Sunday, May 10, 2009

polygamy revisited

At the request of my younger brother Jason, I am re-posting that bit I referenced a while ago about Polygamy. Interesting how my voice changes as I go along. Here 'tis:

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I've been thinking about polygamy lately. Not in the sense where I want to take it up as a hobby, but in the sense where I sit naked in the snow and hemmmmm about it as a concept. This isn't the first time - it probably came up as far back as my early teen years. I was a missionary kid being brought up in a very reserved environment where sex was “tee-heed” or “poo-pooed” but almost never discussed in a frank manner, and I was looking for loopholes.

It doesn't really matter whether you are the clean-cut child of straight-laced missionaries or the illegitimate son of a prostitute named Maria being raised in a Mexican whorehouse – at the age of early teen you have got sex on the brain, toes, and everything between. Sex leaks out your very pores, and in Yarinacocha we were taught to stop up the holes until we were old enough to experience IT in the appropriate context.

I am a big fan of appropriate contexts. I have always known that human passions need to be channeled or you end up waging wars or overpopulating the earth. In this matter, however, GI Joe is dead wrong: knowing is not half the battle – it’s not even an opening sword stroke. For those who happened to have skipped over the years between eleven and, say, fifteen, know this: developing primary and secondary sex characteristics is hell.

What’s polygamy got to do with it? Well, I'll tell ya. Polygamy, in this painful interior landscape, seemed like a golden sunrise. I might have to wait forever for sex, but when I got old enough I could marry eight or nine willing vixens and have sex pretty much all the time. It’s in the Bible, for the love of Pete! King David of Israel, author and subject of a whole bunch of verses, had a mess of wives and concubines, right? And the Bible says that David was “a man after God’s own heart”, right? Granted, David had a bit of an advantage. He was a king and could therefore afford more diamonds and chocolates than the average Ezekiel, Hezekiah, or Zebulun. Still, the point is the same – you should try to grab as many wives as you can, cause God’s cool with it, and if God were a guy he’d be doing the same thing.

While this line of “reasoning” about women and sex seems fairly elbow-slappingly funny to me now as a married man – at the time it was serious stuff. I mean, there had to be some sort of sex pot at the end of the chastity rainbow to make it worth the wait, didn’t there?

I tried the argument out on Mr. Burke, my eighth-grade teacher, and when he stopped laughing he said that it was a nice try, Josh, but the Bible expressly forbade polygamy. I had been doing some pretty extensive reading on the subject and was pretty sure he was wrong, so I demanded scriptural corroboration.

“Don’t you remember, Josh”, he replied, “Jesus himself said it very clearly – ‘no man can serve two masters’”. At this he doubled over in paroxysms of mirth. Mr. Burke was always doubling over in paroxysms of mirth when I was around – reveling in the foibles and fumblings of my youth – but he was married and had fathered several children, so it didn't help. Polygamy remained a blank, open book, and I was happy to take up a pen and write it.

A lot has gone on between my floppy ears since then. These days, I am not too keen on multiplying wives unto myself. I am much too poor for that and have enough trouble as it is staying out of just one doghouse. Still, I can't help but wonder where the whole “one wife or go to jail” thing came from in our culture – was it just a by-product of our economic reality?

Let's look at the flip side: In many of the patriarchal societies of the past every man was a little king or tyrant and women were not allowed to have regular jobs. What with the men running around smiting each other with swords and hand grenades and what have you, there were a lot more women available than men. If a man couldn’t have more than one wife, then a lot of women would have starved to death. Starving to death, while very noble and poetic, was probably not a lot of fun. And in many indigenous societies today, women still hate starving to death. Go figure.

Now granted, I would be one of the first to argue that patriarchy is not all that and a bag of sex toys; but who’s to say we’re all that much better off with our own state of legislated monogamy, where domestic violence and insolvency reign supreme? Isn't it better to have a man with six wives who is committed to loving them all than a monogamous man who wouldn't know love if it walked right up and kicked him in the teeth? Granted, neither situation is ideal; but where in this mixed-up, backwards, loopy, fallen world are you going to find an ideal? David was probably overdoing it (the Bible does make it clear that his weakness for the ladies is what brought him down), but what right have we earned, with our divorces and our Hollywood-bankrupted version of marriage, to point fingers?

What brought polygamy to mind at my advanced age of twenty-seven was not, however, the desire to move to Utah, but rather an odd little question: as in, why is it always, always, always guys who do the polygamizing? I know it seems obvious – men being possessive, power-hungry, sex-obsessed, machismo addicts and all – but how come you never hear tell of a woman getting dragged before the magistrates and penalized for polygamy? We are in a new era in which women have been economically liberated. Aren’t there any power-hungry, possessive, sex-obsessed women out there who want to run a bit of a man-pack?

Come to think of it, a girl did once ask me and a couple of other guys if we, as a group, would like to be in her harem. She was joking (of course?) but she was also very attractive, and since I always take things way too seriously I (jokingly) pointed out that her husband might take issue with the idea. She replied that “he’s not the jealous type”.

Now at this point, a guy with moxie would have called her bluff. “There are a few things I’d like to get cleared up first”, he’d say, “like, who gets procreative priviledges with you, and how often? And even more importantly, what about fiscal responsibility? Do we get an allowance, or are you expecting us to work for you?” I, of course, have always been a man more of words than action, so I dropped it.

Does it happen, though? Should it? Probably not, I think. For one, we haven't had a good, wholesale “girls-only” war in well nigh on forever, so there are plenty of women to go around. For two, you only need one nominally functional male to get a woman in a condition to fulfill her biological imperative and pop out a baby, so from a “preservation of the species” point of view, it doesn’t make sense. For three, with the women of North America allowed out into the sweat-of-their-brow workforce in the last while, wouldn’t a woman who gathered in a bunch of men to buy her candy and baubles just seem sort of greedy? And finally, is there any woman in her right mind who would want to put up with more than one of us at a time?

Still, who is to say what a determined and possibly insane woman should or should not do? I certainly don't claim to understand even my own motivations, so why should I judge a member of that alien species, “Women”. Besides, morality is a slippery eel. Those who try to capture and control it often get a nasty shock as they realize they’re messing with things undreamt of in their philosophy. I think the truth about all this is real, and perhaps graspable (if not necessarily by naked reason alone), I am just saying I am not entirely sure we are quite as bang-on as we think about sex and marriage.

I will have you know, though, that if anybody tries to horn in on Anya as a second husband, I will exercise my inherent right to go ape-excrement on their heinie. Unless, of course, they plan to stay out of our sight in the barn and do all the chores. It would be hard to object to a second husband if he was just going to be a sort of indentured servant. Who am I to mess with time-hallowed tradition? Hmmm.

3 comments:

  1. You said: "Isn't it better to have a man with six wives who is committed to loving them all than a monogamous man who wouldn't know love if it walked right up and kicked him in the teeth?"

    I say:

    Absolutely not. This idea that "loving" is simply protecting a woman and making sure she doesn't starve to death is far from love. Not only is it simplistic, it promotes the sexist idea that without men, women will simply starve to death and can not provide for themselves. The idea that polygamy protects women is twisting things so that a bunch of horny men can fulfill their sexual fantasies at the expense of (not only their happiness but also..) the worth of their wives and women everywhere. The belief that women must have men to protect them in fact does the opposite, making them vulnerable to exploitation, manipulation, rape, poverty, etc.

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  2. If I held that belief, Brendan, I'd totally disagree with you. But I don't. I don't think women need men to protect them. I do think that the way many cultures have been set up in (like, say, Israel three thousand years ago, which was a warring patriarchy with a shortage of men in a world that was perpetually hostile both naturally and militarily), women have a much better chance of not being victimized by the sort of misogynistic men you describe if it is understood that they are married.

    Furthermore, while love is more than protecting a woman and making sure she doesn't starve to death, there are times and situations when that is all a man can do, and it is right and loving for him to do so. We live in the lap of luxury, so we cannot understand, say, a father of seven during the Depression in the United States who must work sixteen hours a day to keep his family alive. Not all situations are equal, and our idea that everyone "ought" to be able to have emotionally, mentally, spiritually and physically fulfilling relationships is a result of our situation. We can hold these marital ideals all we want, but I think the evidence belies our argument if we want to suggest that our way of doing things is the best possible one. Our marital track record in our country isn't so hot right now.

    And finally, while it is noble to want to give women their rightful place as the equal of men in value, they are not equal in kind. They are made in different ways and want different things. Some women in some situations are not, apparently, as against polygamy as you and I are naturally inclined to be, and it is my opinion that it would be arrogant and dehumanizing of us to try to assert that they are only misguided or undereducated. Again, I'm not sure all our education has done us as much good as we'd like to think.

    In our situation, polygamy does not work. Personally, I think any man who would want more than one wife is an idiot asking for destruction. Nonetheless, from personal experience I can also say that marriage is never what you think it is, and that it is a good thing that not everyone does things exactly the way that we do.

    Thanks for engaging.

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  3. Josh,

    "Some women in some situations are not, apparently, as against polygamy as you and I are naturally inclined to be, and it is my opinion that it would be arrogant and dehumanizing of us to try to assert that they are only misguided or undereducated."

    I've been in the middle east for 17 months and am friends with some of these women. I don't understand it, nor do I understand why ANY man would want to have a relationship with more than one woman (we're a bit crazy). Most of my students with multiple wives have multiple problems.

    Hannah

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