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In Living Commentary

The HBO show "Big Love" depicts a man with multiple wives.

Polygamy often leads to mind control and abuse


I recently received a Talkback about a previous column on polyamory, the act of having multiple lovers. The writer wanted to know my thoughts on polygamy; which, in case you didn't know, is a Greek word meaning multiple marriages.

Many people confuse polygamy with bigamy, which also means multiple marriages. The difference between the two is that in polygamy, all the involved parties know about one another, which is often not the case in bigamy.

In this country, you cannot legally be married to more than one person at one time whether they know about one another or not. Bigamy is considered a misdemeanor and polygamy a felony (check out United States Penal Code (section 230.1). The opinions and confusion over polygamy stretch far and wide and have been thrust into the spotlight more and more due to recent court cases over the matter as well as popular television shows like "Big Love," which portray the ins and outs of polygamist families in a fictional setting.

One popular misconception is that polygamists are all of Mormon faith or of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. In reality, both of these closely-related religions claimed to have turned away from multiple marriages some time ago and currently openly denounce polygamist groups claiming to be of their faith.

Polygamists should be called polygynists, which means one man having multiple wives. The opposite, polyandry is when a woman has multiple husbands, but you'd better believe that isn't the way it works out in Utah, which is a religious hub for both Mormons and Latter-day Saints and the polygamist groups that claim to stem from them.

Most polygamists get around prosecution by only obtaining one marriage license while being secretly married to multiple women. In public and non-supportive situations, the other wives will pretend to be single women with children. Clearly, this is difficult -- which is why most polygamists live in communities or compounds made up of only those that follow the same practices.

One of my issues with polygamy is that it's not human nature to want to share something that should be that sacred. There is a reason people go as far as to kill one another in the heat of passion; now imagine that the other woman, or women, are sleeping under the same roof. However, that's just my romantic heart talking (don't endorse killing anyone over love or marriage. There are far better methods of revenge). There are a lot more important and disturbing factors to this practice than the lack of monogamy.

For starters, polygamists practice the belief that women are somehow inferior to their husbands and men in general. From birth, women are taught that they must marry to get to the highest level of heaven as well as increase their social status in the community to help their husband's status and business dealings. Not only are they forced to marry, but they must also allow their husband to marry at least two other women. Oh, and did I mention he gets to have sex with these other women?

I don't know too many hard-working married woman that wouldn't appreciate some help around the house, with the kids and laundry, but I don't think this applies to the intimate aspects of life and marriage. The only reason I can come up with is that these women -- and by women I mean young women -- don't mind "sharing" their husband's affections is that the men are often much older than their wives. In some cases, we are talking multiple decades older and more than likely she did not know her husband until they were married, so perhaps your night in the master bedroom is a matter of drawing the short straw.

Many of these polygamist marriages are arranged between families without consent or input from the typically young girls involved. And by young, I mean not out of high school yet. Many of these girls don't even know the man they are being forced to marry, typically within days of being told they are pulled out of high school and married off to spend the rest of their lives being seen and not heard.

Do not be fooled by fantasies of "one big happy family" all pitching in at dinner time, with the laundry and sitting around camp fires together roasting marshmallows. Some of the more influential families have upwards of 20 wives and so many children that the patriarch does not know his own children by name. Is that every polygamist family? No, but does that really matter?

One only need know the charges against polygamist leader Warren Jeffs to understand the oppressive, brain-washing, nauseating nature of these communities and "families."

If you ask me, this is a safe haven for pedophiles with Jeffs as the ringleader. Jeffs is accused of arranging marriages between young girls and adult men, including a marriage between a 14-year-old girl and her 19-year-old cousin. He is also accused of being married to girls as young as 12. Gagging yet? I know I am. Jeffs himself is bad enough, but I must know what father and mother would let their 12-year-old daughter be married off to some much older man she doesn't even know... or worse yet, a family member.

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Talkbacks

MamaKathy | Sept. 28, 2009 at 4:41 p.m. (report)

I am surprised when articles with professional writers get facts incorrectly. You mention that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and the Mormons are two different faiths. They are actually two names for the same faith. The actual name of the Church is the former and the latter, Mormon's is a nick-name. Though they prefer the use of the entire name of the Church, Mormons will answer to both. As far as polygamy is concerned. The LDS Church (oh yes that is another name for the Same Church) officially stopped polygamy in 1890. You then refer to Polygamy in the article as is defined in the Fundamental LDS Church, which is an entirely different sect. They may opress women, raise them to marry young and be subservient, but that was not what was taught in the Mormon Church in the 1800's. Women in Utah were the first to have the right to vote, had their own women's organization, and to this day, sit on the highest councils of the Church in Salt Lake City. Please do not confuse the various faiths, a simple call to the Public Affairs Dept of the Mormon Church, or looking at www.lds.org would go a long way in dispelling half-truths or misconceptions.

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Joreth | Sept. 28, 2009 at 3:34 p.m. (report)

I'm afraid I'm going to have to disagree with you on a few points here. First, though, I want to make absolutely, explicitly clear that I am opposed to any system that places restrictive behaviour based on gender or that hides behind the safety of the religious blanket to excuse abuse of any sort. One of my issues with polygamy is that it's not human nature to want to share something that should be that sacred. This is patently false. First of all, it is very difficult to separate out what is "human nature" from what is socialization, so making statements about what is "human nature" is very tricky. In most cases, we really don't know *what* is "nature" and what is "nurture". But in this case, what we *do* know is that tribal societies for most of history usually had their "sacred" rituals, behaviours, and beliefs integrated into tribal life as a whole. Individual male/female couples did not go back to their hut to pray in private. A tribe often had a religious leader or a council of elders who orchestrated entire tribe ceremonies. Sex was not a private thing between a man and a wife. In a grass hut, privacy is pretty non-existent and households are not designed around mommy, daddy, and 2.5 kids. Sex is generally considered a natural part of life, with kids and neighbors and family members fully aware of what's going on at any given time. It's when sex becomes linked to property that people start getting "jealous". When property is decided through paternity, then it is in the men's best interest to regulate who his female partners have sex with. When society encourages the idea that our partners "belong" to us, then that is when we see jealous reactions to our partners sharing behaviours with other people. This is very clearly a socially-programmed reaction to sex. While "jealousy" might be a natural, human emotion, what we attach our jealous feelings to is dictated by the society in which we are raised. When people do not feel as though they own their partner's sexuality or are entitled to it, they tend not to feel jealous when their partners have other sexual partners. I don't know too many hard-working married woman that wouldn't appreciate some help around the house, with the kids and laundry, but I don't think this applies to the intimate aspects of life and marriage. Well then allow me to introduce myself so that you can now say you *do* know a hard-working woman who appreciates sharing the intimate details of life and marriage. I can't stress enough how much I appreciate having partners who have other sexual partners. It has nothing at all to do with having sister-wives to share in the laundry and child-rearing duties. I live alone out of preference. But my partners do not and I am absolutely delighted by the pleasure they receive in their other relationships (and I am not referring to voyeurism in this instance). I feel nothing but warmness and joy when my partners talk about their other partners, in or out of the bedroom. It fills me with such happiness to see the light in their eyes when they are thinking of, talking about, or interacting with their other partners. Even in the case of the patriarchal, misogynistic Fundie Mormon church, where women are essentially brainwashed into a subservient role for their (often much older) husbands, I don't think it's accurate to make any such claims about how all women feel about the details of their situation. Human sexuality is so varied, that we cannot make claims about any group of people's views on their sexuality or their sexual situations and also be intellectually honest. *You* can say that you can't imagine being comfortable with the idea of your partner having another spouse, but you *can't* say that all women, even women in this particular group, are uncomfortable, or that their comfort stems only from the probability that their husbands are older and therefore probably only feel relief that they don't have to have sex with him every night. Warren Jeffs, in particular, is a horrible, abusive, sick man and I make absolutely no excuses for him. He and people like them deserve every criticism you heap upon this relationship style. But do not make the mistake of lumping in all polygamists together. And do not make the mistake of punishing the wrong category. What you are opposed to, and rightly so, is the abuse found in these relationships. So identify the abuse and protect against that. The relationship style itself is not the cause of the abuse, it's merely a smokescreen. And a good portion of its effectiveness as a smokescreen to hide the abuse is the fact that its widely misunderstood because it's illegal. We currently have laws in place to protect minors, to protect women from rape, to protect abusers. But by making polygamy itself illegal, we have effectively given these abusers the tools to continue their abuse. You see, when an abuser uses polygamy as a smokescreen, he can say to his wives "now, remember, this is illegal, so you can't tell anyone that we're married". And while they're not telling anyone that they're married, they're *also* not telling anyone of the abuse that is happening behind closed doors. These women do not have the safety net in place to catch the abuse. The first thing any abuser does is to isolate his victim from family and friends or anyone they might confide in who can look at their relationship from outside and say "dude, that's f'd up!" - the safety net. If these people felt free to admit their lifestyle, the abusers would find it harder to hide. If a woman felt she could find justice and retribution for her situation, instead of being attacked by the very system she seeks help from simply because of her non-traditional beliefs, more women would feel safe enough to come forward when they were abused. Our collective fear and hatred of polygamy as an institution makes it entirely too easy for an abuser to say "see? they won't help you, they think you're messed up for your religious beliefs, so you shouldn't reach out to them for help because they'll think you're just as bad as me". And he wouldn't be far off. We, as a society, might be blaming the men and pitying the women, but the emphasis is still on the relationship style as the cause, not on the fact that this particular individual is a bad person regardless of what system he's using to hide behind. Is that every polygamist family? No, but does that really matter? Yes, it does. Statistically, an awful lot of monogamous relationships also harbor abuse, religious nonsense, patriarchal structures, statutory rape, incest, and everything else you're opposed to. I see very few people calling for an end to monogamy for harboring these kinds of situations. The Westboro Baptist church is a monogamous-based church. It is headed by a married man who has one wife and a whole ton of kids. Several of his kids have had to "escape". Several of them had been brought back under duress. They were beaten, brainwashed, and abused. It was not monogamy's fault. It was the fault of a charismatic, very sick and twisted man who managed to isolate his victims from a society that would have otherwise intervened had it not been for our reluctance to, what would have been seen as an, infringe upon religious freedoms. This entire church is created on an atmosphere of hate and fear. But I don't see you standing up and saying "the mere thought of monogamy makes my skin crawl, because this man uses his position of monogamous head of the household to abuse his family". Because it's not the monogamy that's at fault here, just like it's not the polygamy that's at fault in the Fundie Mormon church. It's the sick, twisted abusers who use isolation and fear as control mechanisms. And in the case of religious-based polygamy, our own act of making it illegal contributes to their isolationism and makes it that much more difficult to protect the innocent. ~Joreth http://www.theinnbetween.net/poly1.html

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rbunz | Sept. 27, 2009 at 4:33 p.m. (report)

"it's not human nature to want to share something that should be that sacred" Huh? I disagree. It is the sacred things in life that absolutely *should* be shared. Sharing sacredness is how we heal both personally and collectively. If we had more shared sacredness in everything, the world would be a much better place. - R

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earthwalker | Sept. 26, 2009 at 12:52 a.m. (report)

The first thing I want to say is the abuse of any person male or female is wrong. I fight very hard against anything like abuse. Everything that Warren Jeffs and people like him do is very very wrong. Every single one of them needs to be hunted down and have their day in court. After that I have to say the major problem with this kind of crap is how much is "reported" based on thoughts, feelings, ideas, and what may be. Not once did you mention that you found a polygymist, bigamist, or polyamourist family that you actually talked to. So you have no facts that you are "reporting" on. Just as I feel very strongly against forcing ones will on another that causes physical, sexual, or emotional harm. I feel that it is just as wrong for another person to force their views on people that do not want them. That is exactly what you and everybody like you is doing. Forcing people to live in a way that we do not want to. Next I can go to almost any day of the week and pull out news reports of monogamist relationships that are full of abuse. Physical and sexual abuse to the wife, child or husband. So with your logic I can say that all monogamist relationships are bad. They are all sickos. That every single one will not work. If you think that a monogamist relationship is just one big happy family with everybody pitching out to fix dinner. Then you truly have your head under a rock! More then half of all "monogamist" relationship ends in divorce. Even right wing conservative's that preach this is the only way to live, don't live this way!! The fact of the matter is that relationships are hard. Raising a family is hard. Each person has their own unique needs, wants, and desires. One size does not fit all, in any aspect of life. I don't understand why this one area it is expected that one size fits all. If a monogamist relationship is what you want great. I support and hope you find exactly what you want. I hope that I am free to do the same thing. I just find that there are people, that do not care what anybody else wants or needs. I also ask that the next time you write about this, that you do some research and actually find a family to spend some time with. That way you can write about what you know,

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PaulW | Sept. 25, 2009 at 4:06 p.m. (report)

"Question: Aren't Mormons and Latter Day Saints one and the same? I believe the Mormon church adopted the full LDS title, Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, to gain legitimacy in the public eye as a Christian faith. Interesting topic!" While you are closer to the truth on this item than the article don't have it quite right. You are correct that The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is sometimes referred to by the nickname, 'Mormon Church'. You are also correct that Latter-day Saints are also commonly called by the nickname 'Mormons'. However the Church did not "adopt" the name "Church of Jesus Christ Latter Day Saints, to gain legitimacy in the public eye as a Christian faith." The Church founded by Joseph Smith Jr. in 1830 was originally call just the Church of Christ. It was changed a couple of times in the 1830s (including the name Chruch of the Latter Day Saints) because of confusion with churches of the same or similar name. In 1838 the name was officially changed in a revelation to the Church to "The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints". It is a central doctrine of the Church, contained in the Book of Mormon, that the Church should carry Christ's name if it is to be HIS church. See this scripture here: http://scriptures.lds.org/en/3_ne/27/3,7-9#3 Also refer to this Wikipedia article: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Church_of_Jesus_Christ_of_Latter-day_Saints#Name_and_legal_entities

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