Hard News by Russell Brown


The mathematics of marriage

I understand why Louisa Wall reacted so angrily to Bob McCoskrie's claim that polygamous marriage was on the "long term agenda" of supporters of her marriage equality bill. For McCoskrie and government MP John Hayes, it's a handy slippery-slope argument: if we permit this then that will surely happen. It's a misdirection in the same way as Stephen Franks' musings about marrying his dog.

But ... when McCoskrie said this:

"If you say that any adults who love each other should not be discriminated against then why limit it to sexuality, why not numbers?"

He was right. There is no good reason to deny people in committed domestic relationships of more than two people the rights and status enjoyed by people in teams of two. The public goods we perceive in recognising stable, committed relationships surely aren't contingent on maths.

What Wall demonstrated when she compiled her mutually exclusive lists of the 11 countries that permit same-sex marriage and the 50 that recognise polygamous relationships is not that extending marriage rights to same sex-couples can't lead to recognition of polygamous or polyamorous relationships, but that it thus far hasn't.

Sanctioned polygamy as currently practised anywhere in the world has not come about as a result of modern social reform. It's as traditional where it is practised as binary marriage is in our culture -- which is probably something worth putting to McCoskrie in an interview. It's also generally not very compatible with modern ideas about the rights of women.

Coley Tangerina has a good blog post on this:

When activists fervently deny any support for poly marriage, they’re bringing it onto the agenda, when previously the only person doing that was a dude who ran a nationwide campaign in support of assaulting children.

When activists run their mouths about poly relationships, they’re also telling people they support some types of equality but not all. Rather than succeeding in making  discussions only relevant to the legislation at hand, they’re spitting at their support base.

Poly people who support marriage equality are doing so in the hope that more legislated relationship equality benefits everyone. Same goes for people who aren’t poly, but give zero fucks about what consenting adults do in their relationships. I have yet to see a single poly activist in New Zealand try and redirect the conversation about same-sex marriage to suggest that this legislation should also include them.

I'd say the same, except my sentence would end at "I have yet to see a single poly activist". I honestly don't know anyone in a committed poly relationship, and I'm sure the vast majority of New Zealanders don't either.

But it's not that long ago that the large majority of New Zealanders didn't know anyone in a marriage-like same-sex relationship.  The introduction of civil unions not only gave currency to the idea of such relationships, but profoundly raised the visibility of such relationships. Public support for actual same-sex marriage -- which seemed a bridge way too far 10 years ago -- has blossomed more quickly than I suspect anyone imagined it would.

If there is demand for rights and legal status for poly relationships, it would seem that an amendment to the Civil Union Act would be the simplest way to meet it. Whether or when that led to a general acceptance of the idea of poly marriage is a different matter. There's nothing wrong with just seeing how it works.

For now, the people doing the good work on marriage equality should simply state that while it may well be an idea to formalise legal understandings around relationships that already exist -- for the sake of the children, if nothing else, right? -- that is not what this bill is about, and it's simply not relevant to this bill. And get on with passing it.

And yes, I do love being a dirty incrementalist.

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