Some are making the argument that legalizing gay marriage is a slippery slope towards legalization of polygamy. Once gay marriage is legal, then what prevents polygamy from being accepted, then legalized? This can be a libertarian issue too, as in, let’s keep the government out of our bedrooms. Others might wonder why there is a ban against polygamy at all. Writing in 2008, conservative William Saletan sees nothing that would really prevent polygamy from becoming legal, even as he expresses unease. But, as I will explain, the issues are quite different.
In cultures where polygamy has long been practiced, it is quite rare, and problematic as well. Hmong wives have been known to kill their husbands if they bring home a younger wife. Polygamist wives in the Middle East often refer to each other as “troubles” and young Afghanistan girls have been known to set themselves on fire rather than be married against their will to a much older man. This would certainly indicate that polygamist households are not always one big, happy family.
Andrea Moore-Emmett, who was raised Mormon, documents clearly in ‘God’s Brothel: The extortion of sex for salvation in contemporary Mormon and Christian fundamentalist polygamy and the stories of 18 women who escaped‘ how polygamy across time and multiple cultures has never and can never be anything but rank subjugation of women and girls. The women are never equals. They are treated like property, subject to spousal rape, degradation, forced poverty, and more. Girls as young as nine are ‘married’ to grown men. Teenage girls get used as sex toys. Marriage among first cousins and even father and daughter occurs.
But wait you say, certainly there must be a few polygamist wives who are happy. Well, based on the eighteen stories in the book as well as quotes from Brigham Young’s wives, the answer is No. Generally, one wife is the favorite; the lesser wives get treated as housemaids or slaves. The older wives can be jealous of the younger ones and can make their lives miserable. Besides, even if there was a polygamist marriage where the wives were happy, their children, especially the girls would be born into polygamy and have no choice about their future. It is too often a brutal patriarchy with the man assuming he is the God of his household and ‘women are a vessel to be worn out in childbirth.’ Beatings are not uncommon. The women are told the only way they can go to heaven and avoid hell is by submitting to polygamy and complete male authority.
In a key quote, she writes:
“much is said about many women in polygamy being consenting adults who willingly choose to live as plural wives and who are very happy. There can be no consent when girls are born into polygamy and, through isolation and limited education, do not know of any other choices. There can be no consent when women are recruited and go through the conversion process without understanding how mind-control takes place physically and mentally.”
It can be devastating on the boys too. Polygamist elders frequently see them as competition for the young girls, so when the boys are 18, they are dumped on a street corner somewhere and left to fend on their own, with no jobs skills and little education or exposure to the outside world. That’s right, their elders simply abandon them. Other times the boys simply ‘disappear.’
The United Nations is opposed to polygamy and the US Supreme Court has ruled that parental authority is not absolute. The official stance of the Mormon Church (LDS) on polygamy is zero tolerance. Polygamists, if discovered, are expelled. Among members, there is a wide range of opinion and it is an issue they are grappling with.
I split my time between San Jose CA and Cedar City UT, which is heavily Mormon – and is also by far the friendliest place I’ve ever lived. LDS members value civility as a virtue. Their church has a private welfare system, something I find admirable. The Utah drug court, unlike California, gives offenders multiple chances, instead of throwing them into prison after one chance. This is undoubtedly due to an LDS-inspired belief in the possibility of redemption. So, I’m not interested in Mormon-bashing. Besides, the Catholic religion I was raised in and left at age 14 is guilty of sickening institutionalized sexual abuse and cover-ups spanning decades. Both churches have legacies they will be dealing with for years, which in different ways are about male power and dominance, a lack of accountability, and masking sexual predation behind a cover of religion. The polygamist cults are extreme and virulent examples of that.
It’s difficult to see how such cults would do anything but grow in size, should polygamy be legalized. Most importantly, polygamy is quite different from same-sex marriage.
“The comparison to same sex couples remains a bizarre juxtaposition. Polygamy is about a powerful man collecting a submissive harem of women as property and a herd of children with no individual identity. Homesexuality is about the sexual orientation of two committed equal partners,” Moore-Emmett says.
Further, gay couples generally contribute to society rather than “bleeding the beast” via welfare fraud as the polygamist sects do.
So, in my opinion, the two issues are not equal at all. Legalizing polygamy will not automatically follow from legalizing gay marriage. And polygamy should remain illegal.