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Published on: January 19, 2011
Virginity, Polyamory and the Limits of Pluralism

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 […]

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.

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  • Anthony Hill

    As usual, a well written post using measured words and sober assessments. My only qualm is your parroting of the conservative claim that “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.” While this is true to a great extent, it implies that legalized same-sex marriage is THE tipping point on some sort of sexual morality spectrum. On one side of this spectrum lies stability and prosperity; on the other lies a plethora of social pathologies. Seems to me this same argument could have easily been applied to defining social and legal boundaries for interracial marriage, Catholics marrying Protestants, or Italians marrying Irish in New York’s early 20th Century; all of which were strictly taboo at one point and all of which have been successfully incorporated into new western social norms and legal traditions.

    Your recommendation is to allow these matters to be openly and extensively discussed, which I wholeheartedly accept. I just believe that same-sex marriage will be easily assimilated into western lifestyle with little social consequence. Where polyandrous relationships land on that spectrum or what pathologies they create I do not know, but cultural evolution will deal with its acceptance or rejection at its own pace just like all other norms. Any issues they are currently creating in German society may require the creation of new common law to guide future rulings on things like wills and property arrangements. That is what common law is there for after all, filling in the gaps to guide for the infinite ways in which humans beings act (I acknowledge I know nothing of the German legal tradition as compared to our more Anglo model).

    Anyway, keep up the good work at The American Interest. While slightly more conservative than my believe system, it is always excellent food for thought and links conservatives arguments back to their Burkean roots, rather than the straw man arguments over at The Weekly Standard.

  • Virginia Child

    One correction: It’s the “Unitarian Universalist Association” (the UUA), not the UU Church or UUC. They are an association of churches or communities, not one church with many branches.

  • David S.

    It should be noted that there is no same-sex marriage recognized in Germany. Hence, the observation that same-sex marriage leads to polyamory isn’t exactly evident from the author’s blog entry.

  • Pingback: The drifting definition of marriage in the pluralistic West « Tempora Christiana()

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  • http://RealClearPolitics Brian Reilly

    It is certain that the range of recognized (not to say endorsed) interpersonal relationships which have sexual behavior as a significant component will increase, at least for a time. Much less clear is how the children raised in these tolerant societies will be raised. There is scant evidence that cultures without an ideal of monogamous parents raising children conceived between them are vibrant and durable. It will be interesting to watch.

  • Michael

    As I read the comments wondering about the connection between same-sex marriage and moral decline, there are a number of presuppositions being made about what constitutes sexual morality. We are at the point in which society can no longer define sex or marriage, for it can no longer decide what is good or bad.

  • Skulander

    And here we go again, another blog entry that claim a spurious connection between gay marriage and other things like, for instance, polyamory, polygamy, bestiality, incest (which are, I hasten to remind you, sexual behaviours and NOT sexual orientations), and what else? Yes, I’ve really heard everything coming from the far-right by now. But in the end those pushing for these connections fail to PROVE any of those connections in the first place. Like if gay marriage was 1) the trigger for these sexual behaviours (they are not: the more relaxed sexual morals dates from the 1960s, way before gays and lesbians gained any sort of rights whatsoever, let alone marriage) and 2) that one will INEVITABLY ensue from the other (it does not and will not: it’s highly interesting that those making these non sequiturs ALWAYS fail to elaborate on this point).

    At the end this sort of intellectual sloppiness only fails to convince, in courts and in the broader population in general. Second of all, those actively seeking to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry assume that the LGBT community does not value marriage seriously, does not respect it. On the contrary: gays and lesbians who marry today are presumed to do so on the same principles and obligations, the same values (love, committment, family) than straight couples. Equality for all can only strenghten a society, not undermine it: the only one hurt by gay marriage are those driven by their fears.

  • Skulander

    And here we go, another blog entry that claim a spurious connection between gay marriage and other things like, for instance, polyamory, polygamy, bestiality, incest (which are, I hasten to remind you, sexual behaviours and NOT sexual orientations), and what else? Yes, I’ve really heard everything coming from the far-right by now. But in the end those pushing for these connections fail to PROVE any of those connections in the first place. Like if gay marriage was 1) the trigger for these sexual behaviours (they are not: the more relaxed sexual morals dates from the 1960s, way before gays and lesbians gained any sort of rights whatsoever, let alone marriage) and 2) that one will INEVITABLY ensue from the other (it does not and will not: it’s highly interesting that those making these non sequiturs ALWAYS fail to elaborate on this point).

    At the end this sort of intellectual sloppiness only fails to convince, in courts and in the broader population in general. Second of all, those actively seeking to deny gays and lesbians the right to marry assume that the LGBT community does not value marriage seriously, does not respect it. On the contrary: gays and lesbians who marry today are presumed to do so on the same principles and obligations, the same values (love, committment, family) than straight couples. Equality for all can only strenghten a society, not undermine it: the only one hurt by gay marriage are those driven by their fears.

  • Skulander Who?

    Here we go again, another commenter trying to pull a fast one with empty words.

    “polyamory, polygamy, bestiality, incest (which are, I hasten to remind you, sexual behaviours and NOT sexual orientations”

    This is entirely a moot point. One can turn his or her body in any direction of the compass and be “oriented” in that direction. It is not until that person begin walking (a behavior, mind you) that his or her orientation actually makes any difference in the real world.

    “Sexual orientation” is a meaningless phrase, unless and until one discusses it in relation to sexual behavior.

  • Skulander

    “Sexual orientation” is a meaningless phrase, unless and until one discusses it in relation to sexual behavior.”
    But a sexual orientation is much more than a sexual behavior. Simply having sex with someone of your own gender doesn’t automatically make you “gay.”

    But despite the lenghty rhetoric of the blog post, there is STILL no justification for the ban on gay marriage. Those who oppose gay marriage fail, again and again, to demonstrate that sex and/or having kids is a requirement to marriage (it is not: single mothers and plenty of couples who do not/will not/cannot reproduce marry and no one, including myself, has a problem with that). They fail to demonstrate how gay marriage will lead to sex, polygamy, incest, bestiality, etc. They fail to demonstrate how gay marriage harms: 1) kids, 2) their own marriage, 3) the American society in general.

    They cannot base their arguments against gay marriage on something other than 1) religion and/or 2) animus of gays and lesbians, both of which are irreceivable in courts.

    So until those opposing gay marriage can AT LAST come up with credible, serious arguments about why it’s important to ban gay marriage (simply saying “marriage is between a man and a woman and that’s it because it is so since the beginning of times” will not do), I insist on saying such a ban is discriminatory and should not be tolerated.

  • Mr.West

    This is such a feeble argument against same-sex marriage. I don’t get why people think an influx of people are going to get married to dogs when same-sex marriage is legalized. The PROPER definition of marriage is one human and another human. Not 5 people. Not a human and a dog. It is sickening to see people give gays the same right to marry as a dog. There are a few more arguments for ‘traditional marriage’, but none of them really make much sense.

    Plus, your ‘mission in life’? haha, dude, you’re not jesus. :)

  • Charming Billy

    Skulander, Berger is OK with gay marriage. Furthermore, how in the blazes did you get the idea this is article is a contribution to the anti SSM cause?

    On to another point: you demand that SSM opponents “demonstrate” that gay marriage has quantifiable pernicious social repercussions. (Or I presume this is what you mean. If not, please excuse my unintentional flattery.)

    But can you demonstrate or “PROVE” your assertion, with evidence, that gay marriage opponents are motivated exclusively by “1) religion and/or 2) animus of gays and lesbians”

    You can’t prove this simply by showing their arguments are defective; that only addresses the formal character of their reasoning, it reveals nothing about their motives. Nevertheless you’ve drawn the unwarranted conclusion that if anti SSM arguments fail, SSM opponents are therefore motivated by bigotry or religion. How do you gain this remarkable insight into the motivations and character of SSM opponents? What’s your proof? But who needs proof if anyone who disagrees with you about anything is automatically a bigot or a fanatic?

  • Chairm

    The argument for SSM is an argument against society hold a special place for marriage at all; it is an argument against all marriage law — starting with eligiblity criteria.

    SSM argumentation can provide no principled basis for lines drawn based on relatedness; nor can it justify lines against polygamous marriage and group marriage. It cannot because it lacks the core meaning of marriage and becaus eSSM is a specious substitution of marriage.

    Applying the lines of eligibility of marriage to SSM is nonsensical because those lines are drawn around the core meaning against which the SSM idea stands as an open rejection. SSM argumentation is about deconstruction of marriage and is not really abou construction of some gay-like alternative.

  • Carl Eric Scott

    The biggest threat, legally-theoretically, is that the fight for gay marriage, fought willfully and w/o prudence(in the U.S., this means seeking court-enacted gay marriage), will wind up producing an official jurisprudence and an official liberal/libertarian political philosophy that will MANDATE that all, and most problematically this includes heterosexuals, have access to a wide menu of marriage options. Polyamory isn’t the really problematic one, since few will do it, but rather, ultra-lite marriage or cohabitation status is. This is why civil unions might be a bad thing to allow, even if they satisfy our short-term compromise itches, because in the long-term some heterosexuals with smart lawyers will demand them if they are seen as less onerous or more convenient. Or eventually, they will get courts to outlaw ALL marriage-like legal statuses due to their unfairly attached benefits (“My sexual orientation/identity is of the non-marrying kind, and I demand equal treatment.”) In such a scenario we would scrap the existing family law entirely of all non-parent-to-child statuses, and all personal partnerships would be handled under a new sort of contract law.

    The sociological threat is the growing un-tethering of fathers (entirely independent of gay marriage) from their progeny, the growing number of female-headed households, with a rotating cast of “boyfriend” figures half-committing to these households. French Catholic philosopher Chantal Delsol calls this “defacto matriarchy,” but of course it does not empower women, but in fact makes them and their children state-dependent, and more exposed to sexual other kinds of abuse. It will not, Delsol warns us, cultivate the positive characteristics we associate with individual.

    And incidentally, if this becomes the norm, as it already has for certain groups and in certain areas, polygamy, assuming the legal-theoretic logic has made it legal, would become attractive to poor women with few other options.

    What homosexuals do is not the long-term problem; and likely, whatever boutique polyamory experimenters are able to get away will matter much less–I just don’t see polyamory catching on; what’s the serious problem is what typical heterosexuals, alongside their slide toward single-parent households, do with the hyper-libertarian structures our present debates could set up.

    Non-dogmatic liberals and libertarians aren’t thinking about that enough. Neither are most gays.

  • Pierce

    Berger underscores the idea that humans are nearly endlessly socially adaptable, with the corollary that at the secular, human level, definitions of right and wrong are arbitrary. Libertarians can take heart that a society that has nearly eliminated moral distinctions based on religious grounds will provide increasing opportunities to indulge their varied tastes. But such a society will not value the virtues that create and sustain strong, resilient societies. Hedonism is not new, but it never lasts for long. Grasshoppers amuse themselves now, while the ants labor for tomorrow. The ants might be boring and narrow-minded (debatable), but they won’t freeze and starve when the winter comes.

  • GodsCountry

    “”interracial marriage, Catholics marrying Protestants, or Italians marrying Irish in New York’s early 20th Century; all of which were strictly taboo at one point””

    Taboo? Yes; but these can be dealt with in secular terms and with political means. But the essence of the argument Christians make, and always have made, is Biblical. The tipping point absolutely remains the definition or redefinition of MARRIAGE. Homosexuality is not in the same category as race, nationality or denomination. It’s practice is a clearly defined, Biblical sin.

  • GodsCountry

    “”1) the trigger for these sexual behaviours (they are not: the more relaxed sexual morals dates from the 1960s, way before gays and lesbians gained any sort of rights whatsoever, let alone marriage) and 2) that one will INEVITABLY ensue from the other “”

    Very interesting points. I am so glad they are invalid! Redefining marriage is ill-advised because the same radicalism that spawned the redefinition will inspire radicals of other stripes – pedophiles, polyamor-ophiles, etc. It’s all about the politics of the possible versus where a line MUST be drawn. Do we choose progressive or conservative ideology? Conservatives rely on the most essential and tried and true documents known. Progressives rely instead on “new” ideas, tearing apart first principles to make baseless claims, fulfilling base desires.
    Will you stake the survival of an entire culture on untried, baseless ideas? I won’t.

  • Adam Garfinkle

    Peter, I agree with all your observations, but chafe at one of your recommendations: that, in a democracy, we discuss all this in the open. Isn’t our public dis(inter)course (pun intended)salacious enough already?

  • http://geoffreybritain.wordpress.com/ Geoffrey Britain

    I’m late to the conversation but have relevant points to make, having thought long and hard about this matter.

    Skylander is essentially correct when he points out that arguments against SSM are generally based in religious premises, though assigning the motivation of animus toward gays is problematic.

    There is however an entirely rational argument to be made about the inevitable legal consequences of legalizing SSM. And both Mr Berger and several prior commenters on this thread allude to those consequences without articulating why those consequences are necessary.

    For those interested, I do so at Marriage and Premise; Moral Lines of Latitude and Longitude hopefully it will shed some additional light upon this important issue.

  • SvgAngel

    “Taboo? Yes; but these can be dealt with in secular terms and with political means. But the essence of the argument Christians make, and always have made, is Biblical. The tipping point absolutely remains the definition or redefinition of MARRIAGE. Homosexuality is not in the same category as race, nationality or denomination. It’s practice is a clearly defined, Biblical sin.”

    Might I remind you that we do not live in a Christian Nation? I think John Adams said it best, “The United States Government is in no way founded on the Christian Religion”.
    How can we look to just the bible when defining marriage? If that were the case no Atheists, Agnostics, Wiccans would be married. Additionally, if there were an God who was all-knowing, all good, all loving, who created all things, then he created homosexuality, and homosexual people. Seems kinda silly to make a whole bunch of people a certain way then say, “Don’t do this, IT IS BAD!”.

    I think it far more likely that in the time the Bible was written, there were very few Christians around. It is hard to propagate a religion without new followers, so a thing like homosexuality would be frowned upon, because it is limiting the effectiveness of the growth of that faith. But, as with most things contained in the Bible, it is a social relic that needs to be retired so we can focus on more important things.

    I mean really, Physics can demonstrate that an asteroid less than 1/2 km in diameter would have sufficient energy to wipe out all large life forms on Earth (The planet has already seen 4-5 extinction events in its history, why would we conclude another won’t happen?) But we are still probably going to be quibbling over abortion and gay rights, instead of focusing on real issues when it happens.

  • GodsCountry

    Marriage sees no ethnicity, personal beliefs, etc. What it sees is one man, one woman. You can be any color, any religion.

    Robbers are not created as such. They rob, so they are robbers. God loves repentant (not robbing anymore) robbers.

    No Christians around when the Bible was written? Faithful Jews wrote most of it. Converted pagans wrote the rest.

    More important things than the family, the very basis of civilization? Plus, the death rate has always hovered around 100% and people have always enjoyed thinking things through.

  • GodsCountry

    Marriage is a unique, fundamental word and as such has an extremely specific meaning. This meaning will not be changed simply by trying on new definitions any more than the definition of homosexuality will ever mean someone who drinks too much.
    The whole crusade against marriage is therefore an evil con, using obfuscation, twisted meanings and perverse motives to obtain selfish gain.

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  • poppa

    The line of ideas seeking admittance into
    normalization, has permitted, womans vote, black beings humanization, womans equality, and recently gay marriage. The next idea, plural marriage,
    especially as a religious practice, will certainly eventually prevail. I am amused that the gay-marriage righters are so against other ideas of personal, religeous freedoms. Why do they feel threatened ?

  • Alex

    I’m interested in adding some anecdotal perspective to the discussion of polyamory.

    I am more and more surprised every day the more people I meet who are polyamorous. Few people I know identify as poly (I can think of maybe two), but especially women friends of mine have spoken to me about having dated outside of their relationships.

    Or having agreements with their boyfriends that each of them can see or have sex with other people.

    I think, as casual dating and fear of commitment become more widespread with the growing independence of young people, we are growing also more polyamorous.

    I don’t know the general age of the average reader/commenter on this blog. I’m 23. At the risk of seeming ageist, I think older generations may be much more detached from how independent young folks are becoming and how liberal they are in their romantic and sexual lives.

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