06/29/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Omnigamy, anyone?

Evan Wolfson, the civil rights attorney and advocate, has said, "The right wing would love nothing more than for us to spend all of our airtime discussing distractions such as polygamy, bestiality and other - from their point of view - doomsday scenarios rather than engage the public about committed same-sex couples being discriminated against."

There's truth to that. And look at the mess we have now with certain citizens denied the right to marry. Different states have different rules, which do not go across state lines. In California, some 18,000 same-sex couples are married and now, with Prop 8 upheld, other same-sex couples cannot marry. Oy. Let's take care of this first, please. However, having people understand that marriage is an ever-changing arrangement to meet individual, social, cultural, and religious needs does open the door to other ways for us to love, bond, procreate, and raise the next generation.

Will the next big controversy be about bestiality? Oh, come on (see one of my earlier posts). Most societies have always had laws against it, animals can't give consent, and most of us don't work and live around livestock. Our horses and cattle - not to mention our Great Danes -- are pretty safe from that discourse.

Will the next big controversy be about polygamy? We've had that discussion before. Once upon a time in America in the nineteenth century, particularly when Utah wanted to join the union, the big controversy around marriage involved polygamy. In 1862, the Congress under Abraham Lincoln enacted the Morrill Anti-Bigamy Act that made polygamy illegal throughout the U.S. and its territories. The 1878 Supreme Court decision of Reynolds v the United States said that plural marriage was not protected by the Constitution, as the laws would not interfere with religious beliefs but do govern actions. In 1890, the Church of Latter Day Saints prohibited the practice of polygamy. Of course, having had the discussion before doesn't exclude it from being discussed again.

Where is marriage in the U.S. now in the first decade of the 21st century? If one looks at marriage flat on without a moral or idealist squint, as do the social historians Stephanie Coontz, Andrew J. Cherlin, Paul R. Amato, Alan Booth, David R Johnson, and Stacy J. Rogers, to name a few, one sees a diverse set of practices. With a divorce rate around 50% and out-of-wedlock births somewhere around 40% (these involve cohabiting couples more often than the single-mother scenario usually mentioned in the media), obviously the 1950s ideal of breadwinner husband + homemaker wife + 3.2 kids is not the paradigm. We embrace more options. Cherlin sees us having numerous partnerships, involving nonmarital cohabitation, marriage with or without children, divorce, and re-cohabitation and remarriage with or without children and step-children. Some of us are serial monogamists, some are polyamorous, and some never marry at all.

Our focus since the '60s and '70s has been towards individual growth and expression. We want marriages that fulfill our needs - and, if they don't, we want the opportunity to divorce and re-partner. (Americans always have divorced more than Europeans by large percentages.) We have gone - or are going, as it is a process -- from the institutional marriage to the companionate marriage to the individualistic marriage. That is, in institutional marriage, people marry for economic and religious reasons. In the companionate marriage, people marry for love and friendship. In the individualistic marriage, we look for a mate to meet economic, sexual, and emotional needs as we grow in our own ways. And with women in the work force, with property rights, with no-fault divorce, and with custody rights (in previous centuries the courts favored children going to the father), it would be an unlikely trend for women, except those with particular religious beliefs, to give up those rights in favor of a patriarchal polygamous union.

Does that mean we're heading towards sci-fi pods of twosomes and threesomes and groupsomes à la Samuel Delaney's Triton? Are we heading towards omnigamy? I don't have a crystal ball to predict the future of marriage in America, but omnigamy will probably remain part of science fiction - for now. As a medievalist, as someone who studies the history and literature of the past, I can say that the definition of marriage always changes. Germanic and Celtic societies - as did ancient Hebrew societies -- allowed polygamy, although it was usually practiced only by the wealthy. Charlemagne touted the Christian principles of marriage (one man + one woman, which was a Roman paradigm) and divorce. However, he personally had many concubines by whom he had children as well as marriages that ended in repudiation or death. Some priests and even popes in the first millennium were married. It took several centuries for the church to enforce rules against such unions. Marriage did not become a sacrament in the Catholic Church until the twelfth century, far later than baptism or the eucharist. That is to say, marriage is always being debated and is always in flux; the door is open.