Monday, October 18, 2010

Biased Opinion - Watching Sister Wives and Wondering

So I've been watching the TLC series Sister Wives about Kody Brown and his three wives Meri, Janelle, and Christine. The primary story of the season has been Kody's pursuit of and marriage to his brand new fourth wife Robyn. (A process that Kody describes using the quaint term "courting", a word he uses in about every other sentence, which gets very annoying). The show itself is somewhat interesting, especially when the somewhat wacky fundamentalist Mormon beliefs that underpin their polygamous lifestyle surface despite their best efforts to downplay them. Kody clearly sees himself as a sort of real life Bill Henrickson (played by Bill Paxton) from Big Love putting a face on "normal" polygamy to counter the negative image that the practice has acquired as a result of mixing it with statutory rape.

As a side note, I'll point out that lots of Mormon theology, fundamentalist or otherwise, can only be described as fairly wacky. The primary difference between "fundamentalist" Mormon sects and "regular" Mormons seems to be that the fundamentalists adhere to the idea that polygamous marriage is a religious obligation (via an entirely male-biased doctrine called "Celestial Marriage"), whereas mainstream Mormons adhere to a political compromise in which their prophet changed his interpretation on this point in order to allow Utah to join the United States.

But the content of the show itself is, to me, secondary to the vast amount of consternation that it seems to have aroused. Not only is Utah investigating Kody with an eye towards possibly prosecuting him for bigamy, but, anecdotally, many people I am acquainted with have had reactions ranging from shock to dismay or outrage. But other than the fact that they are polygamists, they seem fairly normal. The thing that I find fairly interesting about this is that in the United States we already basically accept a form of serial polygamy. Bastions of "moral" virtue who would doubtless condemn the Brown family for their immoral practices such as Rush Limbaugh and Newt Gingrich have been married to four women and three women respectively. The only real difference is that Kody is married to his four wives all at the same time, whereas the acceptable route is to marry your multiple spouses one after another. And the acceptable way of handling this sort of thing requires divorces with all the acrimony and financial disaster that entails and custody arrangements for children in which they are uprooted and shuttled between two households. I'm not sure that this is a better option than allowing multiple wives. Even for people who only actually get married once, it is quite common to engage in one or more long term sexual relationships prior to getting married, in some cases having children with one's partner. One only has to spend an afternoon or two watching the various small claims court television shows like Judge Judy or The People's Court before one realizes just how many people engage in the functional equivalent of marriage by moving in together, buying property together, merging their bank accounts and so on before they split up (and of course, have to untangle their lives via the small claims court system). In short, it is difficult to describe the socially acceptable landscape of modern marriage as anything other than fully accepting of sequential polygamy.

One has to wonder exactly why Utah would bother investigating Kody. Unlike some of the creepy fringe FLDS cults that compel underage girls to marry older men, when Kody married Meri, Janelle, and Christine they were all fully grown adults capable of making their own choices. Robyn, of course, was thirty-one when she became Kody's fourth wife. Unlike some unscrupulous polygamists, Kody and his wives don't appear to be engaged in welfare or medicare fraud. Their only offense, it seems, is asserting that they are married. (Note that other than Meri, none of the women are legally married to Kody, although they are married insofar as their faith is concerned). If a group of consenting adults wants to arrange their lives in a particular way, and no one is being harmed as a result, exactly why is the state intervening to try to prevent this? Isn't there a more useful way for the state of Utah to spend the taxpayer's money?

Science fiction authors have been including polygamy (among other unconventional sexual arrangements) for some time now as most fans of the genre who have read anything from the latter half of Robert A. Heinlein's career are no doubt well aware. From the group marriage of the s-family in works like The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress and Friday to the open relationships depicted in Stranger in a Strange Land, Time Enough for Love, To Sail Beyond the Sunset, and The Cat Who Walks Through Walls, just to name a few. Samuel R. Delany also explored a fair amount of alternative sexual arrangements in works like Dhalgren, Stars in My Pocket Like Grains of Sand, and Triton. And the list goes on. It is, of course, in the nature of science fiction authors to speculate about social changes that might come to pass, and of course, many of their speculations are not based on what the author thinks will actually happen, but rather what will make a good story, or make a point about the present that the author wants to make. But in the case of polygamy, or at least group relationships, I think that we may see this practice become acceptable in the future.

Now I don't practice polygamy, or advocate that anyone go out and take it up, and I am also not suggesting that fundamentalist Mormonism is going to sweep the nation and everyone will jump on the Celestial Marriage bandwagon, or that Muslims will take over and impose their Sharia version of polygamy. I'm saying that I think demographic and economic forces will push people towards accepting the idea that being married, or at least committed, to more than one person at once is desirable. And I think that the demographics will result in more men with multiple wives, rather than women with multiple husbands (although I think this will become acceptable, it just won't be as prevalent). This will, of course, entail a fairly substantial social shift, but I don't think it is so outrageous to expect it in a world in which we have seen homosexuality go from being a criminal act thirty years ago to homosexual marriage being an openly debated political issue.

The demographic trend is a pure numbers game. There are more women than men in the United States. Through most of history, this was not the case. Even though there are more boys born every year than girls, boys (partially because we are the stupider sex and thus inclined to do risky things like ride motorcycles without helmets and show off by trying to slide down stair railings on our skateboards), don't survive to adulthood in the same numbers girls do. Historically this didn't result in more women than men, because once they reached adulthood, the ranks of living women were winnowed by the arduous and dangerous process of bearing and delivering children, which weakened and often killed women. When medical technology made this less of an ordeal, women began to outnumber men, a trend that doesn't seem to be in any real danger of reversing. The result is that there are about five to six million more women in the United States than men.

Every so often, a newspaper or magazine will run an article about how a woman who has reached something like thirty or thirty five who has not gotten married is extremely unlikely to ever do so. This gender disparity is, in my opinion, in large part why this is so. Men who want to get married generally have the option to do so, and thus you have a surplus of women basically chasing an ever shrinking population of available men, until you end up with a lot of available women competing for the attention of a handful of available men - many of whom simply don't want to get married. And why should they? Since they are now a rare commodity, they are more or less in the driver seat as far as relationship parameters go. The result is competition among women for the attentions of those few available men, an often quixotic quest to get one of these men to settle down and get married.

So what is the solution to this demographic crunch? Well, some other places in the world, such as China, have the opposite problem, with far more men than women, so we could import a bunch of single men. I don't think that changing our immigration policies to allow an influx of men to marry American women would be a politically viable option though. We could continue with current policies, and just resign ourselves to the fact that five or six million women will have no prospect of getting married or having a long term relationship. That doesn't seem like a very attractive option either. In my experience, most men in their mid to late thirties who want to be married or in a long term relationship are, while most men of the same age who do not want to be married or in a long term relationship aren't. In effect, the men who want to get married, get married, and in the current system, are effectively off the market.

So, from a certain point of view, the solution to the demographic problem seems more or less obvious: let people marry more than one person. I'm sure that there are a fair number of people in the United States who already informally have this sort of relationship, but it biases the relationship in favor of the "actual" spouse over the "virtual" spouse. It would make sense from a fairness perspective to allow people to formalize these relationships and have access to all the legal benefits and protections that being married provides. I think that this would actually result in fewer polygamous marriages than one might expect, since it would remove the privileged position of single men vis a vis thirty-something and older women, and I suspect this would drive more of them to make a commitment. But I think we would see some, and so long as everyone involved is a consenting adult who enters into this arrangement with their eyes open, it seems to me like it would be a good thing, rather than something that should be treated as a crime.

But demographics is not the only reason I think that we will see an acceptance of relationships with multiple partners in the future. The rise of the two-income family, in my opinion, presages the multiple partner relationship. The defining characteristic of most two-income families is stress resulting from a lack of time to accomplish everything that needs to be done, and a lack of time to spend with one's spouse and children. Since both spouses work, they effectively have two jobs: one for which they are paid, the other that involves all the chores that have to be done - cooking dinner, doing laundry, shuttling kids to soccer practice and scouting events, buying groceries, taking the car to get it repaired, and so on and so forth. There have been many articles lamenting the fact that kids in the modern era are over scheduled, but this seems to me to merely be an outgrowth of the fact that their parents are over scheduled. And most families simply cannot afford to live without the second income (even if much of the second income is consumed in child care costs). From a financial perspective, it seems to make sense to add a third adult to the relationship. Some people do something akin to this already by hiring an au pair, but that is a purely financial transaction, and most families cannot afford that sort of arrangement. Bringing in a third spouse, especially one who desired to be a stay-at-home homemaker, on the other hand, would permit the family to retain its double income, and at the same time relieve the stress of having to accomplish three people’s worth of worth with only two people. Paradoxically, even though they would have to share time with another person, it would probably permit each spouse to spend more actual time with one another, since they would not be trying to catch up on all of their responsibilities rather than enjoying each other’s company.

From a certain perspective, polygamy makes too much sense not to become socially acceptable. Does polygamy entail a substantial shift in social values? That much is certain. It also will probably be something that is not for everyone. Even those religiously committed to the idea, like Meri, struggle with jealousy issues in this sort of relationship. Obviously people will have to reassess the nature of relationship fidelity before this becomes a mainstream option, but given how many people are willing to have "open" relationships, I don't think this will be as big a hurdle as some might think. While I think that Kody Brown is a dork, and his religion is built upon completely silly ideas, I also think that fifty years from now the idea of a poly-relationship will probably be so normal that people will be looking back at the controversy surrounding the Sister Wives show and wondering what the hoopla was all about.

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