There’s been some interesting and stimulating discussion on bisexuality, polyamory, and plural marriage throughout the blogosphere. None of this commentary has been more refreshing than Julian’s post on AndrewSullivan.com, a post that is mainly a response to Stanley Kurtz writing here and here. From Julian’s post:
As far as I’m concerned, there’s nothing particularly wrong with polyamory, and if the state’s going to be in the business of sanctioning romantic relationships, I do think there’s a good case to be made for providing some kind of legal arrangement for polyamorists. So, bereft of magic Kurtz-glasses, I don’t see broad acceptance of group relationships as the self-evident evil he does (a point to which I’ll recur in a bit): I don’t think this slippery slope is going anywhere particularly bad. But neither do I see quite as much Crisco on the ramp as does Kurtz: Even if he were right that legally sanctioning the tiny number of Americans who prefer their domestic bliss à trois (or more) would have dire consequences, the idea that this move flows straightforwardly from the acceptance of the argument for gay marriage just won’t hold up.
I’m also of the mindset that polyamory is a natural, normal, and not morally troubling form of relationship. (Definition by Wikipedia: Polyamory is the practice or lifestyle of being part of more than one long-term, intimate, and, often, sexual loving relationship at the same time, with the full knowledge and consent of all partners involved.) Some polyamory advocates are bisexual, others are gay or straight. Because many bisexuals prefer monogamous relationships, there is no necessary link between bisexuality and polyamory.
Relationship philosophers haven’t overlooked the links between polygamy, monogamy, and polyamory with stage conceptions of relationships. According to Wikipedia:
To many monogamists polyamory might seem like a weakening or failure to adhere to the values that most of the rest of society agrees to. Another way of looking at it is that the presumption that monogamy is the only acceptable form of long term relationships is an example of stage four of Kohlberg’s stages of moral development. Polyamory on the other hand is the practice of relationships in stage five or six. In this context, some who practice polyamory consider it a superior form of relating to people, but most simply suggest that it is the right way for them.
In my column “The M Word,” I explained how it is possible to view sexual relationships on a developmental spectrum. Broadly, there are at least three main levels: pre-conventional (Kohlberg stage 3 and lower), conventional (Kohlberg stage 4), and post-conventional (Kohlberg stage 5 and subsequent).
In the first (pre-conventional) stage, dynamics are characterized by a desire for fluid and polymorphously perverse sexual play with multiple partners, and/or sexual role playing based on power dynamics (fetish, sadomasochistic play, etc.) Non-monogamy is valued; monogamy is derided as something for fuddy duddies and uptight squares.
In the second (conventional) stage, sexual relationships are characterized by a desire for a balanced relationship with one primary partner, usually in a conventional marriage/domestic partnership. Monogamy is held to be virtuous, and non-monogamous liaisons are forbidden as adulterous or cheating.
In the third (post-conventional) stage, sexual relationships are characterized by a desire for deep intimacy and passionate sexual aliveness that may be found with one or more partners in either conventional or unconventional relationships. Monogamy and non-monogamy are both recognized as playing important roles in the development of a mature sexuality.
At their peak, post-conventional relationships continue to evolve, sometimes birthing forms of relationship based on “sacred sexuality” (or “intimate communion” to use an idea of David Deida’s, whose ideas have informed this analysis).
Not everyone would describe the stages of relationship in precisely the way that I have in this summary. But if you accept the broad concept that sexual relationships evidence a growth in moral development, then it becomes clear that there is no necessary moral problem with polyamory–unless your moral compass is set to a Kohlberg 4 or a conventional stage of relationship.
Nor is it appropriate to jump to the conclusion that the existence of moral ways of being non-monogamous therefore validates all non-monogamous lifestyle choices. That would be to commit the pre/trans fallacy: a confusion that because sex with multiple partners is non-conventional, it is therefore post-conventional. In fact, sex with multiple partners can also be pre-conventional behavior (Kohlberg 3 or earlier).
So far as I know, the implications of a developmental perspective have not yet been publicly assessed by the political pundits like Kurtz and Sullivan. Generally, the talking heads of the blogosphere are content to addressing the cultural and public policy arguments they see implied by the lifestyles of the polyamorists, such as whether there are legitimate civil rights issues raised by excluding polyamorists from group marriage (most pundits don’t think so). That’s a totally legitimate focus.
However, there are some very interesting moral and spiritual questions raised by polyamory that simply aren’t going away. As more people evolve from conventional to post-conventional relationships, why should they take monogamy with them? Or is polyamory a morally and spiritually superior form of relationship? It is interesting that the only religions to frankly discuss polyamory are pagan and Unitarian, religions that tend to have significant degrees of highly evolved pluralistic values. Aren’t criticisms of polyamory really valid only when looking at pre-conventional forms of relationship? What are the pros and cons of plural marriages? How do male/male and female/female marriages look different from traditional heterosexual couplings at conventional and post-conventional stages?
That these questions can now be asked in the public domain is a sign of the growing evolutionary maturity of relationships and the sophistication of public discourse. And thank heaven that we can have these discussions because seeking the truth is a worthwhile endeavor, and let us leave behind fear-based arguments that we should silence the discussions out of political expediency. Now let’s look and listen, watching for signs of life from polyamory advocates and foes, to see what answers are forthcoming…