Thursday, May 08, 2008


Is polygamy the problem?

The New York Times tells us that the Raid on Sect in Texas Rattles Other Polygamists:

“Polygamy is not the problem,” said Marlyne Hammon, who belongs to a group called The Work of Jesus Christ, which practices polygamy in a town just a few miles from here. Ms. Hammon, of Centennial Park, Ariz., said child brides had no place in her group’s faith or practice. “This is about human error, not polygamy,” she said.

Now, there’s a sense in which I agree with her. Part of me is adamant that whatever consenting adults do with their private lives is no concern of mine nor of the law’s. Part of me sees nothing wrong with plural marriage, as long as all involved know what they’re doing and are happy with it. It might not be my cup of tea, but, hey, neither are a lot of other things. À chacun, son goût.

But then I think about it a bit more, and I find a few things that bother me, a few “red flags” that tell me that, yes, polygamy is the problem:

  1. It always seems to be associated with a fringe religious sect. The religious aspect isn’t, in itself, the red flag. It’s that I just don’t see it at all outside of that context, and my experience tells me that any reasonable social behaviour also exists in a secular environment.
  2. Related to 1, but not entirely the same, it would bother me less if these groups were open, accepting, and tolerant. They’re not; they decry other lifestyles different from their own, condemning them as wrong. I’m always suspicious when people claim to know the ultimate answers.
  3. It’s always multiple wives to one husband, never the other way ’round, never polyandry. That aspect convinces me that there’s a part of this that’s aimed at — and is succeeding at — keeping women in subservient positions, and that the women aren’t entirely consenting. At the very least, their consent comes from lifelong training, rather than from their having arrived at it independently, and that’s troubling.
  4. Related to 3, I worry about what they’re teaching their children, how they’re bringing in another generation, and another, with the same exclusionary and oppressive ideas.
  5. Setting aside whether they should be imprisoned for it, there is the concept that we give certain legal rights and benefits to spouses. To the extent that some of those benefits cost the state money, it’s arguably unfair to expect us to confer those benefits on some arbitrary number of spouses, rather than just one. It’s possible that these groups, in their desire to eliminate outside interference, eschew those things, and so possibly this doesn’t matter in practice; I’m not sure.

I’m willing to be convinced that my red flags don’t really matter, and that polygamy’s really OK if it’s done “right”. But for now... yeah, polygamy is the problem.

“Raid on Sect in Texas Rattles Other Polygamists”? And well it should.


lidija said...

You are probably correct in all that you write but should frame it with: "In this day and age, and here." Otherwise it is not a fair standard by which to judge the practice of polygamy and polyandry in the traditional societies (Africa and India for example). I would never equate polygamy and polyandry because patriarchal and matriarchal societies' "parallel structures" look very different.

Anonymous said...

Polyandry is so rare that when it does occur, it does not confer status on the woman b/c of the number of husbands she has, where in a polygynous marriage, a man acquires status b/c numerous wives infer his wealth.

The polygymy that was practiced by this fringe group would not be recognized by most traditional polygymy practicing groups around the world b/c in most places plural wives have their own households. Most groups recognize the inherent jealousy among women (or men) who have to share spouses (time, resources, sexual intimacy) and Islam specifically states that a man must treat his wives equally (though I'm sure in practice the youngest wife gets the most attention).


Katie said...

Oh and I wanted to add that most polygyny has developed b/c of economic pressures, girls - boys ratio in birth, desire/economic need for many children, mother's death from childbirth, etc. This fringe group practiced it as not only something that was religiously required but also as a reward or punishment - Mr. Jeffs could take away wives as well as give a man more.

Islam codified an already existing practice - for example to limit the practice, 4 wives - although some practicing muslims who are wealthy have gotten around this limit most notably Osma bin Laden's father, etc.


Thomas J. Brown said...

I'll grant you 2 through 5, but I'm not so sure about number 1.

My experience (what little of it there is compared against yours) has been the same – that, "any reasonable social behaviour also exists in a secular environment."

But when was the last time a compound full of atheists was raided? Has it ever happened? Were they engaged in some sort of "socially taboo" behavior (apart from, of course, not believing in God)?

Perhaps part of the reason why we haven't been exposed to polygamous behavior among the secular crowd is that we in the secular crowd don't usually lock ourselves away in compounds.

You may be right, and it may be that non-theists don't engage in polygamy, but I have a hard time accepting it as practiced solely within the religious community.

lidija said...

See, there, Katie said it all much better.

Barry Leiba said...

Thomas, you're right. So maybe what I want to say, there, isn't that polygamy is limited to religious sects... but that "group" or "community" polygamy is. You don't find polygamous Levittowns around; it's not "The Stepford Wives and Wives and Wives".

It wouldn't have to be a community of atheists, to take it out of the framework of a fringe sect -- just a community of mixed beliefs (with or without non-believers also). It wouldn't even have to be a "compound", either, just some community behaviour that has enough presence to take it away from the association with a particular sect. And that's what's not there.