Toronto
3 min

The monogamy defence

Let’s hope it didn’t cost the government a lot of money, because I can’t see how a recent report commissioned by BC’s attorney general is going to help anyone.

The report, written by BC anthropology professor Joe Henrich and released in August, was commissioned as ammunition in the battle to keep Canada’s polygamy law on the books.

If you haven’t heard, the Supreme Court of BC is entertaining a charter question about whether Canada’s poly law is constitutional; it’s likely to go to the Supreme Court in the next few years.

Henrich concludes that monogamy makes societies more competitive, resulting in the West’s imperial domination of the globe. Polygamy is bad, and, especially, it leads to violent societies with low gross domestic products.

Among his more outlandish claims, Henrich concludes that monogamous marriages gave birth to Greek-style democracy. (Obvious flaw: ancient Greeks often had multiple sexual partners, concubines, sex slaves and youthful male consorts.)

He also suggests that we have monogamous marriages to thank for egalitarianism between the sexes. (Obvious flaw: for more than 2,000 years, monogamous marriage has been used as a tool to dominate and control women.)

His main thrust, however, is that polygyny — specifically, cultures where one man marries multiple women — results in roving packs of young, unmarried men. This, he says, increases rates of murder, rape and all-night beer-drinking binges. I’m not kidding.

Absent from his report are the results of another study released this year by the University of Victoria that shows that divorce puts a similar pressure on the marriage pool. Older divorced men, it seems, have less trouble remarrying than older divorced women, leading to, well, roving packs of young, single men drinking beer at all hours, apparently.

It hasn’t, obviously.

The argument fails to take into account most of the developments of the post-war years: women entering the workforce; the increasing acceptance of gay relationships; university students who put off getting married while they pursue education; the increasing acceptance of non-marriage-related hanky-panky.

But no matter. Dr Henrich wisely avoids drawing any public policy implications from his research. That’s because his kind of research is a tough fit when it comes to legal matters, since his views would tend toward the social engineering and eugenics end of the policy spectrum.

The logic that says we should forbid polygamy is the same kind of logic we could use (and have used, although blessedly in the past) to forbid no-fault divorce, criminalize extramarital liaisons and gay sex, stigmatize single parents and so on.

These days, we mostly prefer to leave it up to individual Canadians to make their own sexual and relationship choices. For the most part, we don’t let our own personal preferences — or even, ugh, reproductive good — form the basis of public policy, other than in minimizing the harms associated with certain choices.

Even in cases where the state intervenes (in certain longer-term relationships), it lets us arrange the contract, via prenuptials and cohabitation agreements.

Henrich’s report compares apples and oranges — largely, monogamous marriage in the West with polygynous arrangements in sub-Saharan Africa. It does not compare, anywhere, Canada with its seldom-used polygamy law to a Canada where the law is struck.

The truth is, the impact of poly decriminalization on society would be minimal. But that doesn’t mean the outcome of the BC court case doesn’t matter: it will have a huge effect on individual lives.

For the few women in polygynous relationships (such as the fundamentalist Mormons of Bountiful, BC, which sparked the debate), the outcome of this case is extremely important. At the moment, wives beyond the first have no access to the legal mechanisms of inheritance, immigration, property rights and, especially, divorce. If they did, it would drastically change the dynamic of the homestead.

And for the rest of us, Canada’s polygamy law is sufficiently vague to give us pause. The law as it stands punishes, with five years in jail, any person in a conjugal relationship with more than one person at a time. They don’t have to be married, and they don’t actually have to be having sex.

Could a married man with a mistress be considered polygamous under that definition? Does a closed triad of lesbians count? Does a gay couple in an open relationship count? Could any group of four roommates in the Annex count?

Henrich’s report doesn’t go anywhere near any of that. And as a result, I suspect it will be of little value for either side.