During the "Debate over Marriage" held at Princeton University last December, an event sponsored by the Anscombe Society, the most important point to which opponents of the traditional definition of marriage could not respond was the following: redefining marriage as a purely emotional union necessitates the acceptance of any number of varying types of relationships as "marriages," including, most notably, polyamorous ones.
The response offered was neither moral nor philosophical in nature, but rather purely practical: polyamory is not a significant enough force in the United States to merit political recognition as marriage. This argument, already intellectually insignificant, has now been proven factually inaccurate by a recent feature in Newsweek. Indeed the author practically taunts traditionally-minded Americans with the complex structure of the particular polyamorous quartet profiled in the piece:
It's enough to make any monogamist's head spin. But the traditionalists had better get used to it.
The article goes on:
Researchers are just beginning to study the phenomenon, but the few who do estimate that openly polyamorous families in the United States number more than half a million, with thriving contingents in nearly every major city. Over the past year, books like Open, by journalist Jenny Block; Opening Up, by sex columnist Tristan Taormino [who will be speaking at Princeton this upcoming semester]; and an updated version of The Ethical Slut--widely considered the modern "poly" Bible--have helped publicize the concept. Today there are poly blogs and podcasts, local get-togethers, and an online polyamory magazine called Loving More with 15,000 regular readers.
Polyamory, then, is not a blip on the American cultural radar, but a social and sexual phenomenon. It is the fullest expression of the ideology of sexual libertinism that has taken root in this country, marked by radical autonomy in moral deliberation and decision-making. Polyamory throws into sharp relief one important aspect of this ideology: consent as the only moral touchstone in issues of sex and relationships. More on this after the jump:
The cornerstone of polyamory is the assumption that, through openness in sexual and other matters among parties to the relationship, this informed consent to the arrangement and sexual liaisons among the group vitiates any ethical qualms. The article specifically describes the arrangement as such:
"[T]hey do believe in "ethical nonmonogamy," or engaging in loving, intimate relationships with more than one person--based upon the knowledge and consent of everyone involved."
Polyamory and the sexual revolution which spawned it, however, are based on an impoverished view of consent in human relationships. The sexual liaisons occurring in a polyamorous arrangement are by their nature pre- or extra-marital and, as such, deny the full communion of persons unique to the marital bond. In "consenting" to sexual intercourse with multiple individuals based on the whims or fancies of the moment, one acts toward giving up the only thing one cannot feasibly relinquish: one's human identity as a subject of relational activity, rather than an object.
That is to say, the application of the word "consent" to polyamorous (and other extramarital) relationships is inherently flawed. In engaging in these activities, the couple (or triad, etc.) mutually deny to one another the full giving of the self inherent in the sexual union, a union which entails permanence and exclusivity in order to be sensible. Otherwise the complete and total gift of the self that is the marital act is terribly impoverished; it is rendered merely the mutual fulfilling of sexual desires; it is, in the strongest sense of the word, mutual objectification. And one can no more "consent" to be related to as an object than one can "consent" to be traded as property; it is a denial of the inherent dignity that defines human beings.
This is to say nothing of the children on whom polyamorous sexual arrangements are often imposed. The six-year-old boy whose biological parents make up two of the quartet profiled in the Newsweek piece certainly did not "consent" to being raised in such a household.
Whether in a house in a tony Seattle suburb or in one of the mansions that dot Prospect Avenue in Princeton, the idea of consent is thrown around to justify any number of sexual encounters. When serving as the sole ethical touchstone of sexual actions, however, it impoverishes the comprehensive dignity of human relations and is, in the end, simply nonsensical.