The German news magazine Der Spiegel, in its issue of January 3, 2011, has two separate stories that become more intriguing if one reads them together. (In a recent post I noted that I have finally discovered my mission in life—to perform this synthesizing operation on stories in The New York Times. I am now globalizing this mission.)
The first story deals with the travails of Muslim young women in Germany due to the contradiction between the strict sexual ethics of their parents and the exuberant hedonism of German culture (which, in this and in other matters, reflects post-1960s culture throughout Western societies). At the core of traditional ethics are two sacred values—the virginity of unmarried women and the honor of the family. The second depends on the first. A young woman who loses her virginity not only commits a grave sin and spoils her life chances (she becomes “spoiled goods”, unlikely to find a husband within her parents’ community), but she has very seriously dishonored the entire family to which she belongs. (Let us leave aside here the important question of whether these values are intrinsically Islamic, or whether they are due to Turkish or Arab cultural influences not necessarily based on religion. Liberal Muslims of course propose the latter interpretation. Communists used to differentiate “real existing socialism” and theories about “true socialism”. By analogy: “Real existing Islam” is one thing, ideas about “true Islam” another. Here we are concerned with the former.)
I don’t know of data about the distribution of reactions to the contradiction. Some young women will have internalized the traditional values and will behave accordingly. I suppose they fulfill the dreams of the sort of men that their parents would like to have as sons-in-law. Other young women (probably with higher education and successful social mobility) will have freed themselves from the traditional inhibitions and now live like the majority of their German peers. The ones in the Spiegel story fall in neither category. They are struggling between two worlds. In the world of their parents there is no premarital sex (not for women, that is), no boyfriends, no going to gender-mixed parties. One interviewee reports that she has to hide her forbidden cell phone. There are separate girls-only clubs and parties. If there is sex at all, it will be highly surreptitious. To preserve virginity, there will be a preference for anal intercourse. And if (heaven forbid) virginity is lost after all, there will be recourse to procedures that restore the hymen (they can cost up to thirteen-hundred euros). An ultimate recourse (assuming that anal intercourse was deemed unsatisfactory and that the alternative had unintended consequences) will be a secret abortion, even a very late one—the story interviewed a doctor who provides such abortions, and who carefully did not allow her name to be used. The traditional values are reinforced by more than psychological pressures. There is always the threat of physical violence in the background, from severe beatings to “honor killings” by male family members.
The other story deals with a “polyamory” group in Hamburg, a city long known for broad tolerance (just about any taste is catered to on the Reeperbahn, the famous thoroughfare in its red-light district—I can imagine that the sexual revolution in the general culture will have cut into the Reeperbahn’s profit margin). Just in case readers of this blog are not au courant of the latest twist in this revolution, the term should be defined: Polyamory refers to the practice and theory of intimate, consensual relationships between three or more persons. The Hamburg group consists of (only) three individuals—two men and one woman. They are very open in talking about their relationship, though they leave open the question whether the men have sex with each other as well as with the woman (a question of both salacious and mathematical interest). They do tell that there are two apartments, in case one of them wants some time out from the happy trio. And, after all, they are methodical Germans: posted on the internet (no less) is a calendar that organizes who sleeps when where. Honesty is the core value—the woman tells how she and her former husband were cheating on each other, but with her polyamorous relationship everything is out in the open—no more sneaking around. One of the men says that polyamory is “still a marginal alternative”—still—but he and the other “polys” believe that their lifestyle will become mainstream. They seem to regard Carl Gustav, the king of Sweden, as a role model. I don’t know whether he would be happy with this assignment. He has a reputation for philandering, which seems to be a bit much even for famously libertarian Swedes—51% of them think that he should resign in favor of his daughter (who has just married her longstanding lover—perhaps in the hope that more than 49% would welcome her coronation).
A brief googling of polyamory will make clear that it is not just a German phenomenon. It also makes clear that it is already producing a tail of legal and economic problems—disputes over property, divorce, custody—not to mention headaches for a creaky welfare state—spousal claims for health insurance, pensions—and just who can rightfully claim the title of “spouse”. Especially in America, a rich new field should be opening up for lawyers (some new specialties, perhaps, like child support litigation between same-sex “polys”?). Anyone with knowledge of American religion will not be surprised that polyamory has become an issue in the Unitarian Universalist Church, ever in the forefront of progressive causes. (A few years ago it proclaimed its headquarters, a building on Beacon Hill in Boston, to be a nuclear-free zone—much to the relief of neighbors worried that an atomic weapon was being put together in the basement.) Some polyamorous UUs (members, that is, of the UUC) discovered that about a fourth of people attending polyamory conferences were also UUs. Accordingly, in 1999 they created an organization, Unitarian Universalists for Polyamory Awareness (UUPA), with the avowed goal of making Unitarianism the first denomination to endorse polyamory. Denominational headquarters, alas, disagreed, officially declaring that it had nothing to do with UUPA and its purposes. UUPA, by the way, is tax-exempt, suggesting that the Internal Revenue Service holds a progressive edge over the UUC.
Conservative cassandras (please note: I am not one of them) are turning out to be empirically correct, even if one disagrees with their philosophy: once you legitimate same-sex marriage, you open the door to any number of other alternatives to marriage as a union of one man and one woman: polygamous (an interesting question for Muslims in Germany and dissident Mormons in Arizona), polyandrous, polygenerational – perhaps polyspecies? Our Hamburg trio may well be correct in their expectation that polyamory may be the wave of the future. (Actually, the term could be expanded to cover all the above poly-arrangements.)
The two stories from Der Spiegel belong together because they bring into sharp focus the limits of pluralism (and not only of the multiculturalism which represents an extreme form of it). Plurality—the peaceful co-existence of different racial, ethnic, religious and lifestyle groups in the same society—is an inevitable consequence of modernity. Pluralism—the ideological acceptance of plurality—is necessary if a modern society is to retain a degree of stability, especially if such a society is democratic (I maintain that pluralism is a virtue as well as a necessity). The question is where pluralism—any reasonable form of it—must define the limits of what is acceptable. Both stories involve the cultural and legal definition of marriage. This is not the place to discuss whether the canons of Islamic modesty or the practice of polyamory should be accepted in a Western democracy. But, as a sociologist I can propose a hypothesis, and as a concerned citizen a recommendation. Hypothesis: There will be cultural and political compromises in the area of sexual behavior. Recommendation: In a democracy these matters should be openly and extensively discussed.