The Logic of Polyamory

“A survey commissioned by USA Network of 18-34 year olds in four cities (Austin, Omaha, Nashville, and Phoenix) found that 10 percent of respondents endorsed multiple partners within a marriage, ‘each of whom fulfills a need in your life,’” reports Leah Lebresco in her reflection on the failures of “polyamory” I commended this morning.

I’m relieved that the percentage is only 10. I would have thought it would be higher and it might well have been had the study included more cities on the east and west coasts. Perhaps the cultural image of an exclusive marriage still forms people’s vision of marriage, or they have some moral intuition of the good of sexual exclusivity, or more likely both, with the fact that very few people like the idea of their spouse being sexually intimate with someone else adding force to the cultural image and moral intuition.

I would have thought the percentage would be higher because polyamory plays out directly the logic of the sexual revolution many of those people hold. I wrote about this a few years ago for the Inside Catholic website (it had succeeded Crisis magazine and has now reverted to the name of Crisis).

The article began with the statement of a group called Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness and my prediction that they would be the frontrunner of a movement that would find a home in the mainline churches and dissenting Catholicism. Here’s a summary of the article:

The sexual liberal still seems to believe in monogamy. He insists that you should only have sex with someone, and just one someone, with whom you are in “a committed relationship.” You may climb into bed with only one person at a time, for a period that should last some years, and only if the two of you have some sort of formal commitment, so that others will recognize you as a couple. He wants to extend this privilege to people who desire sex with their own sex, and wants to let people try again if their current commitment fails.

He believes in monogamy, but his theology does not in any way require him to believe in it. He does not accept the biblical and traditional definitions and the resulting restrictions. He believes that sex and marriage are primarily modes of self-actualization, and that they depend upon a continuing mutual commitment. He believes that sexual desire (for an adult, anyway) is part of “who you are,” and that a man must be able to act upon his desires if humanly possible.

He may not always speak this way. He will often use the traditional language, and use it sincerely. But note what he says and what he does not say: Does he ever speak of “the bond of matrimony,” or in other ways say marriage is not easily escaped? Does he ever invoke the traditional causes of marriage, like the procreation of children and the prevention of fornication?

No, he talks about love and fulfillment, personal happiness, freedom. And he talks of these as if they were rights the Church must serve.

Think of how he argues for homosexual marriages. He does not refer to any biblical rule, except to argue that it does not apply. Most of the time he tells stories of homosexual couples suffering because they cannot solemnize their relationships that, despite the Church’s rejection, have made them happy, and helped them make others happy too. They say that they love each other and therefore must be free to marry in Church. It is the only way they can be fully who they are. In other words, he argues as if marriage were a way to self-actualization, to which we have a right.

Hearing all this, the polyamorist naturally demands the right to be sexually intimate with more than one person at a time. It is what he wants, what fulfills him, part of “Who I am.” In insisting that one ought to have sex only with someone for whom one has forsaken all others, the sexual liberal is just clinging to a tradition and to social mores he, on his own grounds, does not believe in. The polyamorist takes the liberal’s principles and draws the logical conclusion.

Once you have replaced the Dos and Don’ts of Christianity with some idea of sex as self-actualization, you cannot rationally resist anyone who wants to be more liberal than you are, and there will always be someone more liberal than you are. Begin with the principles of sexual liberalism, and reason is always on the side of the person who wants to be more liberal still.

You want contraception; someone else wants easy divorce. You want easy divorce; someone else wants homosexual marriages. You want homosexual marriages; someone else wants threesomes. And his reason for wanting threesomes will be just as good as yours for wanting contraception or easy divorce or homosexual marriages.

At some point, of course, most sexual liberals will say, “But I don’t want that!” Nevertheless, he cannot say no to the man more daring than he. To resist the polyamorist’s proposal to increase sexual freedom you must give a reason for resisting, and reasons for resisting one thing have a way of ruling out many things you would like to keep ruled in.

Hence you must never say no to any expansion of sexual freedom, even if you do not want to go so far yourself. The polyamorist leaving Susan’s house to drive to Linda’s, while planning tomorrow’s meetings with Caitlin and Betty, lives the life the sexual liberal of today has provided, but more thoroughly than the liberal feels he can.

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