The Economics of Sex

Sexual freedom and economic theory. What does it mean for men and women?

Is it time to institutionalize polyamorous relationships?

Not all families come in twos. Is it time to change laws to protect them too?

As Groucho Marx once quipped, "Marriage is a nice institution, but who wants to live in an institution?"  

Well, it turns out that lots of people want to live in an institution when that institution gives you thousands of privileges, many of them pretty importan—like being in the hospital with your loved ones, making health decisions for them, putting them on your insurance and letting them inherit your property when you're gone without huge tax burdens.

That's why gay and lesbian couples have been fighting so hard to live in that institution. And it seems as if same-sex marriage is here to stay. Certain hold out states, like Michigan, may attempt to discriminate against same-sex couples, but there is now federal recognition that these relationships deserve protection in the form of marriage rights and it is unlikely that this will be overturned. 

Yet there's a different set of Americans who would like to institutionalize their relationships without necessarily getting married: the polyamorous. For this group, they want some stability and protection of their families without necessarily committing themselves to the institution of marriage. A recent interview in The Atlantic with Diana Adams, a lawyer with an interest in protecting all families, revealed just how some already existing laws can be used to protect families comprised of more than two adults.  According to Adams,  

…there are a lot of basic things like ensuring tax benefits, or making sure that your partner is not financially vulnerable, or if you want to be sure that you can visit your partner at the hospital, we can do a healthcare proxy. The girlfriend can get the healthcare proxy because the wife can come in automatically. We can create agreements in terms of school or the doctor's office for a third parent to a child. And, I actually think that these arrangements can be better, because people can be really clear about what they want to create. They’re not signing on to things they maybe don’t actually want. 

I’m helping one polyamorous triad right now set up an LLC so they can share their finances. We’re making them employees of their own three person corporation so that they can be covered under an employee health plan.

This one size doesn't fit all approach to legally protecting families-—all families—is a movement whose time has come. The fact is that two parent and children families are a small percentage of American families, fewer than a quarter, and most American families are living in some other configuration. Whether it's polyamorous adults and their children, platonic friends forming families, lesbian moms and gay sperm donor dads, all American families require some institutional protection. As Adams points out,

Domestic partnership, for example, has tremendous possibility to create a more expansive version of what a relationship can look like. Domestic partnership was originally created as an alternative for gay couples who couldn’t legally get married. But then, all these surprising things started happening where these other kinds of people started using it for their own purposes. For instance, many elderly widow friends have entered into platonic domestic partnerships. It’s a situation like the Golden Girls. These are friends saying, “I live with her, and we watch out for each other, and I want her to be the person I can share my health insurance with.”

And yet in many ways the gay marriage movement has take up most of our cultural attention, not to mention political energy and donation dollars, for the past few decades. Maybe now, with same sex couples finally being able to enter the institution of marriage, we can begin to think about what sorts of laws and privileges the majority of American families need.

The Economics of Sex