any beliefs that I hold that tend to stem out of Judeo-Christian normative ideas about proper relationships. As I discussed in my blog post, many of the reasons cited for polygamous relationships were for the "protection of women." But support traditional marriage structure may rest upon similar notions that women are somehow vulnerable and in need of a steady and strong male counterpart. As a corollary to this, the domestication of women, as we have discussed in class, is probably the byproduct of realities for women that existed years ago, when it may have made sense for women to stay at home, cook meals, and rear children. WIth this lifestyle, it was difficult and most likely unfeasible for women to maintain multiple partners outside of this limited domestic sphere. However, now that this is no longer true, I don't see why women should feel restricted to explore their sexuality.

My main concern with polygamy would be any adverse health affects from a polygamous relationship. If one has a trusting relationship with all of his or her partners, the risk of sexually transmitted diseases decreases significantly. If condoms are used in these relationships, then I think this is fine. But I think at a certain point, the list of potential partners who could have been exposed to such diseases could cause more harm than good.

Caitlin said...

First of all, I believe that many of my polyamorous friends identify as being polyamorous. I think that the term polygamy has a lot of negative connotations, which prevent them from identifying as such.

In terms of public health concerns, I agree. I don't think I could ever participate in a polyamorous situation for several reasons, but one is definitely the public health consequences if multiple partners choose to use less protection than the group has agreed.

Interestingly, it seems that polyamorous groups (at least those I know) generally favor longer-term relationships rather than flings or one night stands, which could help limit the public health consequences.

tomindavis said...

Ringo, I hadn't seen this post before. I wrote a post on the practice of polygamy as well, but from a slightly different angle. Your research actually complements what I wrote very well. I especially like all the details around how certain African cultures conduct their marriages and relationships. Caitlyn, your insights into polyamorous relationships is particularly enlightening too, and shows that this anti-essentialist idea of plural relationships is more of a reality than many of us realized.

On another level, I see that defining the terms is important. Polygamy, technically, is plural marriage as practiced according to a faith. Bigamy is the same but without the religion. Yet each of them involves marriage among the multiple partners. Since both practices have been banned by so many states, it is no surprise that both bigamy and polygamy don't really occur in the US to an appreciable degree.

But these polyamorous arrangements are an interesting blossoming of the same kinds of arrangements, only more informally. I like Ringo's emphasis on the true nature of these relationships. if they are consensual (i.e., not "cheating"), somewhat fixed, and more or less equal, then to me the only missing element is the actual marriage. Gay couples have been living de facto marriages across America, as they await for the national mores to catch up. I don't know if the same development will happen with plural marriages, but just how far-fetched is it? Interesting topic, and good post!

AMS said...


I too find the issue of polygamy quite fascinating. A few years ago, when I first watched an episode of the HBO series "Big Love," I remember approaching the subject with some fairly strong biases. Like you mentioned, it seemed to me that polygamist relationships could only serve to further marginalize women. Instead of sharing a life and a commitment with one man, these women shared him? It seemed like a male fantasy come to life. It did not seem like a female fantasy at all.

After watching a few episodes of the show, though, I realized that polygamy offered many potential benefits. There were more adults to watch the children and keep the house operating, there were more ears to listen, and more people to share your life with. Although I know that I love the attention of my partner far too much to "share" him in a polygamist relationship (that, and as Caitlin mentioned--I could only imagine how complicated it would be to balance multiple marriage relationships), I can now understand how it might prove attractive to other women. Additionally, I'm sure that many women in polygamist relationships appreciate the opportunity to have a bed to themselves, extra time to focus on their personal needs, and the ability to "plan" their sexual lives.

You and the authors also make a good point by highlighting the fact that many American dating practices mimic polygamy (or other similar relationships). Where people already engage in such relationships, it seems that our society is simply unwilling to accept a permanent commitment to such a relationship (which seems safer in terms of STD transmissions). Even my grandma likes the idea of young women "enjoying their youth" by "having a boyfriend in every port."

This brings me to Wing's article. While I don't think that the African-American community would accept polygamist relationships anytime soon, Wing's piece points out that polygamy could improve the lives of African-American Women. The idea of women (1) accepting the reality of their culture's dating practices and (2) combining forces to raise children and share income seems incredibly efficient, safe, and healthy. In fact, it almost seems empowering for women whose current lives involve the struggles of single-motherhood in what are often poor communities wrought with violence. While I would love to see women come together in a similar fashion without the commonality of a man, the level of commitment and the bond associated with polygamy means it would actually be family--not simply "family-like." I would love to know if changing our attitudes toward relationships and marriage in this manner could serve to improve the lives of women...