Historical sexual and social taboos are disappearing in ways considered impossible even a couple of decades ago. Indian and US courts have decreed that transgender persons have the same rights as males and females.
In the US, where conservative Christianity is a powerful force, the supreme court has upheld gay marriage as a fundamental right, striking down many state laws banning same-sex marriages. A few decades ago, homosexuality in the US was illegal. Even oral sex was defined as sodomy and carried a stiff jail sentence. Those taboos have gone.
In India, Delhi high court decreed that gay marriage was a fundamental right. But the Supreme Court later reversed that judgment, saying only Parliament can revoke the law against homosexuality, not the courts. But the pressure for legalization will continue in India, and one day succeed.
Which taboo will be axed next? Several writers — including a blogger in The Economist — think polygamy will be the next taboo to go. If consensual sex between adults is okay for a couple, why not for a consenting threesome or foursome? What is sacred about a pair anyway?
Monogamy has historically not been universal. Pagan and animistic tribes had both polygamy (multiple wives) and polyandry (multiple husbands). Muslims could have four wives, and Hindus wives without limit (Lord Krishna supposedly had 16,000 wives). Polyandry was rarer, but Draupadi married the five Pandavas. In some hill tribes in north India, polyandry still exists, though illegal.
If polygamy is legalized, some will call it reversion to old traditions, not a new social norm. That’s partly true of transgender recognition too: hijras always had a defined space in India, with Shikhandi playing a prominent role in the Mahabharata. Gay marriage is not really new either: anthropologists have uncovered same-sex marriage in some ancient cultures.
Yet today’s developments have different roots. The new mores flow not from the traditions of old but from the concept of individual human rights, which did not exist earlier. The rise of human rights flowed from the Glorious Revolution in England, the European Enlightenment, and the American and French revolutions. This included much ambiguity and hypocrisy at first. American and French revolutionaries could own slaves, and women did not get the vote till the 20th century. But the logic of individual rights rolled on inexorably through the decades, gradually revolutionizing old political and social institutions.
This included male-female relationships. Adultery was once punishable by death and divorce was impossible, but today we have no-fault divorce. Today 70% of black children and 30% of white children in the US are born out of wedlock, but nobody calls them bastards.
However, it doesn’t follow that the expansion of individual rights will lead next to polygamy. Historically, polygamy meant terrible male dominance, keeping women subjugated and disempowered. It was a case of gender oppression, not individual rights. Consensual relations between adults is a hallmark of freedom, but traditional patriarchic societies offered no real freedom of choice to women, so any consensus was forced.
Theoretically, one can imagine a time when all gender discrimination disappears, and all male-female actions are truly voluntary and consensual. If so, voluntary polygamy or polyandry may seem a genuine human right. Even today, some unmarried men openly have two or three mistresses, and all of them accept this without coercion. Since society does not criminalize polygamous relations outside marriage, won’t it — shouldn’t it — accept polygamous marriage?
No, that doesn’t follow. Male domination is still such an overwhelming fact of life that any movement to legalize polygamy will be denounced by human rights activists as a licence for oppression, and rightly so. There is not the slightest prospect in the foreseeable future of creating a society free of gender oppression. In such circumstances, activists against polygamy will (and should) trump those in favour (the latter will typically be conservative mullahs and Mormons, not activists seeking human rights).
The same argument does not apply to polyandry. If a woman takes on multiple male lovers in a male-dominated society, that will surely be consensual, not a form of gender oppression. It will be non-consensual only if the multiplicity of relations is kept secret.
Polyandrous women will face the hostility of traditional oppressive society, not its support. Such women can legitimately agitate for polyandry as a civil right, following in the footsteps of gay and transgender rights. However, there won’t be enough polyandrists in the foreseeable future to start a movement for legal recognition. The issue remains quite theoretical.
Still, when so many social analysts predict that polygamy will be the next taboo to go, I must demur. I suspect polyandry will come first. And even that is generations away.