Polygamy28 min read

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Published: Dec 14, 2010


I will pull some from my Prostitution, Polyamory, and Gay Marriage pages since they are all very related in a fundamental way – your rights to privacy and to have sexual or intimate relations with which ever consenting adults you choose, and to not have the government interfere.

Currently there are a lot of articles (videos, books, etc..) out there about the horrors of polygamy, especially in light of America’s gay marriage and Warren Jeffs Polygamy trials, and  Canada’s Bountiful Mormon Fundamentalist Latterday Saints (FLDS) trials. The manner that they are talking about polygamy results in highly localizing the subject and are missing some very key issues here to discuss the topic more objectively and broadly as it may apply to a more broad, open, and secular thought.

Defining Some Terms

Before I get into the meat of the discussion I am going to define a few terms so that we have a perspective on what I am talking about. This is also for those of you that are not as familiar or are new to this topic: polygamy, polyandry, polygyny, and polyamory.

  • Polygamymeans to have more than one spouse, to which there are 3 basic subsets of :
    • Polygyny means a man with more than one wife (and is the most common form of polygamy found ‘in the wild’); with Sororal Polygyny generally being the most successful implementation – a man marrying two (or more) sisters
    • Polyandry means a woman with more that one husband; with Fraternal Polyandry generally being the most successful implementation – a woman marrying 2 (or more) brothers
    • Group Marriage means more than one man and woman in the same marital commitment
  • Polyamory literally translates to ‘many loves; responsible non-monogamy; plural loving relationships based on communication, openness, honesty and respect; a movement with distinctly feminist roots; there are many different forms, but one example could be an open marriage.

Polygamy is not the Problem, Culture IS

Polygamy is merely the state of having more than one spouse. That is it and nothing else. There does not imply subservience, inferiority, or oppression or anything else. When most people say the word polygamy they are really mean Patriarchal Polygyny. Polygamy and Patriarchal Polygyny are not synonymous. Polygyny,  as shown above,  is specifically a subset of polygamy – a specific implementation of a form of polygamy.

The real problem that people have are the general traits that are attributed by the most common form of polygamy which is a patriarchal implementation of Polygyny, at least as we see it in our ‘mainstream’ examples of it – Mormon (FLDS) and Islam. Below will show you examples of patriarchal and matriarchal forms of non-monogamous relationships:

The culture and ideology in which a form of plural partner relationships (or monogamous relationship) is present heavily influences its implementation and its attendant rules and customs. Patriarchal institutions tend to be closed, oppressive, and controlling whereas matriarchal or feminist implementations tend to be open, liberal, and more egalitarian. In a similar manner not all monogamous relationships are unicorns and teddy bears as our monogamous spouse and child abuse cases all quite well point to. Monogamy is not perfect and never will be as long as humans are involved.

With both of these sets of examples (patriarchal and matriarchal) for our consideration for plural partner relationships we can clearly see that polygamy in-and-of-itself is not the real issue, since there are significant implementations that are not problematic or abusive. We cannot outlaw patriarchal institutions per se since that would be unconstitutional, but we can try to educate and protect its participants. Once polygamous peoples are allowed to legally join the rest of society its attendant abuses should be about as common’ish as they are in contemporary monogamous society as their culture opens up and evens out.

Problems with criminalization

I will cover a some reasons as to why the criminalization of polygamy is a significant problem and leads to the perpetuation of the abuses that anti-polygamy laws are said to prevent:

Polygamous relationships are happening anyhow

In a similar manner as with gay and polyamorous marriages, polygamous relationships exist despite the laws and there is not much that can be done about that. Gay partners live together and spend their lives in their marital commitment without  license, protections, and benefits, just as polygamous families do, however, in the case of gay commitments, they are not generally illegal to live as such, especially since most sodomy laws have been overturned, but there are usually unused laws targeting potentially polygamous arrangements in most US states.

Polygamy is not actively prosecuted

In as long as anti-polygamy laws have been on the books local, state and federal governments specifically have not really pursued potential polygamy charges against people simply because they do not want to deal with it. There is a large and very real chance that such laws will be ruled as unconstitutional which is a moral and legal question that legislators, law enforcement, and the judiciary have not wanted to deal with. Currently, at most the bigamy and polygamy charges are used as a method to potentially bring people in for other crimes (rape or abuse) or as an add on charge. A pure polygamy prosecution is rare if at all performed.  Anti-polygamy laws are not enforced and the relationships are allowed to exist so why should we maintain unenforced and ineffective laws that criminalize polygamy? Polygamous and polyamorous relationships are happening today and law enforcement do not prosecute or pursue them mostly because they do not want to deal with potential fall out and lawsuits.

Polygamy and Monogamy share the same crimes that the anti-polygamy laws are supposedly trying to protect people against

Even within monogamous marriages there are the same abuses present: physical, psychological, emotional, and sexual abuse, rape, molestation, marriage under duress, child abandonment,  etc…. These are all present in monogamous culture and relationships too, and, thankfully, there are laws to prosecute and protect people against these wrongs.

The big problem with anti-polygamy is that such laws in-and-of-themselves do not actually prevent the actual abuses. Anti-polygamy laws do not address the abuses that they are supposedly trying to prevent because there are already effective laws covering them. Using a similar sort of a rationale to prevent harm we should be working towards passing laws against monogamous marriage in general since it is the majority and such relationships lead to similar crimes. The only thing anti-polygamy laws prevent is official government recognition of plural partner marriages and denies their attendant benefits and protections.

There are  already ‘effective’ laws that cover the real abuses present in polygamy and monogamy, but it is only the monogamous relationship that is recognized and regulated and therefore its participants have the protection, sympathy, and support of the state, whereas polygamous participants are deemed criminals and are prosecuted for their relationship formation even if there is no real crime being committed.

Criminalization Exacerbates and Perpetuates the Abuses

The criminalization of polygamy exacerbates and perpetuates the abuses, because the criminality and associated stigma promotes a culture of isolation and fear towards the outside world, which results in the teaching of fear for all outsiders, their laws, and their help. They try to establish their living centers far away from the rest of civilization so their lives can be free from outside  scrutiny and interference. This isolative tendency makes it easier for those in charge of the polygamous communities to maintain control and abuse at-will with little fear of reprisal from the outside world.

Isolation allows the abuses to happen unabated by contemporary laws since they are so far away from it, and because law enforcement officials avoid their living centers. This isolation makes it really hard for those who want to leave to be able to leave, plus the education and teachings tend to be heavily skewed towards their potentially oppressive  religious ideology and tends to avoid objectively teaching , especially the women, the options, ideologies, and potential available in the rest of society or alternative belief systems. Their education is limited to what little isolated expertise and training is available there and is formed by their ultimate religious goals. It is not that they do not have the right to teach and raise their families the way they want to, since they do, but those who do not want to be there have significant inflicted ignorances about the laws, rights, and the potential for outside help.

If the people do not know they have rights or do not know that life and relationships can be different, or that they really do have a chance for change and freedom then they will not be able to pursue it, or will be afraid to pursue it. They feel isolated and alone, and that they do not have help or options since they are limited to what they have been taught.

Preventing Victims from Pursuing Help

The Criminalizing of polygamy prevents those who wish help to come forward and get help due fear of reprisal from professionals or the government. Many do not go to the police, psychologist, lawyer, or hospital due to being afraid that they will get in trouble, go to jail, or lose their children. A very similar case exists for those involved in non-consensual prostitution via human trafficking. If they want out or if they have been raped, abused, or whatever else, all of it goes unreported due to fear and damage to them continues to mount as the current law treats them as a criminal even when they are most definitely a victim who wants to seek help. They seem to have little options, and in seeing no way out or no access to help due to distance and fear, depression sets in, and the abuses area allowed to continue unfettered by justice. Decriminalization will help those who want to get out to be able to get out, and stop this vicious cycle.

Cultural Perception and Stigma

Another aspect of the criminalization is the stigma associated with an illegal activity. Polygamy being currently illegal means that people will have a negative attitude towards it and their practitioners. Plus the isolation of these communities means that the public has very little knowledge of understanding of their ways. People fear that which they do not understand. It will be hard for those traveling in public or seeking help when it is known that they are involved in a polygamous relationship, especially if they interact with more conservative peoples. An attitude of judgement, anger, or a refusal to help because of a disapproval of their life style may be present. It is a hard thing to face when you are already desperate for freedom.

Professional’s Lack of Training and Research

Since polygamous communities tend to be very isolated and do not seek professional help, and since polygamy is criminalized, professionals are not equipped with the knowledge, research, tools, and objectivity that they need to assist those from polygamous relationships. Their attitudes and lack of knowledge towards them can make it difficult for professionals to be “professional” when working with them. Their industry has not had years of research and exposure to polygamy and their special conditions and considerations to be able to assist them effectively. At best they can attempt to wing it with a significant monogamous and negative cultural  bias which may cause more harm than good to the victim in their situation.

Why We Should Decriminalize and Legalize Polygamy

Plural Partner or Non-Monogamous Relationships are Natural

I wasn’t originally planning on adding  a section on this, since I was thinking the rest of the page would speak for itself, but this is one of the last very related topics that should  be at least mentioned in some fashion in order to comprehensively talk about the polygamy/polyamory/plural partner/non-monogamy issue.

Polygamy has been practiced by almost every single society in history and it has through much of the western world been stimatized and/or made illegal by the rise and spread of historical Christianity,  which had also practiced polygamy in pre-modern times. Non-monogamous relationships are by and far what our bodies and instincts are evolutionarily tuned for.

Perhaps one of the most powerful an influential books on this topic is Sex at Dawn: The Prehistoric Origins of Modern Sexuality which is linked to in the Read More section at the end of this article. If you have not read this book please do. You can find a lot of the essential reading for this topic at the end of this page and in the resources listed on my PolyamoryGay Marriage, and Prostitution pages too. There is a lot of it so settle yourself down for a long read and check some of it out.  I will be writing a page on humanity’s predilection for non-monogamy in the future.

Evolutionary Science’s Support for Non-Monogamy as an Visceral Human Trait

Plural partner or non-monogamous relationships are evolutionarily a very natural and an instinctual part of our  psychology and biology. The rate of infidelity, divorce, hooking-up, serial monogamous marriage, and so on kind of speaks for itself. We also have such things as sexual dimorphism, females hiding their fertility cycle, penis size and shape and whole bunch of other things which point to non-monogamy being an inherent part of who we are as a species.

Historical Shift from Polygamy to Monogamy via the Influence of the Catholic Church

The conversion of Roman Emperor Constantine from Greek polytheism to Catholicism (late 300’s), as well as St. Augustine and his philosophical and theological contemporaries (early to mid 300’s), brought forth a policy of enforced monogamy, sex negativity, and the oppression of women when Catholicism became the law of the land. This is one of the historical events that has had a massive affect on humanity’s attitude towards sexuality and women that we have been trying to recover from for over 1700 years. The culture shifted from sex positive to sex negative starting from there.

Because Something is Currently Illegal Does Not Mean It Should Be

There are so many laws that have been passed in our country’s (and others) history that have propagated gross civil rights violations and have been repealed because their unconstitutional nature has been eventually recognized. Part of this is due to evolving cultural values and an increase in understanding in civil rights and the very nature of our humanity.

Just because something is currently illegal, does not mean that it should be. African Americans and women not having rights, interracial marriages and so on are all things that have been limited or illegal, and in the face of cultural evolution and greater understanding of civil rights these gross violations have been corrected, but the historical damage done to those is the affected demographics still remain, as horrible and unforgivable vestiges of the past.

Polygamy, in general, is a Consensual Crime

Polygamy, in general,  is a Consensual Crime, and this is also key to many of todays civil rights movements such as gay rights, prostitution, drugs, and so on. Work towards the abolishment of the criminalization of consensual crimes may see a sort of a rennaisance in the coming decades or so as gay rights and polyamory/polygamy soldier on.

I will say that not all members of polygamous unions consent, but, as I have stated earlier, there are laws that cover and address all of those issues so polygamy, in-and-of-itself, is not the issue. Consenting adults who desire a plural partner arrangement should have the right to engage as such. It is their choice who to invest their money, emotions, and time with. As long as all are legally able to consent then the government has no place saying otherwise. The other side of this is that Polyamory, an essentially egalitarian plural partner relationship model,  is all about consent, and would I imagine that there are more polyamorists than there are practicing polygamists.

The book “Ain’t Nobody’s Business If You Do: The Absurdity Of Consensual Crimes In Free Society” covers this topic in great detail. While I do not agree with everything the book says about consensual crimes it is a great read and very applicable to this discussion and society in general.

Consent, as is applicable to this discussion, does not involve coercion or duress. Either they really do have a choice and are legally able to give consent, or they cannot. People that are forced into polygamy by duress or being children are not truly there by their informed choice and therefore cannot give consent. People who are raped do not, by definition, give consent. Anyone who is not legally able to give consent by virtue of being under aged, or mentally unfit to do so, cannot give consent. People who are in fear for their personal safety and acquiesce are not giving consent for there is duress and/or coercion present.

Anti-Polygamy Laws are Arguably Unconstitutional

What business does the government have telling consenting adults which other consenting adults they can and cannot fall in love with or decide to have intimate relations with. It is none of the governments business and completely intrudes upon and violates  a person’s right to liberty, privacy, and freedom of conscience, which the government is charged to protect; as long as the rights of others are not infringed upon. These laws are targeted and promoted, in a similar way as contemporary gay marriage bans, by the impetus of religious animus and, as I have shown here, they serve no legitimate government interest.

I will not touch on 1st amendment religious protection issues, since I do not think that this would be an effective Supreme Court approach. Very few, if any Supreme Court cases, have been won on a 1rst amendment Religious Protection approach.

Marriage is an Fundamental Right

The case Loving vs Virginia classifies marriage as fundamental right which would fall under the protection of the 14th Amendment’s Due Process and Equal Protection, as well as establishes it as perhaps a part of our “inalienable rights” and the  â€pursuit of Life, Liberty, and Happiness” as set forth in the Declaration of Independence.

Due Process and Equal Protection

The 14th Amendment to the US Constitution as quoted partially below states:

… ; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law;  nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.

As stated in Loving vs Virginia above, but also more specifically your fundamental rights may not be denied equal protection under the law or due process, and as has also been said… fundamental rights of a minority group should never come up to a popular vote since it is  a fundamental protected right, and they will always lose.

Benefits of Decriminalization and Legalization

I will cover some of the benefits of the legalization plural partner relationships. I realize that many of the benefits will take many years to see – 10 or more years since there is a lot of learning and a lot of stigma and normalization that needs to happen on both sides of the issue. Homosexuals are still fighting this battle since the 70’s or so. Perhaps the most important of all of the potential changes is a shift of culture. Most likely the FLDS’ will stay a patriarchal, but hopefully they will turn to be more moderate and less oppressive.

Influence Their Culture

Perhaps the biggest and most important change that can result is the influence of the outside world on their culture, especially with existence of the more egalitarian polyamorous relationships: their knowledge, research, books, organizations, and online support to help to guide and potentially inform their relationship models.  They can still maintain a patriarchal religious ideology without being abusive and violative of their members’ rights. The influence of the more open and liberal general US life and the polyamorous culture can help to greatly shift their culture and stem the abuse so that Mormon FLDS polygamous unions can be just another relationship model that is no more good or evil than monogamy.  These possibilities will take time perhaps 10 years or more, but the sooner we decriminalize and open them up the sooner their members and society at large will reap the benefits.

Benefits of Decriminalization

Decriminalization without legalization will bring about broad an sweeping benefits to the polygamous and polyamorous communities.

  • Law Enforcement More Free to Pursue Real Crimes – Law enforcement will feel more free to pursue rape, abuse and other charges within polygamous relatioships knowing that they do not have to specter of the criminal polygamy issue looming overhead as a deterrent. Now, of course, they may have a Religious Freedom suit, which is not as scary when other specific laws are being broken… age of consent… etc…
  • No need for Isolation or Fear or Living’ in the Closet’ – Decriminalization will allow existing polygamous communities to not be so closed and be more open with the rest of the world which will give those  who want to escape an opportunity. They will have less of a desire to teach that the outside world is evil and does not understand, and is out to punish you.
  • Exposure to the outside world – This will potentially allow the polygamous community to be open up, and to evolve and learn from outside culture, education, and services, which could bring about a less oppressive and abusive religious culture.
  • Freedom of Access to Professionals – Now, since they are no longer criminalized, those who are in polygamous relationships and who want out will be free to seek out help without fear of reprisal from the law enforcement or other professionals, since in the eyes of the law they are now truly a victim. There are support groups available to help those looking to make that transition from non-consensual polygamous relationships.
  • Changing Public Opinion – Decriminalizing it will also work towards changing the public’s opinion towards this marital configuration. This will impact legal, law enforcement, and health care professions’ attitudes and prompt them to take an honest look and consideration to polygamy and their adherents needs and conditions.
  • More Education – The government will be less afraid of enforcing educational standards on their private schools so we may end up with more educated women and children who may know their rights more and be able to decide whether or not that this is the life that they want, and empower themselves to get out and change their lives if they so wish. They may need to bring in outside teachers to make sure all of their needs are met.

Benefits of Regulation

  • Marital Licensing – will allow polygamous families or communities to not want to isolate themselves or necessarily preach that the outside world is evil and does not understand, since they will have a legal marital arrangement which is supported and protected by the government. Of course there will be fees to be collected and their marriages will have to conform to the scrutiny of consent laws etc… which is a good thing.
  • Better Paternity and Maternity Tracking – We will also be able to better track which child has which biological parents and this will be important for custody and health reasons. Currently, not all polygamous communities track birth dates or maternity/paternity, etc… with the regulation and decriminalization they will be freer to utilize hospitals and other medical professions; and the government freer to enforce these requirements upon them.
  • Holding Families Accountable – With licensing and parental records available we will be better able to hold them accountable for what happens to their members – whether it is child molestation or rape, expulsion and abandonment of male children, child support, spousal abuse, or whatever else…
  • Allowing Families to Protect Themselves – Legal recognition will allow them all of the attendant rights and responsibilities that are bestowed upon monogamous married people: hospital visitation, custody, inheritance, beneficial taxation, and so on.

Issues and Considerations with Legalizing and Regulating Polygamous Relationships

There are number of issues that our legal, social, and tax systems are not currently prepared to handle and that will need to be addressed:

  • redoing tax forms and tax statuses to allow for multiple spouses and many, many more children
  • deciding on how adding partners after an initial marriage is performed. My thought is consent from all involved parties.
  • tax laws as pertains to (plural) spouses and their children
  • insurance coverage for larger families
  • adaptations for welfare and other social services
  • child custody – most likely will default to biological parents and then others, but more specific laws will need to be addressed to deal with poly situations
  • probate laws will need to be updated for plural partner concerns
  • legal considerations and policies for inheritance and wills
  • divorce proceedings for plural spouses and their many children
  • how to handle social support for plural spouses and their children
  • a whole different branch of family law will sprout to deal with the specialization of plural partner law and its intricacies
  • Our legal and tax system is very much tuned to monogamous arrangements and polygamous arrangements turn much of this on its head and there will need to be many other changes to compensate for legalizing polygamy.
  • and many, many, others…

Slippery Slope Arguments

Slippery slope arguments are used that state that the acceptance of gamy marriage, polygamy, etc will bring on the legalization of incest, bestiality, pedophilia, and marrying of muscle cars and donkeys. All are unfounded and are a method of inciting Fear, Uncertainty, and Doubt (FUD) in the masses in the absence of a valid and objective argument. Unfortunately, many people are greatly influenced by these fear laden arguments. Normally, I would ignore such arguments, but, sadly, I see these too much to not address them.

  • Pedophilia and Child Marriage: In no court of law is a child is able to engage in contractual arrangement (unless emancipated) or able to give legal “consent”. Not only that, but due to the protection of a child’s physical and emotional well being will this never come to pass. We currently have laws to protect against sexual relations and they are there for a good reason.
  • Incest: Marital relations with first order relatives is similar to the above. These laws are in place to prevent genetic mutations as well as working with our natural tendencies toward mating outside the immediate familial unit, for much the same reason; harm to the child physically and emotionally for something that they are not developmentally prepared for;  plus and perhaps more importantly there is the significant potential for abuse of power dynamic present in an familial adult to protect the child against.
  • Bestiality and Animal Marriage: The marriage of animals is prevented by a lack of a precedent that allows any of these animals to consent, testify,  or to sign a contractual agreement in the court of law.
  • Inanimate Object Marriage This logic here is the same as above and it is about consent and legal recognition – not possible.

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