1. Why do you believe what you believe? What would change your mind?
My concern is that if polyamory becomes more widespread among heterosexuals, it will look less and less like it does among early adopters, it will affect the availability of relationships even for people not interested in polyamory, and there are likely to be unintended consequences for society including unintended changes in values. For why I believe things, I prefer empirical evidence as much as possible, as I think society is hard to predict through reason, though I’ll do my best in part 3. Nothing would convince me I’m wrong quite so well as seeing another progressive country adopt polyamory for a generation and seeing little else of consequence change for the worse. But you’d probably like to change my mind now, and that could be possible since I haven’t entirely made up my mind on this, so let’s dig into some premises underlying my concerns.
I do believe such a thing as human nature exists, although it can be hard to discern and it is subject to individual variation. I don’t believe that there is a natural order of society that follows from it where we can all act according to our nature — some correction or redirection of that nature will always be necessary. However I do think it should be a consideration in deciding what society should look like, if not generally a decisive one. Any vision of society derived from a pure social constructionist view just reads to me as your plans for what you would do with seven billion lumps of play-dough. Your vision of society should be affected by the fact that it is humans in particular that society will be built from, and the more human nature needs to change to fit your ideal society the more coercion is implicit in your vision.
I believe there are some asymmetries between the sexes when it comes to sex and relationships. This is not an “all men are X while all women are Y” concern — my concerns follow just as well from “more men are X while more women are Y” and as such are not rebutted by the fact that some men are Y and some women are X. Last I heard twice as many men as women were interested in polyamory. This I read in a pro-polyamory argument that seemed to assume this meant polyamory would be mostly polyandry. If you consider that men express interest in polyamory because they are interested in multiple girlfriends, it would seem a more realistic conclusion that poly-curious men will not find what they seek unless the *average* poly women is looking for *at least* four boyfriends (who have other girlfriends). Evidence that this was the case would go a long way toward convincing me polyamory can scale up. (Though I am aware of a number of studies showing that women have fewer partners the more there are to choose from, suggesting it is generally not the case and may become less so in a polyamorous world.) There may be a biological reason for such differences, as evidenced by the fact that stronger sexual desires toward more people is a commonly reported side effect of testosterone taken for medical reasons. But ultimately it doesn’t matter to me why this is true. If the gender gap in interest in multiple partners and interest in casual sex went away, then I would need no convincing that it could change. And if this can change I see no reason it couldn’t change now and become apparent now or at least prior to adoption of polyamory. On the other hand arguments that this gap theoretically could change are irrelevant if it doesn’t change. I’ve yet to hear an argument that polyamory will itself change this, nor have I heard much argument for polyamory that assumes these asymmetries remain and actually tries to address the consequences; maybe one of these arguments can be made.
I believe society is hard to change intentionally but often changes unintentionally in response to material conditions. As evidence of the former relevant to this topic, consider the effectiveness (or rather lack thereof) of gay conversion therapy and abstinence education. As for the latter, I find the research showing different sexual norms and behaviors on college campuses with different gender ratios particularly compelling. Kids can grow up in similar high schools watching the same movies, but send them to colleges where it gets harder or easier for heterosexuals of their gender to find love and suddenly the previous eighteen years of socialization seem not particularly decisive in determining their values; meanwhile deliberate efforts by society to instill values often have no effect or even a contrary one. So if you’re going to change my mind on this, convince me your model for how society changes is realistic; don’t just assume that if society is convinced to adopt certain values then it will successfully instill them and behavior will match those values.
I am concerned that a society with an excessive number of young single men will be prone to violence and radicalism. I don’t mean incels in particular; pretty much every violent radical movement has recruited primarily young single men. I hesitate to bring up this concern because I know for many it is the opposite of convincing as it puts people in “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” mode, but I wouldn’t really be addressing why I was concerned if I left it out. Recognizing the irredeemability of terrorists doesn’t answer the question of why previously redeemable people sometimes become them, but asking that is also fraught because people conflate that question with asking why people are perfectly well justified in becoming terrorists, and that is an entirely different question that doesn’t have good answers. This issue is another instance where an actual change would be more convincing than a theoretical argument that change was possible. If a sufficient number of think pieces on toxic masculinity results in violent crime rates for 20-something single men looking like that for everyone else, great! If you can also convince my car insurance company there was no need for them to charge me thousands extra for being single when my record was clean, you will have me on board. But without actual change I think it is more reasonable to assume polyamory will be happening in a world where this remains true, so explain why you’re fine if it does, or maybe your efforts at changing my mind would be better spent convincing me the single male population won’t change much or will shrink.
2b. A monogamous person has a crush on someone other than their partner. In a healthy relationship, what would happen next?
In my experience, even when you’re single 90% of the time when you have a crush on someone the end result is nothing. So if you’re in a healthy relationship you just take the most direct route to nothing. You might need to put some emotional distance between you and your crush — spend less time with them, be more business-like and tell fewer jokes around them — until the feelings pass. If anything happens between you and your crush or they confess feelings toward you, you should discuss this with your partner. If nothing happens outside your own head, this is optional. But talking to someone about these feelings may help you process them and move past them. This could be your partner if it won’t make them feel insecure and inadequate, but it may be better to talk to a friend or a therapist. Just don’t tell your crush.
3. What would happen if 90% of people in a society were polyamorous?
When polyamorous marriage was legalized, the Supreme Court had all the right reasons. Now anyone had the legal right to marry any number of other partners regardless of sex or gender. Not everyone jumped on board right away, though. Many in the LGBTQ+ community were early adopters, and for them it went about as well as you might hope. Some people formalized relationships they were already having. Some people opted out and formed subcommunities for those interested in monogamous relationships. The great thing about being a gay man interested in a monogamous relationship with another gay man is that there are precisely as many gay men looking for monogamous relationships with other men in this country as there are gay men looking for monogamous relationships with other men. But unfortunately most people are still primarily or entirely heterosexually attracted and for them the effects are considerably more complicated.
Some fundamentalist religious sects rediscover rules allowing for polygyny. The broader society does not think highly of this and insists this isn’t real polyamory, but the law doesn’t provide any grounds to not recognize a religious marriage between an already married man and an additional woman, even though these religious communities never perform a wedding between an already married woman and another man. Women who grow up in these communities expect to live the way they see their mothers live and usually do just that, settling down early in life. Men who grow up in these communities expect to live the way they see their fathers live and frequently become disillusioned. For this reason more men than women leave these communities, mostly seeking to join mainstream society. Most of society grows increasingly contemptuous of these sects, which helps to keep them small. Whereas religious sects built around polyandrous marriage remain entirely nonexistent.
Some wealthy and powerful men are early adopters. Often they are just formalizing the sort of relationships they were already having, but the media covers them very differently now that they openly have multiple wives rather than secret mistresses. Often their prenups make it practically impossible for their wives to marry anyone else without divorcing even if the prenup doesn’t explicitly forbid this. For some reason, discussions about what is wrong with these relationships get constantly derailed by concerns that criticizing their relationships contributes to the stigma that polyamorous people face that their relationships and their love isn’t as real as it is in monogamous couples. (Similar critical discussions about religious poly sects are much less likely to be derailed for some reason.) Celebrity gossip magazines feature more and more one man multiple women relationships. It becomes a feminist cause to pressure media to cover women with multiple husbands more. Then a B-list celebrity marries her second husband and gets profiled in every outlet imaginable. Feminists rejoice, briefly, then begin to wonder aloud why the press covers her like having two husbands is the main noteworthy thing about her when a man can be noteworthy for other things and also happen to have multiple wives. The press corrects course a second time. Enough about these people, let’s discuss the broad mainstream of society that is working on developing new polyamorous egalitarian heterosexual norms.
The phrase “I have a boyfriend” used to be one of the easiest ways to say no. It somehow managed to be quite polite and not sound like rejection, while being unopen to challenge and sounding a little like a threat. Now it means only its literal content and is an invitation to further discussion about what sorts of relationships you prefer. Some women start using the expression “I have a jealous boyfriend.” Some single women used to buy a cheap “safety” ring because they found that if they were going out but didn’t feel like being hit on today they could wear it and were much less likely to be hit on. Now married women are frequently hit on by men who want them to know how progressive they are about women’s sexual liberation. Men don’t seem to have nearly as much of a problem with this shit. Some women notice that married Indian women with spots on their forehead don’t get hit on as much because they are assumed to be more traditional. This practice becomes widely adopted by women in monogamous or polygynous marriages. Sometimes single women fake this with makeup if they don’t want to be hit on tonight. Some polyamorous women also do this if they feel they’re not likely to want a third or fourth husband. But after a while the practice looks increasingly sexist, like a symbol of men’s ownership of women or society’s indicator that marriages with only one man are real and marriages with multiple men are not. From here things go one of two ways — it falls out of favor, or it becomes even more widely adopted, coming to mean the same thing as the wedding ring. Back to square one, with many married women wishing there was a common signal meaning not just “I have at least one spouse” but “I am unavailable.”
Sometimes, when a woman loves a man but finds that man is more interested in his other girlfriend than in her, but also finds it’s still easy to get time with him if it’s for sex and she still enjoys the sex, she looks for an additional complementary relationship for emotional support. She wants her new relationship with her new boyfriend to be emotionally intimate, but she is reluctant to have it turn sexual because she fears her second boyfriend will become like her first, and in any case she feels her sexual needs are met, so why risk ruining the secondary relationship with sex? And this is a valid kind of poly — different relationships to meet different needs! This sort of relationship becomes a trope known as the “sexless secondary”, or just “SS” on many subreddits. This is not the only kind of secondary relationship women have but also everyone knows guys who were in SS relationships that they wished were sexual. This is the subject of so much discourse until the phrase becomes taboo because saying SS like it’s a real thing makes you sound like the kind of guy who complains to no end about being an SS. (It’s basically “friendzone” discourse reruns, only what is wrong with men who talk like this is mere friendship! You’re saying you’re incapable of loving anyone who won’t have sex with you??) And many guys enjoy having their SS relationship in addition to their primary. But for guys who find they only end up in SS relationships, hearing a woman insist she does love you, she just isn’t into you the same way she’s into her other boyfriend is going to sound like rejection.
In general polycules with more women have more children. This skews childrens’ perception of what a typical polycule looks like, as they have many friends from one dad many mom families, making these families seem even more common than they are, both compared to monogamous couples and compared to one mom multiple dad families. There are public awareness campaigns in schools to let children know there’s nothing wrong with polyandrous families and here is a list of things you should stop asking that kid with three dads and a mom because it’s obnoxious how much they hear it. Polygynous families need no such awareness campaigns and it turns out kids expectations for their own life are much more influenced by the families they know in real life than by that assembly the school makes them attend every few years.
Something that stays the same as in the present is: when men seeking women outnumber women seeking men, age gaps in relationships increase. Over time they increase a lot. What do you think of 40-year-old men who date women half their age? Okay, better question: How long does a 40-year-old bachelor in a world with more more men seeking women than women seeking men stick to norms guaranteeing they’ll never have kids rather than consider dating someone of the age most single women are? What if you know such a guy. (You likely would. Maybe he’s your brother.) How upset are you going to be when he finally finds someone who makes him happy? In this world you might as well be against love itself. Yet at the same time, something won’t always sit right. Such relationships really can be exploitative — you’re not worried about your brother of course, he’s a good guy, but you’re aware of a few relationships like this that developed a dynamic you don’t like. How does a progressive person square this circle? No idea, but the less progressive person feels that parents should be actively involved in their daughters’ love life, as they can be quite naive compared to the men seeking them out. It becomes more standard for men to woo their partners over with gifts — and also to give gifts to their partner’s parents, as it is important to win them over too. Being older, men are typically further along in their careers and thus more financially well off than the women they are seeking. Regardless of what society says about the end of gender roles, if you had to bet, what sort of roles do you imagine the people in such a relationship will take?
The beauty of normative monogamy was that it forced men and women to act more like each other, making the genders seem more alike than they actually were. In this world they don’t seem so much alike, and over the generations feminism looks increasingly — not unnecessary, far from it — just absurd.