Ain't Nobody's Business If You Do



Your brother was, I believe
unmarried, was he not?

Oh yes.

MISS PRISM [Bitterly]:
People who live entirely for pleasure
usually are.
The Importance of Being Earnest

IS MARRIAGE SUCH A fragile institution that it must be defended by putting all dissenters in jail?

The obvious answer: "No—there will always be a fairly large percentage of people who want a lifelong, monogamous, formal, committed relationship with a partner of the opposite sex to keep the $32 billion bridal industry humming." Then why, I wonder (just as I wonder why it's called the bridal industry and not the bridal and groomal industry or simply the wedding industry), why must there be so many laws to encourage, support, and protect marriage?

When it comes to professional relationships, the law recognizes just about every kind. In business, there are sole proprietorships, limited partnerships, corporations, and any number of other government (and, more important, IRS) recognized relationships. The laws and customs are neatly in place for mergers, takeovers, creating, and dissolving professional relationships of all shapes, sizes, and durations.

Why is it, then, when it comes to personal relationships, there is only one legally recognized, community approved, IRS sanctioned relationship: one man and one woman promising fidelity until one of them dies? Only in this relationship—known as marriage—do people get the tax breaks, bank loans, realtor acceptance, and Welcome Wagon visits. Further, consenting adults entering into personal, romantic, or erotic relationships other than marriage might find themselves in jail. If you're sixty-three and a twenty-two-year-old fashion model finds your charm, sex appeal, and $500 million net worth absolutely irresistible, and this model, as Stephen Sondheim put it, "marries you a little," there may be a few raised eyebrows. Although eventually you'll probably be raising alimony payments, one thing you won't have to raise is bail. If, however, the same financial relationship were offered in more straightforward terms, in all fifty states (with the exception of a few counties in Nevada) you'd be arrested for solicitation, prostitution, or pandering.

It doesn't matter what you do
in the bedroom as long as
you don't do it in the street
and frighten the horses.

Even if you firmly believe in, staunchly support, and passionately desire a one-on-one, monogamous, committed, lifelong partnership, if you happen to want that with a member of your own sex, that's illegal in all fifty states. Let's say you're heterosexual, then—so heterosexual, in fact, that you want to marry two members of the opposite sex. Sorry, that's a little too heterosexual: just one to a customer, please. To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, bigamy is having one spouse too many; monogamy is the same.

Generally, polygamy is thought of as one man with several wives. As the King in The King and I explains it:

A woman is like a blossom with honey for just one man. The man must be like the honey bee, and gather all he can. To fly from blossom to blossom, the honey bee must be free. But blossom must not ever fly From bee to bee to bee.

The plural of spouse
is spice.

Anna, the Welsh schoolteacher tutoring the children of the King of Siam's "favorite" wives, has an alternate view:

In your pursuit of pleasure, you have mistresses who treasure you.

They have no ken of other men, beside whom they can measure you.

A flock of sheep, and you the only ram.

No wonder you're the wonder of Siam!

There is no reason, of course, why a woman cannot have many husbands. The word polygamy, in fact, is not attached to gender. A man with several wives technically practices polygyny; a woman with several husbands practices polyandry.

We know Cleopatra, for example, was not exactly the queen of denial, and only World War II went through more Russians than Catherine the Great. Mae West, in her play Catherine Was Great, played the Russian empress on Broadway. In her curtain speech, West told the audience,

I'm glad you like my Catherine. I like her too. She ruled thirty million people and had three thousand lovers. I do the best I can in two hours.

In a few parts of the country—particularly among Mormons—polygamy (or, more accurately, polygyny) is quietly accepted. Some Mormons, in fact, consider polygamy their religious right. It is certainly true that polygamy, as a religious tenet of Mormonism, was driven out by this country's traditional religious intolerance and the government's willingness to give such intolerance full force of law. Professor Robert Allen Rutland tells the story:

From 1831 onward the Mormons, whose religion embraced the practice of polygamy, had been hounded from settlement to settlement, and in 1844 their leader, Joseph Smith, and his brother were lynched by an Illinois mob; the surviving believers then trekked from the Mississippi to their New Zion in present-day Utah. After Congress outlawed bigamy in 1862 Mormons challenged the law, claiming that it violated their guarantee to worship freely. The high court decision upheld the law and kept Utah out of the Union until 1896.

I was thrown out of
NYU for cheating—
with the Dean's wife.
Woody Allen

Brigham Young, who led the Mormons from Illinois to Utah, had at least twenty wives and fathered forty-seven children. "He is dreadfully married," wrote Artemus Ward. "He's the most married man I ever saw in my life."

As of early 1996, adultery (sex with someone who is married, or sex with anyone other than your spouse if you are married) is illegal in twenty-seven states. Oral sex (called sodomy in some states)—either giving or receiving—is illegal for consenting heterosexual adults in fourteen states. Even missionary style, conventional, heterosexual sex between unmarried consenting adults is illegal in nine states. Cohabitation (living as married with someone you're not married to) is illegal in ten states.

And let's not forget local ordinances. There are any number of laws—such as this one from Long Beach, California—which sound more like a passage from a Sidney Sheldon novel than a legal statute:

No person shall indulge in caresses, hugging, fondling, embracing, spooning, kissing, or wrestling with any person or persons of the opposite sex . . . and no person shall sit or lie with his or her head, or any other portion of his or her person, upon any portion of a person or persons, upon or near any of the said public places in the city of Long Beach.

You can point to any item
in the Sears catalog and
somebody wants to sleep with it.
Barney Miller

Any guess where all these restrictions come from? Almost invariably they are religious in origin. In their attempt to protect "the American family," fundamentalists are, in fact, destroying the institution of marriage. Lifelong, monogamous marriage is a relationship that many people are naturally drawn to. But when society programs those not drawn to that particular relationship to believe that they should or even must be married, people who have no business being in a marriage muck it up for those who want to be.

It's like visiting Disneyland. Some people naturally love the place. As long as only those who are drawn to Disneyland visit Disneyland, it is "the happiest place on earth." If, however, everyone were forced by law to visit Disneyland, then those who were not congenitally suited for Disneyland would—with their noticeable displeasure, rebellious acts, and disparaging comments—ruin it for those who wanted to be there.

That's the state of marriage in America today. When people who really want to be married marry people who only think they should get married, both end up suffering. If people who want to get married, get married to other people who want to get married, the likelihood of success is fairly high. Meanwhile, if the people who don't want to get married but think they should get married are no longer told they should get married, they are free to explore and enter into whatever sort of relationships they do want. (On a purely physical level, psychiatrists say that 20 percent of the American public has no appreciable sex drive whatsoever.)

This may sound terribly selfish,
but I love the freedom I have.
I don't have to worry
about a man's wardrobe,
or his relatives,
or his schedule,
or his menu,
or his allergies.
I would not be married again.

If business law had an equivalent to the laws concerning personal relationships, it would say, "If you're in business, you must have one partner, and only one partner, and keep that partner, until one of you dies." If this were the law, can you imagine the state of business in America? The same is true of the state of personal relationships.

If we allow people to follow their hearts (and what else should they primarily follow in romantic relationships?) and allow relationships the freedom to grow, dissolve, merge, and interact with the same legal freedoms and protections we give business, then everyone—including (and perhaps especially) those who want a traditional marriage—would be a lot better off.

This topic, of course, is the subject of its own book, which I have no intention of writing someday. From a legal point of view, to sanction (reward, in fact) only one kind of relationship and punish other relationships is simply not the law's business.


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