Those of you who lead busier lives than I do (which at the moment is probably most of you) might have missed this news story which came out recently: Emily Horne, who suffers from bipolar disorder, was yesterday given a 10-month suspended sentence for “serial bigamy”. Lisa Baker-Conway, the sister of her fifth husband, was apparently “angry” that Horne didn’t get a custodial sentence.
I’m perfectly willing to accept that Horne’s husbands cared deeply for her and were very unhappy that she deceived them, but why the hell should this be a crime, let alone a crime so serious that it merits an actual prison sentence, as Baker-Conway wanted? I can’t imagine any of the husbands involved would be much less upset if she’d just had an affair with the other four men rather than marrying them, and adultery’s not a crime, for the very good reason that it’s not an area where we think state interference is appropriate.
The judge reportedly argued (and I use that term in the loosest possible sense) that Horne “undermine[d] the institution of marriage” by getting married “at the drop of a hat”. This is pathetically flimsy. As with adultery, it isn’t and shouldn’t be the law’s place to tell people how quickly they should get married. But I’ll be generous, and assume that what the good judge meant to say was something like: a marriage (or equally a civil partnership; the same arguments apply) is a commitment between two people, and is defined as such in law, so bigamy (shouldn’t it be “pentagamy” or something if she got married five times and none of them ended in divorce or were annulled?) undermines marriage as a legal institution. Well, so what? That’s clearly true, but only in the same sense that same-sex unions would “undermine the institution of marriage” in places where it isn’t recognised (or as interracial unions did historically in the American Deep South or Apartheid South Africa). If the best argument that can be formulated against bigamy is an appeal to the dictionary it’s tempting not to even bother to respond.
Put simply, there is no reason not to recognise polygamy in law; it should be legally possible for people to marry more than one person at a time. If we permit consenting adults to marry (or enter into a civil partnership – again, as far as this article is concerned it’s a trivial semantic difference) without regard to age, gender, race or sexuality, I see no reason why the number of partners involved should be uniquely restricted. Emily Horne’s actions were wrong not because she happened to have five husbands (or because she was a “former adult film actress”, as if that was remotely relevant and not just prurient gossip), but because she was deceitful. And deceit in relationships, unpleasant though it might be, isn’t any of the law’s business.