Skip navigation

Recently, my friend and colleague T. J. Tallie  published Queering Natal: Settler Logics and the Disruptive Challenge of Zulu Polygamy in GLQ, and since T. J. often has smart things to say I prioritized reading his article in my ongoing project to keep up on recent work my field and related ones.

It’s a great piece that does an excellent job parsing out the way polygamy (or, as he points out, more accurately polygyny) was the “flashpoint” for British colonial anxieties about their capacity to control “the natives” in 19th century South Africa and the potential for Zulu practices to “contaminate” British “modern” sexuality; he expertly demonstrates the ways this nonnormative (to the settler colonists) practice was seen as dangerous and disruptive (and therefore was queer) (p. 168). (Yay for using “queer” to mean disruptive the way I like!)

I’d had a quote on polygamy on my list of possible blog topics for quite some time (since November, based on the date of the original source). It came from a news article about the Women’s League of the African National Congress party in South Africa; the larger point of the piece was that the league refuted the label of “feminist” (which was what caught my eye in the headline).

Responding to and deploying a tired definition of feminism, the Women’s League also denied hostility toward men, instead identifying its mission as the advancement of women; this commitment led to an exchange in which, “asked about whether [South African President Jacob Zuma’s] polygamy was not against the advancement of women, [Women’s League president Angie] Motshekga said practising his culture was a ‘personal choice’. She said the women Zuma married were consenting adults, and he was not harming anyone.”

I found that framing of consenting adults really interesting at the time (hence saving it for later), and now I find that I want to return to it in conversation with T. J.’s work, in part because I have been trying to work through ideas of consent for my work on fandom and labor and the sexual consent frame has been particularly useful as one that accounts for both constraint and choice.

To do this, I turn to Martha Nussbaum’s 1998 piece “Whether from Reason or Prejudice”: Taking Money for Bodily Services about sex work. Nussbaum points out that many of the problems people identify with sex work are common to all sorts of other activities, yet we don’t think of them in the same way—factory work requires use of one’s body in ways one can’t control, therapy is emotionally intimate, being a model who works to train gynecologists involves extensive contact, etc.

Nussbaum contends that we therefore need to figure out what specifically is bothersome about sex work—and whether this is “from reason or prejudice”—rational or just indefensible cultural bias. I’d like to apply this form of reasoning to the polygamy question in order to get at questions of consent.

The most typical mainstream objection polygamy (which, as in the historical Zulu case, seemingly always takes the form of polygyny) is that it is oppressive to women. As in the case Tallie describes, there is generally no regard for how the women involved might see the practice, but rather monogamists declare that such women are “oppressed under the barbarism of their men” (p. 173).

Now, when only men get to have multiple wives, it does participate in a logic of male access to and control of women and is therefore problematic. But this logic of access is prevalent in all kinds of cultural practices and institutions. As just one example, the high school boys CJ Pascoe studied for Dude, You’re a Fag: Masculinity and Sexuality in High School (something else I’ve read recently as part of catching up) worked to solidify their masculinity through extravagant claims to sexual control over girls’ bodies, and the girls were often uncomfortable about this but went along with it because that was how high school culture worked. It is therefore unreasonable to condemn polygamy as uniquely problematic.

A corollary to men having a right of access is the discourse of male hypersexuality. Certainly, in the context Tallie describes it was convenient for the British to argue that polygyny was about Zulu men’s hypersexuality in contrast to restrained British masculinity since this fit right in with their beliefs about the need to “civilize” the natives. But this logic is also not specific to that time and place; the idea that men want more sex than women is of course a tired trope of both comedy and drama.

Indeed, I’d argue that the horror-fascination with polygamy—which I’ve mostly encountered in the US-specific context of Mormonism, but Tallie’s discussion of how Zuma was treated in the British press a few years back seems similar—has something to do with men having unlimited sexual access, something both desired and disavowed within normative masculinity.

However, as the examples of Pascoe’s work and the “frustrated husband and wife with a headache” scenario already begin to suggest, polygamy, though indisputably based in gender inequality, is not uniquely coercive.  This raises a couple of issues around what consent means in such a situation.

Nussbaum points out that “poor working women” are “heavily constrained by poor options” in general, saying that “I think that this should bother us and that the fact that a woman with plenty of choices becomes a prostitute should not bother us, provided that there are sufficient safeguards against abuse and disease, safeguards of a type that legalization would make possible” (p. 696).

Applying this to marriage (of whatever number of people) as an economic institution, we can ask about who is in a position to consent in terms of what that person’s choices are and, as I have argued in the fan-labor case, the awareness of those choices. In the case of Zuma’s wives, then—given the likelihood of class endogamy—they are likely to be educated and financially secure, making their choice of this form of relationship meaningfully consensual rather than coerced by circumstance.

Though clearly there’s always some inequality impinging on consent, asking about what the options are both relocates agency with the less-powerful person and doesn’t deny constraint, a useful antidote to the freak-show quality of contemporary visions of polygamy and the tendency to discount people’s own meanings for their practices demonstrated both by British colonists in the 19th century and discussions of fundamentalist Mormons today.

Of course, there’s still that small but persistent manner in which gender is the axis of inequality in these formations. As a way around this, while polyamory is clearly not the Ultimate Radical Thing™ it is sometimes made out to be by its proponents, the idea of nonbinary relationships that are negotiated to everybody’s specifications—where each participant potentially has the option of multiple partners if they so desire—does get around the imbalance of polygyny.

And it does so without a normalizing defense of heterosexuality or monogamy, such that it seems likely to open up more sexual possibilities in a way that is supple with regard to the particularities of the situation, which is really what I think we ought to look for in a theory of sexual consent.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *